Can money change the moral value of a request?
I started reading a Spanish novel over the Christmas holiday, ‘A Heart so White’ by Javier Marías. One scene described in this book particularly struck me. Juan, the protagonist, reminisces about something he did in the past and now deems as moral wrongdoing. Here is what happened:
One day, sitting close to his window, Juan gets disturbed in his work by the sound of a barrel organ. This barrel organ is played by a man standing on a street corner nearby, who is aiming to get some coins from people walking by. Juan approaches the player, shows him a banknote and says ‘I’ll give you that when you move on to the next street corner’. Juan also gives a short justification for his request (his need for silence to work properly). The player takes the money and leaves. Afterwards, Juan regrets his behaviour. What he should have done, he thinks, would have been explaining that the music disturbs him and asking the player to move on – without giving any money before or after this explanation. By including the money, Juan feels, he ‘bought’ the barrel organ player and treated him disrespectfully.
I think an interesting question is raised in this scene, namely: Does offering money in addition to an explanation change how moral or immoral a request is?
Our intuition is that giving explanations is the most respectful way of making such a request. Our social conventions seem to imply that trading that somebody does what we wish for some self-revelation (i.e., an explanation why we want what we want) is fair. Bringing money into the game somehow seems to corrupt this fair trade between two equal parties. It seems to put what has been a request closer to an order, since it illustrates a (perceived) difference in economic power. In the novel, Juan feels that via the money he manipulated the actions of the barrel organ player. I reckon many readers of the novel initially empathize with Juan’s thoughts and his moral judgement. So did I, at least. However, thinking more closely about this, I do not trust this feeling any more.
Explanations can be very manipulative as well. We know from psychological research that (in an automatic response) people are more likely to give in to requests when they contain the word ‘because’ even if no actual reason is given. (As it is strikingly shown in the famous ‘photocopier experiment’.) Hence, if we assume that the value of money is more psychologically salient than the value of an explanation, a person might be even able to decide less manipulated if offered money.
So, should Juan regret what he did? Does offering money make a moral difference in such a situation?