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In Le père Goriot, Balzac has the main character, Rastignac, ask his friend Bianchon whether he would agree to the killing of a Chinese Mandarin in far-away China if this would yield Bianchon a great fortune. After some joking, Bianchon answers negatively.1 For Rastignac, this thought experiment is connected to a practical dilemma: he is deliberating whether to agree that a man he has never seen, and who has done Rastignac no harm, should be killed so that he, Rastignac, may enjoy the wealth that the man's sister, who loves Rastignac, will inherit.

I believe that this exchange in Balzac's Le père Goriot encapsulates an important and interesting thought experiment that has been unjustly neglected in the philosophical literature. In this paper I will present it in a slightly adapted way (which helps abstract it from the specific details of Balzac's novel), and argue that it has disturbing implications for existentialist thought. I will show that although the thought experiment coheres with many existentialist themes, it also undermines a central existentialist notion. Section I presents the thought experiment. Section II adds clarifications and answers some questions and objections. Section III relates the thought experiment to existentialist thought; it presents the existentialist themes that the thought experiment supports and exemplifies, but also shows how it destabilizes a major existentialist theme.

I

We all want some things very badly. Some of us very much want to get married, or to marry this or that person. Others want a divorce. Some [End Page 89] pray for children. Others want the children to get out of the house. Some want a job, or a better job with more prestige and salary. Others want to be healthy, or loved, or much more intelligent, or famous, or beautiful, or thin, or sexually attractive. Many want to be rich, and very many to be young again. There are also many other things that you and I, perhaps secretly, very much want, but are very unlikely to ever attain.

Now suppose a magician approaches you, and suggests that he will give you that thing you so much want. Tomorrow morning you will wake up young, or beautiful, or more intelligent, or rich, or whatever. You can have what you want. In return, the only thing you have to do is to agree to something. Tonight, after you go to bed, after you say "good night" to everyone and put your head on the pillow, after you close your eyes and start breathing slowly, when you are all alone, you will have to inwardly consent that someone whom you do not know, far away, will die. That is the only thing you have to do. Nothing else is required, certainly nothing physical. Once you have done that, your part of the deal is accomplished. And you will be immediately rewarded, receiving what you have wanted so much.

Let me tell you more about the conditions of this "deal." First, the nationality of that anonymous person who will die is not important, but he should belong to a national group you have nothing for or against, about which you know very little, and of which you have never met any members.2 Nor is it likely that you ever will. You have heard that in some far away land there are people of that nationality, and perhaps you know more or less what the climate there is like, but not much more. And even that information is not necessary.

This person we are discussing has no family. Hence, no spouse will be widowed, no children will be orphaned, and no parents will lament his death. Nor does he have any siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, or friends who will miss him when he is gone. Nor is he particularly liked by his co-workers. He will be forgotten soon after he dies. The person whose fate you have to decide has no special talents that will be lost to the world. He is not about to discover a new medicine that would save many lives, or write a great novel that would change perceptions or give joy. Like...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 89-96
Launched on MUSE
2005-04-26
Open Access
No
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