Ethics Hero: Bailout Bill
(February 2009)

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:

  • Good but unintended results cannot justify bad conduct retroactively.
  • Non-ethical motives, such as self-interest, are involved to some degree in most, and perhaps all, good conduct. Pure altruism is too unusual to be the standard by which we judge ethical acts.
  • The best intentions cannot justify an act that is objectively wrong, BUT…
  • Good intentions and a good result may turn an act that would be considered unethical in another context into an ethical act. [Absolutists, however, do not agree.]

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,, 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 others.

Comment on this article


Business & Commercial
Sports & Entertainment
Government & Politics
Science & Technology
Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Scoreboard, ProEthics, Ltd., 2707 Westminster Place, Alexandria, VA 22305
Telephone: 703-548-5229    E-mail: ProEthics President

© 2007 Jack Marshall & ProEthics, Ltd     Disclaimers, Permissions & Legal Stuff    Content & Corrections Policy