Ice Bucket Challenge Ethics

Ice Bucket Challenge

The “Ice Bucket Challenge” is a silly, brilliant fund-raising device that has simultaneously increased public awareness of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, brought over 14 million more dollars of donated funds into the ALS Association than last year for research, and provided some priceless YouTube fare, ranging from celebrity drenchings to this…

Entertainment! Celebrities! Medical research! Charity! Public Education! How could there be anything unethical about such a phenomenon? Well, ethics often throw cold water on all manner of activities human beings crave, so it should not be too great a surprise that the “Ice Bucket Challenge” has generated quite a few ethics-based objections. Let’s examine the potential, alleged and actual ethical flaws of the current fad, and rate them on an Ethics Foul Scale from zero (No ethical concerns at all) to ten ( Very Unethical).

1. It’s dangerous.

Anything can be dangerous if you are not sufficiently careful, and the Ice Bucket Challenge had its consequentialist moment when four firefighters were injured, one very seriously, trying to help the marching band at Campbellsville University get dumped with ice water this week. Two firefighters were in the bucket of their truck’s ladder preparing to douse the students using a firehose when a surge of electricity jumped from nearby power lines and electrucuted them and two colleagues. This was just a freak accident, however. Unlike the so-called Facebook Fire Challenge, the ALS fundraisng stunt shouldn’t be perilous to anyone, as long as practitioners don’t get too grandiose or creative.

Ethics Foul Score:

0

2. It wastes water.

This  objection has arisen in California, where there is a serious drought.  California’s water czars tried to put the accusation to rest, with George N. Kostyroko, director of the California State Water Resources Control Board, issuing an e-mail that said,

“It doesn’t violate any of our regulations. People should always use good judgment whenever they use water while we’re in a drought. On the other hand, we understand that this is a charitable event.”

One statement, two unethical rationalizations: “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical,” (Rationalization #4), and The Saint’s Excuse, or “It’s for a good cause,” (Rationalization #13)…but what do you expect, this being California? The question is “Does this waste water?” and the answer, clearly, is “Yes, of course it does!” Water doesn’t have to be spilled to give money to the ALS Association for ALS research. In a drought, when conservation is essential, every drop counts. Water isn’t essential to curing Lou Gehrig’s disease. What the Board’s fatuous response says is, “Yeah, the situation is desperate here, but we wouldn’t want to rob our wacky, progressive-minded Californians of the chance to feel good about themselves while making really funny videos, and we’re willing to undermine public’s understanding of the seriousness of the water shortage to help cure ALS.” Curing ALS isn’t the Water Board’s job—conserving water is.

I agree that on balance, the accumulated buckets of ice and H2O  may not be too much water to sacrifice to advance ALS research even in a drought, but that’s a utilitarian calculation with a result that differs according to whether you’re a California farmer or not.

Ethics Foul Score:

4

(California State Water Resources Control Board Ethics Foul Score: 10)

3. It’s a fake.

In Slate, Will Oremus argues that while the fad has indeed raised money that might not have been raised anyway, many of the ice-dumpers are just using the campaign to get cheap YouTube time, and many of them end up not giving money to ALS research. This is the so called “slacktivism” argument. He also argues that the “raising awareness” claims are overstated:

“As for “raising awareness,” few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.”

I’ll accept that. Anyone who has never heard of ALS and doesn’t know why research might be necessary to cure one of the worst diseases there is must be ignorant of  health care, medical research, baseball, has never heard of Stephen Hawking, has never watched a Jerry Lewis Telethon, and basically doesn’t read or pay attention to the world as they stumble through life. Such people are largely useless and a burden on society, but that’s a different problem. If they can be persuaded to use their limited brain pan contents to either give money to a cause they don’t really comprehend or help keep ALS in the public consciousness by dumping cold water on their inert skulls, that’s better than answering “Aren’t sure” on public affairs polls.

