You’d Take The Million

Imagine that a month ago you inherited or won a million dollars. You haven’t spent much, but you did tell people you know and you’ve been thinking about how you will spend it. (Probably including quitting your job.) Today you learn that your favorite pet will die unless you spend a million dollars on medical treatment. Ask yourself: would you spend it? What would most people you know do? In this situation, I’m pretty sure most folks wouldn’t spend a million to save their pet.

Now consider a new Vanity Fair survey:

Questions: Would most people you know kill their favorite pet for $1 million? What about you?
Answers: Most people: Yes (23%) No (72%); Yourself: Yes (11%) No (83%).

Matt Yglesias (Hat tip Sir Charles):

I don’t believe it for a minute. Saying you wouldn’t kill your favorite pet for $1 million is cheap talk. Actually declining an offer of $1 million in exchange for the life of your pet, by contrast, costs $1 million. How many people would really turn that offer down in these cash-strapped times?

Actually, my guess is that if no one you knew had ever taken such an offer, and if you took it you’d be in the news so that most folks you know would hear of it, most of you wouldn’t take the offer. But once a few associates had taken the offer, and such offers weren’t newsworthy anymore, most folks would take such offers.

This just shows how much we hate seeming weird. Accepting a million to kill your pet is weird, but then so is paying a million for your pet’s medical treatment. In each case most will do the non-weird thing.

(I posted in July on how you’d take a million to give up the internet.)

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  • I’d like the circumstances under which the offer is made to be fleshed out, just as the contrasting circumstances are fleshed out. Is it just an evil billionaire who wants to see if I’ll do it? Or is it a religious cult who think the secret of the Universe is encoded in my pet’s brain and want to extract it in an autopsy? It can make sense to precommit to telling evil billionaires to get lost, even where those choices are otherwise inconsistent with other choices we’d make.

    • GudEnuf

      Convenient worlds.

    • Anonymous

      An evil billionaire could do a lot more harm with one million dollars than have you kill your dog. With these resources and sufficient criminal energy, she can probably hire an assassin to torture and kill random people in a poor region of the world and bribe the local police to look the other way, with some good success probability.

      The right thing to do may be to take the million from the evil billionaire and do some good that she wouldn’t think of doing.

    • Daniel

      I think the best way to do things like that is to imagine that the situation isn’t brought about by a person. Situations vaguely like these do occur, and they’re not something someone made happen.

      Perhaps your pet is something like an oyster: It has a small chance of producing a valuable item. You have found out that it produced one, but it will get destroyed again if it’s not removed from the pet immediately. It can’t be removed without killing the pet. Do you keep the pet, or have the item surgically removed?

  • Vince Mulhollon

    When you examine the percentages, please consider the percentage distribution of pet species. $1M for a fluffy sheltie doggie who’s been your faithful companion for years? Oh, that’s harsh.
    On the other hand I can’t keep mammalian pets so my current favorite pet by default is one of my tropical fish, and its hard to work up extreme emotional indignation over a scavenger catfish who only lives about two years even with ideal care. Now there are some tropical fish that can live for many years, oscars, plecos, some sharks, but I don’t currently keep any like that. I like my little year old cory catfish, and I take excellent care of it, but for a million bucks it gets the axe.

  • Phil

    There’s a difference between not spending $1MM for medical treatment, and actually “killing your pet” for $1MM. I’m sure I’d take the former offer. I’d almost surely take the latter offer if the pet still needed the $1MM for treatment. But I’m not sure if I’d kill my healthy pet for $1MM.

    • roystgnr

      I’ve seen a number of blog posts recently from consequentialists who seem to see no difference between “kill” and “allow to die without intervening”, even in the case of human deaths. I hope that this is just the result of myopic logic about hypothetical situations, not actual behavior-altering introspection. Otherwise those “get roofied by organ harvesters” urban legends are going to start coming true, with the twist that the black market kidney money will all get used to buy lifesaving malaria nets for impoverished third world countries.

  • John

    How ridiculous – someone please apply some trolley problem logic: would you accept $500k personally, and know a donation of $500k was made to the Against Malaria Foundation, which Givewell estimates saves 1 human life for every $2k donation (in other words, your companion’s life would buy 250 human lives, and you a nice summer home – skip the home and increase it to 500 lives if 250 doesn’t quite cut it for you).

