Just got home from running the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge, my annual gesture towards embracing running as “natural”, and also my good deed for the year. After all, the proceeds go to Barnardo’s (in London anyway, and there are other events around the world, it’s a big deal if you’re a suit). So it’s a good thing to be involved with, right?
But I started thinking a little about Clay Shirky’s idea of cognitive surplus (apologies for linking to TED if you’re a TED cynic) and wondered if there’s an ethical equivalent.
For instance, I did the run today out of a combination of obligation to former colleagues, a wish to do something charitable, the ease of this particular charitable deed (all I had to do was show up, run, then eat free bananas! Free Bananas, y’all!), and a gesture towards a form of fitness I don’t enjoy but know I should do more of.
So it was an easy good deed, and pulling out at the last minute would have made me look bad. Enough about me, why do JP Morgan do it?
Depending on your level of cynicism, it’s a CSR initiative, upholding the traditional sense of responsibility to the community that many of these financial institutions were built on (many moons ago, by Benjamins-loving dinosaurs in top hats), and creates ripples of benefit to contractors, agencies, the charities themselves, participants, and the beneficiaries of the chosen charities…
it’s a giant tax write-off enabling a greed-monster to wear a bib of benefaction as it shovels your money into its greasy maw.
Or something inbetween, of course (curse my Western binary mindset!).
So the governing factor here seems to be convenience. JP Morgan scrape the loose change from all their leather sofas into a sack, hand said sack to a contractor who does all the work, and claim publicly to be invested in “giving back”. I roll up at Battersea Park, having done bugger all in the way of training and expended minimal mental calories beyond the occasional “gotta run soon, should practice, maybe? ah, screw it”, run for twenty-something minutes, and get bananas (which are free).
Should doing good be so “easy”? That’s a loaded question that can easily disappear into a swirl of “nothing’s-ever-selfless” shenanigans which has been touched on by many smarter people. There was even an episode of Friends about it, for crying out loud.
So instead, take that twenty-something minutes. I could spend it on Kickstarter, engaging with other people’s ideas to see which I might want to publicise on social media, or even back. I could spend it mentoring a kid (although I doubt they let you do that in 20 minute sessions), so fine, I could volunteer to teach my girlfriend’s nephews and nieces something, or even just babysit them for a bit. I could wash the windows in my building. I could actually take that 20 minutes and sort all my un-needed clothing, walk it up the road to a charity shop or clothes recycling point, and have achieved that same good-for-others-and-good-for-me super-combo-hit. Hado0u-KEN!
None of these deeds would be massive, but would represent roughly the same amount of effort from me, and I wonder if they might not represent more of a tangible impact than whatever portion of my registration fee (which I can’t quote for you, because the company paid it) ends up with Barnardo’s. It’s not just cognitive surplus, this twenty minutes, its also ethical surplus. I have effort assigned somewhere in my worldview/timeline for ethical expenditure, clearly. So how to maximise it? How could that 20 minutes be best spent? “Best” is probably impossible to calculate, but there must be a tier of optimal alternatives whose utility is greater than most.
But it’s not only about others, is it? (Is anything, ever? See, we’re back to Friends already!)
I had fun. It was nice to see old colleagues, I actually enjoyed the run (maybe because of Paleo, maybe because I didn’t try to sprint the whole thing this year, maybe because the gentle raindrops were to me as the divinely refreshing perspiration of the Banana Goddesses). It was a blast, and was time spent out in the fresh air doing something with my body.
If someone whose motives we suspect organises something we’d happily participate in, and would almost certainly enjoy, should we “Just Do It”? Or should we instead ask our social circle what we could throw together that would serve a similar (or better) purpose?
Should we look local and organise, rather than letting the 1% facilitate our ethical ventures? Is any good done simply better than none at all? Is that argument in its turn just the kind of sloth-justifying rationalisation that has created the well-trained and largely passive consumer of modernity?
When Spider-man heard Doc Ock had created the technology to end global warming, even after Ock proved he could do it, Spidey doubted him. He gathered a small band together and fought on, past the defeat of the Avengers, their mind-controlled assault on him, the worldwide bounty put on his head, and uncovered Doc Ock’s real plan, to destroy almost everything, leaving only a rag-tag band of survivors (Spidey included) who’d have to live with the knowledge that they’d let a madman destroy almost everything, leaving only a rag-tag band of survivors… etc. Spidey knows a villain is always a villain, even when they’re creating tools for good.
Life isn’t a comic. But who’s in Hackney and has ideas for spending some ethical surplus?
Mouthwash now, before bed. Those bananas have a funky aftertaste.