Ethics Hero: Bailout Bill
Ethicists have a self-destructive tendency to waste
time and trees musing over questions that really can never be answered
with finality, and that aren’t all that important anyway. The result,
over the last 2400 years or so, is to make ethics seem as dry as a soda
cracker and about as interesting.
One of those ethical theory dilemmas is how one should evaluate the goodness of an act — by the intentions behind it; by its nature; or by its actual results? I think it is an interesting question, but let me summarize my assessment of the most reasonable assertions to come out of the 2000 year debate:
And even those modest conclusions are murky. So how do we
evaluate the Ethics Hero at hand, the mysterious Bailout Bill? Is he really
an ethical man, or just a clever one?
Bailout Bill is a businessman, as yet unidentified, who
has been giving out cash to individuals in need in Washington, D.C. and
New York City, and will soon be doing the same in Boston and Philadelphia.
In D.C., the Washington Post reported, the anonymous man in beard and
sunglasses listened to the financial plights of “grandmothers without
health insurance, unemployed truckers, scores of homeless folks and destitute
mothers with children.” He turned no one away, and handed out amounts
ranging from fifty dollars to $350, over $50,000 in all. Some beneficiaries
used the money to pay parking tickets. A street artist used the money
to buy paper, pencils and an easel.
Bialout Bill doesn’t deny that this is a publicity stunt
to launch his new business, BailoutBooth.com, a website that will use
video ads to sell items, kind of a Craig’s List TV. According to the Post,
“Bill” and his partners decided that the cash hand-outs were a good way
to publicize the venture. He and his partners were contemplating spending
millions on a Superbowl commercial, but rather than giving the money to
an ad agency and a TV network, decided on the Bailout Bill gimmick.
Does the fact that Bailout Bill is giving money to needy
Americans to get publicity for his venture make his conduct less admirable
than, for example, a retired millionaire philanthropist doing the same
thing with no business objectives? To mix metaphors, let’s not look a
“Bailout Bill” in the mouth. Who knows why that theoretical retired millionaire
is giving his money away? Maybe he has a guilty conscience. Maybe he thinks
it will get him into Heaven. We all have secret motives. “Bill” is completely
open about his business objectives, but that doesn’t change the fact that
he chose an advertising option that is helping a lot of people in distress,
people for whom a mere $50 can make a big difference. He didn’t have to
do it. Few in his situation has made the same choice. Ethical acts don’t
have to hurt, and they certainly don’t have to be devoid of side benefits.
It’s hard enough to encourage ethical acts, without society
being cynical and dismissive of individuals who mix their ethics with
a little self-interest. This is especially true because creating an ethical
society is in everyone’s best interests. In that respect, ethical
conduct is always self-serving.
So here’s to you, Bailout Bill, whoever you are! Thanks
for picking human beings over the Superbowl. And The Ethics Scoreboard
hopes your website is a rousing success. You deserve it, and it might
cause some other entrepreneurs to think about helping themselves by helping