The Story of Discourse 12: Newcomb’s Boxes

Newcomb is probably the most charming bachelor you have ever met. As a boyfriend one couldn’t ask for much more, he is courteous, good looking, and seems to always know what you want when you want it. It is this last skill that really sets him apart. His ability to intuit what you want, need, or will do is uncanny. The only thing that explains his very long bachelorhood are two boxes. Newcomb wants to get married, but he has a rather strange way of asking. For each of his girlfriends, when the time is right, and Newcomb always knows when the time is right, he gets down on his knee and asks her to marry him. Instead of producing a single ring box, he produces two. One is red, the other purple. He tells his girlfriend that the red one contains a ring worth $1,000. On the other hand, the purple box contains a ring worth $100,000 or nothing. He explains to his girlfriend that she can either decide to take both boxes or just the purple one. The contents of the purple box is decided by whether he thinks she will take both boxes or just the purple box. Earlier that day if Newcomb believed that his girlfriend would just take the purple box, he fills it with the $100,000 ring. However if he thought she would take both ring boxes, he left the purple box empty without a ring. This kind of proposal has come to be known as the Newcomb proposal. Newcomb tells people that he sincerely wants to get married, but must propose in this very odd way. Some have accused him of bad faith on this, claiming that secretly he desires to avoid marriage and this is his way of doing it.

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