Ethics Case Study #2: Senior Gift

The last post I wrote about parts of my ethics that my friends label as ‘Christian,’ several commenters wrote in to take issue with the idea that Christians had a monopoly on that strand of moral thought.  I thought I’d run another example by you all, since my resolution to a  recent dilemma had my atheist friends snickering and saying, “You are such a Catholic!

So here’s the situation: My university is in the middle of the drive for the Senior Class Gift and plenty of students disagree about whether anyone should contribute to our school’s large endowment, rather than any one of a number of worthwhile groups.  At some schools (luckily not ours this year), the whole thing becomes an exercise in poisonous social coercion, since there are bounties for full participation.

Nevertheless, I donated five dollars.

When the student assigned to badger me showed up in my room, I was frustrated and a little angry.  While I was arguing with her, I knew I was feeling spiteful and very proud of the principled stand I was taking.  I was in the kind of mood that builds into grudges, and I didn’t want to stay that way, so I gave the minimum donation and then donated $20 to Doctors Without Borders, to make up for the misspent money.

I still think the drive is a bad idea, and prone to abuse, but, in the moment, I was the one behaving badly (even though I was behaving politely to the person I spoke to).  It was worth donating to nip my spite and pride in the bud.  But when I told my friends I donated to avoid “holding anger in my heart,” again with the “So when are you converting?” cracks.

It’s obviously easy to summarize the situation in a Catholic framework: my pride in a small righteousness was leading me to sin against a classmate in my heart, but I think the principle works in an atheist framework of virtue ethics.  Do other atheists agree?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Anonymous

    I haven't donated to the class gift. I just don't see many compelling reasons to do so. But I completely understand the appeal of donating just so you don't have to think about it or deal with several friendly reminders to donate and offers to have a conversation with you about the merits of doing so.

  • Eitan

    Not a virtue ethicist here but in any case..To begin, donating to DWOB is admirable.Regarding donating to college:There are two interesting competing hypotheses:1. Spending small amounts of money on things not in accordance with what is ethical guilts me into donating more money ethically than I would have otherwise.2. Spending small amounts of money on things not in accordance with what is ethical is spending money that I would have otherwise kept/accumulated/invested to be able to instead spend ethically.I am tempted to say that #2 seems the stronger case almost all of the time. Rarely is #1 necessary, as it seems there are far better ways to induce an occasional $20 donation to DWOB than to waste $5 on non-ethical things.This means that it appears that the best strategy is in fact to withhold in the face of peer pressure, and redirect the principled stance into a translated donation wholly (gaining a hint of moral superiority as revenge for the unsolicited visit). Basically, if the alternative would have been $25 DWOB, $0 College, there is no doubt that this is the better outcome. The question boils down to whether this would in fact have been the case in the long term.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com/ NFQ

    When you phrase it, "holding anger in my heart," I can see how that sounds like Christianese. I don't know much about virtue ethics per se but I can see an entirely valid atheist framework behind that donation. You realized that you valued your good mood more than you valued resisting the senior gift on principle and getting angry. More than $5 at least. So you gave $5, but your willingness to give to a cause you don't support reminded you that you actually can afford to give to a cause that you do — and presumably you valued your good mood about $25, since that's what you ended up paying to preserve it.

  • Ferny

    Yeah, it sounded very Catholic. Then again, my functioning moral system doesn't really account for anger or spite, which I think are actually fantastic motivators.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10019240793982424774 Christian H

