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THE BOX: Would you push the button?

 
 
Reply Tue 7 Jul, 2015 12:24 pm
"The Box is a 2009 American psychological thriller film." Perhaps you have seen it. The plot is simple, or perhaps not. A person is given a box, which contains a button. The person is told, if she pushes the button, then she will get a million dollars. However, of course, there is a catch. If you push the button, then somewhere in the world someone you don't know will die. Would you push the button?

It is a test of the human species. If enough people choose to push the button, then our world will come to an end. It appears that we are all are in possession of a proverbial box and are button pushers, in one form of another. If you assume that the world is going to end anyway because so many other people are pushing the button, shouldn't you also choose to push the button in order to benefit yourself and your loved ones?

For instance, I am the owner of mineral interests, which I inherited. This was something that was just given to me. I know there exists considerable controversy about the fracturing process (fracking) that operating companies use to create paths for the oil to migrate to the wellbore. There's a possibility that an increase in stillborn deaths may be linked to fracking:

What's Killing the Babies of Vernal, Utah?


Am I not a button pusher when I cash my royalty checks? I might be benefitting from something that might be causing misery and death to people I don't know. Even if I didn't accept the benefit, the "evil" thing will still continue. Does that change the moral dilemma?

Boxes with buttons ... to push or not to push the buttons ... that is the question.
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Type: Discussion • Score: 12 • Views: 2,184 • Replies: 21

 
Linkat
 
  2  
Reply Tue 7 Jul, 2015 12:54 pm
@Debra Law,
There is a difference -- if you push the button in the example it will result in the death of another person - you will gain at the death of another. So you will directly be killing another person with your direct personal gain.

In the fracking example you give there is a possibility of still borns and there is a possibility of you gaining - neither is direct and neither is guaranteed whereas the first is (at least in your simple example).

Personally, I could not feel good about benefiting from someone else's loss especially something so large - I would not push the button. As far as fracking, if the evidence was strong enough, I would not "frack".

Put it to you this way - once at work, I found I large wad of cash, it was in a long hallway where lots of people walk through - so it would be difficult to find who dropped it. I brought it to security and was told not to send an email around as it would cause all the unethical individuals to claim it was theirs - instead, if someone were to lose it, they would ask at security -- no one claimed it - I told them to give it to charity as it did not feel right to me to benefit from someone else's loss.
0 Replies
 
ehBeth
 
  2  
Reply Tue 7 Jul, 2015 01:03 pm
@Debra Law,
In your example of the mineral interests and cheques, I'd say the thing to do would be to donate the money to a group fighting the fracking process - if I couldn 't stop the process myself.

Push the button for a million bucks? no. nope. the million dollars won't do me any good when the world ends.

You can always get more money but you can never get more time. It's a general principle I learned from my dad.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  2  
Reply Tue 7 Jul, 2015 09:19 pm
@Debra Law,
Debra Law wrote:
THE BOX: Would you push the button?

Speaking as a human being, I wouldn't if you presented the choice this clearly. But as in your case with the mining interests, I'm pretty sure there are vague and indirect versions of the choice where I do commit the equivalent of pushing the button --- and succeed in rationalizing it, because the connection is vague and indirect.

Speaking as a philosophical Utilitarian, my answer should have to change under two conditions: First, the payoff would have to be five million dollars or more rather than one million. That's because five million seems to be the approximate value of a human, life as empirically observed through people's willingness to pay for their own safety. (It wouldn't matter who the beneficiaries are.) Second, the payoff would have to come from a productivity increase rather than a redistribution from other people's income. It's the net social payoff, not the individual payoff to one person who happens to be me, that counts.

Debra Law wrote:
It is a test of the human species. If enough people choose to push the button, then our world will come to an end.

Not if public policy gets the price of a human life right. But if the price is as low as a million dollars, I agree we're in prisoner's dilemma here.

Debra Law wrote:
Am I not a button pusher when I cash my royalty checks?

Yes you are.

Debra Law wrote:
Even if I didn't accept the benefit, the "evil" thing will still continue. Does that change the moral dilemma?

It's a matter of degree, not of all or nothing. If you didn't accept the benefit and sold the stock, the price of the stock would marginally fall, making the owners of the mines marginally poorer and thereby creating a marginal disincentive to mine. So yes, I would argue that you still have a moral dilemma.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 7 Jul, 2015 10:46 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
Speaking as a philosophical Utilitarian, my answer should have to change under two conditions: First, the payoff would have to be five million dollars or more rather than one million.

