The Greatest Question Ever Asked?

We’ve been doing a lot of media interviews for SuperFreakonomics, and once in a while you get asked a really interesting question.

But I don’t think this one will ever be topped. It comes from a journalist in India:

You state that your book is based on one fundamental assumption about human nature: people respond to incentives. Which is another way of saying that people are basically selfish. Take someone like Jesus Christ. What was his “incentive” to go on the cross?

This question made me think in about 10 directions at once. It also made me want to grab a New Testament and read it in an entirely new way. For starters, here’s an interesting blog post titled “The Economics of Jesus” which begins with this excellent line: “Jesus probably didn’t know much about macroeconomics, even though he was God.”

By the way, I haven’t yet answered this journalist’s question — it’s an e-mail Q&A interview — so I’m eager for your input.


People are inherently selfish, Jesus is not.
There is nothing wrong with selfishness, but nobody is 100% cynical or selfish. We all preform purely alturistic acts (personally, I tend to pick up hitch-hikers).

Some of us are just more altruistic than others. And in Jesus's case, he was being obedient: "That there was anyway this cup could be taken from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will, be done."


This is an easy one. He goes right up to Heaven to be seated at his father's right hand. And, he gets to be the savior of millions of people by giving up his life. I think Jesus had quite the incentive to be crucified. He even knew it was coming and didn't do anything about it.


I think you can go two ways with this, depending on your beliefs and/or his beliefs:

If you're a Christian, then he isn't a person, he was an incarnation of an all-loving, benevolent God; thus, applying the assumption to him is inaccurate.

If you're not a Christian, then his incentive was a chance at being loved and worshipped into eternity. Ego is an incentive too, albeit an intangible one.

Orphan Cow

Eternal Life... or eternal fame... depending on your beliefs.


The exception proves the rule.

Seems like your argument is reinforced by the fact that there has been one exception in the history of the world, and now billions of people worship him.


He had tremendous incentive - the reconciliation of His people, whom He loves.


What better incentive than knowing you were the key component in giving every being the chance at eternal life?!?
It is our human nature to be much more selfish than that--so thank God he didn't create Jesus that way!


Well Jesus's "reason" for going on the cross was ostensibly "love" ("For God so loved the world..."). Love is, by definition, hard to define, but I've always looked at love as the state of mind where you place some other person's interests above your own, thus making it the pinnacle of human emotion - the one emotion where our incentives are purely to prop up someone else. Therefore, Jesus's incentive was taking pain upon himself so that those he loved - all of us - could be saved.

And I'm agnostic, for what it's worth.


Imagine if Jesus didn't die on the cross - God then would have voided the whole "God so loved the world he gave his only son..." line which would have totally docked his altruism-cred. And what is more valuable to an Almighty God then appearing to be self-less? So self-less that He willingly gave up His one Son so that the non-divine sinner-earthlings could enjoy His Kingdom party palace? Forget for a moment that God could just create Jesus II, but to his voters (believers, minions, etc) it gives the illusion of "look this God guy isn't here just to set me on fire! I shall do his do-good bidding with a smile." Shrewd and Machiavellian.

Dolores Quandomeo

This is going to sound cynical to a lot of people, but here's one potential answer to your question: It was good for book sales.


“Jesus probably didn't know much about macroeconomics, even though he was God.”

So there is something that even the omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god couldn't know?

Yeah, that's not a contradiction at all.


There is nothing like a purely altruistic act as "jimi" suggests. If we are helping others, there is some emotional gain for us. We feel good about ourselves or something of that sort. Or in other situations, we find it hard to say "no". So, instead of doing something that is hard for us (saying "no"), we take the easy way out and say "yes".

So, sure Jesus, whether God or Human, had some incentive.


Christ derived utility from serving others. Since that was what he spent the bulk of his life doing, he was able to maximize his utility.

The principle He taught was that by imitating this lifestyle and following His example - everyone would find that same level of utility maximization.

Jim Farmer

Are you kidding me? His incentive was a bunch of Romans and some nails. Not much choice on his part.


there are a few ways this could work, but only if jesus believes he will suffer in corporeal form to be rewarded in immaterial form.

so his expected benefit greatly outweighs the costs of crucifixion.

however, the way it doesn't work in his favor is assuming this is the only way to exist. remember, regardless of whether jesus had rational expectations, his expectations were a life after death.


Jesus was a nice guy, in much the same way that Gandhi was a nice guy. Economics is a study of large masses of people. People like Jesus and Gandhi only come along once in a few hundred years. I think its quite clear that even if Jesus's acts were purely altruistic, and they very well might not be, that says very little about how an average person on the street behaves.


Jesus is probably a fictional character, however, the general question of the origin of altruism is a huge question in evolutionary biology. How can behaviours that have huge costs be favoured by natural selection? It's more puzzling in primates. Although we're generally more altruistic to kin and to others who reciprocate, we also have the capacity for unselfish acts that don't seem to have any payoff. Right now, the best answer seems to be that human evolution isn't driven by natural selection but by cultural processes. In culture, memes, not genes are the units of "selection". A tendency towards generosity is regarded as a good trait thus altruists are favoured -- to a point.

Heavy D

Two thoughts.....

Reminds me of the old tourist slogan, "Come visit Israel! We have the highest resurection rate in the World!"


All organisms operate under this formula before taking any action: perceived benefits - perceived costs > 0


A better counterexample to strong forms of the claim that people respond to incentives is voting. Why do people vote in national elections? No doubt some people are confused, but many (I would think most) voters understand that it's against their narrowly defined self-interest to vote (because of the cost of getting to the polls, etc.). Yet they still vote, out of a sense of moral duty. (I made a similar point in the SETI thread, but it seems relevant again.)


Economists can indeed explain altrusim as a long term selfsih behaviour (you help others so that people end up making a god out of you)

this can explain Jesus's behaviour...he was indeed selfish...

but seriously, Jesus is no good example since too much of the story is religious, not true.

Bill Gates woudl eb a better example.