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?

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2 Responses to Can money change the moral value of a request?

  • Miriam says:

    Hi Nadira, I think I would have completely different intuitions about this. If the barrel organist is a perfect stranger, and Juan offers him the explanation, but no money, I would interpret that as him saying that his work is more important than the barrel organist’s and therefore that he is more important and the barrel organist has an obligation to kowtow to him despite there being no benefit offered. There is no fair trade, because he has not offered anything in return.

    If on the other hand he just gave money and no explanation it might appear as if he is simply disrespectful of the organist as a worker and views him as someone who just wants something for nothing.

    By offering both he respects that the barrel organist needs to make a living, and that presumably he picked that corner for its commercial opportunities, compensates him for that, and explains that it is not that he considers a barrel organist to be simply a nuisance in general but that in this case his circumstances mean that he needs silence- I think that is the best of them all.

    It would be different if the man were not playing his organ for money, but since he is it would seem bad to me to expect him to reduce his potential earnings (the time taken to move and the presumably less preferable second choice site) without both explanation and compensation.

    I don’t think that the money is forcing him at all- in fact he can weigh up whether he will earn more on that particular corner, or more by accepting the money and moving- it increases his options.

  • Dave Frame says:

    I reckon it depends on the relative incomes between Juan and the organist, and on the social relations of the two (which could be more or less egalitarian, depending on a bunch of things (like the social standings of their families, how society views their jobs, etc, and the degree to which that stuff matters in that society).

    Imagine two social scenarios – (A) is in a seigniorial society, where Juan is one of the gentry and the organist isn’t; and (B) is where they live in an egalitarian society in terms of social relations, but Juan is considerably wealthier than the other guy. And imagine Juan can (1) give the money or (2) give the explanation but not both. It seems to me that the least offensive course of action depends on the social scenario as well as on the course of action Juan takes: option 1 in scenario A at least compensates the guy, whereas option 2 in scenario A amounts to reminding the organist that he’s socially inferior. But option 1 in scenario B strikes me as (potentially) dismissively exploiting the organist’s economic weakness; while option 2 strikes me as trying to explain to the guy why he’d appreciate some peace and quiet.

    So to me the question of whether Juan is exploiting the organist depends on whether he’s moving the organist along at least cost to Juan, or whether he’s trying to move him along in a way that doesn’t maximally exploit the asymmetries in their relative positions.

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