In the wake of the recent #nomakeup selfies, there has been a bit of controversy around, and opposition to, them from the more politically involved residents of my Facebook News Feed; the main criticism of this fad is that donating to Cancer Research UK is relatively limited in scale, when there are causes we could be giving money to, that combat directly more than just one disease, such as water projects in Africa, which both prevent dehydration, and provide employment for the local community.
Personally, I kinda disagree with this logic, because trying to prioritise charitable causes over each other is a bafflingly inhumane practice, that suggests that even small-scale improvements in the quality of life of even a few individuals is not worth celebrating, considering the near-fatality of Cancer a few years back; but also because I, in my foolish human-ness, have the misconception of their being universal ‘good’ in this world. Essentially, a combination of my own lack of interest in researching this topic to a meaningful extent, and perhaps the media portrayal of Cancer as a world-destroying menace that we can defeat if we all band together, like the inevitable Proletariat defeat of Capitalists in Vladimir Lenin’s mind, has resulted in me mindlessly defending the fighting of Cancer, even in the face of these annoyingly logical arguments.
There is no ‘universal good’; there are no things that are wholly worthy of defending, and nothing that is abhorrently evil; even if fighting Cancer seems like it fits the former pretty well, the idea that such a practice doesn’t directly benefit societies in a broader sense is a valid one. A key reason for this lack of good and bad is perception, that the seven billion humans on this planet will never be able to agree on what to base our judgements of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ on: some Christians opposed homosexuality as evil, but most homosexual people are probably pretty pro-gay. Also, the variety of religion, with Jediism actually being popular enough to deserve a place on the UK Census, means that one group’s ultimate good may well be another’s ultimate evil, like Christians and theistic Satanists.
Also, the idea of universal good downplays the importance of free will: suddenly, we cannot act as we please, because acting for any end other than that ultimate good means we are not being as virtuous and noble as we could be, and know we could be; it’s not that everything not ‘good’ is bad, but everything not ‘good’ is still ‘not good’. Then, if you argue that there can be multiple universal goods, and that you don’t have to be working for one all the time – say you’re washing a car, and there’s no concept of ‘universal bonnet-scrubbing good’ that you can work towards – I’d say that this weakens the idea of such a benevolent force; surely if there is a thing we associate with perfection, it should cover every facet of our lives. If it does not, it is perhaps too limited to be viewed as ultimately good by a species whose very nature is one of breadth – humans invented both salt and pepper, so we’re a pretty diverse bunch.
And all this makes it hard to find a cause that everyone can work towards; the broad concept of ‘charity’ has been working in recent years to drum up public support, especially after humanitarian crises in south-east Asia following the Boxing Day Tsunami and America after Hurricane Katrina, but if you look deeper, this seemingly perfect goal is undone: should we invest in large-scale relief measures to help these communities, or longer-term recovery ones, such as new tools and societal attitudes, to prevent this sort of thing happening in the future,
Those decisions are often made by the aid agencies we give money to; I’m not saying they’re unqualified to judge how best to allocate funds (okay, maybe Invisible Children are), but it’s worth knowing that giving 100 quid to Cancer Research UK won’t necessarily result in 100 quid’s worth of medicine being produced. This was an argument of those critical of mindlessly sharing #nomakeup Cancer selfies.
Perhaps the very presence of a debate (even just with myself) around this concept shows what a minefield this can be; I’ve talked before about the need to generalise in this fast-moving and culturally-expansive world, and it’s certainly true here, as we seek to derive satisfaction, or a sense of ‘making a difference’ in as non-controversial and objectively good way as possible. Sadly, our very nature as discursive animals (we did invent the concept of language) means that nothing may ever be objectively true, either as an image – as it was back in the days of society being dominated by religion – or in a more real sense – as the development of democracy has allowed us to talk about everything, endlessly.
Overall, I think I’m for these Cancer selfies, because the eradication of a disease is probably as close to an ultimate good in society we’re going to get any more; the ability to alleviate the suffering of another, for all my Scroogey pragmatism saying they should die and decrease the surplus population, is a comforting and attractive pursuit, even if it’s more complex than you’d first think.