Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Questionable Praise

Suppose your children were dying of starvation, and they didn't have access to running water or medicine. They don't have food, or a roof, or a source of income, or any hope of improving their position. Somebody sees that you're in trouble, and offers you some money to try to help you out. Now suppose there's also this group of people, the X people, and you strongly believe that it's morally wrong to be an X person. Suppose, even, for the sake of argument that your moral belief is justified. Hell, I'm feeling generous; let's make it both justified and true: you know it's wrong to be X. And this guy who's offering you money, he doesn't really see much of a problem with being X. In fact, he treats X people the same way he treats other people, and sometimes he even ignores their Xness and puts them in positions of responsibility and authority. So you look at your starving children (you, personally, are generally well-fed), and then the pile of money that could help them, and then you think about how the money is coming from somebody who thinks it's ok to be X, and so you turn the money down. "No thanks", you say, "I'd rather not feed my children with money from people like you." And now you're a hero.


  1. That link is the most upsetting thing I've read in recent memory.

  2. Likewise. I had to read it a couple of times before I could believe what it said.

  3. That's definitely a very upsetting and sad link. But I'm curious about the situation in the abstract. It seems to me that there are two distinct kinds of X, which then each break down into three somewhat distinct situations. The two kinds of X are one in which you believe that the wrongness involves a victim who suffers some kind of harm or loss, and one in which it doesn't. Inside each of these situations, it seems to me is to be somewhat different if the person merely approves of X, versus practicing X but not having the money come from the practice of X, with the most extreme situation being that not only do they practice X, but the money has come from the practice of X. In my thought experiments, I used stealing for X. It's perhaps also a different case depending on what the money is going to be used for, whether it's absolutely vital for someone's future life and health, or whether it's just something that would be useful. But I'm not sure about any of this, so I wondered what your thought was about the abstract situation.

  4. Interesting question, Alexis.

    Here's a different question that is probably harder. (I actually think it's only marginally harder, and the answer is the same, but I know that's more controversial. I'm trying to say only uncontroversial things in this post, because it doens't take anything controversial to think that this refusal to take money is morally atrocious.) The harder version of the question is this: if you are offered money by an X person -- again, we are assuming that it is morally wrong to be X -- is it ok to take it and use it for good?

    Maybe it's bad to be sponsored by bad people. And if the money is coming from the badness, that might be even more problematic. "We're only getting this money because of all that terrible Xing that's going on; we shouldn't profit off of sins, even when they're other people's sins."

    Personally, I don't like that argument, and I think that people in a position to save lives ought to take what opportunities they're given, and save lives. But again, set this aside.

    The real case before us is not one in which a bad (an X) person is offering us money -- it's one in which an apparently-misguided person, who doen't recognize that it's bad to be X, offers money. So here's a good guy with good motives and a few bad moral beliefs about whether it's ok to be X. And he's offering money that can save lots of lives and improve living situations. How can you turn that down and pretend to be taking the moral high ground?

  5. I agree with you that it's clear that your last question is answered by "you can't." To me, the case where you're given the money by somebody who doesn't participate in the X, whatever they believe, it's unambiguous that it's OK to take the money, especially if it's being put to very good use. (And imperative to take it where it's being put to life-saving use.) Because the money really has nothing to do with their belief. I would in fact argue that if X is an activity which has no victim (the person in my previous post who suffers harm or loss as a result of ask), then no matter how closely related the money is to the activity, it's still OK/imperative to take it. I would probably go so far as to say that if the person participates and ask, but the money doesn't come from X and isn't available only because the person engages in X, then it is still OK/imperative.

    But I do have difficulty in the abstract with the idea that you should take "dirty money" (money available exactly because a person engages in an X with a victim) and it's okay because you put it to a sufficiently good use. My understanding of utilitarianism is that it would suggest that this is true, and your statement in the middle paragraph would suggest that you also think this is true. I'm starting to feel a tendency to split hairs and say that I would be more and OK with this in the situation that somebody didn't engage in X for the purpose of giving you the money, the but it simply turned out that they wanted to give you the money that they got from it. Obviously this is so far away from the situation mentioned in your link that is really not relevant to that, but I think it is an interesting ethical issue. I also think I've strayed into Jean Valjean territory here... I suppose it is true that the money is somewhere regardless, and if it goes to a sufficiently better use with you, like saving lives, then maybe it doesn't really matter where it came from. But how good does the use have to be, and how bad can X be? Or am I asking the wrong questions now?

  6. Wrong questions? No such thing here, I think. Your questions are both interesting and tangential to what my post was about.

    Utilitarianism doesn't deliver an obvious verdict in the cases you describe, because long-term consequences depend on lots of factors. There's an argument to be made that refusing to take bad money would, in the long term, cause better consequences. It's a hard calculus to figure out.

    Accordingly, as a utilitarian, I think it's a hard question of applied ethics, whether to accept money in the situation you describe.

    But again, I want to emphasize that it's not at all a hard question in the actual case at hand.

  7. And I absolutely agree.

    Thanks for the note about long-term consequences -- I think that's my main concern when I think about the more abstract situation.