On 11th September 2013 I asked students in my Markets and Organizations class to fill in a questionnaire about their attitudes to undertaking various activities in exchange for money, including buying and selling bodily organs, sexual services, weapons, drugs, votes, grades in class, and several other items. The results were very interesting. In particular the questionnaire distinguished between believing that certain exchanges should be illegal, believing that they are immoral, and feeling personally uncomfortable about undertaking them. It also distinguished between buying and selling.
The questionnaire, and an analysis of the results, can be downloaded here.
1) Most items have more people feeling uncomfortable than those who morally disapprove, and more who morally disapprove than would want to ban the transaction. Exceptions include drugs and guns which, interestingly, have substantially fewer people believing it is immoral to buy them than think it should be illegal to buy them. This may reflect a view that these items pose challenges to self-control, and that the law is there partly to protect people from themselves.
2) Drugs and (to a lesser extent) handguns also display a striking difference between the perceived immorality of buying and selling, with respondents disapproving much less of buyers than of sellers.
3) In most other cases there is not much systematic difference between responses about buying and those about selling, at least as far as illegality and immorality are concerned. But people tend to feel more uncomfortable about selling than about buying.
4) Trade in sex makes people feel very uncomfortable – more than anything else, except buying grades in class – even though only around a third want to ban such trade. More want to criminalize selling than buying sex, which runs counter to recent legal changes implemented in Sweden and under discussion in France.
5) Trade in votes and trade in grades provoke the most consistently negative scores across modes.
There were some interesting national differences (not in the table). Most nationalities were too small in number to be a representative sample, but there were 42 French respondents and 12 Germans:
On whether it is immoral to buy sexual services, 30 out of 42 French respondents say “yes” but only 2 out of 12 Germans (though 11 out of 12 are “uncomfortable” with the idea). Incidentally, the Belgians side with the Germans and not with the French on this.
On whether the sale of handguns should be illegal, only 25 out of 40 French respondents say “yes” (2 blank responses) but 11 out of 12 Germans.
On whether the sale of surrogacy services should be illegal, 16 out of 38 French respondents say “yes” (4 blanks) but only 1 out of 12 Germans.
The image featured on this post is from an article in The Guardian entitled “Why Men Use Prostitutes”, and the image corroborates one finding of the questionnaire, which is that sex is probably the topic that makes most respondents feel uncomfortable when discussing buying and selling. The Guardian article reports a study, available here, which discusses motivations of men who buy commercial sexual services.