Don’t Push The Button(!)

I’m a sucker for a movie with an intriguing science fiction premiss. Even if, almost without fail, the premiss is better than the movie itself. Because a good sci-fi premiss is more than a plot device, it’s a moral question.


One premiss I sometimes come back to is the set-up for the Box. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the ending [1], but the movie asks a simple question: Would you cause a stranger’s death if it meant you would be richly rewarded?

Using a clever plot device, the movie follows a young couple presented with an unusual offer : press the button on the box and immediately receive $1,000,000, but someone you do not know will be killed. The rest of the movie spirals into amusing nonsense.

But that set-up.

Someone could think about that for a while.

Would I take a million dollars in return for causing a stranger’s death?

Humans are strange. This question, as phrased, is debatable. Some would say “yes”, some “no”. But rephrase the question, and the answer becomes much more uniform, if not in words at least in actions.

I’ve tried to revision it this way: Would I give a million dollars to prevent a stranger’s death?

The answer to that? A resounding “no”. Probably a laugh. Maybe an emphatic, “hell no” and a sarcastic, “yeah right”.

But how about a thousand dollars? Still “no”?

How about a hundred dollars? Hypothetically, maybe “yes” but in action? Still probably “no”.

As an exercise of conscience, I took World Vision’s [2] claim that $50 is enough to save a life. [3] Looking at my revision of The Box‘s question in the context of my mundane everyday life, what if I imagine that for every $50 I spend on non-necessities, I push the button and cause a stranger’s death. How many times have I pushed the button in the past month?

An inventory (rounded to the nearest $50):

Beer/Food with friends (x4), $100
Running Shoes, $100
Bicycle Wheels, $100
Bicycle Repairs, $50
Cable TV bill, $100
Birthday Present for Myself, $350
16 people I might have saved. Oh well(?)



[1] The Box (2009) is a film based on the shot story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson. The short story has a shocking twist in that the “stranger” is the protagonist’s own spouse.

[2] I am painfully aware of World Vision’s disastrous political and moral flip-flopping in recent weeks. While I hold a staunch position in that debate, I wanted to share this post today as my reflection on the complexity of allies and enemies, how sometimes we are both to each other.

[3] World Vision estimates that $50 is enough to provide clean water for one person for that person’s lifetime. However, this is not a linear or literal equation. Money donated to World Vision is pooled and used to provide water resources for entire villages. The premiss of “$50 to save a life” is an average of what it costs to support these programs.


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