The Worth of $ouls

“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10).  But how much is a soul worth?  Freakonomics tries to answer the question.

Steven Levitt, economist

Steven Levitt, economist

For those of you unfamiliar with Freakonomics, it was originally a book written by two Steves:  Dubner and Levitt.  Levitt is an economist for the University of Chicago while Dubner is a former writer for the New York Times Magazine.  Surprised at the success of their first book, they’ve done another book, SuperFreakonomics, as well as the movie Freakonomics (available on Netflix, where I reviewed abortion as a crime fighting tool.)  Now they have a website and a podcast.  Dubner is usually the narrator on the podcast, but goes to Levitt for many of his questions.  They try to find “the hidden side of everything.”  Almost everything they talk about is from an economics perspective.

They have put together a very interesting podcast called Soul Possession.  (The full transcription is available on their website, but I didn’t know until it was too late and just typed up the parts I liked.  You can also listen to the podcast at iTunes.)  They tried to put a value on the worth of a soul, and even referenced the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead.  I love the interesting podcasts they put forth all the time, and wanted to share some excerpts to get your thoughts.

Dubner, “Today we’re talking about the human soul, what it is, what it represents and this being Freakonomics, we’d like to ask a different kind of question about the soul.  Is the soul to use a very utilitarian word, transferrable?

Let me tell you about something strange that had happened not long ago, on our Freakonomics blog.  There was a post about Skepticism and in the comments section of that post, a reader named Caleb B posed a question, something that had been puzzling him for years.”

Caleb B, “My question was, why are people who profess not to have a soul hesitant to sell it, and it’s kind of come because throughout my interactions with people growing up, I would run into somebody who would profess to be an atheist and naturally I’d find the conversation interesting.  I would ask the question, well if you don’t have a soul, can I buy it from you?”

Dubner, “Caleb is 30 years old, lives in Oklahoma City.  You might think from his question that he’s not a Christian-that’s what I thought at least.  But it turns out that he is.  Now we took Caleb’s blog comment and turned it into a blog post all of its own.  Do you have in front of you the actual blog post, yes or no?”

Caleb, “Uh, I do not.”

Dubner, “So let me just read a little bit of it.  This is from Caleb on the Freakonomics blog.

[Caleb B: What is it about the idea of a soul that even people who confess to not have one are hesitant to sell it?] I have been trying, for the better part of ten years, to buy a soul. I’ve offered a dollar amount, between $10 and $50, for someone to sign a sheet of paper that says that I own their soul. Despite multiple debates with confessed atheists, no one has signed the contract. I have been able to buy several people’s Sense of Humor and one guy’s Dignity, but no souls. Additionally, will any Freakonomics reader take me up on this? I’m willing to spend $50 on souls.

Ok, so did the offers come pouring in or no?

Caleb, “Well the first response was from Bruce.  He was very excited and adamant, and said, “I’d be interested in selling you my soul if you’re willing, and so we struck up a conversation and agreed to a contract.”

BRUCE HAMILTON: “One of the first things when I realized that there was a guy out there that would produce real money, my first thoughts were wow, if there’s a guy who’ll pay fifty I wonder if there’s somebody who will pay fifty-one. I even noticed that eBay has a policy against selling intangible items, so you can’t go auction your soul off on eBay.

Dubner, “That’s Bruce Hamilton.  He is the guy who sold his soul to Caleb for $50.  Bruce is in his 50s.  He’s a tech entrepreneur in Seattle.  Unlike Caleb, he is an atheist.  He does not believe the soul exists, so for Bruce, getting paid $50 for something that doesn’t exist was not a hard decision.  He does try to understand Caleb’s reasoning before he agrees to sell his soul.”

