Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
www.igc.org/gadfly

HOME PAGE                             
                                                   

The Gadfly's Blog

Editorials 
    Philosophy and Religion
    Ethics, Moral Issues, the Law
    The Environment
    Economics
    Education
    Science

On Politics
    The Crisis
    Foreign Relations, War, Peace
    The Media
    The Elections
    Civil Liberties a& Dissent
    Republicans & the Right
    Democrats & the Left
    Lies, Propaganda & Corruption
    Culture War & Religious Right
    Coup d'Etat, 2000

Published Papers

Unpublished Papers

Reviews, Lectures, etc.    

Internet Publications

Lecture Topics

Conscience of a Progressive
    (A Book in Progress)

Rawls and the Duty to Posterity
    (Doctoral Dissertation)

 

The Ecology Project

For Environmental Educators

The Russian Environment

NO MO PO MO
    (Critiques of Post Modernism)

Notes from the Brink
    (Peace Studies)

 

The Gadfly's Bio Sketch

The Gadfly's Publications

The Online Gadfly: Editorial Policy

A Roster of Environmental Ethicists
 


The Gadfly's E-Mail: gadfly@igc.org


Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession
"

 

 

 

The Gadfly Bytes -- June, 2002


Junk Psychology

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // gadfly@igc.org

Published in Online Journal, June 17, 2002, 

A later and briefer version of this editorial appears in the Summer, 2001 
issue of Free Inquiry under the title,
"The Two Faces of Justice,"

Corporate America, and its self-described "conservative" apologists, maintain two contradictory theories of human behavior. The first, "the operative theory," is presupposed in marketing strategies and advertising campaigns. The other, "the public theory," is encountered in political rhetoric and corporate public relations campaigns.

The two theories are profoundly contradictory, one to the other. And yet, it is quite possible (however implausible) that most successful corporate executives are quite unaware of and unconcerned about this contradiction. After all, acute philosophical analyses of corporate policy and an articulated sense of social responsibility can be seriously prejudicial to one's career prospects. In such contexts (e.g., the tobacco industry), conscience may, as Garrett Hardin puts it, be "self-eliminating."

 

The Operative Theory. By this account, human motives can be identified, mapped, and measured, and when applied to a marketing campaign, this knowledge can be put to profitable use. And if public tastes do not incline toward the company's product (or the party's candidate), then these tastes can be "manufactured" to order.

Evidence? Just consider the advertising budgets – more than $30 billion total just for television ads. Business enterprises will not casually throw that kind of cash at the TV industry without a firm and proven expectation that such investments will produce the intended results; namely sales. As Vance Packard pointed out a generation ago ("The Hidden Persuaders"), and Bill Moyers more recently (on PBS's "The Public Mind"), all the accumulated skills and knowledge of behavioral science are put to use to the task of utilizing, and perchance creating, public motives and tastes to profitable ends. There is no laboratory of applied psychology more lavishly funded than that of market research. From Dr. Ernst Dichter's application of Freudian "depth psychology" in the twenties, to today's "focus group" microanalyses of positive and negative stimulus-responses, "the consumer-mind" is examined, cross-examined, and meticulously inventoried, and this information is then applied to the greater benefit of the bottom line.

In the jargon of philosophy, "the operative theory" of marketing is "deterministic:" that is, it holds that human behavior ("output") is the result of prior experiences ("input"), and that if the "inputs" are carefully designed and skillfully manipulated, then public motives, tastes and behavior can be "usefully directed" and even manufactured. Of course, marketing is not an exact science; however, it is a highly empirical and experimental science. Numerous strategies and devices are tried until the public "hot button" is located, whereupon it is "pushed" as long as it "works out." ("Let's run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.") But while there is much trial and error in marketing strategies, implicit in all marketing is the assumption that consumer behavior is the result of external causes. What then remains is the task of finding the most "efficacious" causes.

(Interestingly, "bleeding-heart liberalism" is also grounded in at least a "weak" determinism. It is no accident, say the liberals, that criminals are more likely to have been born into broken homes in impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Nor should we be surprised that violent criminal behavior and sexual promiscuity should correlate with the exploitation of sex and violence in the popular media. True, outstanding and productive citizens occasionally emerge from the slums, and "bad seeds" can come from affluent and loving homes. But, as we noted earlier, psychology is not an exact science. Incidentally, some philosophers, including this one, believe that a "qualified determinism" is compatible with moral responsibility. But that is a very complicated issue that we can not pursue here).

