A toxic potion worth 1 million dollars, 100 seconds before midnight
3 min read
But only if you can demonstrate your intent to drink it.
The challenge (Kavka)
What will you do at midnight?
An eccentric billionaire places before you a vial of toxin that, if you drink it, will make you painfully ill for a day, but will not threaten your life or have any lasting effects. The billionaire will pay you one million dollars tomorrow morning if, at midnight tonight, you intend to drink the toxin tomorrow afternoon. He emphasizes that you need not drink the toxin to receive the money; in fact, the money will already be in your bank account hours before the time for drinking it arrives, if you succeed. All you have to do is. . . intend at midnight tonight to drink the stuff tomorrow afternoon. You are perfectly free to change your mind after receiving the money and not drink the toxin.
This problem was originally defined in 1983 by Gregory S. Kavka, as a thought experiment (called the toxin puzzle). Kavka had a great impact on contemporary moral and political philosophy (see a summary here).
The proposed answer and its interpretation
The interpretation of the paradox is as follows: can you intend to drink the toxin if you also intend to change your mind at a later time?
In the seminal paper, Kavka details:
“You are asked to form a simple intention to perform an act that is well within your power. This is the kind of thing we all do many times every day. You are provided with an overwhelming incentive for doing so. Yet you cannot do so (or have extreme difficulty doing so) without resorting to exotic tricks involving hypnosis, hired killers, etc. Nor are your difficulties traceable to an uncontrollable fear of the negative consequences of the act in question — you would be perfectly willing to undergo the after-effects of the toxin to earn the million.” p.35 “It reveals that intentions are only partly volitional. One cannot intend whatever one wants to intend any more than one can believe whatever one wants to believe. As our beliefs are constrained by our evidence, so our intentions are constrained by our reasons for action.” p.36
The impact of the paradox: the irrationality of nuclear deterrence
The puzzle has been used to evaluate the prudential and moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence, since it lies entirely on the fact that your enemies believe you have the intention to respond.
Which can be rephrased as such:
It is rational to threaten the enemy of nuclear retaliation, but it is not rational to put that threat in action (because you and your people will get destroyed too) ;
If it is not rational to put a threat in action, the threat itself is not rational.
(as proposed by David Gauthier, another specialist of Hobbes).
The conclusion is that logic is fun, but politicians are not following logic. They’re serious guys after all.
Even younger Trump said so, in the very influential Playboy magazine:
I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process. It’s the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody’s focusing on the nuts and bolts of it. It’s a little like sickness. People don’t believe they’re going to get sick until they do. Nobody wants to talk about it. I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people’s believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons. What bullshit.
Older Trump (now acting President…) decided that the US should further develop tactical nuclear weapons. Which makes the paradox much more likely to occur. Apocalypse now set to start in 100 seconds.
The doomsday clock, available at https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/
Our survival is mostly threatened by nuclear arsenals and climate change. The rest, however painful, will actually look like a bucolic balade in respect.