Soul Possession: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: killthebird)

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.”

We also talk a bit about the nature of the soul itself with Mary Roach, the author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.


ryan

Is the $50 offer still good? I could use some money in exchange for my fictional soul.

caleb b

My soul budget has been depleted. Besides, now that I have some extra souls, my demand has decreased. You CAN donate your soul to soulbuyer908@gmail.com. I'll send over the form and you can give your soul to me if you're looking for a home for it.

Charlotte

I either bought someone else's soul or sold my own in high school, I don't remember which. Hasn't done any harm, either way.

fraac

I imagine a lot of people would have an ethical problem with accepting money for something they don't believe can be sold, either because it doesn't exist or for some other reason.

caleb b

I've heard this many times, but don't think that applies. I am the buyer and I fully recognize that you don't believe you have a soul. I'm buying the possibility that you do.

I could buy the mineral rights to your home believing you have gold under your house. You tell me, "I don't think there is any gold under my house." Then I say, "sure, there might not be, but I would like to buy the mineral rights all the same." There is nothing unethical about that contract.

Pshrnk

What if they do have a soul and it belongs to God or an ex-spouse?

Jaime

I was the first person to sell their soul online. When Ebay first came out I was using it frequently. Apparently they didn't have a rule about intangibles at the time, or it slipped through. I had heard of a couple small news stories about this, but I'm not sure I have any way to prove it.

josh

Would Caleb trade souls with me? I'm serious in asking the question. I'm interested in a soul swap

caleb b

@josh

No, I believe that I have a soul, so I wouldn't trade souls. But I did trade my "irresistible charm" to someone for their soul. We'll see how the after-life sorts that one out.

David Stigant

What would you consider in trade for Bruce's soul? Also, why did you feel that someone else's soul would be worth $50 to you?

Dave Lee

The premise is flawed. Atheists deny the existence of deities, but they don't necessary claim not to have souls.

Mark

Kembrew McLeod has been selling his soul in various forms since the early 90's, and is arguably responsible for eBay creating the policy about no intangible objects.
http://kembrew.com/prank/selling-my-soul/
The people who have gone out to sell their soul definitely have a different viewpoint from those who are out trying to find a soul to buy.

paul o.

50 bucks? If I sell my soul to the devil, I can become an amazing bluesman. I'd rather wait for a bigger and better deal.

Jacob

My only problem with this podcast was the discussion about the Mormon after death baptisms. They were referred to multiple times as conversions, but I don't think even the Mormons believe that. I do think the absurd/abhorrent thought works very well for the the practice. As I understand it, Mormons do the baptisms to give the dead souls the opportunity to convert, or rather in case the dead person has already converted to Mormonism, but needs the physical rite in order to proceed. If the dead person doesn't want to be Mormon, then I think even Mormons agree, the rite is worthless. It means no more than me saying in this post that the whole world is now Buddhist. Unless you believe the Mormons have the power, AND are worried about dead people converting to Mormonism, there is nothing abhorrent about it, only absurdity. The way I view it, is if they are possibly right, then sure, I won't turn down any good will you might want to throw my way.

I also thought the idea of them paying money in order to "convert" souls is funny. Do you, Stephen, own the souls of your ancestors? Who would the Mormons pay their reparations to in order to buy these souls?

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Donovan Kliegg

In 1995 at a Burning Man fund raiser I traded my soul for a share in Hell Corporation. Since Hell Co is a dominant player in the acquisition of intangible resources I thought it prudent to get a piece of Hell rather than let them have my soul for nothing. It's performance was very good leading up to the recession. However, there is a dip (temporary) because the 99% are acting a bit more virtuous than usual.

I'm not entirely stupid though. As a hedging strategy I also acquired a "Get Out Of Hell Free" card from a teutonic shaman.

Bob

Stephen,

Thanks to you and the Freakonomics team for your thought-provoking podcasts!