Ethics Foul Score:

1

4. Its benefits are illusory.

William McCaskill, among others, argues that this viral method of fundraising just causes philanthropic pain elsewhere. Citing evidence of “moral licensing.” the phenomenon where doing a good deed causes people to believe that they can ignore other ethical obligations (on Ethics Alarms, this is called “The Ruddigore Fallacy”), McCaskill thinks that the benefits of the Ice Bucket Challenge may be far less than it appears:

“In terms of the conditions for the moral licensing effect to occur, the ice bucket challenge is perfect. The challenge gives you a way to very publicly demonstrate your altruism via a painful task, despite actually accomplishing very little (on average, not including those who don’t donate at all, a $40 gift, or 0.07% of the average American household’s income): it’s geared up to make you feel as good about your actions as possible, rather than to ensure that your actions do as much good as possible...The ice bucket challenge has done one good thing, which is raise $3 million for the ALS Association. But it’s also done a really bad thing: take money and attention away from other charities and other causes. That means that, if we want to know whether the ice bucket challenge has been on balance a good thing for the world, we’ve got to assess how effective the ALS Associations is compared with other charities. If 50% of that $3 million would have been donated anyway, and if the ALS association is less than half as effective at turning donations into positive impact on people’s well-being than other charities are on average, then the fundraiser would actively be doing harm….You just can’t know without doing some serious investigation.”

I call this sour grapes. McCaskill has his own non-profit that raises money for global charities, and he wishes he had thought of this golden gimmick. The amount of money that the ALS has raised from the challenge that it would not have raised without it (last year, it had raised about $2 million by this time) is substantial and real; McCaskill’s theory about the net benefits is speculative, dubious, and impossible to prove.

Ethics Foul Score:

0

5. It’s not going to do any good.

Setting some kind of record for letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, has actually argued that the Challenge is pointless, because it can’t possibly raise enough money to make a dent in ALS. “We need to put this in a much larger context, the National Institutes of Health, which funds a lot of basic research in this country, over $30 billion per year. So $13 million is 0.05 percent of that kind of investment. This is very unlikely to be transformative,” he writes.

Well, let’s just give up then! You know, Zeke, those millions accumulate after a while. You know what he’s angling for, don’t you? Dr. Emanuel thinks we–that is, he– needs a huge, billion dollar government program, and pretending that private charity can accomplish anything just holds back progress. He apparently doesn’t agree with Lao Tzu that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” which me wonder how someone this defeatist and illogical ends up in charge of anything.

Ethics Foul Score:

0

6. It supports immoral research that destroys human life.

This is the most frequently heard objection, from those who believe that embryonic stem cell research, the core of current efforts to find a cure for ALS, involves killing human beings, is that the the Ice Bucket Challenge is immoral.

Pro-life advocates insist that embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of “pre-born children”— embryos—unlike adult and umbilical cord stem cell research.The ALS Association  concedes that while the organization “primarily funds adult stem cell research,” they are “funding one study using embryonic stem cells (ESC)…,” and funding may be used to expand such studies in the future.Live Action president Lila Rose said in a statement that “it’s such a shame that the ALS Association…chooses to support research that thrives from experimenting on and killing tiny, innocent human beings. Embryonic stem cell research, which requires the destruction of pre-born people, is inherently unethical and a violation of fundamental human rights, and even materialists must admit that promises of its benefits have failed to deliver. There is no good reason to condone this practice; in fact, all it does is taint the ALS Association, whom I’d otherwise be happy to support.” A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati says,

“We appreciate the compassion that has caused so many people to engage in the ice bucket challenge. But it’s a well established moral principle that a good end is not enough. The means to that ends must be morally licit.”

I don’t want to seem to reduce a long-standing bioethics debate to its simplest terms, but the fact is that no embryos have ever or are ever are going to be aborted to facilitate ALS stem cell research. “Pre-born” children are not going to have lives, and thus the choice is not between using them for life-saving research and having them grow to be living, breathing human beings, but between using the embryos for life-saving research and destroying them or having them sitting in a freezer. This objection to the ALS Challenge is classic absolutism, and illustrates the point where ethics is superior to morality. The utilitarian balance in this case is stunningly easy: no lives are lost by the research, and no unborn lives are ended by it that would not be ended anyway. Yet the research can end vast pain and suffering if successful.

