Gift Horse Ethics: The Babe, The Splendid Splinter, and The Ethics Of Self-Promoting Virtue

sick child and-babe-jpgBaseball slugger Babe Ruth was famous for visiting hospitals and orphanages to give kids a thrill. Babe always had reporters in too to record his noblesse oblige , of course. He was an orphan himself, and nobody should doubt the Bambino’s genuine dedication and generosity when it came to kids. He just wasn’t going to let his good deeds go unnoticed.

Other baseball greats, notably Ted Williams, made most of his visits without fanfare or publicity, and he didn’t tip off the press. “The Splendid Splinter” wasn’t visiting kids in cancer wards because he wanted his fans to know what a good guy he was. He did it because he wanted to make sick children feel better.

Was the Babe less ethical than Williams? Did his self=promotion take the ethical sheen off of his good deeds? This is the issue raised by the activities  of the  “Magician Prankster” who calls himself “Magic of Rahat” on YouTube and Twitter. He recently posted a video called “Homeless Lottery Winner” showing him playing  a prank on a homeless man, who ends up with $1,000. He is understandably grateful:

Slade Sohmer however, on HyperVocal, is hearing ethics alarms:

“When are good deeds just good deeds, and where is the line where good deeds meets pimping out the homeless as props in the emotional clickbait economy? And, should that even matter? Watch the video and you’ll see that our magic man here is definitely doing a good deed, and the end result is a homeless man walking away with $1,000. That’s great! Who can downplay this effort? But taken together in the larger scope of YouTubers who are building their #personal #brands by seemingly casting homeless people in their springboards to instant viral fame, and there may be something more troubling at play here. There’s nothing all that new about the cynical exploitation of those less fortunate for clicks, views and subscribers. But this leap to fame online has quickly developed into a genre: Helping the homeless with the world watching has become one of the web’s easiest ways to get noticed.”

I think it’s an important question to consider, and Slade is right to raise it. I would like to know if the homeless man consented to the video, in which case he earned his check, and it wasn’t a pure gift. I agree that there is a hint of exploitation in this, but we should not carry it too far. The kids and their parents didn’t care whether Babe Ruth got publicity or not; they enjoyed seeing themselves in the paper. Was Williams more charitable than Ruth? Not from the viewpoint of the ones who mattered, the children. Charitable acts will be motivated by many and diverse personal needs of the actor; pure altruism is extremely rare, and some believe non-existent. Is the individual who gives a homeless person a thousand dollars quietly, anonymously, and without publicity or fanfare more ethical than the one who turns his generous moment into a viral video?  I suppose. Yet that video may inspire others; the net impact of the self-promoting philanthropist’s conduct may have the more beneficial results over time, by inspiring others,  and demonstrating that being ethical has its perks.

My conclusion is that both Ted and the Babe were responsible for kind and generous acts. Our goal as a society ought to be to encourage charity, generosity, kindness and philanthropy whatever motivates them, and not to require the proof of altruism to show our appreciation and gratitude. Sometimes the old saws had it right, and this one applies:

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”


Magician Prankster” who goes by Magic of Rahat on YouTube and Twitter posted a video called Homeless Lottery Winner about 24 hours ago. It’s been viewed more than two million times since then, and for good reason — our hero plays a prank on the unsuspecting homeless man, and that prank turns out to be $1,000 in cold hard cash to a man down on his luck.

17 thoughts on “Gift Horse Ethics: The Babe, The Splendid Splinter, and The Ethics Of Self-Promoting Virtue

  1. I’m sure this is not a new idea, but sometimes the fact that a celebrity does a good thing inspires others to do good things as well. The heart of the giver is the thing, and we can’t know other people’s hearts.
    That being said, if the giver’s motives are exploitation and/or it looks like exploitation it’s a little “icky.” Exploitation is very much the order of the day for most of what’s done for entertainment these days. Even people who seem to agree to be exploited are diminished by the experience, whether they know it or not.

  2. I’m taking a break from some engineering physics and Calc 3 so, in the spirit of keeping academically sharp, I’d argue that it’s a two part ethical equation. Metaphorically speaking, it would go….