Just in case I haven't made myself clear enough: My views on dilemmas like this are inspired by the Ford Pinto case, which is morally-similar to Debra's thriller scenario. In that case, Ford Motor Company was the one who pushed the button. Ford's payoff came from money it saved by not fixing the risky design of its Pinto model. The people who died were drivers whose cars exploded as a result of the design flaw when rear-ended in accidents. An internal study at Ford found that Ford could have fixed its dangerous design and thereby saved drivers' lives at the cost of $200,000 in 1971-dollars each. (That's about a million in today's dollars.) Ford decided not to fix the design.

My view on this case is that Ford acted immorally in that it traded off human lives for money at a fraction of its proper valuation. The proper valuation, in turn, would have been based on people's observable willingness to pay for the safety of their own lives. That being said, I have no problem with Ford's use of cost-benefit analysis to decide such a question, with loss of lives factoring in as just another cost. This approach seems morally sound to me if practised correctly --- ie, using the proper prices.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Thu 9 Jul, 2015 08:30 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
Speaking as a philosophical Utilitarian, my answer should have to change under two conditions: First, the payoff would have to be five million dollars or more rather than one million. That's because five million seems to be the approximate value of a human, life as empirically observed through people's willingness to pay for their own safety. (It wouldn't matter who the beneficiaries are.) Second, the payoff would have to come from a productivity increase rather than a redistribution from other people's income. It's the net social payoff, not the individual payoff to one person who happens to be me, that counts.

Even on utilitarian grounds, I think you're wrong. Apart from the inherent problems involved in valuing human life, you're approaching that equation from the wrong end. It's not society's loss or gain that needs to be taken into account, but the loss or gain to the individual who is going to be killed. People might place a value of $5 million on their own lives (I disagree with that, but let's put that aside for the moment), but they also put a value on being safe from indiscriminate murder at the hands of a stranger. I may, for instance, agree with you that you can kill me in exchange for paying my heirs $5 million, but that's very different from me agreeing to be killed by anyone in exchange for some amorphous social benefit that will only benefit my heirs indirectly. In that latter case, I don't expect that you'd get any takers for your bargain, even from those people who'd be willing to be killed for a $5 million payout to their heirs.

Thomas wrote:
Debra Law wrote:
It is a test of the human species. If enough people choose to push the button, then our world will come to an end.

Not if public policy gets the price of a human life right. But if the price is as low as a million dollars, I agree we're in prisoner's dilemma here.

I don't think that's a Prisoner's Dilemma. It's more akin to the Tragedy of the Commons.

Thomas wrote:
Debra Law wrote:
Am I not a button pusher when I cash my royalty checks?

Yes you are.

Not quite. There's a moral difference between a direct action that leads to the death of a person and an indirect action that might lead to the death of a person. Even the law understands that distinction. When an airline's negligence causes the deaths of hundreds of passengers, the state doesn't prosecute the airline's shareholders for manslaughter.
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Thu 9 Jul, 2015 08:36 am
And in a discussion like this, the following quotation is mandatory:

http://img339.imageshack.us/img339/1884/3ehomme085750.jpg

"Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays. "
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Thu 9 Jul, 2015 09:55 am
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
In that latter case, I don't expect that you'd get any takers for your bargain, even from those people who'd be willing to be killed for a $5 million payout to their heirs.

Oh, I agree. Indeed, I don't expect I'd get any takers in either of your two scenarios. But that's not because they value their lives at more than $5 million, it's because money is worthless to a corpse.

joefromchicago wrote:
I don't think that's a Prisoner's Dilemma. It's more akin to the Tragedy of the Commons.

I have no problem analyzing it as a Tragedy of the Commons, because I don't see how the difference affects the analysis. How isn't the conventional prisoner's dilemma the tragedy of a two-member commons? How isn't the conventional Tragedy of the Commons a prisoner's dilemma with many prisoners?

joefromchicago wrote:
Thomas wrote:
Debra Law wrote:
Am I not a button pusher when I cash my royalty checks?

Yes you are.

Not quite.

"Not quite" is close enough for me.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Thu 9 Jul, 2015 10:17 am
@joefromchicago,
So Joe, now that we know how you wouldn't approach Debra's moral dilemma, would you like to tell us how you would approach it and what your answers to her questions might be?
roger
 
  3  
Reply Thu 9 Jul, 2015 03:40 pm
Love the direction this thread has taken. Almost as good as the almost forgotton Joe/Thomas Second Amendment debate.
Debra Law
 
  2  
Reply Thu 9 Jul, 2015 03:51 pm
@roger,
roger wrote:

Love the direction this thread has taken....