Ethics Foul Score:

0

7. It’s coerced charity.

This is primarily a problem for celebrities, since the Challenge was originally designed to target them, and because they are most vulnerable to shaming if they refuse to accept. It doesn’t matter, ethically: the technique is unethical whether the victim is me, Dick Cheney or Pee Wee Herman.

When a celebrity challenges another after taking an icy dunk, the nominated celebrity has a choice: give money for ALS research, get soaked on YouTube, or look cheap, callous and pompous by refusing to participate. Nobody should be subjected to that pressure, and the worthiness of the charity doesn’t matter. Essentially, challenging someone confronts them publicly with a demand that he or she give to a particular charitable cause chosen by someone else, or face public disapproval, which is especially harmful to celebrities. There sis no difference ethically between this and the unethical fundraising technique used so successfully by the United Way, in which employees are solicited in the workplace by their supervisors. To a celebrity, the public is the supervisor, and a public challenge to do a particular good deed—or else—is coercive. That makes it unethical.

Ethics Foul Score:

7

8. It can be an abuse of position and conflict of interest.

Yes, the Ice Bucket Challenge violates federal ethics rules. “There are firmly established rules preventing the use of public office, such as our ambassadors, for private gain, no matter how worthy a cause,” reads a State Department cable.“Thus, high-ranking State Department officials are unfortunately unable to participate in the ice bucket challenge.”

This is consistent with a House Administration Committee warning to lawmakers, reminding them that  a rule in the ethics manual prohibits using “official resources for the promotion or benefit of any private charitable cause.” I think the State Department’s total prohibition is more appropriate, and this should apply to judges as well.

Ethics Foul Score (for Government Officials)

8

UPDATE: I just learned of another ethics complaint against the Challenge: Pamela Anderson, and presumably her pals at PETA, thinks ALS research is unethical because it sometimes involves animal testing.  I have no trouble concluding that it is worth the lives of countless animals to cure a disease that cause so much human death and suffering, as well as robbing the human race of the contributions of such victims as Lou Gehrig, Stephen Hawking and Jacob Javits. The complaint has an Ethics Foul Score of 0, and extra penalties for having silly advocates like PETA (-2) and Pam Anderson (-1) for a total score if -3.

_______________________________
Pointer: Forbes
 

21 thoughts on “Ice Bucket Challenge Ethics

  1. I’d only offer this comment, born of some sordid experience. Whenever someone tells you that an activity will “raise awareness of the issue”, hang onto your wallet like a life preserver in mid-ocean and do some serious background checking before turning loose. This goes double when the “charity” in question relies heavily on mass public demonstrations and/or celebrity participation in their fundraising. Another flag raiser is when they engage in an extensive and flashy mail campaign. All these are often indicative of either a high administrative overhead (a common failing of high profile charities), a willingness to endorse immoral or unethical precepts for the purpose of self-enhancement or both.

  2. Wow, I’m a cynical bastard but, even I wouldn’t publish this:

    “Such people are largely useless and a burden on society.”

    I really don’t think this particular article is the place for plopping your disdain for the less intelegant.

    • I’m not correcting your spelling of intelligent—I started to—on the theory that it’s intentional, and as such, pretty clever.

      Is the observation true? If so, then why isn’t any post an appropriate time to make a truthful observation? The point doesn’t involve intelligence at all, by the way, but willful ignorance, for which there is no excuse. The nation was founded on the assumption of responsible civic literacy; because of that 50% (or more), politicians intentionally pitch their arguments to the naive and gullible, and we are regulated to death because so many people are easy marks for business predators. Ignorant people make themselves sick, neglect their children, engage in dangerous activities, and perpetuate bigotry, racism, sexism and religious zealotry.

      The entire quote was…

      Anyone who has never heard of ALS and doesn’t know why research might be necessary to cure one of the worst diseases there is must be ignorant of health care, medical research, baseball, has never heard of Stephen Hawking, has never watched a Jerry Lewis Telethon, and basically doesn’t read or pay attention to the world as they stumble through life. Such people are largely useless and a burden on society, but that’s a different problem.

