Power Trip

The 50/50 Murder

A thought experiment on how we measure risk when the fate of the world hangs in the balance

Rob Reid
Published in
11 min readOct 1, 2018

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Illustration: Daniel Zender

This is the first installment of “Privatizing the Apocalypse”, a four-part essay to be published throughout October.

Imagine a brilliant would-be killer arranges the following scenario:

A coin will be flipped. If it’s heads, someone dear to you will die. If it’s tails, nothing happens. The bad guy — who is very bad indeed — will eagerly cheer for heads. But whatever the outcome, he’ll accept the coin’s verdict.

Let’s add that if it’s heads, the death will be 100 percent certain. But it will also be instant, painless, and without warning. And if it’s tails, your loved one will never know about any of this. Nor will you, or anyone. In other words, no PTSD. Nor even the faint, fleeting trauma of a rollercoaster ride.

And so, the coin is flipped, and… huzzah, it comes up tails! The bad guy is pissed. But rules are rules, so your loved one lives.

Years pass. Then one day, some ingenious cops discover all of this. Being geniuses, they’re also able to establish — with full certainty — that the bad guy will never do this again. Indeed, he poses absolutely no threat to society.

Given all this, was a crime committed? And should we lock the bastard up?

If your gut is screaming YES!!! I agree, as would almost anyone. That monster put your bestie, kid, or partner in horrible jeopardy. For fun!

Now, does the nature and severity of the crime change if the odds of death shift away from 50 percent?

I would say yes, if they move a lot. For instance, if the would-be victim squeaks past a 99 percent chance of death, prosecutors would tend to view it as attempted murder. But with a 1 percent chance of death, many would question whether the villain truly wished anyone harm and the charge might be something like reckless endangerment.

Intention and mindset matter more as the odds of a bad outcome plummet. Even imposing a one-in-ten-million chance of death feels criminal, if the bad guy’s praying like a Mega Millions ticket holder for the long shot. Whereas, if he deeply…

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Rob Reid
GEN
Writer for

Podcast host at after-on.com Author (“After On,” “Year Zero,” etc). Founder, of Listen (which created the Rhapsody music service). Tech investor. TED Talk-er.