    • John,
      Most people aren’t utilitarians at the bottom. My personal morality, for instance, is mostly duty based. I have a duty to my family’s pet. That duty doesn’t extend to paying large amounts of money to save her life, but it does extend to feeding, watering, and providing reasonable care to her, as she has fulfilled her part of the arrangement by being a good pet and by slaying mice and other vermin. Only if there were a higher duty intervening, e.g. my duty to my children to feed and care for them, that could only reasonably be satisfied by accepting the $1M to sacrifice their favorite cat would the cat get the axe. The two systems are only equivalent under a utlilitarian frame.

  • Khoth

    I’d be more convinced if you came up with a set of situations that differed only in weirdness, rather than introducing loss aversion bias as an additional factor.

  • Owen Biesel

    I think there are a few other effects going on in the difference between these two scenarios: First, there’s the difference between killing your pet and not saving its life. While some people may have trained themselves to view those as identical, most people approach them differently. By how much would the percentages change if the question read “Would most people you know let their favorite pet die from a treatable condition in exchange for $1 million? What about you?”

    The second one is, as Paul Crowley pointed out above, the “kill your favorite pet for $1 million” setup suggests that there’s an “evil billionaire” who’s willing to reward you for what you may perceive as unconscionable. “Obviously, I shouldn’t go along with an evil billionaire’s offers!” is probably a knee-jerk reaction for some of the responders, a reaction that then gets rationalized by thoughts of “Besides, I wouldn’t know what to do with $1 million, and I’d be so sad without Fluffy…” How much would the percentages change if the question had a perfectly understandable reason for the bizarre exchange? (Say, a business partner with an allergy, or something.)

    And we’ve already slightly touched on the third difference: the order in which the two choices are presented (which seems intentional from the setup). In your scenario, the $1 million is introduced first, and thoughts of what you could accomplish with it are encouraged. Then the dying pet is introduced, and the thought of losing all those hopes for a favorite pet, to whom you’ve only just now been introduced, seems unthinkable. But in the poll scenario, people are asked whether they’d be willing to kill their favorite pet (What could possibly justify murdering a pet, practically a member of your family!) in exchange for $1 million (Just money? I have better principles than that!). What if the question read “Would most people you know decline an offer of $1 million if the only price was to kill their favorite pet? What about you?”

    I doubt any one of these changes to the poll question would get the near-total reversal you expect from your alternate scenario, but seeing how many people change sides in each variant could tell you more about why they make the decisions they do.

  • Anonymous

    There’s a weird distinction between active killing and passive killing. It rears its weird head in some national euthanasia laws, too. In Germany, you can’t kill a consenting person, but you can given an unconsciousness-invoking drug to a consenting person to switch off their life support, resulting in equally predictable death. So if a person really wants to die, they have to get into a state that requires life support first, only to refuse it.

    It’s probably intuitive game theory. “You’re a killer” vs. “It was no one’s fault”.

  • Unfortunately I would never get the chance to take the million dollars because I don’t have any pets and never will. This thought experiment isn’t fair to people who dislike owning pets.

  • Vets are so reluctant to kill dogs today we have not been able to find someone to kill our dog, and we are willing to pay. He is very old and sick and has begun pooping in the house.

    Modern Americans are a weird lot.

    • Finch

      I remember being taught that it was vaguely distasteful to have someone else kill your dog, should your dog need that. The argument was that some stranger would not be as invested in your dog, and hence might be careless and screw it up.

  • Wonks Anonymous

    The phrase John and Anonymous are reaching for is “act/omission bias”. Or “distinction”, if you think it’s legitimate rather than a bias.

    I like dogs, but they’re definitely not worth $1 million. The internet would be a harder choice, pets can be replaced for less.

  • Bernard M.

    Outcomes matter, but so do processes.

  • steve

    Could I hire someone else to kill my pet for me? I am sure I could get it done for a lot less then $1 million and pocket the difference.

  • What if the question was about the life of a homeless person? Or the life of an infant from a raped, crack-addicted juvenile mother?

    What if the question wasn’t about $1 million, but was about a 1% increases in the marginal income tax?

    I think we know the answers to these questions too.

    • You beg the question: What about a fetus?

      • Anonymous

        At a stage at which the fetus doesn’t have functional brain structures yet, it makes sense to give it the ethical status of a vegetable.

        When there’s pain and consciousness involved… not so much.

      • I think the answer is pretty clear, the rabid anti-tax, pro-life GOP wouldn’t raise taxes to save the lives of fetuses, except by putting doctors and women in prison, or killing them.

        They don’t want public prenatal health care, prenatal nutrition, pre-conception health care, post-birth nutrition, post-birth health care, post-birth education.

