THE MORAL ISSUE
Advertising allegedly is offensive to good taste.
What unites all advocates of this criticism is their lack of explicit discussion and especially definition of the concepts “taste” and “good taste.” Even more significantly, they fail to discuss the relationship between these two concepts and morality, because their intrinsicism does not permit them to see the essential difference between tastes and moral values. What complicates matters when discussing this criticism is that today’s intellectual climate is one of subjectivism, in which all tastes and values are said to be optional, that is, subjective. Although the critics may be subjectivists in other areas of their lives, they are intrinsicists when it comes to advertising. Intrinsicism is a doctrine that denies the existence of rational options. Let me begin this discussion, then, by asking: what is taste?
Tastes Are Morally Optional Values
Literally, in the physiological sense, tastes are the sensations we experience when something comes into contact with our tongues. For example, my taste for hamburger is quite strong—equally as strong as my distaste for liver. More generally, tastes are concrete values that are morally optional. They are concrete in the sense that they are evaluations of perceptually given concrete objects, such as items of food, articles of clothing, or pieces of furniture; they also can be evaluations of perceptually given concrete actions, such as playing basketball, taking leisurely drives in one’s car, or eating dinner in a fine restaurant (as opposed to, say, eating dinner at home or in a coffee shop). Tastes qua values hold for us no wider significance than the emotional associations we experience during their acquisition and use.
Tastes are morally optional, according to a rational standard of ethics, in the sense that they are discretionary, rather than universal, necessary, or obligatory, as are moral values. What one man pursues as a taste is not a moral requirement for all men to pursue; or, to put this another way, no one man’s tastes can claim moral superiority over any other’s. While productive work is a universal moral value, and all men must pursue it in order to survive, whether I ought to prefer hamburger or liver is entirely optional. Many of our tastes are acquired in early childhood and remain with us without change for a lifetime. Remembering that these values are just tastes—when, say, meeting another person from a different background than one’s own—can help prevent us from making inappropriate moral evaluations.
For example, I learned to drive an automobile at the age of fourteen in the wide-open spaces of the midwestern United States. Today, consequently, I prefer driving cars to taking subways, buses, and other forms of mass transportation, because I still fondly recall the emotional associations connected with “taking drives” (on a Sunday afternoon, for instance); in other words, I find driving to be relaxing. A lifelong New Yorker, however, might have different tastes—and might not even have a driver’s license. This last, to me, evokes the initial emotional reaction: “He’s crazy.” However, when I calmly examine the rational standard of mental health (and ethics), I have to admit that the New Yorker’s tastes are not warped. His tastes can be explained—to be sure, tastes have causes—but my tastes do not have to be adopted by everyone. This is what it means to say that “tastes are optional.”
This also, I submit, is the correct meaning of the Latin proverb “de gustibus non est disputandum,” commonly translated as “tastes are not disputable” or “there is no disputing about taste.” There is no disputing about tastes in the physiological sense because all foods—as opposed to poisons—are right and good for us. Our taste for any one particular food is optional. Hence, I like hamburger, you like liver. By extension, and provided the context is carefully defined, we can also say: I like strong sex appeals in my television commercials, you like PBS pledge breaks. Our tastes in advertising are not disputable, because execution in advertising is optional. However, if you think that sex appeals in television commercials are offensive, then my answer to you is: I’m sorry you feel that way, but you have your tastes and I have mine. And we each go about our own business.
Unfortunately, the critics of advertising do not stop here, because the context is never carefully defined. To them, tastes are disputable—because to them tastes and moral values are identical. Consequently, the charge against advertising mushrooms. Now advertising is offensive because it promotes immoral (tasteless) products and encourages immoral or harmful (tasteless) behavior. And the advertising itself, therefore, is immoral—that is, tasteless.
Intrinsicism. The root of this charge against advertising is the false philosophic doctrine of moral intrinsicism, or the doctrine of intrinsic value. I use the term “intrinsicism” as it has been defined by Ayn Rand. This doctrine, to repeat a quotation from chapter 2, holds that moral value, or the good
is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of their context and consequences, regardless of any benefit or injury they may cause to the actors and subjects involved. It is a theory that divorces the concept of “good” from beneficiaries, and the concept of “value” from valuer and purpose—claiming that the good is good in, by, and of itself.
The Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian ethics are examples of moral intrinsicism. The commandment “thou shalt not lie” does not have an amendment attached to it that says “depending on context and consequences.” It says the act of lying is intrinsically or inherently evil, period, meaning that if a homicidal maniac comes to your door looking for your children, your moral duty is to answer him truthfully when he asks if they are there. Thus, in the marketplace, if certain products possess value “in, by, and of themselves,” and if certain people happen to know which products are intrinsically valuable, then these people—the ones with the “good taste”—will insist that there are certain products that consumers should not need or want.
This doctrine of intrinsic value is what underlies the problem in classical economics known as the “paradox of value,” the alleged paradox that gold is more highly valued by consumers than iron, although iron is more useful in production than gold. Intrinsicism is the doctrine that the Neoclassical and Austrian economists rejected when they formulated the theory of marginal utility—and, consequently, resolved the paradox of value. It also underlies the medieval notion of what was called the “just price.” This is the view that prices and market value are not the result of an interaction between consumer value judgments and the products supplied by producers, that is, a result of demand and supply, but rather the result of some intrinsic quality that exists in each product.
