The Freakonomics crew put out a new podcast on selling souls this week, and boy was it a doozie. They featured a Christian from Oklahoma who boldly offered any atheist/skeptic/taker $50 for ownership of his soul. Sure enough, through the comments board on the Freakonomics webpage, he found a skeptic seller, and the two exchanged the money for an official contract of soul ownership. This set off a half-hour discussion around the following questions: can somebody sell their soul? Is it ethical? Is $50 a good bargain for a soul? What’s the market value for such a thing, and what does ownership then imply?
Perhaps the best part of the show is the exchange between host Stephen Dubner and guest Michael Sandel, Harvard professor, author, ethics philosopher, and host of the PBS show Justice. The two go back and forth debating the moral implications of selling one’s soul or even understanding the soul as a commodity, and linking those things to the medieval practice of selling indulgences (yes, our man Luther gets a nod!) and the Morman practice of retrospective conversions (also known as the baptism of the dead). Some excerpts from the interview:
DUBNER: Indeed, and when we look back on that period of history now and Martin Luther nailing to the door of the church we think, oh thank goodness this is the kind of transaction [buying and selling souls & salvation] that we no longer are surrounded by. And yet here’s a guy hundreds of years later who on a scale of one at least is trying to reenact it. It’s different. This is a little bit different. There was not the sale of an indulgence to save the soul in the same way here. This was one person transferring his to another person. I’m curious do you have personally, morally, ethically through the lens through which you see the world have a problem with this transaction?
SANDEL: Well there are two possible problems and only one of them is moral. I suspect that most people would regard this commercial exchange either as absurd or as abhorrent, but not both. People will view it as absurd if they think that there is no such thing as a soul or if they think that the soul is the kind of thing that can’t conceivably be bought and sold in the first place. If you believe that about the soul then you’ll regard this as absurd but not as abhorrent. It would just be based on a mistake. If however you believe that there is such a thing as a soul, and if you believe that bartering in the soul, buying and selling it, it’s a kind of violation of a proper regard for the soul, then you will regard this not as absurd but as abhorrent, as transgressive, maybe even as a kind of sin, which brings out part of the general argument that I would make about markets. In order to decide where markets belong and where they don’t we have to sort out the hard underlying questions about the nature of the goods that money would buy. In this case you have to work out your theology. You have to decide what is the status of the soul, and is there any transgression in trying to buy or sell it? That’s why I say it’s either absurd or abhorrent depending on your underlying view of your status of the soul. You see what I mean?
DUBNER: I do and that’s a very valuable distinction… who am I to challenge the model you just laid out, because I think it’s right on in a lot of ways. but, if you divide it into abhorrent and absurd I’m not sure it can’t be both. Because I’ll tell you my position, my personal position on the Mormon posthumous baptisms, which have been going on for years and years, and have included not just the notable names that you mention but many, many, many hundreds of thousands probably millions, but a lot of Holocaust victims, Holocaust survivors, not just Jews, but I know when I was doing genealogy research on my Jewish family from three or four generations ago I came across this issue of the Mormon Church having posthumously baptized relatives who had died in the Holocaust.
SANDEL: Relatives of yours?
DUBNER: Yes. And I found it I have to say both abhorrent and absurd. So even though I pose to you the question about this one fellow who sold his soul for fifty bucks it does sound kind of like a joke or a crank as you put it. But then when we get into something where it’s systematic where there’s a church in this case that baptizes non-members, posthumously baptizes them and admits them into its church, I have to say I quickly go beyond the moral and I go to the legal. And I think if one fellow named Caleb in Oklahoma City is willing and able to buy the soul of another fellow named Bruce in Seattle for fifty dollars, should, let’s say, the Mormon Church be required to pay, let’s say we just set a precedent rate of fifty dollars, fifty dollars per soul per posthumous baptism? Is there an argument to be made here for reparation pay based on the inherent value of a soul?
SANDEL: Well, there’s a risk in that. You called it reparation pay, Stephen, but suppose the people doing the retrospective baptisms consider that it was so important that they were willing to raise the funds necessary to pay fifty dollars per conversion? What that would be doing is converting the reparation, or the penalty, or the sanction, into a cost of carrying out what to them is a very important religious rite. And that connects to the distinction I make between a fine, which is like a reparation, and a fee, which is a cost of doing business without any moral opprobrium or stigma attached to it. A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable tool. It’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence, and prosperity. It’s a tool that we use, that we put to our purposes. 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.
Dubner, who self identifies as Jewish, and Sandel, a professor of ethics, hit so close to home in this back and forth to a gospel truth. To put the gospel in supply/demand terms, it seems that redemption through the blood of Jesus implies that our souls are of infinite value. Even putting aside the logistical question of selling one’s soul– after all, in Christian theology, the soul is first indebted to God’s enemies– the cross says your soul is worth a lot more than $50. If your soul is worth an infinite value, if it is priceless, than it must therefore be bought by something else of infinite value, a suffering servant’s cancellation of debts.
Sandel’s last comment is particularly insightful: where Dubner suggests instituting a reparation or penalty for the Morman Church’s practice of baptizing the dead, Sandel notes that such a deterrent becomes instead the cost of doing business if the demand is high enough. What was originally an obstacle meant to deter one’s demands becomes another hurdle to jump over toward one’s end in the free market. The cross event shows us that even the most serious deterrents to a loving God: sin, death, murder, rebellion, “badness,” flogging, crucifixion, all these things were worth enduring for the sake of our salvation. It’s funny that here too, as Sandel suggests, most people find such a cost to be either absurd or abhorrent.
Dubner, throughout the interview, innocently expresses an incomplete understanding of Christianity. When the Oklahoma apologist offers $50 for a soul, Dubner expresses surprise that it’s a Christian and not an Atheist making such an offer. But that’s what Christian God does- he buys souls that, for all accounts, aren’t worth saving, not because supply is low, but because His demand is high.