Most of you are probably familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities have taken part, including Bill Gates, and it’s been filling social media.
But for those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty simple: when challenged, you either dump ice water on your head or donate $100 or ALS research and treatment. Many donate the money regardless, but if you do dump the ice water, you can challenge three more people, giving them 24 hours to comply. In effect, it goes like this:
The goal, besides raising money, is to spread awareness. The viral quality of the campaign has proven particularly effective, raising over $100 million dollars, according to this article from Aug. 15, and bringing ALS to the forefront of the public sphere. It is a brilliant viral campaign, seeming to make a positive difference.
But for some the project feels too public, too self-broadcasting. It reeks of shallow millennial-led narcissism and low-effort activism, where over-rich Americans throw cold water on themselves, film it, send it to the world, and think it constitutes “help.”
Well, despite some reservations, I think it does.
Lets get to the reservations first. Many religious and moral teachers have had trouble with deliberately public signs of good conduct. As Jesus says bluntly in Matthew 6:1, “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.”
This sort of public righteousness contrasts more anonymous ideals: the quiet boy pushing in chairs at the end of class, nameless donors and activists. These silent benefactors seem selfless, while the public benefactors seem hungry for attention. The former are altruistic, the latter selfish.
Here, we enter philosophical territory.
“Ethical egoists” believe that moral good comes from self interest. One of the oldest clear forms of Western morality, it stretches back to the “Homeric virtues” of Achilles. These virtues celebrated the strong, independent, and noble warrior that Achilles represented. They were qualities that a “man” ought to have, vir being the Latin word for man.
Other ancient Greek morality–like Socrates and Plato–fit this category as well, even when they argued for things like prudence and honesty, not physical strength. For Socrates, living a moral life was selfish: it would bring earthly and spiritual happiness. Since rational people want to be happy, all moral evil arose because people were too ignorant to know what was moral, too weak to fulfill it, or too limited by their circumstances.
This selfish morality has pulsed through the work of many thinkers, most famously Nietzsche and Aynd Rand, but in most cases, the main idea remains constant: self-interest, if it is truly self-interested, will make you a better person, and a world of better people is a better world.
But some thinkers do put faith in altruism. Buddhist ethics, Schopenhauer’s ethics of compassion, Kant’s categorical imperative–all these and more share a common concern for minimized self-interest. Of all these, Kant may be the most idiosyncratic and interesting.
For Kant, we shouldn’t really enjoy doing the right thing. Instead, it should be a moral “duty” informed through our innate reason. This is where the categorical imperative comes in. In its most famous formulation: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”
This means that our own actions should reflect how we think the rest of the world ought to act. If I steal, I’m saying everyone ought to steal–without exceptions or “contradiction.” Indeed, I’d be saying it was a moral law to steal, “imperative” in all “categories.”
This may seem odd, but it makes sense from a logical point of view and moral law, for Kant, is innately logical. Thanks to our innate reason, we can access a moral law that dictates how the world ought to be and set our own laws for behavior. This is what Kant means by “autonomy”: literally self “autos” rule “nomos.”
Thus, being selfless or selfish never enters the equation. We act how we ought to logically act, nothing more.
All of this may initially seem to have nothing to do with the ALS Water Challenge. Who cares what Socrates thought about selfishness or Kant thought about moral duty. But such reflection does make you examine an action–here a charitable one–and ask why you do it.
This matters because many people have many reasons why we do things or why we should do things, and some of the reasons can be dubious. On the one extreme lies the Westboro Baptist Church, who think they ought to protest funerals because it is a divine imperative. Or, in a less extreme example, as Slavoj Zizek argues in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, many companies use “charity” to increase their profit and alleviate our consumerist anxiety.
For example, Toms is a beautiful idea: buy shoes, give shoes to someone in need. But as Zizek sees it, we’re not making a big difference to many of the major problems we face in the world or on our street, but we get the sense that we are helping and it feels good.
Most relevant for the water challenge one must ask, am I really making a difference or am I just buying into a fad and trying to feel good? As the numbers seem to show, it is making a positive difference. That said, people can still do more–one always can–but to attack an action outright because it is public and seemingly narcissistic feels too reactionary.
As Socrates argued, some selfish things can be moral. Or maybe it isn’t even all that selfish. Personally, I think the challenge is a worthwhile thing. Maybe not a Kantian maxim, but certainly a fun and easy way to raise awareness and potentially raise money for a seemingly worthwhile cause. And so, I did it.