Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Soul Possession.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) This kicks off a new season of original podcasts, marking the end of the hour-long “mashupdates” we’ve recently released.
This episode grew out of something that happened on this blog a while back. We had run a Q&A with Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. In the comments section, a reader named Caleb B. wrote:
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.
We highlighted Caleb’s request in a subsequent blog post and soon enough, he did find a seller, named Bruce Hamilton. This led us to a simple but profound question: In a world where nearly everything is for sale, is it always okay to buy what isn’t yours?
You’ll hear from both Caleb and Bruce in the podcast. For instance:
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 someone 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.
We also wanted to explore the moral limits of markets generally. For that, we turned to Harvard law professor Michael Sandel (star of lecture-hall stage and screen) and the author, most recently, of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets:
Michael SANDEL: A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable tool. It’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence, and prosperity. 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.
As an example, Sandel talks about the Tianjin Apology and Gift Center, where you can buy an apology. The company’s motto: “We say sorry for you.”
Stephen J. DUBNER: Mary Roach is a writer, a non-fiction writer, who is a bit obsessed with death. But not so much the dying part of death as what come afterwards. Her first book, Stiff, is about the secret life of cadavers. In her follow-up book, Spook, she goes looking for evidence of the afterlife. Of particular interest is the thing we call the soul. How real is it? What happens to it when we die? Where is it located when we’re alive? Big thinkers have been thinking about the soul forever, and Mary Roach says there have been some interesting ideas...
Mary ROACH: Oh, yeah, well Aristotle, he had this notion of pneuma like as in pneumatic wind, and it was this spirit, this thing that brought life where life didn’t exist, and it started out in, um, the sperm. So the sperm would sort of on arrival inside the woman’s body get busy kind of building something where there was nothing. And they would sort of, they would breathe life into it, this pneuma, this spirit.
DUBNER: Now, if you don’t like the Aristotelian view of the soul, Roach has some more you can think about …
ROACH: The ancient Egyptians thought that the heart was the center of the spirit that the soul resided there. The Babylonians identified the liver and I think the stomach was a secondary seat of the soul. And the liver is a beautiful, very sleek, kind of streamlined, really boss looking organ. I could imagine looking at that and thinking, yeah, that could be it.
DUBNER: Now, science and anatomy moved forward, of course, and we learned a great deal about these organs. But on matters of the soul? The answers haven’t been so forthcoming. Fast-forward now to the 17th century.
ROACH: Very quickly it became obvious that when you mess around with the brain you change people’s personality, people’s spirit, things kind of shift. So there was a kind of sense that this is where we should look, in the brain. And Descartes, Rene Descartes did a fair amount of this work using livestock heads. Descartes had apparently this sort of room with heads of cows and livestock in different stages of disassembly. And he would sometimes when dinner guests were over he would open the door to this room and say, “These are my books.” And there would be these carcasses and heads, and you kind of had to think that after a while people didn’t want to go over to Rene’s house for dinner very much.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonoomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
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, transferable? Let me tell you about something strange that 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’d been puzzling him for years:
CALEB: My question was why are people who profess not to have a soul hesitant to sell it? And it’s kind of come about because throughout my interactions with people, you know, growing up I would run into somebody who professed to be an atheist, and naturally I’d find the conversation interesting and 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:
DUBNER: Do you have it in front of you the actual blog post, or no?
CALEB: I do not.
DUBNER: Okay, so let me just read a little bit of it.
DUBNER: This is from Caleb on the Freakonomics blog. “I’ve been trying for the better part of ten years to buy a soul. I’ve offered a dollar amount between ten and fifty dollars 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 that contract. Will any Freakonomics reader take me up on this? I’m willing to spend fifty dollars on souls.” Okay, so did the offers come pouring in or no?
CALEB: Well the first to respond to me was Bruce. And he was very excited, and adamant, and he 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 someone who will pay fifty-one. And I even looked briefly into, I noticed that eBay has a policy against selling intangible items, you can’t go auction your soul off on eBay.
DUBNER: That’s Bruce Hamilton. He’s the guy who sold his soul to Caleb for fifty dollars. Bruce is in his fifties; 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 fifty dollars for something that doesn’t exist was not a hard decision. He did try to understand Caleb’s reasoning before he agreed to sell his soul.
HAMILTON: Yeah, I was real interested in his motivations because I wanted to make sure that he was happy doing this or I 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. 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. You know, he was going to send me fifty 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 strict Steve Levitt kind of way I would have done it for a dollar or a penny. I was trading something that had no value for something that had some value even if fifty bucks doesn’t mean that much.
DUBNER: One might assume that a guy who offers to buy a soul in this situation, someone who’s posting on a blog asking questions of a skeptic, one might assume that that kind of person would be a skeptic, or a nonbeliever, an atheist, himself, and that the point was to show that, see, it means nothing. But were you surprised to find out that that’s not who he was, that he actually is a, you know, believer who thinks that the soul is real and has value?
HAMILTON: 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 the 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 and 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.
DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this Bruce, when’s the last time you read “Faust?”
HAMILTON: 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: So I’m guessing that you do know that in exchange for his soul, for selling his soul to the devil via Mephistopheles, that Faust received unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. And you, Bruce Hamilton, you only got fifty bucks. Do you think you got shortchanged here?
