Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dear Sam

When you're busy raising money and trying to make sure paychecks don't bounce, you don't have a lot of time to blog. So, you just repost worthwhile emails:
Dear Sam:

So i have a CoolPeopleCare-related question. I am interviewing for a job next week to teach religious studies at a private high school and I have to teach a global ethics class. The teacher told me she wants the students to do something related to This Washington Post article, "Where the conscience meets the checkbook" about how hard it is to get people to help others far away, like in Burma, and yet if a child was drowning in front of them, they'd immediately run to help. The columnist talks about the utilitarian argument of ethics and how some argue the greater good should be most important (not helping a few individuals), which he said doesn't work. I'm wondering if you could help me think of some cool activity or thing to show a class of senior girls? I was obviously going to have them discuss the article, but something that's visual or more active would be awesome.

Thanks for your time,
Here are my thoughts.

I perused the article you reference and agree that you need to do more than discuss or agree/disagree. I'd start from the standpoint that the author's argument is true - that people act more when it's close to home. If you need more proof, check out this link about recent giving in the wake of tragedy.

More money went to Katrina than the tsunami or Burma, even though there were far (FAR) fewer deaths. Why is that?

In other words, I'd ask the class the question, "If a kid drowns in Burma, and no one's around to notice, does it matter?"

Of course if does, like Gandhi's son said in the Post article. But how can it matter TO US? That's the real question of ethics, whether you're a utilitarian or not - human behavior mainly operates on the question of what does it matter TO ME.

So, nonprofits and different causes can do one of two things. They can tell people that something (people dying in Burma) matters and then only the most altruistic among us will care. Or they can show me how it matters to me - and this is where the excitement (for me) comes in.

Thus, I'd have the students come up with campaigns on their own, based on the article (and maybe some other readings) to get people to care by showing them how it matters - to girls at this school for example. So, maybe the flyer/brochure/plea is exactly the drowning one: you wouldn't let a kid drown in the Potomac. Don't let them drown in the Pacific either. And maybe, the equivalent of pulling a drowning kid out of the water is a $3 donation. Skip a latte.

In effect, you're then shifting the conversation. It changes back from how it matters to me to just how it matters. You've heightened my awareness by showing that the kid matters to me more than the latte. If I could draw via email, I'd show you a you trace the steps of this argument (which is at its core an ethical one) back to where you started, and where Gandhi's son ends the article.

Let me know if you have any questions. Or if you know any social investors.

Comments (2)

Excellent response! You've hit on what every high school/middle school kid wants: Empowerment. Not only does your response show that the kid in Burma matters, it shows that kid in suburbia USA matters as well.

Congrats on the book and even more on the work you are doing!

-- Fellow SU grad

I slightly disagree with the statement made in the e-mail posted. "And yet if a child was drowning in front of them, they'd immediately run to help," really? May be it is correct, everyone will help a drowning child, but just because the problems exist in front of us, it doesn't mean that we will solve them or even care about them. Every large city has children that are struggling to survive, yet I am willing to bet, they do not receive a lot of help from the individual members of the community. When I was in New-York, I saw two children begging for money on the street. Almost 20 people went by, and five gave them couple coins. Nobody stopped and offered to help.

Helping other countries is a necessary thing to do, but first we probably have to ask ourselves whether we are trying to help the people who live one block down the street.

Michael Loban
Social Entrepreneurship Digest Editor