Soul Possession (Ep. 74)

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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 here.) 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.


I'm pretty surprised that no one's mentioned Hemant Mehta's "I Sold My Soul on eBay," ( He sold his soul in 2006 for $504 - a much better price than I got as a cash-poor high school student out to lunch with her friends: two tacos. We drew up the contract on a napkin.

Incidentally, I've sold my soul multiple times for various low-value trades, etc. Since I don't believe in a soul at all, I'm not sure whether selling it multiple times it is any less ethical than selling it only once. But as I have no idea what the buyers of my, or anyone's, soul intend to do with it (scavenge it to patch up their own souls? mount and display it? resell it - a fix and flip, perhaps?), it's hard to say whether I've actually committed fraud.


If it is illegal to sell a part of your body like an organ, would it then be illegal to sell your soul?


I'm an atheist, but what would make you think that an "earthly" contract would automatically transfer the god given soul to someone else. Also, I do not think atheists should not rip cristains off by selling them something that is not there, but caleb needed to be shown that atheists are willing to sell it. I would not sell my soul for more than a dollar and then probably donate it.

caleb b


I'll let the afterlife sort out the legality of the contract. The whole thing developed simply because the 15-20 people I have personally met that were confessed and serious atheists would not sell me their souls, even though they didn't believe they had one. I never got a good reason as to why.


So I guess I can go ahead and remove this blog and podcast from my economics feed. What a shame - it was a good podcast before all the reposts and metaphysical nonsense.


Is my soul worth more if I'm a virgin? Female? Attractive?

Caleb b

The number one question I get when offering to buy a soul is, "what are you going to do with it." I find this very perplexing. What does it matter? I've sold a few cars before, never once did I ask or care what the person was going to do with it. It's the strangest question. If you don't believe you have a soul, you already think I'm mad for buying something that doesn't exist. So why does it matter in the least what I DO with it?

Donovan Kliegg

It occurred to me that after purchasing the souls you could save them. Sounds like a pretty charitable thing and pretty easy. It's very win-win, non-zero sum, competitive advantage, etc. Atheists that do not value their souls, sell them to Christians who value them. Even better, Christians could charge for taking the unwanted souls off their hands and providing a hedge for the atheists just in case there is a God.


Bruce's deal is different from the Mormon's practice. Bruce sold his willingly because he deemed it non-existence, but the Mormon's retrospective conversions presumably included many who think soul exists, persists after their death*, is important to them and do not wish to be converted to what they would consider a false religion. The former is a fair free trade, the later paramount to stealing.

[*] since they are in this state, let us assume that the right to protect their soul on earth falls onto their church or their descendant, which is the case

Kate H.

I gave my soul away to a good friend in college. I think of it as a contract; I'm fairly sure I signed a quick note to the effect that, "I hereby give my soul to so-and-so." However, I would never have sold my soul for money, and I find the idea of a "soul market" distasteful.

I don't believe in the existence of souls or of gods. I could be wrong; God could exist. But for me it is like the possibility that the sun could stop rising - not really worth worrying about.

Even though I don't believe I or anyone else has a soul, I do take the idea of the soul seriously. In general, I try to take other people's deeply held beliefs seriously. I don't believe in the divinity of Christ, but I would not go into a Christian church and take communion. It would be too disrespectful.

If I understand Caleb's point of view properly, he would take my reluctance to sell my soul as evidence that somewhere deep down, I really do believe that my soul exists or at least might exist. I don't think that's it. I think it's evidence of my lack of belief in the "Free Market." I don't mean that I don't belief that markets exist or don't believe that markets are the most efficient means of generating economic growth. I guess I mean that I believe in the subtitle of Mr. Sandel's book, "The moral limits of markets."

Not everything should be for sale, and not every contract entered into without deception is necessarily ethical. Mr. Dubner was insightful in pointing out that while Caleb and Bruce disagree about the existence of the commodity in question, they share a belief in how a market for that commodity should work. I would go further and say they both have a belief in the intrinsic virtue of free markets which I do not share.


Marc LEon

I'm so glad the Smash ups are over. This is a really good episode.


The smugness of the guy wanting to buy schools just made me red with frustration against such evangelicals. I find it imposible to believe he could find NOBODY in his travels willing to take him up on his silly offer.

Even if his premise holds that there are no atheists in foxholes and that when confronted with selling our soul that somehow we won't back up it up...who is to say that simply signing a piece of paper to this guy is valid!?! It's preposterous to think his almightily god intended souls to be sold in this manner!

As someone who believes there are really no atheist, but just degrees of agnosticism there could be doubt about giving up a soul assuming:

1. A soul exists
2. It could be sold in such a childish manor
3. That if there is a soul it could be sold

Even if a soul existing I hold it could not be sold...but I have no issue taking money from someone so sure his assumptions are the correct and only way to live.



Damian I

So i'm an atheist and i wouldn't have sold my soul to Caleb for 3 reasons:

1) I thought that Caleb was obviously trying to score points and whichever answer you give he wins (on his terms). If you answer 'no' he wins because his faith is stronger than your atheism. If you answer 'yes' because he thinks you've made an incredibly stupid decision. If there's no chance for me to win a game then i don't play.

2) In old American documents, i've heard people referred to as 'souls'. There's a risk that a state may have an old law that used the word soul in this context and if i signed a formal legal document, i may discover i've signed away my house. Given 1) above, i would be afraid of being conned.

3) and most importantly to me. I think Caleb is using the 3 option belief model - you either have a belief in God, OR you're agnostic, OR you're an atheist. With this model Caleb's offer and failure to find sellers for quite a while would indeed suggest that those people who call themselves atheists aren't. However, this model is inadequate. Richard Dawkins uses a 7 factor model in the God Delusion. This ranges from 1 -absolute certainty that God exists, 2 - strongly believe that God exists but can't be certain. Live your life as if God exists, 3 - slight belief that God exists, 4 - absolute agnostic - has no preference either way (Dawkins suggests this is a very small group), 5 slight disbelief in God, 6 strong disbelief in God but not absolutley certain - live your life as though God does not exist & 7) Absolute certainty that God does not exist. Dawkins suggests that many believers would place themselves in category 1 - because this is a FAITH position. However, very few atheists would place themselves in category 7 for the same reason. My atheism is a scientific evidence based position and so the possibility ALWAYS exists that new evidence could be found which leads to a different conclusion. I'm a category 6 atheist. I cannot be absolutley certain that i have no soul. In risk management terms this would be a very low probability risk with an infinitely high impact. My rational economic approach obviously leads to a no sale!