The “Drowning Child” Argument in Shareholders

The ‘drowning child’ argument is immensely strong from the point of view of ethical theory. According to Ciulla, Martin, and Solomon, followers of both consequentialism and non-consequentialism agree that it is the moral duty of every human being to assist another person in grave danger provided the ‘savior’ is not sacrificing anything of equal or near equal moral value. In other words, provided the person lending support is not trading one life to save another, a choice to save someone from grave misfortune at a lower or minimal cost to oneself or others is not only justifiable, but can also be considered a moral obligation. From this perspective, a company should donate to a charitable campaign. The question is only in the size of the donation.

Another point of view here might be that a company is only obliged to contribute to society in a way that is the most natural and appealing to a business organization – through gaining profit. The argument for such an approach is that the business is already paying taxes, and a fair share of the taxes is already spent on similar socially beneficial purposes. For instance, the US government annually allocates a portion of its budget to care for the homeless by building shelters, awarding grants, buying food, and so on. That might permit an observer to say that the business is passively caring for the needy.

Moreover, by creating goods and offering services, businesses contribute to society by making the lives of the people who use them easier, in this way generating social profit in the form of more life satisfaction for a certain group of people. However, business as a concept has no single personality and a business cannot spend money on its own. Mostly it is the directors who decide the fate of a company’s assets. If their desire is to spend a certain portion of these resources on charity, there is nothing that can prevent such act from happening. However, the majority of the board must support the decision. Shareholders in such a case may only propose the initiative, but it is an open question as to whether the company should back it.

From another viewpoint, the charity provided by a large organization can be viewed as a calculated act that does not possess an intrinsic social value. Occasionally, companies donate to local charity organizations just to attract customers or workers by creating an image of a good-natured, neighborly company. If it is revealed in the media, this could lead to a scandal that would do more harm than good. Therefore, before choosing to help, a company needs to have a genuine desire to do so. More importantly, the organization needs to show its deep understanding of the problem of poverty. Clearly, spending the company’s money on buying food for the homeless is unwise for a large corporation with abundant resources. Lack of food is merely a consequence of a flawed system that produces poverty. The company needs to invest in the means that allow the needy to care for themselves, for instance, by offering them a job or lobbying the legislature for improvements.

All in all, donating to charity is a noble cause. However, it requires a systematic approach. A serious organization has to spend its funds wisely to show that it genuinely cares for the needy and is not acting solely for the sake of self-advertisement. Making a donation must be agreed on by all concerned parties within the organization. The size of the donation and the organization that it will be allocated to must also be discussed.

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