I agree. I am soaking in all the comments thus far and they all are getting me thinking in directions I haven't gone before. I have missed all the people here with their wealth of experience and knowledge. Smile
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Thu 9 Jul, 2015 05:30 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
Oh, I agree. Indeed, I don't expect I'd get any takers in either of your two scenarios. But that's not because they value their lives at more than $5 million, it's because money is worthless to a corpse.

Yet the well-being of the corpse's heirs is worth something to the future corpse -- otherwise, people wouldn't buy life insurance.

And I can understand, on a purely theoretical level, the notion that the actions people take to safeguard their own lives can give us an insight into how much value they place on their lives. So, for instance, a person who smokes, works at a dangerous occupation, and skydives for a hobby could be viewed as valuing his life at less than the person who engages in none of those activities. But the difference is sort of like the difference between infinity and infinity plus one. The reckless person and the careful person each values his life at everything. Society may put a price on a human life, but society and that human would never agree on it. The question, then, is why you prefer society's valuation over the individual's.

Thomas wrote:
How isn't the conventional prisoner's dilemma the tragedy of a two-member commons? How isn't the conventional Tragedy of the Commons a prisoner's dilemma with many prisoners?

It's a different payout structure. The prisoners in a PD would prefer cooperation to defection, but each chooses defection because they can't be sure that their fellow prisoner won't defect as well. In a TOTC, each individual prefers defection, even though each would also prefer that everyone else cooperates.
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Thu 9 Jul, 2015 05:34 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:

So Joe, now that we know how you wouldn't approach Debra's moral dilemma, would you like to tell us how you would approach it and what your answers to her questions might be?

I don't see the dilemma at all. If a person owns an interest in a business that is acting immorally, the only moral option is to sell that interest.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Thu 9 Jul, 2015 09:05 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
The reckless person and the careful person each values his life at everything.

How do you measure that? I measure it by their behavior, observe that they trade off X hours of life expectancy for Y cigarettes etc, and conclude that they typically value their lives highly but not infinitely. I understand that this approach is debatable, but you can't beat something with nothing. So to repeat my question, how did you measure that people place an infinite value on their lives?

joefromchicago wrote:
Society may put a price on a human life, but society and that human would never agree on it. The question, then, is why you prefer society's valuation over the individual's.

In the conventional Utilitarian calculus, your question implies a distinction without a difference. Society's valuation is simply the sum of all individuals' valuations. But sure, while the impact of losing a live is certainly by far the greatest for the individual who would otherwise live it, my approach did take a shortcut by neglecting the loss of individuals close to the deceased. To make up for that, I'm prepared to amend my analysis accordingly and offer you a rate of, say, $10 million per human life. Do we have a deal?

joefromchicago wrote:
It's a different payout structure.

No it's not.

joefromchicago wrote:
The prisoners in a PD would prefer cooperation to defection, but each chooses defection because they can't be sure that their fellow prisoner won't defect as well.

No they don't. Insofar as each prisoner prefers to maximize her individual payoff, her preferred outcome is that she defects while the other cooperates. Maybe she doesn't prefer it in a psychological sense because the narrative usually implies that they're personal friends. But you seem to say that the payout structure should determine the outcome of the comparison. (I agree.) And the payout matrix is the same in the prisoner's dilemma as in the tragedy of the commons in a two-member society.

joefromchicago wrote:
In a TOTC, each individual prefers defection, even though each would also prefer that everyone else cooperates.

Just as in the prisoners' dilemma. And if they all cooperate by refraining from the overuse of common goods, they maximize their collective payoff --- just as in the prisoner's dilemma.
Olivier5
 
  1  
Reply Fri 10 Jul, 2015 05:57 am
@Thomas,
Quote:
I'm prepared to amend my analysis accordingly and offer you a rate of, say, $10 million per human life. Do we have a deal?

Would you feel confortable if someone killed a loved one, and was sentence to a 10 million fine?
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Fri 10 Jul, 2015 06:35 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:

How do you measure that? I measure it by their behavior, observe that they trade off X hours of life expectancy for Y cigarettes etc, and conclude that they typically value their lives highly but not infinitely. I understand that this approach is debatable, but you can't beat something with nothing. So to repeat my question, how did you measure that people place an infinite value on their lives?

I measure it by their behavior as well. Considering that this is all about value, the logical question is: "where's the market?" If there were a market for human lives -- even a black market -- that would convince me that people value their lives at something less than infinity. But there isn't. Because people are not buying and selling human lives, that leads me to conclude that people value their lives at an amount that cannot be calculated.