    Generosity+Altruism=Ethical Magnitude

    Where kind and non-attention seeking acts are undoubtedly generous and altruistic, and thus highly ethical with a large degree of confidence. And where kind and attention seeking acts are undoubtedly generous but questionably altruistic. The end result being an act that ranges from ethical to highly ethical without a whole lot of confidence as to where it falls.

    Though additionally I’d say we can improve our range of possibilities using past and future acts. If there were many acts before the broader attention we can narrow our range to the higher ethical side with fair degree of confidence. If the acts of kindness continue after the broader attention we can do the same, since with each act the odds of genuine altruism increase – a couple of PR stunts in a lifetime is probably just ethical opportunism, but going at it year after year is probably a genuine interest.

    If both then we can solidly call it generous and altruistic, with a high degree of confidence.

    TL:DR Acts of kindness are always generous and always ethical, the altruism varies and the ethical magnitude varies with it. We can make better judgments by taking into account previous acts and by observing future ones.

  3. This issue was examined some time ago:

    “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them…. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do… to be honored by others…. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be in secret.”
    [Matthew 6:1-4, NIV]

    You don’t have to be a Christian, or a believer of any kind, to appreciate this statement on ethical behavior and good deeds.

    • But if that were really a requirement, we’d get about 20% of the charity and philanthropy we do today, and no corporate philanthropy at all. Making it a bad, indeed unethical rule.

      • When you cut out those operative phrases, perhaps – here’s the whole thing:
        Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
        So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
        But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

        It doesn’t say it is better to not do good deeds – it says if you hold them high for men to praise you, you’ve gotten the reward you wanted, and will not receive more than that from God. It is the ones which you don’t call attention to which will be greatly rewarded in heaven. No discussion of whether you should do good deeds or not.

        • To be even clearer, the Greek verbiage used specifically implies actions taken with the sole motivation of publicity, the good work being a distant secondary motivation, is *personally* corrupting and receives no recognition in Heaven.

          • Yet, Aaron’s reply was to demonstrate exactly why CW’s comment was irrelevant, not to posit that the passage’s emphasis on clean motives was a declaration that the conduct was unethical.

  4. As cynical as I am I try to give the benefit of the doubt, even when I can’t if the end result in some good being done or even more people doing something good then it is a good thing. Even with the grey exploitation I think this is a net good. It is not something of signature significance, Ted Williams actions I think qualify, Babe Ruth’s may not. Not that both acts are not good and ethical, but I place more weight to those action one takes when no one is looking. Now if Magic of Rahat set out to drive more people to help the homeless then I can see it more in line with Ted Williams, that act of signature significance in which ones character can be evaluated.

  5. Here’s a counterpoint: Jerry Lewis and muscular dystrophy.

    Jerry Lewis didn’t use charity to enhance his celebrity — he used his celebrity to enhance his charity.

    Now THAT’S ethical good deeds.

    • Yes, good example, and yet few people remember this. I always assumed, before learning the facts, that Lewis started his involvement to keep his waning career visible. In fact, he championed the cause when he was a superstar in the 50’s.

  6. This is a great example of “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In general, doing good without seeking praise is BETTER than doing good and showing off so everyone says how good you are- but that doesn’t diminish the good done by the latter, just adds an extra dimension of selflessness to the former.

  7. Quite separate from how much good an act accomplishes is how much opportunity cost the person acting incurred by doing so. The more they have to give up, the more virtuous/noble/honorable we judge their character to be, no matter the magnitude of the action’s impact. If I remember correctly, there was yet another Bible story of an old woman who gave all she had (a single coin) for charity who was more virtuous than the rich people who gave many coins, but which were small percentages of their income.

    On the other hand, there’s no reason to make things harder for yourself on purpose. If you are determined to give until it hurts, it’s good to do it efficiently, otherwise it’s just vanity.

    I like the way CW put it in the case of Jerry Lewis: “he used his celebrity to enhance his charity” rather than vice versa.

  8. Who was it who said that virtue is doing the right thing when no one is watching? All of these people who were mentioned were “ethical” insomuch as their deeds were beneficial to others, despite some intentional self-promotion along the way. In the question of VIRTUE, however, it appears that Ted Williams (who was known to have character lapses!) still comes out ahead over the Sultan of Swat.

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