Social networks have been saturated with a wash of “Ice Bucket Challenge” videos featuring people voluntarily pouring ice water over their heads in the name of charity. One can hardly scroll through their Facebook feed without encountering dozens of these videos posted by everyone from personal friends and family to celebrities and even former presidents. This viral phenomenon is an interesting example of the power of social pressure as people feel the need to conform to the expectations of others by participating (along with those who might be participating to get personal attention).
This “challenge” is accepted by pouring cold water over oneself, and posting a video of the feat wherein the person challenges a few others to do the same. The consequence of declining the challenge is to contribute a moderate sum to a particular charity. All participants are encouraged to donate at least something to the charity, whether or not they douse themselves. The precise origins of the challenge are not clear but the concept has been used in various ways for many charities.
The largest and currently most viral version is raising money and awareness for the ALS Association which advocates for and supports scientific research to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a neurodegenerative disease that debilitates motor function. For ALS, the viral challenge has been a financial boon. The association has received $53.3 million in donations this August compared to just $2 million over the same period last year. In fact, the nonprofit ALS has received more donations in one month than its entire net worth of $20 million in 2013. While participating in the challenge is a fun way to cool off this summer, it raises some interesting questions about our society and the role of social pressure.
A free society is predicated on the voluntary actions of individuals, rather than the coercive power of the state. While government resources have been devoted to many noble causes for years, the origin of these resources as confiscated from the people by government force is violative of individual liberty. Because the government’s authority is derived by a delegation of authority from the people, it has no more moral authority to take by force than any individual in society does.
However, this does not mean that noble causes are doomed to failure. Rather, it creates an opportunity for individuals to act nobly (and creatively) in volunteering to support causes they deem worthy. The success of this viral “Ice Bucket Challenge” campaign is an excellent example of the capacity for people to voluntarily act charitably in the absence of government coercion. However, this example also raises the question of whether participation in such a campaign is truly “voluntary” if it is achieved through social pressure. Additionally, is social pressure a form of morally unacceptable coercion in a free society?
There are some who argue that individual liberty is predicated on the absence of all coercion. For some, this includes the coercion of social pressure. At its core, the concept of coercion is the use of any tactic including intimidation that violates the free will of an individual by eliminating personal choice in order to obtain compliance with the will of another. In effect this means supplanting the will of the self with the will of the other via the external force of the other. For example, governments rely on the threat of physical force by armed agents in order to induce compliance. Such force is a clear example of morally repulsive coercion.
However, psychological force, or the use of fear and threats, can also be coercion. In these cases, the threats may not be real but are perceived to be real by the recipient. If the recipient of the threats has a reasonable fear based on the perception of the reality of a threat then their actions cannot be attributed to their individual free will alone. Rather, their action will be guided by self-defense of their person in response to the threat. Thus, compliance derived from threats is also a morally repulsive form of coercion because the will of the individual is supplanted the by the will of another via external force. The choice between compliance and non-compliance is significantly altered because the perceived consequence of non-compliance is physical harm perpetrated by another—a fundamental violation of individual liberty.
In the case of social pressure, one might argue that the threat of ostracization of shaming is coercion. In other words, the human desire to belong, at the risk of not belonging, drives someone to act contrary to how they would have chosen to act absent the social pressure. In this example, the consequence of non-compliance is the minimization or denial of association. The key difference here is that the ownership of, or right to, the association of others is predicated on the exercise of free will by those others—the fundamental freedom of association. This is unlike the right to personal physical security which is derived from the fundamental right to self-ownership. An individual does not have the right to the associations of others because in order to enforce that right it would require coercion of the others and a violation of their free will. Thus, the threat of removal of such associations is not a threat that fundamentally violates individual liberty. Hence, social pressure is not a morally repulsive type of coercion.
Now comes the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” In the challenge the consequence of non-compliance—not dousing yourself in ice cold water—is that you have a social duty to donate to charity. However, the consequence of not donating to charity does not carry any specific threat. Let us assume in the worst case scenario that the threat is essentially that of social ostracization—others will voluntarily withhold their social interaction with you and possibly alter their esteem or respect for you. Because you do not have a right to the social interactions of others, your individual liberty is not violated by your non-compliance with the challenge.
In fact, individual liberty envisions that society is shaped primarily by the very decisions of where people place their allegiances. This type of society envisions a “marketplace of ideas” where people transact by making choices of belief and association. This is the type of voluntary society that allows morality to exist without government force. The charitable challenge is a robust example of how noble outcomes are possible through the voluntary action of individuals. This is one way the marketplace of ideas can create enough social inertia to result in positive collective action despite the absence of government coercion.
Creative and voluntary charitable efforts such as the “Ice Bucket Challenge” should be recognized as a positive action in the larger movement to encourage society to shoulder the burden of care for those in need, rather than the state.