Imagine that on route to work, you notice a child falling into a pond and drowning. Of course, you jump into the pond, pull out the child and save a life. Afterwards, you feel quite good about yourself.
Later that day, you go to a cafe, and while chatting with the waitress about what cake she’d recommend, you mention your heroic deed. Are you now justified to grope her or to expose your genitals?
This may sound absurd. However, assuming that their donations to children’s charitiesactually saved lives, that was the question some of the attendees of the Presidents Club Charity Dinner faced. Thanks to undercover reporting from the FT, it’s emerged that some of them decided to sexually harass the hostesses..
How could anyone think that this horrifying behaviour is justified just because they did something good before – such as give money to charity? To explain the thinking behind the incident, it’s helpful to look at the Presidents Club through the lens of moral philosophy. It offers lessons on how not to behave like this.
The theory classically associated with this thinking is utilitarianism, which asks you to act to promote the most happiness for the greatest number of people. Sometimes, this requires you to do something bad to bring about the greatest good. For example, you may need to lie to a racist mob about the location of your black neighbours to save their lives.
But this wouldn’t apply for the charity gala. In the case of the racist mob, lying is necessary to save your neighbours. Without the bad act, you wouldn’t be able to do the good deed. But whether you grope the waitress or not is absolutely independent from you saving a life. Both actions could happen without the other – you don’t need to grope anyone to donate.
So, utilitarianism doesn’t provide us with a justification, but rather teaches us our first lesson: do not group actions together that can be evaluated independently.