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Would you Betray your Principles for $1,000,000?

Updated on November 4, 2014

Preparation for a thought experiment

How much do you value your principles?

I had thought of entitling this article “What won't we do for Money?” but it would have been setting up a straw man, since it seems that many in our culture are prepared to betray their principles quite openly on reality shows. Certainly, there is little that suggests that principles are in the ascendancy and much to suggest that they're in decline and valued less than ever. And, sadly, principles have less impact on our behavior than we usually suppose. There is research that could be used to make the argument but I want to try to persuade readers to use a thought experiment to test its truth, and then I suggest the implications on our politics.

A popular story is of the socialite who agrees to a request by a gentleman after he's asked her whether she will sleep with him for a million pounds. After she's agreed, the gentleman then says, “Madam, now we've established what you are, all we have to do is settle on the price.”

The story is variously told with either George Bernard Shaw or Winston Churchill as the gentleman. If the story was updated, the urbane and witty gentleman would offer $30,000,000 or so to tempt the woman into sleeping with him. (The increased amount is to take into account the considerable inflation since the time of the story's origin.) The story is effective as humor as well as offering a keen insight into the value of principles.

A married woman agrees to have sex with another man for $1,000,000.
A married woman agrees to have sex with another man for $1,000,000.

Come to think of it, someone did update the story in 1993 when Adrian Lyne made a movie called Indecent Proposal starring Robert Redford, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson. It's interesting that the director felt that a severely inflated $1,000,000 was still enough to persuade a couple with typical middle class values to put aside their principles so that Demi Moore's character sleeps with the rich Robert Redford character with the approval of her on-screen partner, Woody Harrelson. The offer does have a diabolic twist because it is made to a couple rather than a single individual. In the Churchill/Shaw scenario, there was the advantage that the secret would have been safe between the socialite and the gentleman.

A thought experiment to help test your principles

In the modern equivalent, hiding an infringement of accepted principles from others seems hardly necessary as a part of the enticement to accept the challenge. However let's extend an offer to all would-be players that, should they take the money, the act they perform to earn it and the source of the money will be secret forever.

Women can play the mind experiment by imagining that they're being offered a million bucks to sleep with a guy in the thought experiment. Setting up the equivalent dilemma for guys is more difficult since if a woman accepts the offer, she is not hurting anyone nor is she committing a crime. Money is being offered to test her principles in a fairly effective manner.

To test the guys, let's imagine you’re being offered a million bucks by a historian to lie about and betray the memory of a loved one. The historian values your words because he thinks you will be able to lie about your loved one in a convincing way. You are assured by the wealthy historian that he will never reveal you as the source of his convincing historical lie that will turn his book into a mega hit and cement his reputation.

Certainly anyone able to find objections to the choices offered can set up their own imaginary million dollar test for their principles using the type of guidelines that are both explicit and implicit in the challenges given. There will be no witness to the act other than your own awareness that you've betrayed a principle for a million bucks. And, importantly, no one will be hurt by your act.

Could you be persuaded to ignore your principles if you were offered enough money? If you answered, “Yes”, then, like Churchill or Shaw's socialite, you have established it's only your price that's in question. (Evidence suggests that you will be in the minority if you reject the inducements in favor of honoring your principles!)

Such mind experiments as suggested above do serve a useful purpose and are employed by philosophers and others when testing ideas. And suggesting that we all indulge in mind experiments to test our commitment to our principles is a useful experiment for a number of reasons. In this instance, as well as giving us insight into ourselves, the experiment might enable us to understand how greed and/or the desire for a lot of money will often trump our principles, however much we may claim principles for ourselves and condemn the lack of them in others. It helps us understand why politicians and others in positions where the temptation to sacrifice principle for money is a frequent one are often found wanting. The rarity is the individual who does not give in to temptation, yet the system is designed for the rarest among us rather than our usual only too human politicians and corporate leaders.

Would you betray one of your principles for a million dollars?


Having performed the victimless thought experiment suggested above, I honestly believe

See results


Having performed the victimless thought experiment suggested above, I honestly believe

See results

It is an interesting challenge. My own sense is that any method of government or other enterprise that depends on people behaving honestly should take into account the propensity of humans to sacrifice principles for money and other inducements, however much we may want to believe in the honesty of those we elect. Recognizing that most of us are less honest than we would like to believe or pretend seems sensible rather than cynical, when we turn over great power to others. Being corruptible is part of being human, to expect those who have power and responsibility to be free of corruption seems the height of folly yet we continue to trust those who frequently betray our trust.

The Senators in a democracy are as prone to temptation as those who inhabited the Roman Senate. And the Founding Fathers recognized the potential for power to corrupt, thus the Constitution tries to guard against it. But the inability of many who govern us today to provide ethical leadership might suggest that the root of some of the country's problems lies in accounts that are flush with dollars but showing a definite deficit in ethics.


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    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Yes shampa sadhya, you are right, I think. Our actions often do not reflect the principles we claim to admire. Money does seem to motivate many of our actions - it is sad we don't do better!

    • shampa sadhya profile image

      Shampa Sadhya 

      7 years ago from NEW DELHI, INDIA

      The world is full of corruption and one main reason is there is no genuine principle in the corrupt's life. No matter what the corrupt is small or big.

      People will speak up for principle but at the time of any action principle is usually ignored according to their need.It's better not to trust people's opinion rather put them to a tight situation and then see which way the person follows- principle or money.

    • profile image

      Sunnie Day 

      7 years ago

      I think many would but if someone has been through testing of their spirit and have had some loss, meaning life lessons, when something that goes against the grain of what they believe, they are more likely to not falter hopefully again. They have experience that separation from God and do not want to re-visit that place again. So much of human nature is falling to only get up again. This is just an honest observation. Great men have fallen. Great Hub. Thank you.


    • Jillian Barclay profile image

      Jillian Barclay 

      7 years ago from California, USA

      I am relieved? to see that only half of women would forget their principles, but am troubled that 80% of men would.

      In your poll question, I realize that it is unscientific and is not presented to millions, but it gives me an idea of who we are as people. Sad commentary that the majority can be bought! But, at least it explains much of what I see.

    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Exactly right Credence2, it is because principles are inconvenient that they are so little observed.

      Your comments are always appreciated.

      Thanks, Sembj

    • Credence2 profile image


      7 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      There are no principles if you can put them aside when it is convenient

      Thanks Sembj

    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks Tony: I really think the Founding Fathers did their best but of course they could not anticipate the lobbyists, large corporations and all of the other influences of today.

    • Tony DeLorger profile image

      Tony DeLorger 

      7 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      Brilliant Sem! As you say, it's not whether, but rather who much to tip the scale. The system is not designed to account for human nature, and without provisions for protection from political curruption, governments will remain as they are, corrupt. Fantastic Hub, Thanks.


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