29/09/2008

Who Wants to Be a Moral Philosopher?

Unfortunately, this isn't a problem I have, just a thought experiment:

Scenario 1. You are a candidate at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, you've won half a million and you're going for the million. You have no clue what the answer is and you're not the gambling type, so normally you'd take your half million and go home. But you still have a lifeline left: You can call someone. You do and the person declares with absolute certainty that the answer is B. You go for that answer and it turns out to be right: You win the million. The case could easily be made that you now (not legally, but morally) owe that person half a million, right?

Scenario 2. You are a candidate at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, you've won 125000 and you're going for 500000. You have no clue what the answer is and you're not the gambling type, so normally you'd take your 125000 and go home. But you still have a lifeline left: You can call someone. You do and the person declares with absolute certainty that the answer is B. You go for that answer and it turns out to be right: You win 500000. You know the answer to the next question and win a million.

How much money do you owe the person that provided you with the right answer in Scenario 2? Have moral philosophers ever tackled such a problem?

3 comments:

John Althouse Cohen said...

Thoughts on scenario #1 (which is complex enough without adding the twists of scenario #2):

It can't be that the answer is that you owe your friend half a million dollars. That would put yourself in the same position as if you had chosen to leave with a safe half million. You at least need to be compensated for taking a risk of losing it all. Even if, say, your friend had an 80% chance of getting a right answer, that would mean that you took a risk equal to 500,000 * 0.20 = 100,000. So right off the bat, they should get 400,000 at most, rather than half a million.

Also, if you have to answer 20 questions (just making that figure up) to win the million dollars, then it's severely skewed to say that the friend who gets the 20th question right is responsible for anything close to 50% of the work. That's an illusion stemming from the fact that your friend happened to answer the chronologically last question. The fact remains that answers to all twenty questions were equal joint necessary conditions of winning the million dollars. So the friend should get 5%. (Of course, you need to then deduct the aforementioned "risk" cost to the contestant.)

But it should be even more weighted toward the contestant than that, since they're responsible for controlling the overall course of the game. The contestant also has to deal with stress, taking time out of their schedule to appear on the show, etc. -- those are all costs that should be deducted from whatever the friend gets.

Also remember that the winner will need to pay taxes on the prize. So you need to subtract that from the payment.

But all this would seem to contradict most people's views of how these games work. I always assumed that the friend gets nothing. You framed this in terms of morality -- well, unless they have an express agreement beforehand, it seems to me that the most the contestant morally owes is a nice favor and gratitude.

On top of all this, many would say, quite to the contrary of your suggestion that the contestant owes the friend a moral obligation to make such calculations and then pay out, that it's actually immoral for friends to engage in such transactions. Friends should haphazardly do each other favors without thinking too much. Once it becomes a direct quid pro quo, it becomes unseemly and actually undermines the friendship. I don't necessarily see it that strongly -- just pointing out another angle to the problem.

Antonia said...

I can't see that you would have a moral obligation to share your winnings. They agree in advance to be a lifeline. Your real moral obligation is to absolve your friend of any guilt he or she might feel if you were given the wrong answer, you used it, and therefore lost a chunk of money and any chance to win more.

LemmusLemmus said...

Ha! Here am I constructing a problem (Scenario 2) based on a premise (Scenario 1), and then people come and attack the premise!

I said that you "could" make the point..., although the comments clearly suggest that I shouldn't have said "easily".

Regarding JACs last two and Antonia's only paragraph, this of course is a huge topic. If you scholargoogle "reciprocity" and want to read all of the articles and books that you find, good luck finishing them before you die. Coincidentally, this morning I came up with the idea of a very short post that touches on this topic (and will post it once I've finished this). Here I'll just say that in a friendship, there is a tension between strict reciprocity (as in a market) and no reciprocity whatsoever: On the one hand, a friendship is almost defined by people giving something without expecting anything back. On the other hand, if one person always gives, gives, gives and the other always takes, takes, takes, sooner or later the friendship is likely to end.

Jac, as for your other points:

Para 2: I tried to circumvent the "risk of losing" problem by writing that you would certainly go home and your friend declares with "absolute certainty" that the answer is whatever. It was implied that you also trust the friend 100%, which, admittedly, may be somewhat unrealistic.

Para 3: A very good point, although I disagree with your conclusion. The idea behind the whole post was that in Scenario 2, you answer the last question yourself, but you were put in a position to do this by your friend: How to weigh this? But you're right, it cuts both ways: Your friend may well have failed the third question. However, I don't think the 5% figure makes much sense because later questions are harder than earlier questions, so you should weigh this.

Para 4: Good point.

Para 5: In this country, you don't have to pay taxes on game show winnings.