        They don’t want to pay for stuff that is pretty cheap (prenatal and infant care) but have no problem paying for stuff that is expensive (a lifetime of incarceration).

  • Matt

    Wouldn’t your own morals be an extra cost in the kill your dog option? In both options you can assume that all animals die and that dogs are not people. Letting a dog die might not be immoral and it might have the same effect as killing a dog, but becoming a pet killer, despite whether others know is a psychological burden/ a black mark on your soul.

    • Brian

      This is the crux of the matter, and Robin Hanson seems unwise to ignore it.

  • JO

    I’d kill all your pets for $10,000; and I’d snuff the fern in the corner for free. This blog encourages me to become an evil billionaire, so I can toy with people’s emotions. I dislike pets.

    • A good reason to impose confiscatory taxes so people cannot become evil billionaires and so that the evil billionaires that already exist are deprived of their ability to do evil.

  • MattC

    This just shows how much we hate seeming weird.

    Indeed, which is puzzling because in school we were taught to resist peer pressure at all costs. In retrospect, this seems as dangerous and shortsighted as abstinence-only sex education. Imagine if, instead of constantly warning against peer pressure, the educational system said, “well, kids are kids, they’re going to try to fit in and develop social skills no matter what we do, let’s teach them to do it safely…”

  • derp

    Normal people: not wanting to kill their pets.

    Asperger’s sufferers that congregate on the Internet: coming up with logical reasons to support their sociopathic tendencies.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, I’m sure you’d turn down a million dollars if it were actually offered to you…

    • Ari T

      Reading comprehension hello; there was nothing normative in this post and no moral justifications for anything. Speculating which people would choose, reveals a lot of hidden preferences. This may come as a shock to you, but how people actually act differs a lot of how they talk. Observing people does not make anyone a sociopath.

  • Wonks Anonymous

    “This just shows how much we hate seeming weird”
    I don’t disagree with your prediction, but I don’t think you can claim it “shows” something about the broader world. It shows something about your own beliefs, and hopefully those beliefs are accurate based on some connection to the world. It is actually your prior belief in the conclusion you make about conformity that causes you to believe people would or wouldn’t take the offer in various scenarios. So the causality of showing is backward.

    daedalus2u, I’m actually not sure what Robin’s choice would be (I know the baby bit is pro-life bait). He talks a lot about how “poor folks also smile” and how even Malthusian ems will want to come into existence. But he also bites utilitarian bullets, and perhaps the money could be used to grant more happiness/save more lives. But on the third hand, he distinguished between the utilitarian advice he would give as an economist and how he would personally behave. And then there’s the matter of the legality of murder. I’m not sure if he’s expressed an opinion on current marginal tax rates, but I think there are policy interventions he considers grossly underfunded (solar flare insurance, refuges, prediction markets). But I suppose we’re taking other policies as a given, in which case his attitude on debt is more relevant. He hasn’t waded into the recent debt/Ricardian Equivalence debate, but he has noted that people don’t care that much about the future. There’s implicit disdain on his part for our low consideration for future people, but he also claims to “give people what they want” as an economist.

    MattC, did you read the same David Brin essay as me?

    • When GWB was Governor of Texas, he signed legislation that allowed hospitals to remove life-sustaining support against patient wishes due to lack of insurance or lack of payment.×11754

      So it isn’t just a hypothetical.

    • MattC

      No, but I did now. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve read in a while; thanks for sharing. I’ve been trying to become less ideological and more pragmatic in my thinking, and that essay gave me some great, well, ideological support.

      • Wonks Anonymous

        I’ve found some of Brin’s writing to be interesting, but I don’t actually respect him as a thinker.

  • Chris Gregory

    I would do almost anything for my dog, I guess. Screw the money. But if it was something along the lines of having to allow my dog to be put down so that a person could live…I would feel obligated to go along with it. I couldn’t put my dog’s welfare above that of another human being, but I wouldn’t sell out my dog for personal gain.

    I’m in Australia, so the health care system is different than in the US. I don’t have any personal health insurance (the mostly free public health system is more than adequate for my needs), but I do have health cover for my dog, just in case there is ever the need for expensive medical care.

  • Michael Vassar

    My impression is that people don’t have strong preferences and lack cognitive habits enabling them to seriously consider weird behaviors, but that they aren’t so averse to being known to do weird behaviors or to continuing weird behaviors that they are in the habit of. More about habit beating agency than about fear of weirdness.

