The middle ground between light and shadow

Here is a thought experiment of the a demon creeps into your loneliest loneliness variety. Imagine this:

At a moment in time, everyone in the world is given this solitary choice: They must choose one person in the world, and that person will die immediately. Everyone knows that everyone has this choice and this power. Each may reflect on their choice for a while, but nobody gets to confer or coordinate.

creeping in to your loneliest lonelinessWhat would the world’s population be alive after such a thing? If this were a homily, the answer would be zero. Human extinction, because everyone is hated by someone!

Probably not zero, though, because there would be many redundant choices. I don’t have a strong hunch about percentages, because it depends on the actual network structure of human enmity, but I’d guess that there would be more survivors than victims.

The thought experiment is not intended to prompt day dreaming about the death of your worst enemy, although it could be taken that way. However, you would need to ask yourself whether only your worst enemy is due for dying. Suppose you have a close second who you wish dead almost as strongly, and suppose further that your first choice is such a notable villain that you are confident that some other people would choose them anyway. You might think it best, then, to will the demise of your second-worst enemy. Repeat as necessary to get to your third-worst enemy, and so on.1

There is also a moral issue raised here. One might argue that the only moral choice would be yourself, because condemning another to death is wrong.2 This seems wrong to me.

Suppose that nobody else would choose you, and also suppose that you could confidently pick someone (call them X) who will be selected by at least one other person. Picking X instead of yourself would then result in one fewer death than picking yourself. Dying to save others might be obligatory or at least meritorious, but that’s not an option here. Neither is this trading some lives against others, as in trolley problems. The only difference in the set of people who would die if you picked yourself would be that it would be one larger and that it would include you. So choosing yourself is a bad choice.3

I’m not sure any of that’s terribly profound, but that’s OK for a blog post. Or a Twilight Zone episode.4


  1. If too many reflect in this way, then maybe your prima facie first choice would not be picked at all. There’s a problem of coordination here, although I haven’t worked out the payoff matrix to see if it’s a prisoners dilemma.
  2. One might try to break the thought experiment by refusing to choose anyone. The easiest thing is to say you can’t do that, but that’s unsatisfying. Say instead that your subjective experience of the moment stretches out indefinitely until you make your choice. It is plausible to think that nobody could hold out forever. Eventually, despairing of their endless moment, they ask for death. Or at least a death.
  3. Unless you were coincidentally going to euthanize yourself anyway. Then the scenario is a real time saver.
  4. I could have said Black Mirror here, but it wouldn’t make sense of the post’s title. And I’ve never really gotten into Black Mirror.

3 thoughts on “The middle ground between light and shadow”

  1. Sure, why not? Even if you pick someone by name, there are probably other people with the same name.
    The real question is what kinds of facts you can include in the description. Can you pick whichever person picks you? There might not be one and there might be many, so what then?

    Can you make a conditional choice like “I pick the person who picks me if there is one, a randomly selected person who picks me if there are many, or a randomly selected person I don’t know if nobody picks me”?

    Since it’s a thought experiment, the parameters should be set in whatever way would have the most interesting results. I’m open to suggestions.

  2. What interests me is the breakdown of people who say they would use this power to rid the world of a personal enemy, those who would use it to rid the world of an egregiously bad famous person (e.g. an evil dictator or a drug lord or what have you). Maybe there’s even a third category that would conscientiously object but would choose an egregiously bad famous person on the grounds that probably that person will be chosen anyway so they’re not making things any worse by picking that person.

    Also: if there was some kind of recursion to the thing — “your declared target does NOT die if you yourself are killed by someone else”, there’s almost a game mechanic in there. Maybe it’s a classic murder mystery but /everyone/ has a target and you are trying to manipulate things into chains in such a way that the person you want dead ends up dead (or maybe that the person you’ve been assigned to protect ends up alive). Maybe even add in a time travel mechanic and things can go truly bananas. Prevent the Kennedy assassination by going back in time and preemptively killing the shooter, except the conspiracy can go back earlier and preemptively kill the shooter’s killer, unless you go back earlier than that, and so on.

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