Sunday, January 30, 2005
Back then I thought telethons were entertaining. Partly I was a sucker for variety shows, but mostly I think I got off on the suspense of the tote board.
So today my local ABC affiliate is showing the United Cerebral Palsy Telethon. In more civilized markets, ABC's viewers are watching Shaquille O'Neal match up against Yao Ming. I've decided not to send in a donation.
Just yesterday I read a mediocre philosophy paper which set out to explain why it was that people are more likely to stop to help an injured stranger than to do things like send donations to telethons, even when the costs and benefits are the same in both cases. The author, who could have made the paper much better by taking account of the work of David Hume, argued that the injured stranger's presence engages our moral emotions directly, whereas we are able to think dispassionately about those helped by organizations like the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation.
Well, I don't know. Maybe the claim about moral emotions is true, but the discussion is hampered by the fact that the two cases are disanalagous in any number of relevant ways. Personally, I'd like money to be spent on palsy research and treatment. It doesn't follow, however, that I should feel in any way obligated to send a donation. Nor need this lack of feeling evidence a hard heart on my part. As it happens, my view is that more state resources should go to medical research and medical care, and that fewer resources should go to, say, missile defense shields.
There are two points here, so let me close by making each explicit. First, the appeal to differential emotional responses is unhelpful, since differences in our reactions to the cases are adequately explained by differences between the cases. Second, the local ABC affiliate really ought to be showing the basketball game.