The Ice Bucket Challenge: Does Motivation Matter?

The FINANCIAL -- In summer, social media were flooded with videos showing your friends (and celebrities of all levels of prominence) pouring buckets of icy water over their heads. While some people enjoyed watching this (and even participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge), many were unnerved by this charity campaign which was hardly distinguishable from an ordinary spam attack, were it not for the fact that now your friends and acquaintances were spamming you. A third group however, showed the most interesting reaction: they became moral about it.

For those who do not know what this is all about: the Ice Bucket Challenge was a campaign that aimed to raise funds for research in the treatment of a disease called ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), whose most prominent victim is the English Nobel Prize physicist Stephen Hawking. Most people agree that it is noble to provide funding for this cause, yet some said: “This campaign is about entertainment and competition, and people involved in it do not actually care about ALS.” There were even voices claiming that this was “narcissism behind the mask of altruism”.

This is an interesting criticism, because it claims that good deeds done for selfish motives are worthless. While those people expressing this criticism may not have been aware of it, the question how the motives of a deed relate to its moral value has not just remarkable philosophical depth but also practical implications for economics and law. Let us have a look…


If you are confronted with an ethical problem and want an unnatural philosophical answer, it is always advisable to turn to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). This philosopher set up a groundbreaking ethical system which fundamentally changed how the Western World thinks about concepts like freedom and moral duty. An impressive achievement for somebody who, during his whole lifetime, did not get further away than 30 kilometers from his home town Koenigsberg (today: Kaliningrad).

To say it briefly: Kant would not have participated in the Ice Bucket Challenger. Moreover, he would have condemned it on the very same grounds as expressed in the criticism above. Something which owes to one’s desire to show off, appear in a better light, or even serves outright narcissism, can never be a moral act. The justification of this is complicated and has to do with the fact that according to Kant morality derives from submission under a “universal moral law”. Kant tries to show that from “pure reason” follows that abiding by the moral law is an end in itself – a moral deed can never be a means to achieve another goal. If you participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge because you want to show what a great, socially responsible person you are, you are not acting morally.

Kant’s contemporary Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) found that view so preposterous that he wrote a satirical poem (the rhyme got lost in translation): “Gladly I serve my friends, but alas I do it with pleasure. Hence I am plagued with doubt that I am not a virtuous person.” (Cited after J.A. Gauthier (1997), “Schiller's Critique of Kant's Moral Psychology: Reconciling Practical Reason and an Ethics of Virtue”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 27, pp. 513-544).

Kant’s view looks extreme, but actually it directly corresponds to a fundamental legal principle. If you run over your boss with your car, your intentionality will be the central question discussed at court, and the answer to it will determine whether you will be acquitted or sent to jail. If you can convince the judge that you did not see the boss in front of your car when you pushed the throttle, you can expect to be found innocent. Yet if it turns out that you offered your boss a lift, asking him to enter your car at the other side, making him cross in front of your car, you will have to face the legal consequences.

The underlying logic is that a person can be guilty if and only if they intentionally inflict damage on somebody else. Analogously, Kant says that a person only deserves praise if they intentionally do something good (and not for some other purpose, like showing one’s own formidability).


Mainstream economics is based on a philosophical edifice called Utilitarianism which is diametrically opposed to Kant. The first Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), in clear contradiction with Kant, evaluated the value of a deed not by its compatibility with some moral law but by its consequences.

After the Second World War, it has become common in philosophical-ethical debates to pick examples relating to the Nazis and the Third Reich, in particular if a German philosopher like Kant is involved. Accordingly, in the seminal book Practical Ethics by Australian Philosopher Peter Singer (3rd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2011), we find the example of the Gestapo knocking at your door searching for Jews that are hidden in your attic. The question is: how would you react as a Utilitarian and how as a Kantian?

If you are Kantian, consequences do not matter as long as you follow the universal moral law. As the universal moral law takes the form of the Categorical Imperative, which rules out lying, you need to admit to the Gestapo that there is a Jewish family residing in your attic, even if you anticipate the horrible result. A Utilitarian, on the other hand, would evaluate a deed by its consequences and thus lie to the Gestapo.

A less hypothetical event highlighting the difference between Kant and the Utilitarians occurred in 2006, when the German Supreme Constitutional Court dismissed a law which would have allowed the government to shoot down a civilian airplane if it was hijacked and about to be used as a means for a terrorist attack (like 9/11). In its verdict, the court explicitly referred to Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Utilitarians, on the other hand, would have argued that the passengers of the plane would be dying anyway, and interception could save those who were targeted by the terrorist act.

Returning to the Ice Bucket Challenge, Bentham and his followers would not even have asked the question what the underlying motivation is but praised the Ice Bucket Challenge for its provision of funding to ALS research.

As mentioned, economists heavily lean towards Utilitarianism. They go as far as denying that there exists anything else but selfish motivation, and the outcome alone is what matters. One of the most-cited (and most controversial) economic papers of the last 15 years, “A Theory of Fairness, Competition and Cooperation” by Ernst Fehr and Klaus M. Schmidt (The Quarterly Journal of Economics 114, 1999, pp. 817-868), claims that apparently altruistic behavior observed in many situations can be explained through “other-regarding preferences”. According to their theory, humans maximize their own utility if in an experimental situation they share money that was given to them even though they were entitled to keep the money for themselves. While this may look trivial to non-economists, many consider the article a milestone in economics (the contribution of Fehr and Schmidt is also their specification and calibration of the associated utility function). Clearly, economists get rid of even the tiniest traces of altruistic behavior.

The economic viewpoint has practical consequences. Economic theories of law tend to downplay the role of motivation and focus on consequences. If you hit your boss with your car, economists would argue, the question whether it was intentional is irrelevant. If you hit him intentionally, then there is no disagreement that you deserve punishment, and if you hit him unintentionally, then you negligently did not pay attention that somebody is walking in front of your car, which also deserves punishment. Nobel Laureate Gary Becker (1930-2014), one of the initiators to the economic theory of law, stated that the only purpose of punishment is to prevent the law from being breached. If it is illegal to hit your boss with a car, then the punishment must be so severe that that you will not do it, given the probability to be detected. Accordingly, the “Becker Proposition” calls for only one punishment, namely the death penalty, which is even imposed for misdemeanors, and the only differences made between crimes are the probabilities to be caught.

What do we conclude about the Ice Bucket Challenge? We agree that the participants are posers and feel sympathetic with Kant to condemn them. On the other hand, as economists we are Utilitarians, and we acknowledge the collection of almost 90 million dollar in one month for a noble cause. Thus, dear people, please keep pouring cold water over your heads, even if the weather has turned cold now! 

Photo: "Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) would never ever have participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)"




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