About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
Redirecting the charitable impulse
Being an extremely didactic dialogue, in which the rules of polite conversation are flouted for the sake of philosophy and truth. All characters are fictional; no interlocutors were traumatized in the making of this dialogue.
Mia: So, what did you get up to this weekend?
Gallant: I spent Saturday playing a basketball tournament for Balls For The Cure.
Mia: Cool, I assume that’s a fundraiser? What for?
Gallant: Testicular cancer. My uncle died of it, so I figured it’s the least I could do.
Mia: Sorry to hear about your uncle. Why raise funds for testicular cancer, though?
Gallant: Because that’s what my uncle died of.
Mia: Right, I know. What I’m saying is... let me see if I can express this properly, without pissing you off. You cared for your uncle, obviously.
Mia: And it’s terrible that he’s dead. Why do you care that it was testicular cancer that killed him, though?
Gallant: That is the disease that took him away from us! What do you mean, ‘why do I care?’ Isn’t it obvious?
Mia: No, not really. He would be just as dead if he had died of heart disease. I think the bad thing about your uncle dying is, well, that your uncle suffered and then died. Not that testicular cancer in particular killed him. You’re treating his death as if it were a murder, and we had to punish the culprit — testicular cancer.
Gallant: Well, we do! That disease has taken away too many people’s lives!
Mia: Indeed it has... so has flying debris. But there are other diseases that take away or ruin people’s lives, and some of them ruin many, many more people’s lives than testicular cancer. Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on curing or preventing the commonest ones, the deadliest ones, and the most easily remedied ones? That way we could help more people with the same amount of time, effort and money.
Gallant: You don’t understand. This isn’t about numbers. That disease took away my uncle, personally.
Mia: Okay, fair enough. I can see you want to honour your uncle’s memory. One way of doing that is by supporting testicular cancer research. That is a good idea, ceteris paribus.
Gallant: I don’t speak Latin, but thanks. I’m glad I have your permission.
Mia: Or you could think about the fact that the bad thing is that he died, not that he died of any one specific disease. You would be just as sad if he had died of a heart attack, wouldn’t you?
Gallant: I guess.
Mia: What I’m saying is that the bad thing here that we should want to prevent is suffering and death for people like your uncle, not testicular cancer per se. If testicular cancer didn’t lead to suffering and death, there would be no need to worry about it very much. So any action that prevents suffering and death is a great way to honour your uncle. Also, you presumably want to honour your uncle because he was a good person. So any action that does good in the world is also a great way to honour your uncle, even if it has nothing to do with testicular cancer in particular — maybe it’s as unrelated as funding a school in a developing nation! Just do the most good stuff, or prevent the most bad stuff, that you possibly can.
Gallant: But none of that is related to my uncle!
Mia: On the contrary, if your uncle was a good person who didn’t deserve to suffer and die, nothing could be more related to him and to his memory than promoting the good, whereas testicular cancer qua testicular cancer is totally unrelated to everything that makes your uncle worth remembering.
Gallant: Okay, look, I’ve got to go, this is my stop. See you.
Mia: I thought you said you were going to downtown...
Gallant: No, I forg... This is my stop.
Mia: Sure, of course this seat’s not taken!