Nigerian Scammers and Philosophical Muggers
A short story
Anton receives an email from an individual who identifies himself as the now-deposed Prince of Nigeria. In his message, the individual informs Anton that he has $500 million in a Nigerian bank account which he wants to transfer to the US where he now resides, and for reasons unspecified, he chose Anton as a business partner of sorts in this endeavor. All Anton needs to do is to wire him $50 to cover processing and transfer fees. Presumably to encourage Anton’s cooperation, the individual promises to send Anton $50 million as reward once the transfer is done.
Surely, Anton is no fool. He sees that the proposal has all the telltale signs of an internet scam. Why can’t someone who has a fortune in an overseas bank afford to pay a petty transfer fee? Why should a former prince, who presumably has many international connections, choose Anton to help him out, even if he needed help in the first place? And why can’t he ask the transferring agency or bank to waive the fees or deduct them from the sum to be transferred? These questions appear to Anton to have no sensible answers.
Yet, Anton, a Humean wise man, proportions the strength of his conviction to the available evidence. He also prides himself on practicing epistemic humility. Knowing the finite nature and fallibility of his sensory and rational faculties, Anton believes that there could be only so much and only defeasible evidence against an empirical proposition. Thus, Anton never assigns a proposition zero probability however implausible or contrary to evidence the proposition may appear, save perhaps, obvious contradictions.
So, Anton reasons that although the individual who sent the email is almost certainly a scammer, there is a small but non-zero probability that he indeed is a now-deposed Nigerian prince who wants to give Anton $50 million.
Anton is also handy with numbers, and he calculates that if the said probability is greater than one in a million, then the expected economic utility of wiring the money on his end would be positive. Indeed, Anton, who occasionally plays the lottery, takes odds that are a lot worse than that.
Still, a student of epistemic humility to even the meta level, Anton decides to consult his wife Alice, who thinks that it would be foolish to wire $50 to this individual because the odds of him telling the truth are lower than one in a million. Trusting Alice’s subjective assessment of probabilities, but not wanting to destroy any bridges, Anton writes back to the alleged now-deposed prince and politely declines his proposal. To his surprise, however, Anton receives an updated proposal in response: Indeed, the individual hadn’t been completely honest with Anton. The sum wasn’t $500 million, but $10 billion, which he is now willing to split in half with Anton, if only Anton wires a measly $5 dollars.
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Perhaps Alice is right and the odds of the deal not being a scam are lower than one in a million, but are they also lower than one in a billion? Anton isn’t sure but Alice thinks so. She concedes that originally, she would not have thought that the odds were so low. However, the terms of the new proposal further lowered her credence. After all, who has $10 billion lying around in a Nigerian bank account? This would be extremely unlikely, even if the individual were really a now-deposed prince. The higher the proposed reward is, the higher the probability of it being a scam gets, Alice thinks, especially given the alleged now-deposed Nigerian prince’s admission of prior dishonesty towards Anton.
Plus, it is not even clear to Alice that they should want $5 billion. Are they sure that more money always means a better life? Isn’t it more likely that increased prosperity stops adding value to someone’s life after a certain amount, or even starts detracting from it? Surely, this is what statistics show about people with modest means winning the lottery or inheriting large sums. The common outcome in such cases is divorce, depression and addiction.
Not being able to dispute Alice’s fine points, Anton decides to take a walk around the block and get some fresh air. Absorbed in his thoughts, he bumps into a stranger in a vacant alley. “Do not be alarmed” says the stranger who looks like a mugger with an odd twinkle in his eye, “I have a proposal for you.” Just as Anton mutters, “Here we go again…” the stranger continues, “Give me all the cash in your wallet now, and I will reward you greatly. Turn me down, and we will both walk away, losing nothing.”
Anton, a prudent individual in a world where cash is seldom needed, knows that he has only a single 5-dollar bill in his wallet, and decides to ask, mostly out of curiosity, what this “great reward” would be. The stranger says, “It’s the best possible life, all things considered, for you and for everyone you care for.”
Anton is puzzled about what exactly that means. Sensing this from Anton’s facial expression, the stranger clarifies: “By ‘the best life possible, all things considered’ I don’t mean infinite wealth, perfect health, immortality, constant experience of the highest quality pleasures, or even perfect happiness, for these things could detract from the value of a life. All I promise is the best life one can possibly have, whatever that is.”
Holding his wallet in one hand, grasping Lincoln’s familiar likeness with the other, Anton hesitates. By no means has Anton had a bad life so far. But he wouldn’t call it “the best possible life, all things considered” either. What is more, he can’t know for sure what the future has in store for him. Perhaps everything will be downhill for him from now on. And what about those he cares for? Doesn’t statistics say that some of them will be wrecked by sadness, crippled by accidents, tortured by illnesses, wounded by untimely losses? He can’t be sure what exactly “the best life possible, all things considered” would consist of, but he is almost certain that it would preclude all those horrible things. At a cost of 5 dollars, this deal sounds like a bargain, however unlikely the stranger may be to keep his promise.
Still, Anton can’t help but wonder whether it is wise to sign up for some stranger’s nebulous ideal of a life. What if this stranger is telling the truth that he can grant him what the stranger considers the best life possible, but that would be something horrible from Anton’s point of view? Perhaps the stranger is a masochist and the best life possible for him would be a life of misery for Anton. Anton’s epistemic humility prevents him from assigning zero probability to that possibility.
Just as Anton is thinking that too much is left uncertain, and too much is at risk, a second stranger walks up to him from behind and interjects: “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with this gentleman here. I have an alternative proposal: Don’t give him all the cash in your wallet, and I will reward you and all those you love with the best possible life in the same sense he meant in his proposal. Turn me down, and we both walk away, losing nothing.”
At this point Anton starts to feel a bit disoriented. Thanks to the proposal of the second stranger, now every reason he has for giving the first stranger his $5 bill is also a reason for not giving him his $5 bill. Likewise, every reason he has for refraining from giving him his $5 bill is also a reason to give him the bill. Since the only difference in terms of possible outcomes appears to be whether he gives away or keeps his $5, he decides to hold onto it.
But then it occurs to him that nothing in this situation hinges on whether any promises were made or not. For all he knows, there could be a third stranger lurking in the shadows of the alley or watching from the heavens, intending to take some unknown action that will affect Anton and those he loves in an unknown way in response to whatever Anton decides to do or not to do.
Weighed down heavily by the burden of practicing epistemic humility in a complicated world, Anton doesn’t know what to do, except say farewell to both strangers, turn around and walk home. There, he hopes, Alice will be able to tell him whether he chose wisely or not.
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Burkay T. Ozturk on Daily Philosophy:
Cover image by Alexander Grey on Unsplash.