The Red Button

I recently discovered a website called “Will You Press the Button?” where visitors are presented with a big red button. When pressed, a positive outcome – written by another user – would happen, accompanied by a tradeoff.

For example, would you press the button to receive a million dollars, even if a random person in the world died each time you pushed it?

The scenarios range from the whimsical (push the button to have the ability to have any car in the world… only to discover you wouldn’t be able to drive faster than 30mph) to the fantastical (push the button to have unlimited money, but have to listen to Justin Bieber forever) to ones that made me worry about the writer (push the button to be the embodiment of human beauty, but never find true love). 

As I went through a number of them that involved a wholesale reconstruction of one’s life (push the button to live your life as a wizard and go to Hogwarts, but at the cost of everyone you currently know forgetting you ever existed), an idea for my own red-button scenario started to coalesce in my imagination:

Would you press the button if it let you swap places with anyone in the world, but the result would be completely random?

Obviously, for most people, this is not a particularly challenging question to answer: Under no circumstances would I ever push that button, and I hope you feel the same way about your own life too.

However, I still found this example fascinating, because in making my decision, it forced me to consider the lives of all six billion human beings on this planet, and the joys and challenges experienced by each person – something that doesn’t often come to my mind often, on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, it made me realize how ignorant I was about the world. Sure, I deduced that statistically speaking, I’d probably end up in either China or India, but where? How many cities are there even in China? Would I be young or old? What would I do for a living? What memories would I have? Who would be the people I love and care about? How much of the rest of the world would I be aware of?

As I was thinking through this example, I thought about the protesters who had stormed the US Capitol following the 2020 election. I had read and listened to interviews of the rioters and people sympathetic to them, I could not help but wonder if these people, feeling slighted by the world, would press that button – potentially finding themselves without access to the internet, food, or clean water. 

On a daily basis, I grapple with the same pitfalls in my thinking – albeit on a less consequential scale. As life throws challenges my way, my default perspective is simply my own, which ignores that my subjective suffering, no matter how valid, is not the same as objective pain that exists in the world. 

As I continued to ponder this idea, I wondered what the world would look like if such a button did exist, and if we all had one. I wonder whether the people with the most money and power would continue to live their lives the same way, if they knew that at any given time, they could be swapped with a random person who felt like their life wasn’t worth living anymore. And unlike many progressive ideas that are often assailed by accusations that they take us down a slippery slope to some weird communist utopia, I don’t think that would be the case here. After all, most of us aren’t extremely wealthy or powerful, and yet we wouldn’t push that button if offered to us. For some of us, we’re tethered to the relationships that we have with our friends and families. Others are buoyed by the satisfaction they get from their careers or hobbies. And most of us presumably have some inalienable attachment to our identities – the memories of our past, the narrative that defines our present, and our hopes for the future.

Yet, it’s not hard to imagine a significant part of humanity, born into famine, disease or war, having to endure suffering foreign to most of us living in the developed world, would push that button. It’s also not hard to imagine a significant number of people in the developed world, depressed, suicidal, or otherwise suffering from severe mental illness, would push the button, and have another crack at life. 

As these images ran through my mind, I thought about a larger question that I’d been struggling to answer: “What kind of world do I want to live in?” or “What kind of world would I want my kids to live in?” Turn on the news, or scroll through social media these days, and you’ll be flooded with a litany of problems. While the core grievances being featured are usually justified, using the level of outrage at any given moment to try and decide what’s important to you seems problematic, as you never know when the masses will decide an issue is no longer relevant to them, before they move on to “raise awareness” of something else. 

With limited time in a day, and limited days in a lifetime, it can feel overwhelming to decide how to spend the time, energy and/or money you’ve committed to doing social good. How do you justify picking one cause over another? For me, this thought experiment helps alleviate that at least a little, because I believe that doing anything that moves us toward a world where nobody would feel the need to push my red button will stand the test of time.