      I’ll stand by that, I think. I know it’s blunt: to hell with it. Being ignorant is a character flaw, not a matter of not being around when the brains were handed out, and ignorant people are a burden. (I recognize that I made a brain pan knock later–that was wrong. Being stupid isn’t a fault. Being ignorant is…though it is evidence of stupidity not to know it.)

  3. I’ve reached the point where I check charities before donating more than pocket change, Some are way more efficient and effective, If this silly fad might shift some funding from a ineffective charity to a better one. I had a close relative die from ALS and would prefer it get help, to slow its effects even if a cure is further away,

  4. Just a nitpicky grammar comment: Electrocuted means death from electricity. If they survived, then it wasn’t electrocution, just electric shock with injury.

    I love your blog though – keep it up!

    • I checked it: the word is usually used to mean killed by electricity, but it also means “injured.” The alternative was “shocked.” which is ambiguous. But if a word is misunderstood or likely to be, I should use another word, so in substance, you are correct.

      • Having experienced many close encounters with electricity and being a conductor of the same while I am still here now, I can concur that being electrocuted doesn’t mean you die.

  5. Great analysis, I don’t think I have much to add. I think #7 is the kicker for me.

    If a cause can’t be argued on its merits and convince me through reason, then peer pressure isn’t going to settle it for me. And, note to those who try:

    Come at me with Peer Pressure first, before all other arguments (and that’s what the social craze “Ice Bucket Challenge” is — Peer Pressure), there’s a 99% chance I’ll ignore you and the cause outright and another 99% chance I’ll ignore ALL following rational arguments also.

    I don’t do well with peer pressure.

  6. HOW DARE YOU AS HUMANS WE THINK WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO DO CRUEL ANIMAL TESTING IN THE NAME OF US THE HUMAN RACE THE MORE ARROGANT WE BECOME THE LONGER WE LIVE THE MORE HOUSES & HABITAT WE DESTROY MOTHER NATURE WILL ALWAYS PRODUCE ANTHER DISEASE ITS CALLED LIFE WE LIVE WE DIE BUT SOME ARE SO CONCEITED THAT THEY THINK THAT EVERY DISEASE SHOULD BE CURED CAUSING PEOPLE TO LIVE LONGER WHICH PUTS A STRAIN ON OUR ALREADY STRAINED PLANET YOU MIGHT CURE THIS BUT ANTHER DISEASE WILL REPLACE IT & WHY SHOULD MILLIONS OF ANIMALS SUFFER IN THE NAME OF CONCEITED OF SOME MEDICAL SCIENTISTS WHO SHOULD NOT BE CONGRATULATED INSTEAD USE YOUR TALENT TO FIND A WAY TO TEST WITH OUT CAUSING PAIN & SUFFERING TO ANIMALS THEY SAY THAT IT IS NEEDED BEFORE HUNAN TRAILS BUT IN THE UK A DRUG GIVEN TO PREGNANT WOMEN TO HELP WITH MORNING SICKNESS WAS DEEMED FIT FOR HUMANS BUT WHEN THE BABIES WERE BORN WITH LIMBS MISSING DUE TO THALIDOMIDE THEY IT WAS SAFE BUT AS THE ANIMALS ARE NOT KEPT ALIVE LONG HOW DO THEY KNOW HOW THESE DRUGS WILL EFFECT THE RECIPIENTS IN THE FUTURE SO DEVELOPMENT NON ANIMAL TESTING AS SEEING THESE PEOPLE CONGRATULATED FOR FINDING CURES DO NOT DESERVE ANY PRAISE 100’s OF PET CATS & DOGS ARE STOLEN TO USE IN TESTS SADLY FOR MY CAT WAS TO LATE BUT WE ARE RAISING MONEY TO SAVE THE ANIMALS IN LABS ACROSS THE WORLD SO ARE TAKING THE CHALLENGE ALL OVER THE WORLD TO RAISE MONEY TO RESCUE ANIMALS FROM A LIFE OF PAIN SUFFERING & ULTIMATELY A SLOW DEATH MAYBE IF PEOPLE REALLY KNEW WHAT THE MONEY PAID FOR WOULDN’T BE SO EGAR TO HELP MAYBE YOU SHOULD BE HONEST & SAY WHAT YOUR RESEARCH PAYS FOR POST PHOTOS MY GRAN DIED FROM CANCER BUT REFUSE TO EVER DONATE TO THEM MY GRAN WAS WISE SAID WE ALL HAVE TO GO SOME WAY THIS IS MINE ALSO A CLOSE FRIEND AGED 23 WAS FORCED EMOTIONALLY BLACKMAILED BY FAMLY & DOCTORS TO TRY NEW CANCER TREATMENTS BUT AFTER 6 MONTHS IT CAME BACK WHEN SHE REFUSED MORE NASTY CHEMICAL TREATMENT TOLD DOCTORS TO SHOVE WHERE SUN DOES NOT SHINE SHE ONLY HAD 6-9 MONTHS WAS TOLD COULD BE LONGER SAID “I AM NOT YOUR HUMAN LAB RAT & SAID THIS IS MY TIME” & WANTED TO SPEND IT DOING WHAT SHE WANTED & ASKED NO FLOWERS JUST MONEY DONATED TO FREE DOGS & OTHER ANIMALS FROM DEATH LABS & OTHER ANIMAL CHARITIES I HAVE ARTHRITIS & CLUSTER HEADACHES BUT USE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE AS WONT USE MEDICINE TESTED ON ANIMALS LIFE IS MORE PAINFUL BUT AT LEAST HAVE CLEAR CONSCIENCE WONDER WHEN HUMANS WILL STOP THINKING THEY HAVE THE RIGHT TO CURE EVERYTHING BUT FOR EVERY ONE YOU CURE THEIR WILL BE A STRONGER DISEASE TO TAKE ITS PLACE & WILL BE WORSE & STRONGER & THE POPULATION WILL LIVE LONGER BUT AS WE ARE FINDING OUT THERE IS NOT THE RESOURCES TO LOOK AFTER THEM ITS YOUR CONCEITED MY OPINIONS ARE THE ONLY ONES THAT COUNT

