Richard Feynman famously said that marketing was an inherently immoral job, because it consisted of selling something as being better than the marketer knows it to be. I tried that argument on our VP of Marketing, back in the day, and she said that “MarCom” – Marketing Communications – was OK. Well, that still leaves the rest of marketing on the hook.
As we discussed in my piece on butter packaging, marketing claims often do amount to lies – excuse me – “deliberate excursions from the truth.”
Marketing professionals have a problem, because their job places them in conflict with the truth, and the truth has to lose for them to get paid. What are some other inherently immoral jobs? Let’s start this way: I would say an inherently immoral job is one where the worker will be constantly faced with a choice between not doing the job, and lying or otherwise supporting an act they know to be unjust.* These inherently immoral jobs are not <i>always</i> forcing the worker to do something they know is unjust; perhaps it’s just placing them in constant jeopardy of doing so. Unless under compulsion, the worker is choosing to do the job, which means they are, to some degree or other, complicit.
- Marketing – Per Feynman
The police officer swears to impartially uphold the laws of the land. There is zero chance that any given police officer will actually agree with all of the laws of the land, therefore they cannot uphold them impartially. Instead, what they are doing is upholding the laws they feel like upholding at any given time against anyone who they feel like upholding them against at that time. This is a permanent state of moral jeopardy.
I suppose one could respond that the police officer is not concerned with upholding all the laws; I would reply to that that the police officer has decided they are the law – like Judge Dredd – and are still in moral jeopardy because they have made the decision to accept that they are going to constantly act unfairly.
Soldiers agree to obey orders that may be unfair. They attempt to give away their own moral autonomy and expect to be forgiven for doing so.
While most modern militaries have a notion of “illegal orders” and a process whereby a soldier can protest an illegal (presumably immoral) order, they remain in moral jeopardy because they have agreed in principle to listen to and consider immoral orders, and have not clearly retained the right to moral autonomy. A moral soldier, if there were such a thing, would raise their right hand and solemnly swear to obey only orders that seemed just, and to only use force against aggressors who were clearly harming noncombatants, to never engage in offensive operations or to aid through their presence offensive operations.
It’s also important to point out that armies gain their power through numbers, and simply being in the uniform of a military lends tacit support to the army as a manifestation of power; the very best a soldier in uniform can hope for is to be a scary bully. In general, someone is on dangerous footing when they start offering wholesale support for anyone’s agenda without retaining one’s moral autonomy. The Eichmann defense doesn’t work very well.
A spy is trying to gain information that the information’s owner does not want to see free. After all, if they wanted everyone to know it, they’d publish it.
One could argue that one was being a spy for justice (e.g.: a whistleblower) which might work except the “spy” part is still morally compromising, while the “whistleblower” part may not be. I think there’s a possible argument for a deep-cover whistleblower who took an immoral job in order to expose it and thereby right a wrong. It’s more problematic when you have a whistleblower who is already deeply compromised that then sees the error of their ways and tries to remedy their mistake.
Lawyers often defend actions that they know are wrong. Of course not all do. But if someone knows someone has done something wrong, and they accept the position of defending it, or minimizing it, or (worse yet!) helping the perpetrator convince a jury they are innocent, they’re assisting the crime.
The usual defense is two-pronged: 1) Well, someone has to do it 2) The lawyer doesn’t know that their client has committed a crime. Those are pretty easily dispatched: 1) No, they don’t. 2) Yes, they do. Or, at the very least, if a lawyer began to feel there was a high probability their client had committed a crime, they ought to switch sides. Of course, lawyers say, that’s an absurd idea: lawyers like to have it both ways: when we’re defending the good guy we’re great and when we’re defending a criminal we’re great, too! Don’t buy it.
I’m tempted to add Capitalists to that list but I’m going to need a few months to refine that argument.
Edit: I just want to emphasize – I’m not saying “there are bad police.” I am saying: “If you are part of the police, you are a bad person. Period.” We can argue about whether a particular marketing person is not as bad as another, but the game is already over. Simply being involved in these professions means you’re going to wind up aiding and supporting immoral activity – whether you get your hands dirty yourself, or simply assist a lying marketer, or give ammunition to a solider, you’re in.
Bill Hicks gets the last word on Marketing:
(* I am not going to try to build a system of objective morality for this discussion. Actually, I don’t think it can be done, so I acknowledge that I am using moral language in this posting, and I am using it loosely.)