Critics pour cold water on the Ice Bucket Challenge: are they right?

In China, former basketball star Yao Ming takes the Ice Bucket Challenge at his NBA Yao School in Beijing. EPA/NBA Yao School

The Ice Bucket Challenge has been called “one of the most viral philanthropic social media campaigns in history”. The campaign has raised the profile of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). But some have questioned whether campaigns like this one should really be looked at in such a positive light.

There is no disputing the public impact of the campaign. In the past few weeks the Ice Bucket Challenge — a fundraising drive to support ALS research and patient services — has spurred large-scale philanthropic activity. The New York Times reports that contributions totalled US$41.8 million between July 29 and August 21, attracting more than 739,000 new donors.

This seems a welcome development. After all, ALS is a debilitating disease that affects a significant number of people throughout the world. Alleviating the suffering of people who have the disease is surely a worthwhile goal.

Focusing on the charitable self

One worry concerns the motives of people giving. Do contributors care deeply about ALS, or do they just want to attract the esteem of others?

This worry seems misplaced. Even if people have mixed motives for promoting a good cause, it is still good that they promote it. And if people are more likely to give when they can gain some public recognition by doing so, fundraisers should take advantage of this.

Another worry is that such campaigns encourage people to respond immediately and unthinkingly when giving. Giving without thinking not only risks failing to do good, it may also lead us to do harm; some have argued that this was the case with the (similarly viral) KONY2012 campaign.

We share these concerns about philanthropic campaigns. In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, however, it’s quite hard to see how donations to this cause could do more harm than good, or would do no good at all.

The ‘bang for buck’ critique

A stronger criticism of the Ice Bucket Challenge is that there are alternative ways of spending charitable donations that would bring about greater good. ALS affects roughly two in every 100,000 people, and some have suggested that charitable donations could do more good if spent on things like bed nets to protect people from malaria.

Fighting malaria is a worthy goal, but do people really have a duty to bring about the biggest bang for their charitable buck? Do they act wrongly by responding to the needs of ALS sufferers instead?

Some moral doctrines, such as so-called act consequentialism, require that we aim to do what will bring about the best consequences. So donating to ALS when you can instead help buy malaria nets is wrong, according to such doctrines, when protecting people from malaria would do more good.

NSW attorney-general Brad Hazzard gets doused as the challenge sweeps Australia. AAP/Ehssan Veiszadeh

There are well-known objections to this kind of doctrine. One is that trying to bring about the best consequences can be debilitating and counterproductive, given the enormous difficulties involved in calculating the consequences of our actions.

More importantly, it seems unfair (not to mention churlish) to criticise someone who makes a meaningful contribution to an important cause that they care about just because some other cause is deemed more important. Criticising people for not getting the biggest bang for their charitable buck risks turning them off the idea of philanthropic giving altogether.

Doing some good in a world of need

If there were only a few morally important goals and we could easily say whose job it was to pursue each of them, we might then criticise people for doing something else instead. But our world is one in which there are morally important goals everywhere we look, and it is not clear whose job it is to pursue which goal. It’s not wrong to commit to helping one group of people in severe need, just because there are many other people in severe need.

We should distinguish doing what brings about the best consequences from doing what can be expected to bring about good consequences. It would take a great deal of research to find out which single charity does the most good with the least resources, but taking a look at websites Givewell.org for evidence about which are generally more efficient is surely a good start. Choosing a cause with almost no impact when you can instead choose a cause with a great deal of impact seems wrong.

So getting some bang for your buck matters, even if getting the biggest bang for your buck isn’t all that matters. Contributing to causes that you care about and feel invested in matters too.