The Box – Philosophical and Psychological Thriller

Studying ethics? Why not spend an evening watching the screwed up psychological thriller ‘The Box‘ starring Cameron Diaz?

This tense movie has an intriguing ethical premise.  ‘The Box’ definitely gets you thinking on a philosophical level. It is based on the short story ‘Button-Button‘ by Richard Matheson.

The Box

Set in 1976, ‘The Box’ is delivered to happily married couple Norma (a teacher with a deformed foot) and Arthur (who works for NASA) on their doorstep. They open the box to find nothing but a red button mounted on a black wooden box, and have no idea what it is for or who it is from.

Later, Mr Steward, a man who appears to have had half of his face burned off, appears at the door and Norma invites him in. He tells her that if she presses the button, someone somewhere who you don’t know, will die. A second consequence, however, would be that her and her husband receive £1 million in cash, thus solving all of their money problems. A classic ethical dilemma.

Meanwhile, Norma teaches English at a local private school, where they are studying the play “No Exit” by Satre. There is a scene where one of her students inappropriately asks what’s wrong with her foot, and asks for her to show it to the students. She gives in and does so, but he humiliates her. This is relevant to Satre’s philosophy, because it is evidence of hiding behind a ‘mask as a cloak to escape the radical freedom that we are condemned to.  (

*Spoiler Alert – The Box* Do they Press the Button?

While deliberating the morality and ethics of pushing the button on the box with her husband, Norma impulsively presses it. As promised, Mr Steward returns with the money. As he left, he took the box. Her husband asked ‘Will the box go to someone else?’ and Mr Steward replied ‘Yes, to someone who you won’t know’.

Norma and Arthur look at each other, and you get the impression that they are then scared for their own lives. Arthur runs after Mr Steward with the case of £1 million, trying to give it him back. ‘It’s too late,’ he says, ‘the button has already been pressed!’

I’m not going to go into detail or too many spoilers, but the situation escalates and it turns out that Mr Steward may not be who we think he is, and there are further consequences of pushing the button on the box.

The Ethics behind the Box

My understanding of The Box is that it is an alien experiment to see if the human race should survive or be exterminated.

The ethical theory behind it is that the box with the button is a social experiment to see if the human race is selfish or altruistic (puts the good of others first). The selfish human beings will push the button, while the altruistic will not, because they want to avoid the consequence of bringing death or suffering to others.

The argument that seems to come across from the film is that altruism is necessary for the survival of the human race. Therefore, any couple who pressed the button were condemning the human race.

Is this ethical theory plausible?

According to universal egoists, all human acts of apparent altruism are really driven by self interest. Furthermore, human altruism goes beyond the confines of Darwinism, because human evolution is not only biological in nature but also cultural. (Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour 6th Edition).

In addition, the argument for altruism portrayed in ‘The Box’ does not account for impulsive actions.

What are your thoughts on The Box?

Have you ever watched the movie The Box? Masterpiece or codswallop?

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