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:
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:
(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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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)
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.