The basic premise is that a man comes to a couple's house, presents them with a box with a button on the top of it, and explains that if they push they'll receive a large sum of money (the specific number changes to fit the era) and someone "you don't know" will die. In each version the wife Norma pushes the button.
In the original story, Norma's husband Arthur is pushed onto train tracks and the money she receives is the insurance settlement for the "accident." She asks the stranger why her husband was the one to die and he replies, "Do you really think you knew your husband?" It is a short succinct point about our most intimate of relationships.
In the "Twilight Zone" episode (which Matheson did not approve of), the stranger gives them the money and informs them the button will be "reprogrammed" and the same deal offered to someone else. He explains in closing, "I can assure you it will be offered to someone whom you don't know." It is still short, sweet, and simple, but the point shifts slightly to knowing the entire context of a situation before you get into it. I can understand why Matheson objected to it though. The ending begins to drift away from taking stock of your own life towards making decisions primarily based upon other people. Still though, it retains the edge of self protection.
The movie, however, takes both these points and runs with them wildly, adding a contemporary science fiction cliche. Before the button is pushed, Arthur asked what it means to actually know someone. After the button is pushed, the stranger informs the couple the button will be given to someone they don't know. Then, the plot twists and turns into a second scenario for the couple that intentionally obscures the actual functionality of the button. The added layer here is that all of this is being done to test the human race.
Like "LOST," "Battlestar Galactica," and "Star Trek Deep Space Nine," the movie plays with the ideas of a further developed species seeming like God, even quoting Arthur C. Clarke's third law of prediction: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Unlike "Deep Space Nine" though, the movie never makes it clear that "God" is just aliens. It hints at it, dancing around ideas that the stranger was killed by lightening and then possessed, mass mind control, and fantastical transportation devices, but never takes a definitive stance. This ambiguity is certainly intentional on the part of Kelly, as it allows religious folk to have their "God is testing mankind" interpretation and nerds, geeks, agnostics, and atheists to have their "a superior race is trying to teach us" interpretation. It's all irrelevant, as either way the point of the tests is held up. It is a convenient way of backdooring altruism by essentially saying "it doesn't matter if you believe in God or not, the values gained from that belief are important either way."
In the possessed stranger's lair deep within the NSA, the stranger explains the purpose of the tests to a NSA representative:
NSA Rep: "You spoke earlier about the altruism coefficient."Here's how the scenario works in the movie. The button is known to be pushed three times, each by the wife in a young married couple. Two of the three wives end up shot dead by their husband (due to the second test). The third wife pushes the button in the final minutes of the movie, but her fate is presumed to be the same. (Angry feminists get mad her. Christians point to the Garden of Eve comparison.) The stranger informs the NSA representative that if enough people didn't push the button, the tests would stop. So, if you never push the button, you never get killed. The stranger collects the button and moves on.
The Stranger: "If human beings are unable or unwilling to sacrifice individual desires for the greater good of your species, you will have no chance for survival...and my employees will be compelled to expedite your extinction. Clear?"
Basically, the button test is the expedition of the extinction of the human race. Every time the button is pushed, one more person who wouldn't have died otherwise is killed because s/he was "unable or unwilling to sacrifice individual desires for the greater good." If people continued to push the button, the number of unnatural deaths would grow and humanity would be that much closer to extinction.
Sidestepping the obvious causation refutation (pushing the button directly causes another's death without his choice and is thus wrong), this story is dangerous because it directly links being "selfish" with negative things happening to you. By pushing the button, Norma sets in motion the series of events that lead to her own death. Even stronger, the movie concertizes "not thinking of your neighbors" in their dying, your dying, and the extinction of humanity. Not that David Kelly was trying to scare you or anything. It's just a movie, after all.
Except, it's not just a movie. It's just like this article I've seen making the rounds in the last few weeks. Intended as a satirical critique of Objectivism, tells the tale of a little girl who refuses to share her ball with another toddler from the perspective of her parents who praise her for the actions. The key paragraph follows:
You see, that Elmo ball was Johanna's reward for consistently using the potty this past week. She wasn't given the ball simply because she'd demonstrated an exceptional need for it—she earned it. And from the way Aiden's pants sagged as he tried in vain to run away from our daughter, it was clear that he wasn't anywhere close to deserving that kind of remuneration. By so much as allowing Johanna to share her toy with him, we'd be undermining her appreciation of one of life's most important lessons: You should never feel guilty about your abilities. Including your ability to repeatedly peg a fellow toddler with your Elmo ball as he sobs for mercy.Like "The Box," this article tries to necessarily link "being selfish" with an anti-social attitude. In the bolded selection, not only is the little girl encouraged not to share, but she's applauded for essentially physically assaulting a helpless victim for no good reason. Never mind the fact that the ball belonged to the little girl and she could use it and share it with who she wanted. Never mind that playing with someone else can often be more fun than playing alone. Those thoughts have nothing to do with being selfish. Being selfish means hoarding your goods, acting elitist, and actively harming others.
Like "The Box," this article tries to demonize selfishness in a manner that is just plain unrealistic. Human beings are social creatures. It is in our self interest to be social. However, altruism is not the only way of being social, it is the only way of being primarily social.
The most dangerous thing I've seen is supposedly selfish people embracing the characterization of the article, lauding the little girl as a quasi-hero and praising her anti-social motives. It is the problem that "the altruism coefficient" presents. Those people that disagree with it embrace a reactionary attitude against it. They look at "The Box" and see a heroic couple who is illegitimately punished by the forces of evil.
Me? I agree that the force behind the stranger is evil, but can still only see a stupid couple. If someone came to my house and said "Push this and you get a million dollars and someone dies" and that was it, I would demand an explanation. If he refused to offer one, I would know there was a catch and throw the bum and his button out of my house.
The real tragedy of such stories is the continued portrayal of selfishness as simplistic and rudimentary. Living life for yourself takes a lot of intricate and intimate knowledge and thought...and that was exactly the point Matheson was making in the original story.