As a believing Mormon, I wanted to clarify/contextualize the Mormon practice of posthumous/proxy baptisms, which has been somewhat misunderstood by the media at large. The basic idea is this: We believe that in the afterlife, people are free to choose to join a different religion, if they wish (but only if they wish). Now, suppose you are dead and you decide that Mormonism really sounds like a good idea after all, and you decide to sign up. Well, in order to be a Mormon, you need to be baptized by someone with proper authority in the Mormon church. Unfortunately, being dead, you can't really be baptized since you no longer have a physical body. That's where posthumous/proxy baptisms come in. Basically, someone in the Mormon Church (in this life) will perform a proxy baptism in your stead. Then, in the afterlife, you can choose to accept or reject that ceremony at your discretion. Now, since we Mormons in this life have no idea who will decide to accept or reject the baptism in the hereafter, we perform proxy baptisms for the names of as many of our deceased ancestors as we can find via genealogical research. We want all of them to have the chance to accept or reject.

That, I think, is the distinction I wanted to make. Names of people who are baptized by proxy are NOT added to the membership records of the LDS church, nor are they considered to have been "converted" to Mormonism. Rather, we believe that they now have the chance to accept or reject Mormonism in the afterlife, just as everyone has that same chance here. If they say "No thanks" to the offer, then they continue on as is.

Now, there is certainly room for discussion about how some people might view this practice as falling into the absurd or abhorrent categories outlined by Prof. Sandel, but I thought it'd be helpful to provide a more accurate clarification of what the practice actually entails and what we believe. With that clarification, I think the practice is much less like "buying souls" than depicted in the podcast.

Keep up the great work!

Bob

PS - For more official info on Mormon proxy baptisms, see
http://mormon.org/faq/#Baptism|question=/faq/proxy-baptisms/
http://mormon.org/faq/#Baptism|question=/faq/baptism-for-the-dead/

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Alex

I guess this guy hasn't heard of Hemant Mehta.

Nicole

I loved this podcast! It was both humorous and theoretical. With all these soul sales occurring, the devil won't have anyone left to tempt. ;-) Keep up the good job, Freakonomics!

Jena

This installment of Freakonomics really caught my attention, because throughout the podcast I expected the topic of Soul X Change to be discussed. I was quite disappointed that the original online "stock market" for the buying and selling of souls wasn't even mentioned!

When I was in middle school, 2000-2001, I introduced my peers to a highly addicting and morally questionable website known then as www.soulxchange.com. Of course, there is nothing more exciting to a 13 year-old than the idea of owning the soul of your friends, or better yet, having the most highly valued soul in 7th grade! (This forum thread captures the excitement about buying and selling souls: http://forums.winamp.com/archive/index.php/t-46936.html)

This website has reinvented itself many times under a variety of URLS including soulxchange.net and most recently soulxchange.us. Here is the description of Soul X Change from it's launch:

"World's First Marketplace For Direct Buying and Selling of Souls

SoulXchange.com, the first and only online marketplace for the sale and purchase of human souls, launches today at www.soulXchange.com. Citing advantages over the bait and bribe method of
soul acquisition that has been employed since the beginning of time, Lucifer referred to SoulXChange as “launching the underworld into the new age and reinventing the war between good and evil.” “SoulXChange empowers the aggregation of not only more souls but higher quality souls at a higher
ROI. This gives us a first-mover advantage over Heaven and what’s his name.”

The site introduces a revolutionary new technique for establishing soul valuations. News and user-contributed stories help the site assess the values of numerous soul attributes, ranging from profession to marital status, which in turn determine the value of souls. Users register their souls and based on
the evaluation of that soul are assigned “SoulBucks.” SoulBucks are used to purchase the souls of other users. Similar to the stock market, the logic is to buy low and sell high. Individuals with the top portfolios will have their soul returned.

“SoulXchange is a unique synergy of frictionless user-centric e-processes and pure evil incarnate,” adds Lucifer. SoulXchange does not mark Lucifer’s first foray into the web. His early invention of the banner ad and the term “viral” have permanently changed the internet world.
SoulXchange intends to follow this path of invention and revolutionary transformation.
“Beware, all ye who enter,” said Lucifer, upon closing his announcement. SoulXchange is built on Microsoft technology, as per an agreement with Mr. Bill Gates made in the late 70's." -Dec. 15, 2000
(taken from: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DebunkCreation/message/13207)

Given the topic of this podcast, I thought it very important to enlighten listeners about the original Stock Market for Souls! You can visit www.soulxchange.us for a look at the modern day Soul X Change.

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Daniel

Happy to exchange my imaginary soul for $50.