You, on the other hand, take an oddly scholastic approach to value that ignores market factors entirely. It's as if, on this one topic, you forget that Adam Smith ever existed.

In any event, in calculating a human's life by how they safeguard their lives, you're measuring the wrong thing. You're not measuring value, you're measuring risk. And people are extraordinarily bad at evaluating risk. They underestimate the risk of activities to which they consent (e.g. smoking, eating trans-fats, engaging in dangerous sports and hobbies) and overestimate the risk of activities to which they don't consent (e.g. getting blown up by a terrorist). The precautions that people take, therefore, are skewed by their warped perceptions of risk. It's not that they don't value their lives highly, it's that they can't accurately gauge the risks to their lives.

It's like the shockingly high number of incidents involving musicians leaving valuable instruments in the backseats of cabs. We don't say that that Stradivarius is worthless because its owner took no precautions against its theft or loss. Instead, we ask what that instrument would have fetched on the open market had it been offered for sale and value it accordingly.

Thomas wrote:
In the conventional Utilitarian calculus, your question implies a distinction without a difference. Society's valuation is simply the sum of all individuals' valuations.

Not so. Society's valuation is the sum of all individuals' valuations except for the individual whose life is being valued. That's an odd way of going about it. It's like saying that everybody gets a say in how much a product is priced except for the seller of that product.

Thomas wrote:
But sure, while the impact of losing a live is certainly by far the greatest for the individual who would otherwise live it, my approach did take a shortcut by neglecting the loss of individuals close to the deceased. To make up for that, I'm prepared to amend my analysis accordingly and offer you a rate of, say, $10 million per human life. Do we have a deal?

Show me a market where people are buying and selling human lives at $10 million, and I'll be prepared to agree with you.

Thomas wrote:
No they don't. Insofar as each prisoner prefers to maximize her individual payoff, her preferred outcome is that she defects while the other cooperates.

That's true. I'll have to give this a bit more thought, but you may be right that the TOTC is just a large-scale version of PD.
Thomas
 
  0  
Reply Fri 10 Jul, 2015 10:20 am
@Olivier5,
Olivier5 wrote:
Quote:
I'm prepared to amend my analysis accordingly and offer you a rate of, say, $10 million per human life. Do we have a deal?

Would you feel confortable if someone killed a loved one, and was sentence to a 10 million fine?

... or sentenced to serve in a forced-labor camp if they can't pay it in cash? I would be okay with that, yes. Indeed, I would prefer it to capital punishment, which currently is a possible alternative in the US.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Fri 10 Jul, 2015 02:59 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
I measure it by their behavior as well. Considering that this is all about value, the logical question is: "where's the market?" If there were a market for human lives -- even a black market -- that would convince me that people value their lives at something less than infinity. But there isn't.

Yes there is, although I will grant you that there is no one market where the tradeoff happens explicitly. That being said, there are differentials between different sectors of the labor- and product markets through which people trade off lives for money implicitly. For a semi-fictional but instructive example, you can look at the wage difference between lion tamers and rabbit tamers, compare it with the risk difference between getting eaten by a lion and getting eaten by a rabbit, and deduce an implied value of a human life by dividing one into the other.

In real statistical research, the idea is similar, but the execution is more complicated because jobs differ in more ways than just their risk to workers' lives. But you can still work out a price per life by running a multiple-regression analysis and looking at the coefficient of the deadly-risk variable for determining differences in market wages. I will stop here because actually running such a regression is tedious and lies outside the scope of Debra's thread. I'll just leave you with a link to this peer-reviewed paper (PDF), which has run such an analysis and finds that in America, the value of a human life lies somewhere between $4 million and $9 million. This is consistent with the $5 million I came up with earler.

joefromchicago wrote:
In any event, in calculating a human's life by how they safeguard their lives, you're measuring the wrong thing. You're not measuring value, you're measuring risk.

No, you're measuring people's willingness to take risk in exchange for offsetting benefits. For example, if we offer someone a game of Russian roulette with one bullet in a ten-chamber revolver, and he is willing to take it for a reward of a million dollars but not of one hundred thousand, we can interpret his behavior as him valuing his own life at more than a million but less than ten million dollars. How is this interpretation unsound?

joefromchicago wrote:
And people are extraordinarily bad at evaluating risk.