  • krans llufel

    I have written an involved reply to this post here:

    Basically, I see the basis of the statement as hopelessly flawed, although the conclusion may bear meritable investigation, though not for any reasons outlined above.

    • MattC

      Interesting essay. Let me quote a paragraph near the end,

      [L]et me present an example in which most people would definitely take the “million”. We presume that, from the previous two points, this is in fact a practically infinite amount, which has actual purpose. Most people will sacrifice their pet, if they are also presented with the choice between their pet, or, for example, their child. The child is only a convenient example, but is illustrative that what is going on in the individual’s mind is not a balance between greed and good, as the author seems to be hinting at, but between two values. If the “greater good” can be satisfied, it will be (the majority of the time). In fact there are a great many examples where such a thing would happen, if a million could be sacrificed instead for charity, than for a single animal, or for the betterment of mankind, etc. Put in this light, it is utterly apparent the absurdity and fallacy that there is necessarily a significant greed that would unerringly end the animal’s life.

      But the bolded part is just what Robin said! If you read Robin’s original post, you won’t find the word “greed” anywhere. In fact, he does not speculate, or hint at any speculation, about the hypothetical person’s motives for killing their pet. He only guesses that they would. In your terms this is equivalent to guessing that many people do have a better idea for what to do with a million dollars than save a pet — some higher value.

  • Lord

    Age may make a difference. Someone young may have less and a million may represent more to them and offer more possibilities for exploration. I would only accept a million if my pet was near the end anyway as a way to alleviate suffering. My emotional investment would be too high. On the other hand I would consider it if I felt my pet would be better off because that is what love is. I wouldn’t spend a million on medical care because life is mortality and it would only be delaying and prolonging the inevitable. Time is short anyway. It could better spent on enjoying time together and on other pets. Alternatives matter but money doesn’t mean that much to me anymore.

    One question I encountered was whether you would give up all your friends and family for a million. This could be attractive if young, independent, uncommitted, and extroverted but probably becomes much less so over time as you have more invested and it becomes more difficult to replace them.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Quit your job because you have a million? Are you kidding? You need at least $2 million to retire comfortably in the U.S. You can retire someplace cheap in Latin America or S.E. Asia on less than a million, though.

    • @Abelard I guess it depends what you mean by ‘comfortably’. A lot of US people live well enough on about $30k a year, and so a million dollars is about 30 years of income all at once. Also, ‘quit your job’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘stop doing productive work’ – if I could quit my job right now I’d probably start doing work that would make me more money in the long run.

  • Pingback: Everyone has a price, but there’s a limit? What will people (not) do for money? « Econstudentlog()

  • ThePenileFamily

    Let me put this in a different light:

    I would happily murder my Dog, whom I adore, for a million dollars. That’s not even a hard question. “Hi there Doggie *bang* – bye Doggie…”.

    Sadness and guilt ensue but will pass.

    However, I am quite sure there is no possible way that I could torture my Dog for a million dollars.

    I have read the comments and links in this post, and I find some of them to be dodging a simple question.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I’ll have to check with all of my current girlfriends, but I suspect that every single one of them will immediately say that they’d take the million. If so, I have a new litmus test for dating. Though to be fair, none of them actually have pets at the moment.

    • Mitchell Porter

      “I’ll have to check with all of my current girlfriends”

      Should I envy Eliezer, or see this as a sign that he really has lost his way?

  • Nate F

    The distinction is simply a matter of agency. If you’re pet has an illness that will kill it unless you pay $1 million for treatment, the ultimate agent of the pet’s death is the disease. Not you.

    If, on the other hand, your pet is perfectly healthy and you pay $1 million to kill it, you are the agent responsible for the pet’s death.

    However you feel about either decision, the reason that the former is more difficult than the latter is because we have a tendency to not want to be the AGENT of someone else’s pain (as demonstrated by the trolley experiments).

    This makes sense in a social sense, as the social blame (and costs of rejection) falls most harshly on the agent of the wrongdoing, and not on the multitudes of people that could have prevented a wrongdoing.

    If a starving child dies in Africa, do we go around blaming every single person that could have helped? Of course not.

    Though it makes logical sense to equate murder with a failure to prevent death, it’s simply not how we socially judge each other. And since the judgement of other people is such a large factor in any decision we make, our decisions trend toward the more socially acceptable role of passive observer.

  • I am glad I have no friends, so I don’t need to worry about “doing the weird thing”.

  • I think you are right about this tendency to avoid seeming weird.
    That is how pogroms and genocides suck everybody in once they have reached a critical mass of participants.