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?