Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ethics and Creativity in Madmen II

Robert P. George's Clash of Orthodoxies (2001) provides a beautifully articulate defense of natural law.  George's discussion of John Rawls's pro-life arguments are eye opening and raise the abortion debate to a much higher level than one generally encounters.  As well his integration of the natural law and natural rights theories of Aristotle (in Rhetoric), Cicero, Sidney and Locke with current discussions, especially of civil rights, are important and rich with insight.

Chapter nine, "Natural Law and Civil Rights" offers a solution to the questions I raise to my class about the ethics of Madmen's Don Draper's manipulation of the public with respect to consumer goods.  The solution (p. 166) comes from no less a source than Reverend Martin Luther King, whom George quotes as to unjust versus just law and segregation:

"What is the difference between the two?...To put it in the term of St. Thomas Aquinas:  An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.  Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.  All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.  It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority...Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful...I can urge [disobedience to] segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong."

---Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, quoted in Robert P. George, Clash of Orthodoxies, p. 166.

In Madmen, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) aims to engage the public's nostalgia for their children's and their own childhoods and weddings.  Is it ethical to manipulate people's feelings in order to encourage consumerism? One standard parallels King's evaluation of law.  Any business activity that uplifts human personality or improves human life is just. Any business activity that degrades human personality or harms human life is unjust.  There is little to criticize with respect to the Kodak camera or carousel.  Although a degree of manipulation is used in Draper's presentation of his concept or the real-world advertisement, on balance consumers can assess whether the product is to their benefit.  Cameras have improved human existence.  But the same cannot be said for smoking.  It is true that smoking brings pleasure, but the harm done from smoking's health effects outweighs its pleasure.

But the federal law banning advertising of smoking is not justified.  There are other concerns with respect to regulation. Laws which limit economic activity and choice demean the individual. They assert that human beings are incapable of choosing for themselves and therefore are like serfs to a patriarchal state that knows better than they do. Economic regulation limits human creativity and creates an atmosphere of fear whereby activities whose effects are uncertain are discouraged.  This in turn reduces creativity, initiative, progress and achievement.  Therefore, while advertising cigarettes is unjust, that is, it manipulates people into smoking and so harms them, laws against advertising smoking are also unjust because they harm human freedom and dignity, replacing human freedom with violent state power.

1 comment:

Doug Plumb said...

Plato and Rousseau tell us that the modern luxurious state makes men weak.