You are presented with a strange challenge: Someone dares you to count backwards from 300 to 0. If you succeed at this simple request, you will be given $25,000 in cash. However, if you misspeak, get any digit incorrect, or make any mistake whatsoever, you will immediately be doused with gasoline and burned alive.
Do you attempt this challenge?
Do I think that I would be able to get the countdown right? Yes.
Would I accept this challenge? NO!
$25,000 is a lot of money. But, to put it into perspective, that’s basically what an entry-level sedan is worth. Am I ready to risk my life for an entry-level sedan? No, not really. Now, the risk of failing to count down from 300 is probably lower than the risk of being caught stealing a Camry. Still, to put it another way, this question is not so different from, “hey dude, want to go carjacking tonight?” (moral qualms about stealing aside).
The thing in play here is the balance of life versus money. I’m going to go ahead and say that life is infinitely valuable, at least to its possessor, whereas $25K is 25K. Infinity is greater than that last time I checked. Mathematically, you might be tempted to think of the decision as involving the phrase ($25,000)x(100-(percent change you get the countdown wrong)). That would be the worth of the decision. But you would have to couch that in an if statement, and then compare it against something–but what?
One objection is that money is not an end in itself and so shouldn’t be used as the unit in the final analysis. One might argue that the $25K represents, perhaps, opportunity to add to life, to live more, if that will be our final unit of analysis. That’s a useful objection, and probably (and unfortunately) relevant to my carjacking example.
So far our theme is the value of a life.
An interesting wrinkle of the question would be to replace one’s own death with that of a friend or a stranger. If one has a certain egoistic bent, this may make one more likely to accept the countdown challenge. “Why shouldn’t I go for it,” you’d say–“it’s not my life at risk.” This is why private equity investment people have to have some of their own money at stake to ensure full effort. On the other hand, one with a more altruistic bent might recoil at this rephrasing of the challenge. “Risk someone else’s life?” they would ask. “What right do I have to do such a thing?” Then the curious thing would be whether one’s social distance from that person–whether they are a friend or a stranger–increases or decreases one’s “right” to risk their life.
Other obvious ways to modify the question include increasing or decreasing the reward and the countdown number.