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Dirty Money

I have a relative who faces the following dilemma, though he doesn’t see it as a dilemma.  But I do. 

My relative is involved in the charitable sector.  He has been approached by some representatives of a foreign foundation.  He doesn’t know anything about the foundation – those who run the foundation want to keep all substantial details about it secret, for reasons unknown (they may have honourable motives).  The foundation has a bank account in the UK, with money transferred into it from abroad: my relative assumes that the money is legally kosher (since the British bank would have had to check for money laundering and so on). 

The foundation is offering to write out a big cheque to my relative’s very worthy charitable project.  My relative sees no reason why he shouldn’t accept the money, since he believes he can do good with it.

I think it’s not as simple as that.  There are plenty of legal businesses, the profits of which one might nonetheless consider dirty – profits from arms trading, tobacco selling and so on.  And one might not want to touch dirty money, even if this dirty money could be used for benign purposes.

My relative believes that the source of the money is irrelevant.  He has utilitarian instincts. 

Others might take the opposite view to mine: that the source of the money is not irrelevant but if it’s dirty that gives us an additional reason to spend it on laudable causes.  I don’t agree with this either.  I can see that, for example, if a tobacco company loses a court case to an individual, that person might feel it appropriate in certain circumstances to donate any money he was awarded to cancer research.  But there would be something sick and cynical about a tobacco company voluntarily and secretly channeling some of its profits to cancer research.  And even a charity unrelated to tobacco-illness should feel uncomfortable about benefiting from the proceeds of an industry that has been responsible for the deaths of so many people.  Shouldn’t it?      

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    I really think that you’re being much too sensitive, Dave. I commit 50% of my earnings as a professional hit-man to good causes and I therefore rejoice in that British pragmatic consequentialism, as exemplified by your relative, which doesn’t look too closely at the motives or the sources of donations. Let the ends justify the means!

    If philanthropists all started to adopt your ethical point of view, I don’t know what I would do. Perhaps I’d have to adopt a career with a shiny veneer of moral cleanliness to parade my conscience : become a merchant banker, for example.

    But would the world thus become a better place?

    And if don’t manage the conversion, what will I do with my “dirty” millions that no-one wants to touch?

      1. Legal money, illegal money, clean money, dirty money, centimes from saints or millions from mass murderers : we mustn’t be squeamish if the consequences are good.
        (Or have I got this utilitarianism thing all wrong?)

  2. “But there would be something sick and cynical about a tobacco company voluntarily and secretly channeling some of its profits to cancer research.”

    But what if this helps them (1) kill fewer people; (2) stay in business? Imagine the Big Bad Tobacco Company (Ltd) worked with Monsanto to genetically engineer tobacco that was otherwise identical, but was not carcinogenic (etc – let’s say it has no measurable health side-effects). Then people could smoke without killing people. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Wouldn’t that make BBTC actually a paragon of social responsibility?

    We have this debate, albeit in more abstracted, less directly causal form, in the case of climate change. If BP (say) managed to create a viable series of non-CO2 emitting fossil fuel products that met demand and had no environmental disbenefits, then that would be a bloody good thing, in my view, since it would be one less thing to worry about.

    Another climate change echo of this stuff is in the issue of off-setting: lots of companies believe that if they pay for enough trees (so that their net climate impacts are zero (over some timescale…)) then they don’t have to think about reducing their emissions. Envirocalvinists (and other Kantians) hate this idea, since in their view good deeds are never enough. Sola fide and all that.

    I think in case Dave presents, there is an issue of fungibility, that very abstracted forms of consequentialism often skate over: it would seem astronomically unlikely that the beneficiaries of the charity’s fine works are the same people as those who bear the burdens associated with the dirty money (especially when the money flows across borders). So it’s effectively taking in an unfair way from some community, and giving that money to some other community, like some slightly demented Robin Hood.

    1. Hi Dave

      Well, (1) the best way to kill fewer people would be not to market and sell their product. If they gave this consideration its due weight they wouldn’t be in the business they’re in. That’s why it would be ‘sick and cynical’ if they were both promoting their business and then quietly donating a fraction of their profits to cancer research. (2) Monsanto is not a charity, of course – and as far as I know no charity exists to promote a non-carcinogenic cigarette. But if such a cigarette were invented that would indeed be a good thing. But I’m puzzled by the carbon-offset analogy. In theory, as you say, this is supposed to work as follows: a manufacturer produces a certain level of CO2 but then ensures that this does no climate change damage by, say, growing trees. I’ve made a couple of documentaries about this, and in practice the system is deeply flawed. But were it to work as it’s designed to, I can’t see any moral objection. If I cut down a tree, but then replace it with another tree, what damage have I done? Trees aren’t sentient. It’s hardly the same as causing people to have cancer and then helping them (currently through a long and painful process) recover!

  3. Objections to off-setting come from people who have practical issues with it (claims that it isn’t doing what its advocates claim; claims that it is disrupting the communities who are planting the trees, etc) and that there are moral issues with it (claims that it amounts to buying and selling “indulgences”*, and claims that the power asymmetries between the various players amount to some sort of unfairness**). It’s certainly not a universally popular approach to the problem of climate change.*** Personally, I think of it as a form of geo-engineering, just with real trees instead of artificial ones. [I think of it that way because you’re not reducing emissions, you’re emitting somewhere and then scrubbing the effects of those emissions somewhere else – it’s just a carbon dioxide removal (CDR) project, and I don’t see why it’s different in kind from other CDR techniques folks have floated (such as accelerated rock weathering, etc). Whether it works better than those other techniques strikes me as just a factual and efficiency question.]

    **See, for instance,, which is a fairly swift rant on the subject.
    ***I don’t have a strong view on it either way, other than the preference that it would be stupid to close off options just because capitalists might like them. As someone who thinks people being “allowed” to swap stuff is a good idea, I find the whole eco-socialist thing (see the Lohmann piece) a dead-end.

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