Bioethics News

Altruism, Ethics, and Markets

Mario Macis, PhD, together with Vikram Chib, PhD and Jeffrey Kahn, PhD, MPH were awarded funding by the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics program for their project titled “Altruism, Ethics and Markets: A Behavioral and Neuroscientific Experimental Study.” This is an experimental study at the intersection of ethics, economics and neuroscience that addresses controversial economic transactions, such as receiving financial compensation for organ donation. The research team will create an experimental laboratory setting that reproduces several of the features of organ donation, and will study the ethical and economic implications of different institutional regimes of procurement. By measuring neural activity (through fMRI) and behavior, this study will provide insight into how altruism, the desire for economic gain, and the tolerance for physical pain interact to produce outcomes. The study will also consider how those interactions depend on institutional arrangements and will examine the neural mechanisms associated with people’s preferences.


Dr. Macis answers our questions.


Explain the different scenarios in which participants can “donate” in this experiment.


Participants are presented with three scenarios. In the first two scenarios, in exchange for a physical cost (i.e., pain from an electric shock), participants will have the possibility to earn some money for a charity of their choice (“pure altruism”), or for both a charity and themselves (“paid altruism”). In the third scenario, participants are given the opportunity to transfer a certain amount of their endowment as a payment to another person who agrees to take a given shock, and a charity receives a given sum of money (“market”).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.