Home > Moral Philosophy > The Offensive Truth about Batkid

The Offensive Truth about Batkid

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A minor internet brouhaha erupted after philosopher Peter Singer and others critiqued the wisdom of the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Batkid event.

You’d have to be a real spoilsport not to feel good about Batkid. If the sight of 20,000 people joining in last month to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the city of San Francisco fulfill the superhero fantasies of a 5-year-old — and not just any 5-year-old, but one who has been battling a life-threatening disease — doesn’t warm your heart, you must be numb to basic human emotions.

Yet we can still ask if these emotions are the best guide to what we ought to do.

[…]

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that saving a child’s life is better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid?

It seems distasteful to even question that utility of a charity that brought so much joy, but it’s partly this fear of giving offense that retards the moral growth of our society. It’s impolite, after all, to doubt the helpfulness of giving 32% of our charity to religion when only a third of all charitable donations goes to the needs of the poor. It’s rude to wonder if many of us favor immigration restrictions that trap people into a life of scandalous poverty because we’re uncomfortable with poor foreigners living near us. It’s positively vulgar to suggest that a charitable event that brought delight mostly to privileged Americans isn’t as beneficial as protecting children from parasitic worms.

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As a philosopher, it’s Peter Singer’s job to ponder the ethics of human choices and he makes his case better than I could. What interests me here is the enraged reaction to his argument. Is the fear that too many people will be persuaded to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation next time? I’m guessing that’s not it – it’s not the consequences of his argument that angers most, but that it seems to attack the moral sense of anyone that felt good about Batkid. Insult anyone’s moral character and they’re bound to get defensive.

Here are a few of the most common arguments:

The alternative utilitarian calculation

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Surprisingly, most people attempt refute Singer on his own logical ground. “Don’t you see? Batkid promoted even more charity by inspiring others to give!” If this is true it’s worth knowing, but predictably no evidence is ever marshaled to backup this obvious post hoc defensive justification. We’re supposed to grant their implausible Rube Goldberg machine of Batkid-like events generating more charity in the long-run on faith.

I’m curious how far those making this type of argument are willing to take it. Would those advocating trickle-down charity be willing to redirect the money for starving children toward a large event for one child since, they claim, it would result in greater charity overall?

The “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” Defense

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It’s consistently amazing how often and for how long people have been persuaded by this nonsense. Are we really supposed to adhere to the standard that unless someone is perfectly moral they can never offer an ethical opinion themselves? If that’s the case, we’re condemning ourselves to moral stagnation.

The Cynical Gambit 

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It’s possible that cynics about human nature are right. Peter Singer explains the research that shows that “the plight of a single identifiable individual” will generate more charity than “a large number of people we cannot identify.”  But pointing out a flaw of human nature is not the same thing as pointing out the more moral act. Personally, I’m not so pessimistic. After all, some people are convinced by the moral logic that saving the lives of 3 kids is better than none. Moreover, Steven Pinker in his excellent The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined makes a compelling case that one of the major factors in civilization’s moral progress was the printing press. That suggests we are amenable to reason.

Just because we’re not condemned by our nature does not imply that we should ignore human psychology. It’s probable that human nature is so strong that no matter how eloquent a philosopher may be she’ll never convince parents that providing for their own children in lieu of more needy kids is also morally questionable. But I’m not giving up hope that society can work with our psychology to steer resources toward more beneficial outlets.

Stop being mean!

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This has to be the least persuasive and most troublesome defense.

I’m certainly not claiming the situation is perfectly analogous yet it’s reminiscent of Charles Greville’s diary from feudal England writing about the total buzz-kills who complain even in the face of aristocratic charity and the pleasurable lavishness at the Duke of Rutland’s banquet:

I should like to bring the surly Radical here who scowls and snarls at “the selfish aristocracy who have no sympathy with the people”, and when he has seen these hundreds feasting in the Castle, and heard their loud shouts of joy and congratulation, and then visited the villages around, and listened to the bells chiming all about the vale, say whether “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” would be promoted by the destruction of all the feudality which belongs inseparably to this scene, and by the substitution of some abstract political rights for all the beef and ale and music and dancing with which they are made merry and glad even for so brief a space.

Yes, many people were made happy by Batkid Day, but examining the full ledger of consequences of our ethical choices -even the ones that do good- is necessary to improve the human condition. Sorry that you’ve been made temporarily uncomfortable by someone’s argument that we can do better.

None of this should suggest that giving to suboptimal charities is a bad thing. I’m intimately familiar with the happiness that the Make-A-Wish Foundation can bring to deserving children and families. Events that create merriment aren’t a bad thing either, but we’re living in a world where unfortunately, as Bertrand Russell recognized in 1932, the real injustice is that we still have a political and economic system that requires so much private charity. So until we reform those systems that, for example, condemn people to poverty for being unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place and care for the profits of drug companies instead of caring for the ill, you might have to hear an occasional argument that suggests we could help others more in need. If we make logic rather than emotions our principle guide to our moral judgements we can stop being offended and avoid wasting old cans at food drives, cease lighting the fireplaces in our homes, abandon restrictive immigration laws, and better direct our charitable expenditures.

The cult of civility that protects anyone that might be offended by hearing an argument they might not agree with disregards the interests of those that don’t have the luxury to be so sensitive. Many people that could otherwise be living better lives go unheard because disrupting the status quo alters who benefits from our current moral choices, which undoubtably brings great delight to many people, and few of us like being the agitator. Yet if we have an opportunity to make different moral choices and expand human flourishing to a greater number of people we should. Whether you agree with Peter Singer or not, stop being offended and consider what he has to say.

(photo by Jeffery Coolidge)

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  1. Bill
    January 3, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    Great blog Dan. You raised many good points. When I volunteered for a local non-profit charitable education foundation there were several different philosophies amongst the board members as to how our funds would be spent. WE didn’t have a lot of money so an elaborate overindulgent event like Bat Kid never would have happened. Even so, with the money we did raise it was universally important to all of the board members that our funds were to be used in ways that would affect that the greatest number of students possible. Single students or even small groups were never singled out. I continue to support local initiatives that prevail in this thinking. Rarely do I donate to big box organizations that can afford to luxuriate without thought simply because they can afford to.

    One other point I was glad you raised what noted in the quote from Bertrand Russell, “the real injustice is that we still have a political and economic system that requires so much private charity.” This hit home for me and all of our board members who strongly believed that our education foundation would not fund things that should be paid for by the tax payers. As much as we wanted to at times. At a local level we saw so much need in our public school system and the reluctance of many tax payers to fund them. I began to see the same reality in the negligence of meeting many other societal needs on a broader national level. I hear rants and rages over the subsidizing of health care, but rarely a peep from the same people about our subsidizing of corporations at a much higher amounts. Imagine if we did reprioritize our budget and spending was available for what is now funded by charity. Maybe then events like Bat Kid would be the norm and spreading joy rather than ameliorating suffering would be the role of charity. How nice that would be.

  2. January 3, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Thanks for sharing your views, Bill. I especially like your thought about the changing role of charity in a more ideal system.

    Just for the record, since I don’t want to put words in the mouth of Russell, that isn’t a quote from him. I just tried to paraphrase his point. The actual quote:

    A hundred years ago, in a society now extinct, the point of view which puts charity above independence now seems to us grotesque. But in newer forms it still survives and is still politically powerful. It is this very same outlook which makes large numbers of people think it better that the unemployed should be kept alive by private benevolence than that they should have the legal right to support by the public authorities. In a just world, there would be no possibility of ‘charity’.

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