Bruce, “Yeah, I was real interested in his motivations because I wanted to make sure he was happy doing this or he wasn’t doing it with somebody that shouldn’t be making such a deal, but he was a perfectly competent guy and he knew what he was doing, and we did exchange a little bit of talk about theology or belief, but not so much.  I think there was some feeling out about trust and he was about to send me 50 bucks and he didn’t know who I was, and I guess I was about to get a check that might bounce, but in general, I was happy to do it if I could convince myself that he was, and I did convince myself that he was, and for me in a sort of a strict, Steve Levitt kind of way I would have done it for $1 or a penny.  I was trading something of no value for something that had some value, even if 50 bucks doesn’t mean that much.”

Dubner, “One might assume that a guy who offers to buy a soul in this situation, someone who is posting on a blog, asking questions of a skeptic, one might assume that kind of person would be  skeptic, or a non-believer or an atheist himself, and that the point was ‘see, it means nothing.’  But were you surprised to find out that’s not who he was, that he actually is a believer that believes the soul is real and has value?”

Bruce, “Yeah, I was shocked.  I assumed he would be an atheist.  It just struck me as a very irreverent thing to do in general and if he really does believe that a soul is an integral part of a person, and that he just took mine, well, that wasn’t a very nice thing to do, so I saw a lot of incongruity there.  I was quite surprised.”

Dubner, “That was Caleb’s point really.  All those people he talked to who said they were atheists wouldn’t sell him their souls, which proved (to him) that they thought the soul did have value.  But then finally along came Bruce.

Let me ask you this Bruce.  When’s the last time you read Faust?”

Bruce, “I don’t know much about Faust.  I only know enough to know about what it is.  I couldn’t say that I know a lot about Faust.”

Dubner, “I’m guessing you do know that in exchange for his soul, for selling his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles , Faust received unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures, and you, Bruce Hamilton, you only got 50 bucks.  Do you think you got short-changed here?”

Bruce, “Well let’s just say that 50 was more than anybody else was offering and so if the open market value was zero, and I got 50, I think I scored.”

Dubner, “So Caleb mailed Bruce a check for $50 and a contract to sign, turning over possession of his soul, that’s right, soul possession.  But what’s Caleb supposed to do with Bruce’s soul?”

Caleb, “Can I ever take possession of that soul?  I’m not going to put it in a Mason jar, I’m not going to own it in any kind of particular sense.  The value to me was just seeing the contract signed by somebody.”

Dubner, “You do believe in God, yes?”

Caleb, “Yes.”

Dubner, “And what would you make of a god who lets you a believer, buy a soul of a fellow human being?”

Caleb, “Uh, I don’t know.  I don’t know.  My wife asked the question, well do you now have responsibility for Bruce’s soul?  If Bruce goes out and does a bunch of horrible and despicable acts, are you going to be held responsible in the afterlife?  My response is really, I don’t know.  I don’t know.”

Dubner, “Coming up, if you can buy a soul, what else can you buy?”

Michael Sandel, Political Philosopher at Harvard, “If you’ve wronged someone or if you’re on the outs with someone, whether an estranged lover or a business partner and you can’t quite bring yourself to apologize personally, you can apparently hire the company to do it for you.  The motto of the company is ‘We say sorry for you, for a fee.'”

The podcast jumps to a commercial, and then continues on the company that apologizes.  (The company is based in China.)  There are some people that think the market can solve almost any problem (we hear that often with people saying the government should quit regulating business.)  Dubner asks Sandel about this particular market of purchasing a soul.

Sandel, “Well, the first thing that strikes me about it is that it’s a very old idea, it’s not new.  Think of the indulgences of the medieval period.  It was after all, the sale of indulgences which is pretty close.  Is there a difference between someone selling your soul and buying salvation?  If you can buy a person’s soul, that’s pretty closely akin to buying salvation, you remember that was the practice carried out in the Catholic Church at the time that Martin Luther rose up against indulgences, against the buying and selling of salvation.”

Dubner, “Indeed, and when we look back on that period in history and Martin Luther nailing to the church, we think , oh thank goodness, this is the kind of transaction that we no longer are surrounded by, yet here’s a guy, hundreds of years later who on a scale of 1 at least is trying to re-enact it. It’s a little bit different.  There was not the sale of an indulgence to save the soul in the same way here, this was one person transferring his to another person.  I’m curious, do you have personally morally, ethically, through the lens through which you see the world, have a problem with this transaction?”

