Look! 2.0: R'ei 5774 by Cantor Lipp

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 9:53am -- lcanfield

The Ice Bucket Challenge. Blessing or Curse?

If you haven’t noticed or been challenged or been meditating by yourself on Mount Kilimanjaro without an internet connection for the past week, you might not know that the ALS association has been raising money by getting people to have ice water poured on them preceded by a video-taped challenge to other friends to do the same. Based on what I saw, the campaign qualified as viral and raised a significant amount of money for an important charitable organization.

Our Torah portion begins with the following: “Look, I place before you a blessing and a curse.” The blessing flows from hearing God’s commands and following them. The curse comes from ignoring same. According to Sforno, this is phrased in such a way as to avoid gray areas.

But how to evaluate whether a specific action, not mentioned in the Torah specifically, qualifies as one or the other?

Matthew Herper of Forbes is clearly on the Blessing side for three reasons: 1. It raises money for a good cause. 2. It encourages charitable behavior from people in general. 3. It raised enough money to really matter.

An alternate view comes from William MacAskill, research fellow in moral philosophy at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

MacAskill argues that for many people, doing good in a one-off kind of way allows for a phenomenon called moral licensing, the idea that doing one good deed leads people to compensate by doing fewer good deeds in the future. Ever hear someone say, “I did my mitzvah for the day”? This has been shown to be true in a number of scientific behavioral studies. Further, even for those who don’t feel they earned such a license, the likelihood for many who do give to ALS will be that they will not give to other worthy causes, an important opportunity cost taken from the research from other diseases that also need to be better studied, tamed and cured. Further, I doubt that many challengees checked Charity Navigator to make sure that giving to the ALS Association was a worthwhile thing to do. (I did; it is).

On the other hand, MacAskill offers the following caveat which is mentioned in Herper’s article but cannot be assumed. There is a countervailing psychological force called commitment effects which can supersede moral licensing. If giving to one place encourages habitual charitable giving, then the ice bucket challenge could lead to an exponential boon for other non-profits as well.

So, is the Ice Bucket Challenge a Blessing or a Curse?

If it led you to do something less than savory that you would have been less likely to do otherwise, then it’s a curse. If it kept you from donating to other worthy causes that will suffer as a result, it has the taint of curse associated with it.

If, however, it led you to be more giving habitually, I think it can be seen as an unadulterated blessing. 

After you dry yourself.

Shabbat Shalom.

David Lipp