HAMILTON: Well, let’s just say that fifty was more than anybody else was offering. So if the open market value was zero and I got fifty, I think I scored.
DUBNER: So Caleb mailed Bruce a check for fifty dollars 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?
DUBNER: And what would you make of a God who lets you, a believer, buy the soul of a fellow human being?
CALEB: I don’t know, I don’t know. My wife asked the question, well, do you now have responsibility of 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? And 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: 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.”
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: So a guy named Bruce, in Seattle, sold his soul to a guy named Caleb, in Oklahoma, for fifty bucks. It makes you wonder about the line between what can be bought and sold, and what can’t, or shouldn’t. Now, this line is a fluid line. It shifts from person to person and it especially shifts over time. Markets evolve, for all kinds of reasons, from the political to the moral. Michael Sandel is a political philosopher at Harvard. You may know him from a course he teaches, called “Justice,” which was so popular that it got turned into a public-television show. Sandel’s latest book is called What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.
SANDEL: I ran across an example of a company in Tianjin, China called the Tianjin Apology Company. If you’ve wronged someone, or if you’re on the outs with someone, if you’ve, 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.”
DUBNER: Now how well can that possibly work? Let’s say you’ve deeply wronged me, Professor Sandel. Let’s say that you’ve kicked my puppy on the street, and I get a phone call, or an email, or a telegram from this very lovely apology company saying Professor Michael Sandel wishes to express his regret at kicking your puppy. Is that supposed to work? How is that supposed to work?
SANDEL: Well it’s an interesting question whether it works. I suppose a defender of this could say look have you ever sent a Hallmark card?
DUBNER: Good point. So this is the scenario I want to run past you, Professor Sandel. We talked to a fellow whose name is Caleb who wanted to buy someone’s soul. He offered fifty dollars. And he finally found a seller. So they made the transaction. Paperwork was exchanged; cash was exchanged. Caleb bought Bruce’s soul. I am very curious to know what you, Professor Sandel, think of this kind of transaction.
SANDEL: Well, it strikes me…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. And it was after all the sale of indulgences, which is pretty close. Is there a difference between selling your soul and buying salvation? If you can buy a person’s soul, it’s pretty closely akin to buying salvation, which was, you remember that was the practice that was 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 of history now and Martin Luther nailing to the door of the church we think, oh thank goodness this is the kind of transaction that we no longer are surrounded by. And yet here’s a guy hundreds of years later who on a scale of one at least is trying to reenact it. It’s different. This is 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: Well there are two possible problems and only one of them is moral. I suspect that most people would regard this commercial exchange either as absurd or as abhorrent, but not both. People will view it as absurd if they think that 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 is such a 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 as abhorrent, as transgressive, maybe even as a kind of sin, which brings out part of the general argument that I would make about 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 your status of the soul. You see what I mean?
DUBNER: I do and that’s a very valuable distinction. It makes me curious about you personally, if I offered to buy your soul for fifty dollars what would you say?
SANDEL: Well first I would say why do you want it what do you want to do with it? I would probe to hear what you had in mind.
DUBNER: Let’s say that I feel that…Let’s say that I feel that you are not exercising it properly, that you are not taking seriously enough for my taste and my moral code the responsibility of this 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’m 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 of a matter of taking offense and abhorring this than regarding it as absurd and a matter of indifference. But you know it’s connected, this question, how we would regard such an offer is not unrelated to the debate that we’ve heard about in connection with the Romney campaign. Some say that Governor Romney should renounce a practice of the Mormon Church of retrospective conversions. Elie Wiesel 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 that 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 conversions, 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, and there’s no money trading hands, is this offensive? Or if you don’t believe it’s 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 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 mention but many, many, many hundreds of thousands probably millions, but a lot of Holocaust victims, Holocaust survivors, not just Jews, but I know when I was doing genealogy research on 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. And I found it I have to say both abhorrent and absurd. So even though I pose to you the question about this one fellow who sold his soul for fifty bucks it does sound kind of like a joke or a crank as you put it. But then when we get into something where it’s 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 fifty dollars, should, let’s say, the Mormon Church be required to pay, let’s say we just set a precedent rate of fifty dollars, fifty dollars 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, but suppose the people doing the retrospective baptisms consider that it was so important that they were willing to raise the funds necessary to pay fifty dollars per conversion? What that would be doing is converting the reparation, or the penalty, or the sanction, into 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 opprobrium 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 fifty dollars, would think about the moral limits of the market. It struck me that once you start selling souls it’s a slippery slope …
DUBNER: Let me ask you this, just between you and me now, if I offered you sixty bucks for Bruce’s soul would you resell it to me?
CALEB: I probably would.
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 sometime.
CALEB: Generally, yes.
DUBNER: Do you… Have you considered establishing some kind of a soul market?
CALEB: It might be if I have 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 …
HAMILTON: Uh, no, he’s completely free to do with it whatever he wants. If he finds a way to make a thousand dollars with it I might be disappointed that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to make a thousand dollars 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 comes to you 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?
HAMILTON: 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 just decree them to be true. So I might just say that my soul is kind of like a starfish leg, you know, you chop it off but it grows back. So there it is. Look I have it again! It’s for sale. So I guess to any of your audience, if anybody else wants to come along and give me fifty bucks, I’m here to take it all day long. And maybe this is a nice way to make a living if I could just do it twenty times a day.