Today’s Comment of the Day needs some background. The first comment regarding yesterday’s controversial post “The Barefoot Contessa and the Compassion Bullies…”, asserting the right of a celebrity to decline a sick child’s request, was by reader Nancy Simpson, who wrote…
“Obviously we have different beliefs about what constitutes “ethics”. The first duty of all persons in a civilized society is to care for the children. My ethics say that for the optimum function of society, we care for children unless what they ask for will cause physical or emotional harm to them.
“Short of confinement in a leprosy ward, this woman has no excuse for her unkindness to a child. If the “too busy” excuse is true, then she is just greedy. No law against being greedy, is there? She has no duty to be concerned with anything other than her money.
“The other place we have ethical differences is that it against my ethics to criticize control and blame a sick child’s mother. Talk about hit below the belt. Shame on you.
“Celebrities are not mandated to give back–they may bite the hand that feeds them any time they like. And I decide who gets my hard earned money, and it will not be her or Food Network.
“I don’t pay people who hurt children.’
I was, I admit, rather severe with Nancy, writing in response…
“No, Nancy, you are completely wrong. Obviously we do have a different understanding or ethics, because you have very little and you also didn’t really read or think about the post. If a stranger walks in your home and demands that you care for her child, are you ethically required to do it? What gives “Make A Wish” or Enzo, his mother or anyone the right to finger this one woman because he happens to watch her show and put her in the position of either having to make a major effort to please him—not cure him, not actually make him well, but just give him a good time—at the threat of being condemned by self-righteous uninvolved bystanders like you? Ridiculous.
“Maybe she had a brother with the same disease and spent years in therapy trying to conquer the depression his death caused…and the prospect of getting close with Enzo risks her long term mental health. Does her refusal pass your approval process then, or is she obligated to harm herself because a stranger’s child has a “wish”? How can you judge her actions when you have no idea what motivates her? Granting these things is usually a PR bonanza….I doubt her motivations are crass at all.
“Maybe she is especially emotional around sick children. You have no basis to criticize her. She is not Enzo’s slave, she is not his doctor, she is not his plaything. She has a right to say “no.” There is a difference between exemplary ethics, and ethics. It would be great if she decided to grant his request, but it is not unethical not to. I know—you don’t understand. Well, you can revel in your ignorance without telling me that I don’t understand.
“I DO have basis to criticize Enzo’s mother, and I hereby throw your silly “shame!” through your window.
“She set out to harm a woman who owed her nothing. She sicced the internet on someone for pure revenge. I sympathize with her, but her actions were unarguably wrong. If you think certain classes of people like “mothers of sick children” get special passes to act badly and harm others, go start a Cindy Sheehan fan club—you don’t have a clue what ethics are.
‘You know what rationalizations and excuses are, however.”
Now, today, new reader Yao added a very provocative Comment of the Day:
“Jack already did a good job of answering Nancy, but I found myself wondering about the details of the ethical system she proposes.
“At first glance it might appear that Nancy is taking a position similar to Singer: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it.” If that’s the case, I agree with the others who are asking how much Nancy has personally donated to helping children. When the argument is followed, a person is compelled to distribute all discretionary income in an attempt to alleviate suffering. Nancy seems to have a computer and internet access, which suggests that she may be failing at her moral duty as she has described it.
“But perhaps Nancy feels that some children are more worthy than others, and she’s not obligated to help “them,” only “us.” What is the difference between children we are obligated to help and those we can safely ignore? Is it physical proximity? If that’s the case, Ina should be on sound ethical ground if she doesn’t live near Enzo. Is it nationality? If so, how does a child who is unworthy of help one day suddenly become worthy of help the day he receives citizenship? Is it publicity? I don’t think much of an ethical system which suggests that the more effectively you push your message, the more deserving of assistance you are. Many people would even argue that those who are less able to voice their needs are more vulnerable, and thus more in need of help. Is it belonging to an industrialized society? Again, many people would argue that people living in poverty have a greater need than those living in wealth.
“Another objection to Nancy’s moral framework (and I call it that because she believes it is, despite the fact that it does not appear to constitute part of a coherent system) is that it only concerns children, unlike Singer, who also considers adults. The obvious question is what happens to someone in the minute between turning 17 and turning 18 which makes her suddenly undeserving.
“Nancy didn’t actually say that we have a moral obligation to help children in need, barring other moral imperatives. She said that we have an obligation to care for children (which appears to include addressing their desires, wishes, and whims, since Ina’s appearance is not necessary for Enzo’s medical care), and the only proviso was that the care should not cause physical or emotional harm to the child. Even assuming that she also meant that the action cannot cause harm to another child, that’s a pretty bold statement, because it places the desires of one person (the child) over everything else, including the well-being of an adult. Taken at face value, this statement says that my life is meaningless if, by dying, I can bring a child some happiness. Surely a child who doesn’t know me at all would not be physically or emotionally harmed by my death, but he’d probably be happy if he anonymously received toys purchased with money from my estate. Such an extreme situation would pass the test Nancy offered, and makes it obvious why it is ridiculous to hold the desires of one person above the well-being of another. (If we compare just well-being to well-being, refer to my earlier arguments.)
“Jack is completely correct to say that Nancy has a poor understanding of ethics. What Nancy has is a collection of opinions, with she appears to have put next to no thought in to developing into an ethical system. She’s not alone, of course: the cult of children is doing fine, despite its lack of coherent arguments and hypocrisy on the part of all members.
“People like Nancy, with their knee-jerk reactions and ill-thought child-worship disappoint me. People are capable of so much more.”