Sandel, “I have 2 possible problems, and only 1 of them is moral.  I suspect that most people would regard this commercial exchange either as absurd or abhorrent, but not both.  People will view it as absurd if they think there is no such thing as a soul, or if they think that the soul is the kind of thing that can’t conceivably be bought and sold in the first place.  If you believe that about the soul, then you’ll regard this as absurd, but not as abhorrent.  It would just be based on a mistake.

If however, you believe that there such as thing as a soul, and if you believe that bartering in the soul, buying and selling it, it’s a kind of violation of a proper regard for the soul, then you will regard this not as absurd, but abhorrent, as transgressive, as maybe even as a kind of sin which brings out the kind of the general argument that markets in order to decide where markets belong and where they don’t, we have to sort out the hard underlying questions about the nature of the goods that money would buy.  In this case, you have to work out your theology.  You have to decide what is the status of the soul, and is there any transgression in trying to buy or sell it?  That’s why I say it’s either absurd or abhorrent depending on your underlying view of the status of the soul.  Do you see what I mean?”

Dubner, “I do, and that’s a very valuable distinction.  It makes me curious, what about you personally?  If I offered to buy your soul for $50, what would you say?”

Sandel, “Well first I would say, why do you want it?  What are you going to do with it?  I would probe to hear what you had in mind.”

Dubner, “Let’s say that I feel that you are not exercising it properly, that you are not taking seriously enough for my taste, in my moral code, the responsibility of the spiritual entity known as a soul, and I therefore am willing to pay dollars in order to better curate that soul because I do believe in the sanctity of the soul, and rather than see you not tend yours properly, I am willing to pay the price to take over that responsibility.  Let’s say that were my answer.”

Sandel, “Well the more seriously I took your answer, the more genuine I took it to be and the more plausible I thought it might be, as a way of thinking about my soul, my destiny, the more offended I would be.  The less seriously I took it, the more I thought listening to you that you were either a crank or a prankster, the less offended I would be, which is to say it would be less a matter of taking offense and abhorring this than regarding it as absurd, and a matter of indifference.

But you know it is connected, this question of how we would regard such an offer.  It is not unrelated to the debate that we have heard about in connection to the Romney campaign.  Some say that Governor Romney should renounce a practice of the Mormon Church of retrospective conversions.  Elie Weisel, you may have noticed, came out urging Romney to renounce the practice of the Mormon Church of retrospectively converting some Jews, including Anne Frank.  Now the church itself apparently said the person who did that retrospective, posthumous conversion of Anne Frank did so in an unauthorized way.  But the question is, if there is a church that carries out posthumous conversion, converts let’s say Anne Frank, for the sake of her soul, here’s how it’s analogous to your case of you want to buy my soul, the better to look after it, here’s a church, there’s no money trading hands.  Is this offensive, or if you don’t believe it is efficacious, if you don’t believe there’s anything in it, can you really take offense?  Or is it simply something that’s absurd?  So how people react to this retrospective posthumous conversion controversy, I think would pretty closely track your question about whether the soul is the kind of thing that can or should be bought and sold?  It depends on your underlying view of the status of the soul or of conversion in that case, or of salvation in the case of indulgences and Martin Luther.”

Dubner, “Now who am I to challenge the model you just laid out because I think it’s right on in a lot of ways, but if you divide it into abhorrent and absurd, I’m not sure that it can’t be both, because I’ll tell you my position, my personal position on the Mormon posthumous baptisms which have been going on for years and years and have included not just the notable names that you mentioned, but many, many, many hundreds of thousands, and probably millions, a lot of holocaust victims, holocaust survivors, not just Jews, but I know when I was doing genealogy research into my Jewish family from three or four generations ago, I came across this issue of the Mormon Church having posthumously baptized relatives who had died in the holocaust–

Sandel, “Relatives of yours?”

