The Bangladesh factory collapse has garnered international cries over the negligence of business leaders and claims of indifference by Western consumers. Everyone is quick to claim the moral high ground, as the death toll has quickly crept past 1,000, but does the average person really care if someone else is harmed by commerce?

"No" is the apparent answer from a new study in Science claiming that markets erode morality, even when the consequences are life-threatening for a third party.  ­

"Our results show that market participants violate their own moral standards," said co-author Armin Falk, professor of economics at the University of Bonn, Germany.

In three different scenarios, a group of 800 undergraduates were offered the choice of whether to trade a life of a young mouse for a monetary reward or not. The animals were so-called "surplus mice," raised in laboratories outside Germany. They were no longer needed for research purposes, and without the experiment, would have been killed.

If a subject picked "life" over "money," the experimenters bought the mice, and they spent the rest of their lives "under the best possible lab conditions and medical care," according to a press release.

Each participant was explicitly informed of the consequences of their decisions - that the mice would most likely live another two years if saved - and were shown videos of how the mice would die by a gas chamber.

The researchers found that people were more moral when they acted as individuals, but once they joined a marketplace - as a seller or a consumer - their scruples began to disappear.

When offered up to 10 euros for a mouse's life, 55 percent of the subjects acting on their own opted to save the mouse.

In the business scenarios, the volunteers were sorted into "sellers" and "consumers" and asked to make a transaction - split 20 euros - that would negatively impact a third party. If they failed to agree on a price or decided the price of taking a life was too high, no one received a monetary award and the mouse was spared.

Only about 25 percent of the subjects saved the mice when involved with a market.

It didn't matter if it was just one buyer facing one seller or conglomerates trading with each other. Morality seemed to erode in markets.

But why?

"In markets, people face several mechanisms that may lower their feelings of guilt and responsibility," explained co-author Nora Szech, an economics professor at the University of Bamberg.

This suggests that profits and competition can outweigh moral concerns in markets, and guilt can be shared among traders. In the wake of the Bangladesh accident, condemnation has been placed on the factory owner as well as companies with ties to the tragedy.

Markets with many buyers and sellers, the German researchers argued, face the classic ethical dilemma of "If I don't buy or sell, someone else will." The researchers suggest that "appealing to morality has limited potential" for alleviating the negative costs of commerce.

"For example, anti-child labor or environmental protection campaigns may not be that effective because markets for goods undermine the relevant social values," they wrote.

But there is a redline that traders won't cross, as "the results also suggest why societies do ban markets for certain "repugnant" activities," said the researchers.

More at Science: podcast interview with the authors

Falk A, Szech N. Morals and Markets. Science. 2013; 340 (6133). Accessed May 10, 2013.