Baseball 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.”