Would You Accept $200,000 If You Didn't Know Where It Came From?

By Paul Michael on 7 July 2009 31 comments

You know, I hear a lot of people say that frugal people would do anything for dime. Personally, I think that applies more to greedy people, but it got me thinking of a question that combines morals with money. Would you accept $200,000, no strings attached, if you did not know where it came from.

As I was thinking of this question, a classic episode of The Twilight Zone popped into my head. Based on a story by Richard Matheson, it was one of those episodes that creeped me out for days, and I was only a young lad at the time. Here's an outline of the episode "Button, Button" (you'll see why this is apt in a moment):

Norma Lewis is the wife of a down-and-out man named Arthur. One day, they receive a mysterious box with a button on it. Then, a smartly-dressed stranger comes to their door and explains that if they press the button on the box, two things will happen: they will receive $200,000, and someone "whom you don't know" will die.

The episode then concentrates on the enormous decision that Norma Lewis has to make. And, after some back and forth, the climax of the episode (and the moral, we hope) is revealed:

Norma decides to push the button. She does it and her husband looks at her with disgust. They go to bed after seeing nothing happens. The next day the stranger returns, takes back the box, and gives them a briefcase with the $200,000. The Lewises are in shock and ask what will happen next. The stranger ominously replies that the button will be "reprogrammed" and offered to someone else with the same terms and conditions, adding as he focuses on Norma, "I can assure you it will be offered to someone whom you don't know."

It's a classic Twilight Zone scenario, in which greed is rewarded with the ultimate penalty. But what if there wasn't a penalty; at least, no penalty that you were aware of?

If the Lewises has been offered the money and told "accept this money, no questions asked, and you will feel no repercussions" I doubt they would have taken as long to accept the money.

Imagine, especially in these tough financial times, that a stranger offered you the money with absolutely no chance that it would come back to bite you. There would be no mob guys knocking on the door, no prison terms, no danger. The only condition is that you cannot know where the money came from. Would you take it? Would you even hesitate?

The problem here is that although the money could come from a generous benefactor, it could also be the result of something terrible -- perhaps the slave labor of children, war profiteering, drugs, prostitution or something worse.

And yet, it's not so far-fetched to think that we all do this, every day, on a much smaller scale. When we choose the $59 Nike shoes, do we think about the way in which they were made? When we demand lower prices for clothing and toys, do we care about the conditions that exist in order to make those deals possible? When we buy cheap eggs, do we care about the factory-farming hell that created them? Food, electronics, cars, beverages, everything we touch these days has a moral price attached to it.

So, think about that question again; would you take the $200,000? At what point would a no become a yes? At what point would your conscience kick-in? And when is a bargain something that has a much higher cost associated with it? Over to you...


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Guest's picture

You can't even retire with $200K... why bother...

Guest's picture

Given your scenario, I don't think anybody stands to benefit from you turning down the offer. It's not like they are going to return the money to its rightful owners (assuming it is dirty) if you decline. At that point, might as well take it, especially since there's an equal chance that the money is clean.

As a side note on "slave labor" that is rampant in some developing parts of the world, instead of getting on my high horse and give morality lectures, I just ask myself: would I rather see them work in a Nike factory for $1 a day or see them sit on the street and starve to death? Just because a dollar can't buy you jack in the USA, doesn't mean it can't feed a family in Vietnam. I'm by no means advocating child labor or any such thing, but when your alternatives don't exist, people have the right to find ways to make a living.

Guest's picture

The twilight zone scenario seems pretty different from the one you offered. In the first example the $200,000 is coming from a result of her pushing that button, which was basically murdering a person for 200 grand.

But taking $200,000, not knowing anything? Ignorance is bliss, so yes, I would take it.

Will Chen's picture

That reminds me of my favorite scene from the last Batman movie.  =)

Guest's picture

Yeah, except for the everyone is going to die anyways if noone pushes the button part.

Guest's picture

Was this article written with any awareness that said episode is actually about to come out as a movie later this year starring Cameron Diaz and directed by Richard Kelly, writer/director of Donnie Darko?

Guest's picture
Chris M

I'd take the money. At this point, however the money was made, the damage has been done. Now, where it came from matters much less than where it is going. I can take it and use it to further good in the world-- donating to good causes, etc.

We can't change the past, but we can change the future. Use the money to change the future for good.

Guest's picture

Take the money and enjoy.

Does not matter how it came into being there. A blessing it is and a blessing you will make it. You will spend it on something because that is human nature with something you get free. You may put it in the bank to hold and gain interest but someone will spend it sometime.

Guest's picture

I would take it and do evil things
with it just so my mind could be at ease.

Guest's picture

The part about $59 Nike shoes is called externalized cost. Basically there is more to the cost of the shoe than the $59 you're about to play for it at the sporting goods store. It is called externalized cost. It's abundant everywhere. There is no way to stop it, or at least not easily. Definitely not without government intervention. I recommend reading the The Undercover Economist for more on this subject.

Guest's picture

I think that I would take the money and keep half for me and my husband, take $50,000 and give to my family, and the last $50,000 I would give it to charity. I think what goes around comes around and I am a firm believer in karma, so if I were to recieve such a great gift I would want to pay the great gift forward!!

Guest's picture

If it it comes at no cost to anyone else, yes. It's a lot like the lottery, right?

Guest's picture

I would take it in a heartbeat. They could probably tell me it's from illicit source and I'd still take it. The damage is done, and I'd rather the money be in my hands than in someone elses.