Dubner, “Yes, uh-huh, yup.  And I found it, I have to say both abhorrent and absurd.  So even though I posed to you the question about this one fellow who sold his soul for 50 bucks, it does sound kind of like a joke or a crank as you put it, but then when into something systematic where there’s a church in this case that baptizes non-members posthumously baptizes them and admits them into its church, I have to say, I quickly go beyond the moral, and I go to the legal, and I think if one fellow named Caleb in Oklahoma City is willing and able to buy the soul of another fellow named Bruce in Seattle for $50, should let’s say the Mormon Church be required to pay, let’s say we’ve just set a precedent rate of $50 per soul per posthumous baptism.  Is there an argument to be made here for reparation pay based on the inherent value of a soul?”

Sandel, “Well, there’s a risk in that.  You called it reparation pay Stephen.  Suppose the people doing the retrospective baptisms considered that it was so important that they were willing to raise the funds necessary to pay $50 per conversion?  What they would be doing would be converting the reparation or the penalty or the sanction onto a cost of carrying out what to them is a very important religious rite.  And that connects to the distinction I make between a fine, which is like a reparation and a fee, which is a cost of doing business, without any moral approbations or stigma attached to it.

A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable tool. It’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence, and prosperity. It’s a tool that we use, that we put to our purposes.  But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being, an unreflective way of thinking and being that just assumes that all the good things in life can in principle be up for sale. And that, I think, diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor, and that money can’t or shouldn’t buy.”

Dubner, “I wondered what Caleb, the guy who bought Bruce’s soul for $50, the moral limits of the market.  It struck me that once you started selling souls, is a slippery slope.

Let me ask you this:  just between you and me now, if I offered you 60 bucks for Bruce’s soul, would you resell it to me?”

Caleb, “I probably would.”

Dubner, “Really?”

Caleb, “Yeah, certainly.”

Dubner, “Tell me again exactly what you do for a living.”

Caleb, “I am a bond analyst for a bank.”

Dubner, “So you’re familiar with markets, how they work, when they work and when they don’t work, when they fail sometimes–

Caleb, “Generally, yes.”

Dubner, “Have you considered establishing some kind of a soul market?”

Caleb chuckles, “If I had the technical guru, it might be something indeed that I could do, yes.”

Dubner, “And what about Bruce, the seller?  On the central matter here, the existence of a soul, Bruce and Caleb disagree.  Caleb believes in the soul and thinks it’s worth something.  Bruce doesn’t believe in the soul and therefore was happy to sell at any price.  But as to how the market should work even for souls, well on this point the two men are in complete agreement.  I asked Bruce if he cared that Caleb would resell his soul.”

Bruce, “No, he’s completely free to do with it whatever he wants.  If he finds a way to make $1000 with it, I might be disappointed that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to make $1000 with it before he did, but if he’s clever enough to do that, I’m all for it.  That’s fine with me.”

Dubner, “And what if someone else that doesn’t know that you’ve sold your soul to this guy named Caleb in Oklahoma and offers to buy your soul, what do you do next time?”

Bruce, “Well, you know the soul is such a nebulous concept, and in general these spiritual things are so amorphous that you can just make up anything you want about them and decree them to be true, so I might say that my soul is kind of like a starfish leg.  You know if you chop it off, it grows back!  So there it is, I have it again.  It’s for sale to any of your audience.  If anyone else wants to give me 50 bucks, I’m here to take it all day long and maybe this is a nice way to make a living if I can just do it 20 times a day.”

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What are your other thoughts?


3 comments on “The Worth of $ouls

  1. […] I originally posted this on Wheat and Tares in August 2011, but wanted to add it here since I just talked about a Freakonomics podcast on Baptism for the Dead. […]

  2. […] I originally posted this on Wheat and Tares in August 2011, but wanted to add it here since I just talked about a Freakonomics podcast on Baptism for the Dead. […]

  3. I’m offended by Dubner, and think he should be forced by law to pay me reparations.

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