Philosophy Friday: The Principled Life Or Would You Kill For $1 Million?
In the movie, The Box (2009), a struggling young couple one day receive a small box from a mysterious visitor. This man explains that if they push the button on top of the box,
- they will receive $1 million, and
- someone they do not know will die.
If they do not push the button within two weeks, the enigmatic stranger will come and collect the box. In that case, they will not receive the life-changing money; however, they will also not cause the death of a person.
It’s been years since I saw the movie. But I do remember being fascinated by the concept. The couple struggles financially—from memory, they work long days in jobs they don’t like, and they live in a small, shabby apartment—the money would significantly change their lives for the better.
However, they also battle with the downside of this Faustian bargain with the devil: pushing the button would mean they are responsible for killing a human being somewhere in the world.
I found The Box to be a fascinating watch. The back and forth discussions and arguments between the young man and woman for or against pushing the button made this psychological thriller very enjoyable.
“The unexamined life is not worth living” — Socrates
It’s worthwhile considering what we would do in the young couple’s position.
The couple had never considered such a situation before they got the box. It might have been helpful to do so, and after considerable reflection on this thought experiment, come to a definite conclusion:
- Yes, I would agree to conceptually kill a random stranger somewhere in the world for $1 million, or
- No, I would not kill a person for $1 million or any amount of money.
I had pondered on this dilemma even before I saw the movie and knew that I would not kill or cause the death of a person to enrich myself. Never mind how bad my situation got. Otherwise, I would always know that I had caused the deliberate murder of a person. It would be challenging to enjoy life afterwards.
And in this way, I have created a weird principle for myself: “I would never kill or cause the death of a person for mere money.” I am unlikely ever to have to invoke it; however, the point is that if I ever faced a predicament similar to that of the couple in The Box movie, the decision would be easy: No button push, no dead person, no money.
Luckily this concept works in less ridiculous yet more likely life situations too. For example:
- I will not reciprocate anger with anger.
- When something “bad” happens, realise that it’s just my judgement and not an objective truth.
- I will not spend more than half my savings.
- …and so on.
Reflecting on how we should react in various life situations, whether high-stress or more mundane, allows us to codify our behaviour into “principles” and bright lines we would not cross.
Why is this useful? Well, it allows us to make decisions at a time when we are more relaxed and even-keeled. How often do we make optimal decisions when we are under duress, and our cognitive ability is impaired? Probably not so much.
“For it is better to die of hunger, but free from distress and fear,
than to live in plenty but troubled in mind.” — Epictetus