Paul Michael's picture

you wouldn't know. What if it did come at a cost to someone else? What if the money had been stolen from a charity or something like that? The point is, would you take money if you didn't know where it had come from? And no, I had no idea of the upcoming movie, but I will certainly watch that one. Donnie Darko was awesome and weird.

Guest's picture

I wouldn't take any amount of money in exchange for the life of another person. Nor stolen from a charity; nor a dope dealer, nor a rich person for that matter. If it was a sweepstakes I entered that brought no harm to anyone, then bring it on.

I want to earn money.

Guest's picture

Would you pick up that $5 bill on the sidewalk that you come upon as you're walking your dog? The street/sidewalk is deserted so there isn't anyone else around who might have dropped that fiver. How about a $20-bill? $100-bill?

Did you "earn" that money?

Guest's picture

Would I take it?? Hell, yeah!

Guest's picture

Given the scenario, I guess I would never accept the money if I didn't know the source. The reason is - I can't trust a person giving $200,000 for no reason. So it is more for selfish reason than ethical ones, that I would turn it down.
And in case I knew the source, then I would never accept some which has come from unethical source.

Guest's picture

Most probably not, but I would be tempted... very much so.

Guest's picture

As convoluted as the law is today, I'd refuse the money. Just look at all the child custody and adoption cases or product liability cases out there--it's doubtful anyone could guarantee that there won't be any reprecussions.

A little out of bounds from the scenario Paul paints, but representative of the world we live in nonetheless.

Guest's picture

HELL YES!!! That would pay off the house, fix everything up, pay all back bills, etc.

Guest's picture
Leo Fair

You do realize that money circulates, right? There's a good chance the money you earn has been in the hands of someone disreputable. If nothing negative happens as a result of taking the money, and you really never know where it came from, I don't see how this money is different from any other money.

I understand where you're coming from with the immoral working conditions example, but the analogy does not work for me with the no strings and no knowledge of where it came from conditions. It is impossible to know the full repercussions of any action you take or don't take. Say you decide to decline the money and the next person who takes the stranger up on his offer uses it to start a thriving drug cartel in a third-world country, was refusing the money the right thing to do, then? You're not saving anyone by refusing absolutely no-strings cash; you've just found a self-righteous way to shirk the responsibility of using that money in a positive way.

There's no excuse for supporting conditions you find morally wrong or acting in a way that is willfully ignorant, but if there is absolutely no way to find out where the money came from and nothing negative will happen to someone else as a result of taking the cash, then what on earth makes it any different than collecting any other money?

Guest's picture

don't say no to money....

Guest's picture

This plot is quite similar to the classic story "The Monkey's Paw," by W.W. Jacobs. Creepy!

Guest's picture
Nigel Watson

no repercussions - no knowing its provenance - if it was 'clean' cash, then you simply pay it forward with new eleemosynary deeds - if it was formerly 'dirty' dollars, then use it to redress the dark deeds of its past - no way to lose

Just so you know, I live quite comfortably on $1,000 a month (Social), but that 200 grand would go much further if spent on microloans ($100 to start a bakery in Mali), filing a pro bono appeal ($350) on behalf of a 13-year old who's request for a judicial bypass to get an abortion has been denied by an activist judge who is trying to "save the babies," hiring a few folks to bang on a few of the right doors (or phone numbers) and raise funds to place one of Nick Negroponte's $199 laptops in the hands of every inner-city kid in the country, or rent a belly-up, big box store, put up rent-free stalls for folks newly unemployed and want to try their own business; they pay a small % of their profit.

You can do a lot with $200K. And who gives a hang if it came from a good family, or not. NjW

Guest's picture

I think Jabulani Leffall linked to this. He's one of the wackier people on your site. But he wrote a similar post recntly about not being able to say what you'd do until you are in a dire situation. I think in another post he jokingly said he'd except a check no matter where it came from but that's neither here nor there.

Character is who you are when no one is watching. But I guess the main Catch 22 is that if you're starving or on the verge of being homeless and destitute, you can't eat character and character can't keep you warm.

We'd also be foolish to think that we don't even unwittingly subsidize bannana republics in other places and sweat shops with consumer purchases. It all comes down to moral relativism because we all justify certain decisions for our own greater good.

Guest's picture

All money is legal even if it's gotten illegally.

Guest's picture

Of course, we should all take the money since there's no button to push and no repercussions. I'd be delighted to accept such a gift from the universe as I always welcome abundance in its many forms, money included.

If we get moralistic about money, then we'd accept none. I'd venture to say that all the money in the world has touched something negative at some point in time. If you work for a large corporation and accept your paycheck, then you can rest assured that your money came from the exploitation of someone or something (maybe even YOU). Even if you're freelance or work for a small company, do you really think all your clients only earn their money through doing good? Since when has doing good been terribly profitable anyway? To even be concerned with the source of the money is ridiculous. If it comes into your life in such a way that you yourself are not causing harm, then it is a gift from the universe. What you do with the money will determine if it's "good" or "bad".

Guest's picture

I'd guess that at LEAST 95% of people would take the money and that's my safe guess. The number is probably more like 99%. Who cares where the money came from?

Guest's picture

I wouldn't take the money even if me and my family needed it. It's not an ethical choice.. i mean if someone stole 1 million bucks walked two blocks down and threw it at you would you take it? What if someone was murdered for it? etc. It isn't right to take it.. you would feel guilty for the rest of your life and if someone was murdered for it, it would basically be like you helped kill them since you accepted the cash..

Guest's picture

Digital publishing is absolutely in synch with the author and a person should always check the source before acceptance in a world, battered by frauds