Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bone to pick

[This is a "repost" of something I wrote before beginning this blog. As such, some of its links are already stale, but the argument is as fresh as a daisy.]

About three weeks ago, I ran across an article which was complaining that a web site owner was directing his fans to donate to homeless dogs. The article wasn't saying that dogs shouldn't have homes, but "with 800 million people suffering from hunger, I think we have slightly more pressing issues to worry about."

I've heard this argument one way or another many times. "How can you give your money to provide computers to low-income households when you could give it to provide food for starving children?" On the face of it, it sounds legitimate, but this line of reasoning leads to the "One Most Worthy Cause" problem.

Note, I didn't come up with this idea, I'm just propagating it. After one of these appeals to give to one cause over another, someone replied and pointed out the problem with the line of reasoning. It resonated with me, and now I get this twitch in my brain every time I hear the argument.

Anyway, the problem is this: if you cannot justify giving to a "lesser" cause when a "greater" one exists, then there must be just One Cause above all the others, to which all money must go. Which is more important? Starving children, or children with cancer? Pretend there's a way to decide. Then you have to let one of them go until the more worthy cause is "solved."

I've been getting into this site lately called 'whatsbetter.com', which shows you two things, and you pick which is better. The choice that came up right now is "Butterfinger" vs. "Really Old Game Shows". So, often times it's apples and oranges, but you're still encouraged to make a choice. The site scores all the votes by all the visitors and ranks all the (thousands of) items. It has a list of the top ten and the bottom ten. The worst right now is "Child pornography", and above that are "syphilis" and "colon cancer". Seventh from bottom is "testicular cancer". Yuck.

Anyway, let's say that this really is the list of the worst things. Given the "One Most Worthy Cause" line of reasoning, you can't donate to curing syphilis or testicular cancer until colon cancer is wiped out. If there's a charity to help the problem of child pornography, you have to donate to that, and cancer research stops.

By the way, when I looked at this a few weeks ago, "AIDS" was worse than "children with cancer", and we have to take care of them both before getting to "terrorism."

I don't want to feel guilty about not donating to children when I donate to protect civil liberties (for instance). To some extent, I think that's apples and oranges (do I want more/better children but no civil liberties, or are liberties more important than the lives of children?). In any case, I don't think anyone should feel guilty donating to dogs.
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