The Ice Bucket Dilemma: To Dump or Be Dumped

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We like to think moral dilemmas are few and far between, mainly because they’re a pain in the ass. But life isn’t all rainbows and butterflies and Ke$ha awesomeness. For example, the ALS ice bucket challenge running rampant on Facebook has managed to raise the hackles of no less than three different types of people: animal lovers, pro-lifers, and those of us who chafe at moral extortion.

I didn’t know that research into ALS involves drilling holes into live mice, as actress Pamela Anderson recently claimed. To be honest, I didn’t even think about or look into it because, even though I’m an animal lover, I support testing on animals if the benefits to humans outweigh the suffering of the animals. Now, it looks like the ALS Association denies that their research involves turning mice into swiss cheese or that monkeys are having “chemicals injected into their brains and backs and later killed and dissected.” But it’s clear they do utilize animals for research to some degree, and seem to be making progress.

In the irony department, the evangelical producers of the singularly bad film God’s Not Dead encouraged their Facebook fans to do the ice bucket challenge for ALS only to find out that one of the avenues of promise for ALS research is the use of embryonic stem cells. Oopsie.

And, lastly, the moral dilemma. I was challenged by two different Facebook friends. I love them both dearly, but I declined because I have an inherent aversion to being guilted into doing anything. Perhaps this comes from being raised in a fairly fire-and-brimstone church for the first 18 years of my life, I don’t know. And it’s not that I don’t think that ALS is a worthy cause. It is.

I went about not participating pretty quietly. I just originally shared an article by Will Oremus at Slate that I thought made a good case for not joining in: his “no-ice-bucket challenge” simply says to donate money to ALS. Then, not only have you contributed to a worthy cause, “but you’ve done your part for the environment by conserving the energy and fresh water required to make and transport large bags of ice.” Though I must confess that I did take particular relish in re-posting the meme of George W. Bush getting ice water dumped on his head with the caption: “That awkward moment when…you realize you’ve just reminded everyone of your career waterboarding people.” But I digress.

Posting an article encouraging people to donate money to ALS is still raising awareness for the disease, no? All my friends will see the article — at least the ones who haven’t blocked me for my political rants or my ridiculous Ke$ha crush — and thereby be made aware of ALS. Same end, different means.

But it’s much easier to just go with the flow instead of examining the devilish details of our social dilemmas. If you’re the type of animal rights activist who believes that charges of murder should be applied to the killing of animals and not just humans, it’s a no-brainer—you will not be dumping a bucket of ice on your head to support ALS. Likewise, if you’re a fundamentalist Christian who believes that embryonic stem cell research “kills babies,” as some of the God’s Not Dead Facebook fans have stated. There are varying degrees of the two, of course.

I admit that the situation is a bit easier for those of us who simply chafe at moral extortion. I mean, what does it really cost us to dump a bucket of ice water on our heads? What is moral extortion, you ask? It’s the subtle — and sometimes not so subtle —implication that if you don’t do what I ask then you’re a bad person. And, everyone in your Facebook friends’ list will know it. And the implication is there even if you’re the type of person who would dump ice water on your head, charity or no charity. The nature of extortion is that it comes from an external party. In this case, it’s your Facebook.

After I had posted the Oremus article, and started sharing some other dissenting articles and memes, I started seeing some vaguebooking posts criticizing the criticizers — two from people who even said they didn’t personally know anyone with ALS. So after the initial subtle extortion attempts, the moral shaming became more overt — an indication that it’s not enough for us to just do a good deed and feel good about it. We want others to be obliged to do what we did.

Sometimes you lose “friends,” and even friends, because of certain social media interactions. Usually, those episodes are related to religion or politics, but the hive-think of social media may even be able to turn the decision of whether or not to participate in a charity event into an issue that’s divisive enough. Dilemmas suck. And the nature of moral dilemmas is that we each have to decide for ourselves, no one can decide for us.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Mohammed can’t tell you what you should do. Neither can Krishna; nor the ghosts of Buddhas past; nor the conscientious secular humanist pasting up a godless billboard across the street. The sorry truth is, no one can tell you what you should do. Not even the cousins, friends, and forgotten classmates clogging up your newsfeed with grainy videos of ice crashing over their heads.

Obviously, moral dilemmas come in varying degrees — some deal with life and death, some can be softened with a good bottle of wine, and some can probably be ignored without losing a wink of sleep. But it’s always a uniquely personal decision. In this case, to dump or be dumped, that is the question. Only you can answer it to your satisfaction.

Steve Neumann is a writer, TAGteacher, and philosophile. He tweets at @JunoWalker, and used to blog at Rationally Speaking.