A Hypothetical Case for an Economical Question: Would You Die for a Billion Dollars?

When I was studding for my bachelor degree, we had a professor who was teaching us principles of economics. He had this habit of asking these peculiar, but relevant to economic analysis questions that were (and still sometimes are) food for my thought. One of these questions was about the price of death, and not just anyone’s death: It was about our murder!

Imagine, that there is a very rich psychopathic murderer, by the name Mr. X, who takes pleasure in killing people. But like many psychopaths, he has a set of rules that have to be obeyed. The rule is, the killer gives a choice to the people whom he wants to kill: He can either not kill them and let them go, or he can give them one billion dollars, leave them to do whatever they want to do for a month, but then kill them definitely after that time has passed. Assuming the victims cannot escape this choice, and assuming they cannot do anything about their pending death in the future if they accept the deal, and they know this, will they accept his deal? Will YOU accept his deal?

It’s a bit like the movie “saw”, but I don’t think our professor had seen that one, because then he would have given “more” choices to the victims!

I don’t remember my exact answer to the question at the time, but the question itself remained in my mind. I came up with this answer some time ago:

Take into account two extreme situations: The first is the situation that one will “always” accept the offer, and the other is the situation that one will “never” accept it. Keep in mind that we choose an economical point of view, and we are after economical reasons for accepting (or not accepting) the offer, so we assume Ceteris paribus, which means other reasons involved in that particular choice are fixed in the economical analysis.

Now, what would be a situation in which someone will most definitely reject the offer? It seems most likely that this is the normal situation, because obviously most people will definitely reject the offer of the killer. But, if we are after a solid rejection without any hesitation, it may be the case of an 18 year old who already has 100 billion dollars. No person like this will ever accept the offer.

Now comes the interesting part: Who will most definitely accept the offer? A 75 year old with no money at all? Maybe, but not definitely. So, who would that situation be?

How about this: A person with no money at all, and with complete knowledge over the fact  that he or she will be dead in 3 weeks as a result of a heart attack? This seems to be the economical situation in which a person will surely say yes to the our Mr. X, the psychopathic killer.

And where is our answer? It seems that we can recognize two different variables here: One is the psychological satisfaction that a person gains from that billion (which is the same as Utility in economics), and the other is the victim’s expectation from the future of his/her life. It would be highly likely that if the victim expects a long life, he/she will not accept the deal.

We should have in mind that these two are also co-related, since if we “know” that there will be no [economical] joy in our lives, we will consider accepting the offer. And no matter how much money we have, if we “know” that we are going to die in 3 weeks, we will consider taking the deal.


So, what is the moral of the story? Life is as precious as our expectations out of it. But since most of the times we cannot see the future of our lives, we expect too much out of it. Could it be why we are so much afraid of death?


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Dear fellow Homo sapiens, or if you prefer conscious mammals! And of course, friends nonetheless: I created my blog in order to speak my very weird mind, mostly about three subjects (as I identify myself and my state of mind with them): Atheism, as I was born in the Middle East and saw and felt the affects of Islam; Homosexuality and equal rights, as a gay man who has tasted the Homophobia and also Sexism in that society; and Liberalism and political philosophy, which I think is a good ground for secular values and criticism of fundamentalism. If you wish, visit and join your state of mind to mine. I hope they don't short circuit!

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