Maybe so, but the question was whether people place an infinite or a finite value on their own lives. So let me ask you: Do people know that overeating, smoking, base-jumping and so forth pose any risk to their lives at all? Are they taking at least some of these risks willingly nevertheless? As long as we can stipulate that the answer to both these questions is "yes", that's enough to decide that the value people place on their own lives is finite rather than infinite. The incompetence you attribute to people might lead them to choose the wrong finite value over the right finite value, but not a finite value over an infinite one.

joefromchicago wrote:
Thomas wrote:
In the conventional Utilitarian calculus, your question implies a distinction without a difference. Society's valuation is simply the sum of all individuals' valuations.

Not so. Society's valuation is the sum of all individuals' valuations except for the individual whose life is being valued.

This sounds absurd to me. Can you give me a link to utilitarians who actually said that?

joefromchicago wrote:
Show me a market where people are buying and selling human lives at $10 million, and I'll be prepared to agree with you.

I already mentioned the labor market. Similar effects can be derived from product markets. You ask, "at what discount do risky products have to sell until consumers become indifferent between buying them and buying safer products?" Then you run your multiple regression (see above), and derive the implied value of life from the risk coefficient.
Olivier5
 
  1  
Reply Fri 10 Jul, 2015 03:52 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:

Olivier5 wrote:
Quote:
I'm prepared to amend my analysis accordingly and offer you a rate of, say, $10 million per human life. Do we have a deal?

Would you feel confortable if someone killed a loved one, and was sentence to a 10 million fine?

... or sentenced to serve in a forced-labor camp if they can't pay it in cash? I would be okay with that, yes. Indeed, I would prefer it to capital punishment, which currently is a possible alternative in the US.

10 ml bucks worth of labour camp... That would amount to a life sentence. So consequence would be that rich criminals would walk free while the poor ones would always get a life sentence. Seems unfair to me.

Besides, this approach could lead to a big business, whereby filthy rich people from around the globe -- Chinese billionaires, Arab cheikhs, Russian oligarchs, the market is clearly promissing -- would come to the US for human safaris, shoot a few guys in the street, pay their due and travel back home, possibly with human trophies... Would help fund the fiscal deficit for sure, but it's a slipery slope. I would refrain from putting a price tag on human life, however high.





0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 13 Jul, 2015 12:01 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
Yes there is, although I will grant you that there is no one market where the tradeoff happens explicitly.

And that's a problem for your position. If people truly valued their own lives in the same actuarial manner that you do, there would be a market.

Thomas wrote:
That being said, there are differentials between different sectors of the labor- and product markets through which people trade off lives for money implicitly.

Not so. Some of the most dangerous jobs are the most poorly compensated. A coal miner is exposed to far more danger than a coal mine owner, yet the latter enjoys a far higher average income. That doesn't mean that coal miners value their lives less than coal mine owners do, it's that the latter value the lives of the former at far less. That's how capitalism works. And that, once again, highlights the problem with your analysis: you consider the value placed on someone's life by everyone but that someone.

Thomas wrote:
No, you're measuring people's willingness to take risk in exchange for offsetting benefits. For example, if we offer someone a game of Russian roulette with one bullet in a ten-chamber revolver, and he is willing to take it for a reward of a million dollars but not of one hundred thousand, we can interpret his behavior as him valuing his own life at more than a million but less than ten million dollars. How is this interpretation unsound?

It's unsound because it's unrealistic. Your Russian roulette example is the sort of thing that, for economists, starts off as a metaphor and ends up as a theory. But real life doesn't work that way. Nobody tells a coal miner that there will be a fatal accident every tenth time he goes down into the mine. Life doesn't present the odds in such a neat, convenient manner. As such, people have to figure the odds for themselves, and, as I pointed out above, they do a very bad job of it. Read Kahneman & Tversky.

Thomas wrote:
Maybe so, but the question was whether people place an infinite or a finite value on their own lives. So let me ask you: Do people know that overeating, smoking, base-jumping and so forth pose any risk to their lives at all? Are they taking at least some of these risks willingly nevertheless?

In most circumstances, yes.

Thomas wrote:
As long as we can stipulate that the answer to both these questions is "yes", that's enough to decide that the value people place on their own lives is finite rather than infinite. The incompetence you attribute to people might lead them to choose the wrong finite value over the right finite value, but not a finite value over an infinite one.

I disagree. Just because people know they are taking risks with their lives doesn't mean they don't place an infinite value on their lives. Again, where's the market? If people truly placed a finite value on their lives, they'd be willing to sell those lives to the highest bidder.

Thomas wrote:
joefromchicago wrote:
Not so. Society's valuation is the sum of all individuals' valuations except for the individual whose life is being valued.

This sounds absurd to me. Can you give me a link to utilitarians who actually said that?

Sure. Link.
0 Replies
 
 

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