    "You realized that you valued your good mood more than you valued resisting the senior gift on principle and getting angry. More than $5 at least. So you gave $5, but your willingness to give to a cause you don't support reminded you that you actually can afford to give to a cause that you do — and presumably you valued your good mood about $25, since that's what you ended up paying to preserve it."I think this is significantly more than paying for a good mood. If you didn't think that your behaviour was ethical, it wouldn't produce a good mood; there must therefore be some other mechanism, one to do with ethics, in play.For instance, based on the discussion of avoiding grudges, I'd say it might have something to do with character formation (ie. trying to avoid becoming an angry person). Is this right, Leah? I seem to recall that you like the idea of building good character.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    Ditto on this as a character building exercise. I'm surprised your Atheist friends wouldn't jump at the fact that you are giving credence to a kind of atheistic morality, which has always seemed very realtivistic, person-to-person to me. I say, good for you!In terms of Christians having the monopoly, I would say, it is more that Christians have the framework and the basis for being good and moral; it's part of our theology. I don't think it's very charitable to say you are going to convert because you did a good deed. But perhaps you are being affected by Catholicism- that isn't surprising, considering you are dating a Catholic.In any case, Doctors without Borders is a good cause!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    Wait, why and how did Christianity develop the "framework" that somehow encompasses this? Just because Jesus talked about what comes out of the heart as being more important than the vessels holding the food that goes in?Are you just saying that Christianity was the first religion to come along and discuss internal "sin" as being as important or more so than external?Could I make the case that internal "sin" (bad thoughts, anger, grudges, etc.) increases the probability that one will take external action (transforming "potential" wrongs into "actual" wrongs) and thus it is ethical to eliminate internal "sin"? Then perhaps couple that with internal sin leading to an overall decrease in happiness and being more or less unproductive… and you have another incentive to eliminate them.Lastly, your donation, while good in and of itself sounds like it was almost an act of spite. As in, "I hate that I just caved for such a stupid cause so I'm going to get even by donating to what I think is a great cause." Is that even remotely accurate? Perhaps most "virtue" centered would have been to lock the door, sit in a chair for 10min and think through the situation — how could I hold my ground in the future to avoid post-action regret/anger, how can I move toward accepting the situation and that my money is gone, how could I advocate for non-participation next year to have an impact, etc.?Anyway, there's a jumble of thoughts. Primarily I'm still interested in what gives Christianity the "framework" that describes these things so well. He who said it first invented it? Kind of like that?Oh, and what about evolutionary roots to your intuition/emotional response (that's what I see your reaction as) that ill-will is "bad." Do you think that psychology explains, even slightly satisfactorily, your desire not to hold a grudge in an alternative framework?Lastly, say the answer to the above is "yes" — I very much get the difficult with moving from that into the ethics field and bridging the is/ought gap… so that's a whole separate issue.Perhaps that's why Christianity has the monopoly? They just say that incarnate god man said that the rules are what the rules are… thus it made the rules and formed the ethical framework?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    I admit some of these questions always baffle me because they seem to arise from interesting analogies and misinformation. I never said, for example, that Christianity was the first, although I think the Church would say internal sin is of the same weight as external–they are both sins which need to be faced, absolved, and repented from, although the size (venial v. mortal) would also be under consideration.Religion is not a race. The Catholic Church, nonetheless, is unique and certainly running strong since its beginning, staying strong despite man's weakness and failings, convincing people of its Truth despite the members who fail to uphold it. It is the only religion that has a Savior who loves us so much that he came down to earth, humbled himself to be born to two lowly parents, was raised by a carpenter, preached to all people and allowed himself to die a humiliating death for the salvation of our souls. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and backed it up through the resurrection. That happened. Christianity has roots in Judaism; thus, when Jesus came as the fulfillment of the law, he established his Church upon earth over 2,000 years ago. The Church has since expounded upon this framework much more eloquently and prolifically. The Church has not folded, even when wicked men who should protect it weaken it, because it is guided and protected by the Holy Spirit. Christians, generally-speaking, do not arbitrarily make up "the rules." They are fully based in Scripture. This framework comes from divine revelation, as well as a continuing certain traditions. Christianity is not based on someone's whim or preference for good rather than bad. All things stem from Christ, who assisted in the framework through his words, life, actions. Yes, he said it, and we happily comply to imitate and be more like him.I think I've done a poor job here, but mainly because it is difficult to even establish a basis if people do not recognize the cause. The Gospel reading today does a much better job of why we listen, follow the rules, and conform our ethics to his words: http://www.ewtn.com/vbible/search.asp?abbr=Mark&ch;=9&bv1;=14&ev1;=29Pax tecum!

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    My read of this situation is that your gift to DWB was a way to prove to yourself that you were upset because you objected to the idea of coerced donation, not to the idea of charitable donation per se. And I think it's a good idea, generally, to act in ways that remind us of our own principles. When I see homeless people on the street asking for change, I almost always refuse. I choose that because I have no way to know how they're going to use it, and it's not possible to tell the truly needy people apart from con men or drug addicts. (I admit I may be somewhat disillusioned by several occasions when I offered to buy food for someone who claimed to be hungry and was refused.) But I don't like to think of myself as selfish, and I'd much rather give my money – and I do try to give money consistently – to a charity like Feeding America that I know will spend it wisely toward the same end.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11174257204278139704 Charles

    I don't think I understand what a "senior gift" is, why is it unethical to donate to a fund for a gift? Am I misunderstanding something with this story? I understand what your point is regarding your decision, by why is their controversy over donating small amounts of money to a fund for a gift? Do the folks who want the money to go to a 'more worthy' cause donate 100% of their discretionary spending to worthy causes?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    My take (from Psych 101) would have been that:1. You felt bullied into handing over the $5 donation (either through fear of developing an unwanted grudge or simply being badgered into it)2. You felt frustrated that you had relented, angry that you'd been put in that situation and wanted to lash out3. You lashed out at the closest person, yourself, to the tune of $20, however, you being you, the money went to a good cause4. You rationalised an emotional act and are now looking for justifications that fit within a different framework than you originally usedI think that might be the take home message – people who are brought up in, or around, a certain way of viewing the world often use that as their initial intellectual justification for things that simply aren't intellectually justifiable. You did an irrational, impulsive and emotion driven thing. It was a good thing, but could equally well have been punching the wall or screaming into your pillow.


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