      • I read it. It was exactly what you’d expect from some nutjob environmentalist. For myself, I seldom read posts that are IN ALL CAPITALS! THAT INDICATES A FANATIC AND UNSOUND MIND! SO DOES THE EXCESSIVE USE OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!! YAAAHHHH!!!!

      • This doesn’t qualify as a rant. It is 3 levels less coherent than one. Marie has not heard of punctuation or lowercase. Where I imagine punctuation in this I only create sentence fragments or run-on sentences or other egregious errors.

        I am curious what anther disease is…

      • I’ll admit it, I read perhaps half a dozen lines. But then I realized there was over a screen’s worth of text in all capitals with nary a sign of a punctuation mark. No. My computer is getting on in life and I really can’t afford for its cybertronic brain to explode and shower me with scads of tiny silicon shrapnel.

        As an amusing (albeit sadistic) thought experiment, would it be cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution to sentence (tee hee) someone to diagram this person’s sentences, or even to simply try and insert punctuation? Might they opt for lethal injection instead?

  7. I’m not too fussed about animal testing to a certain degree if it gets the results but from what I’ve read, (I’m not a scientist so whether it’s true or not I’m not sure) the reason the animal testing is frowned upon is because they can’t even simulate motor neurone disease/als in mice. That means no matter how much they try, they won’t find a cure for it using that method. Sounds like a waste of money and mice to me…
    Enjoyed the article though 🙂

    • I believe Katie translated into sense and dropped some of the nonsensical content of what Marie Clare was blathering.

      So that way a response to her should cover a response to Marie.

  8. ALS research ALWAYS use mice for testing. They make mutant mice with the inborn defect that mimics the disease in humans, and it’s painful.Around 200 mice is needed per one test and most of them die a long, painful death. 90% of the researched compound that worked in mice, did not worked in human patients, which makes their death useless. I hope that will happen to your cat.

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