For the moral intrinsicist, value judgments are automatic because values are self-evident. If material objects possess an intrinsic value, you simply open your eyes and look at them to grasp their value. Purpose and context are irrelevant in the formation of values, and specific material objects and specific actions by their nature, according to the intrinsicist, are either moral or immoral. And the intrinsicist happens to be the one who knows which ones are which.
But there is an obvious problem. Depending on which intrinsicist you talk to, cigarettes and cigarette advertising are immoral; liquor and liquor advertising cause drunken driving and are, therefore, immoral; and the use of women, blacks, children, men, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Italians, Yuppies, golden retrievers, and even tubby tabbies—all at various times and in various advertisements have been attacked as immoral exploitation. The critics contradict one another over which ads are immoral, because they each have their own set of intrinsic values about which are the “just” goods and which are the “just” ads. The critics, of course, do not stop at calling these immoral; they obliterate the meaning of individual rights, attribute to advertising the power of physical force, and then proceed to advocate legislation to regulate such “immoral” activities.
As Ayn Rand states it, however, “material objects as such have neither value nor disvalue; they acquire value-significance only in regard to a living being—particularly, in regard to serving or hindering man’s goals.” Any specific actions—taken out of context of the actor—have neither value nor disvalue. A Cadillac, for example, is intrinsically neither moral nor immoral. Further, the decision to purchase a Cadillac is usually not a moral issue, although it could be—if, for example, the purchaser would be starving his children to pay for the car. Needless to say, cigarettes, liquor, and cigarette and liquor advertising by themselves are neither moral nor immoral; the advertising and sale of these products do not “hinder man’s goals,” and they certainly do not violate anyone’s rights.
The Issue of Options. The issue here is subtler than it seems at first. The moral intrinsicist denies the existence of options. Consequently, every object and action must be either moral or immoral. In fact, however, there are many choices in our lives in which morality is not an issue at all—because the morality of the issue has already been settled. A moral issue, according to Ayn Rand, is one that calls for volitional choice in a situation that has long-term consequences for one’s life. The decision, for example, whether a young person ought to pursue a productive career or remain living with his parents, depending for support on their income, is probably a moral issue, because of the long-run consequences on his life as an adult, rational being. But the context and purpose must be carefully specified before judging such issues. I can think of instances in which such a choice would not be a moral issue—if, say, a tragic accident rendered the youth quadriplegic.
The decision, however, of whether to drive a car to work or to take a bus is not usually a moral issue, because either choice is morally optional, that is, either way would be moral. This issue—like thousands of others we encounter in our daily lives—is one of taste. Moral values are intellectual, conceptual values that shape a man’s character. Tastes are associational, perceptually based values that shape the more concrete aspects of a man’s personality. Moral values are abstract and universal; tastes are concrete and individual. The choice, then, of whether to buy a Big Mac or T-bone steak for dinner, or neither—contrary to what vegetarians may say—is morally optional. So too is the choice of whether to buy a Ford or Toyota—contrary to what the protectionists say. The selection of specific brands or types of goods and services in the marketplace is almost entirely a matter of moral option—that is, of taste.
Tastes (or, at least, most of them) are formed through the semiautomatic mental process of perceptual association. Moral values, on the other hand, such as honesty and integrity, are acquired (or should be acquired) through the volitional process of conceptual integration. They are formed, first, through a long, deliberate process of identifying and digesting the facts of man’s rational nature, specifically, the requirements of his survival and well-being; second, moral values must be applied deliberately to the concrete choices and actions of one’s own life. The appraisal in moral evaluation states that a particular choice or action will benefit or harm our long-term well-being as a rational animal; making this appraisal requires that we hold in our minds the context of all our other values, including our concrete, optional values, thus requiring an enormous act of conceptual integration. The connection between our universal, moral values and our optional, concrete values? Moral values are the universal guidelines that direct an individual’s choices and actions in particular situations, thus providing the means by which to distinguish what is optional from what is not.
Consider this example: I grew up using—as if it were a taste, or morally optional value—the expression “to Jew a price down.” As a child and youth, I had heard the expression frequently and adopted it as a phrase that had “a nice ring to it” to describe a tough bargainer. (I knew virtually nothing about Judaism or the existence of a Jewish culture.) However, when I moved to New York City as a young adult, I noticed that whenever New Yorkers referred to bargaining or negotiation, they never used my pet expression. I eventually came to realize that my “taste” for this expression was not morally optional at all, but was an unjust insult to a much-maligned and productive group of people. By rethinking the issue, integrating the new data I had acquired in the first few months of working in New York, I came to realize that I was violating at least two of my own moral values: justice, for falsely maligning the Jewish people, and productiveness, for accepting and spreading the denigrating connotations of an expression toward normal business activity.
Conversely, I grew up thinking that alcohol consumption and gambling are morally evil. My adult moral values, however, have taught me that these two activities (when pursued in moderation) are in fact optional. Thus, the alleged tastes we acquire in childhood can sometimes turn out to be serious moral issues, and the moral values we are taught in childhood can turn out to be optional tastes.
Today it is true that almost no one makes the distinction between optional and non-optional values. On the one hand, many people say that all values are optional, which is the doctrine of subjectivism. On the other hand, many say that all values are (non-optional) moral values, which is the doctrine of intrinsicism. My discussion of taste and moral values, I think, indicates the complexity of the broad field of value theory, and the amount of path-breaking work that remains to be done. Suffice it to say, for the remainder of this chapter, that my tastes (or yours) do not have to be adopted by everyone.