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Con: Unjustified Means for Moral Comfort
[Debate] Is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge a Form of First World Luxury?
[ Issue 132 Page 11 ] Sunday, January 18, 2015, 01:17:51 Dongsung Park Staff Reporter dstompark@gmail.com


[Debate] Is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge a Form of First World Luxury?

Despite the increase in ALS research donations from the publicity it gained through the challenge, much criticism have also voiced that the challenge is either socially ineffective or more of a publicity stunt in the form of superficial benevolence. Is the challenge truly a socially positive activity or is it in fact a moral luxury only those from the first world can enjoy?


The Ice Bucket Challenge is a modern wonder; United not by traditional means but cyber proximity, portions of the world with Internet can now easily share a cause, and the,Internet imparting to individuals greater autonomy on their nature of participation in the cause than offline makes possible the global movements we have seen in recent years (such as KONY 2012 and "Neknominate"). However, the Ice Bucket Challenge is much more alarming than past "slacktivist" or entertainment-driven movements in its illustration of how influential they actually are. Ultimately, it is nothing but a "healthy man's burden" for those who can afford it.

The apparent dilution of purpose is the most common. Observed from common partakers to celebrities and even in commercially driven corporate advertisements (Samsung Galaxy S5) are the mindless, simple demonstrations of throwing chilled water upon oneself that easily misplaces the attention to the action itself rather than to those who suffer from ALS. Several notable individuals (e.g. Charlie Sheen) criticized how much participation revolved more around watering each other than donating, which is the original purpose. On a personal note, I have seen videos on Facebook of individuals allotting little to no time in perpetuating the ALS cause then proceeding to enjoy the moral licensing after the ultimately useless deeds, rendering the campaign a pretentious socializing event in the guise of wealthy generosity. The hardship in resolving the issue stems ironically from the campaign's good intent, as it is easy to claim devotion to the cause after uploading a video of self-inflicted pain in the name of empathy but difficult to elaborately criticize not the act but its motivation. Consequently, the ease in participation is what leads to its adulteration.

From the societal viewpoint, the campaign raises the problem of needs distortion and zero sum philanthropy. In Vox's infographic "Where We Donate vs. Diseases That Kill Us" we can see that there is a disparity between the urgency and attention given. The ALS Association reported that total donations between July 29 and August 29 capped $100 million, which aggravates the imbalance. William MacAskill argued in his articles that the campaign has brought about "funding cannibalism," by which the donations for the ALS Association were in fact from what would have gone to other charities and that a considerable portion of the donations would have been made default. Although donations are personal choices, which cannot be argued purely on the grounds of logical, economic optimization, the degree of distortion from "effective altruism," a social movement aiming to maximize the effectiveness of charity, is definitely a disconcerting indication of how our priorities may have been misplaced. 

The final point to address is that the campaign guides donations towards the ALS Association without justification. Admittedly, it is the largest research and aid association for the disease, but apart from that reason the choice seems arbitrary. In the videos, at no point is it explained where and how the money will be used or why they would require additional funds. Also, there are many aspects of the ALS Association that would prove morally problematic to certain activists and religions. For example, the association participates in embryonic stem cell research and animal testing. In fact, Professor Lee from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea has brought the prior reason to the Catholics' attention and pleaded to find other methods of helping ALS sufferers and multiple celebrities have declined to partake in the campaign for the latter reason. Regardless of the nature of the activities in question, these are aspects that need to be acknowledged prior to donation. In aiming for a simple and punch line like video messages, the complicated nature of donations is downplayed and promotes a mechanical activity lacking sincerity.

Back to the question, then what is the Ice Bucket Challenge? I have heard claims that it is the modern miracle in which everyone sacrifices for the greater good, like the Gold Gathering of 1997 in Korea. With much caution, I state my belief that the challenge is only an Internet fad that happened to result in goodness, which still embodies much complications. There is less to learn from its positives (which stops at garnering large donations for the ALS cause) than how easily society can be swayed away from effective altruism by appealing to morality through rather shallow acts of devotion leading to what could be interpreted as mass hysteria. In that this is a manifestation of our desires to be the Good Samaritan while also being too bothered to delve deeper into the severity of the causes, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a first world luxury afforded by the lack of sincere empathy to hardship.

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