 

The Public Theory. Corporate spokesmen and their political fellow-travelers (the "conservatives") have prepared a contrary theory for public consumption. According to this account, each human personality appears ex nihilo, independent, autonomous, and undetermined. Being "unformed" from any outside causes, each individual is fully and completely responsible for his or her behavior. "But why does poverty correlate with crime?" No explanation is offered, or felt to be necessary. To cite a typical example, when a conservative lawyer was recently asked on a TV talk show, why the Columbine High School killers did what they did, her reply was "those boys were just evil, that's all." Why they were "evil" was regarded as a pointless question. Behavior isn't "caused," this theory asserts, it is simply freely "chosen," and that is all there is to it. "Don't ask me, or ‘society,' or (heaven forbid!) government to do anything about it. It's just not my concern."

As with behavior, so too with public taste and preferences. Tobacco companies tell us that "we are only giving the public what it wants." Likewise with the media. "Don't complain to us about the sex, violence and vulgarity in the movies, on TV, or in rock lyrics. We're only giving the public what it wants." Those "wants," we are told, which free enterprising entrepreneurs are so generously satisfying, also appear ex nihilo – uncaused and freely chosen by each consumer-citizen. "What the public wants" is thus unexplained and unexplainable, and thus out of reach of "cultivation." No need, therefore, to squander tax money on art and music education, or on non-commercial public broadcasting.

According to the "public theory," marketing has no side-effects or unintended consequences. Sex saturated ads and media are totally disconnected from the rise in teen pregnancy and single-parent families. "Just do it!," say the ads. "Just say no!" reply the "Christian conservatives." But if the teens "do it" anyway, don't blame the promoters. The kids are "just sinful." A child's encounter with tens of thousands of depictions of violent murders on TV, we are expected to believe, has nothing to do with whatever violent behavior he might exhibit. "Guns (and the gun culture) don't kill people, (autonomous) people kill people."

In sum, "the public theory" insists that "private enterprise" bears no responsibility whatever for social problems. "The social responsibility of business," writes Milton Friedman in a notorious essay, "is to increase its profits." All social problems, according to this theory, issues from the uncaused and freely chosen behavior of "simply evil" individuals.

And don't look to government for solutions. For, as Friedman states elsewhere, "there is nothing wrong with the United States that a dose of smaller and less intrusive government would not cure." Here is an absolutist maxim with a clarity and simplicity rarely found outside of evangelical pulpits, and previously unheard of from Nobel laureates.

 

The Contradiction. It is abundantly clear that these two "theories" are radically contradictory. If business executives genuinely believed the indeterminist theory that they present to the public, they would not invest a thin dime on advertising campaigns. On the other hand, if they were to extend the determinist "operative theory" beyond their corporate conduct, they would be burdened with a responsibility for the harmful "side-effects" of their marketing schemes – effects upon public health, taste and morality.

Instead, they move back and forth between these contradictory determinist and indeterminist theories, as the requirements of public relations and the bottom line demand – all with the ease with which one sheds his raincoat and puts on his sun glasses as the weather changes.

The paradigm example of this two-faced psychology is the tobacco industry. Throughout this century, billions of dollars have been successfully invested in the promotion of smoking. Early in the century, cigarette smoking was largely confined to upscale males. Then the marketing turned in the twenties to women (Lucky Strike: "blow some smoke my way") and later to the children – until, at last, the government intervened. Ad campaigns have associated cigarette smoking with vigor ("Come to Marlboro country!"), with liberation ("You've come a long way baby!"), and even with health ("What cigarette do you smoke, Doctor?") and intelligence ("A thinking man's filter"). This successful promotion of cigarette smoking has also been accomplished through deception ("no direct causal link has been demonstrated between smoking and lung cancer"), and outright perjurious lies ("No, Congressman, I do not believe that nicotine is addictive"). The rebuttal to this propaganda onslaught has, until recently, been insignificant. The only conspicuous public warning of the considerable and proven health risks of smoking has been that which has been mandated by law (the despised "big government"), and even that "warning label" has been successfully used by the industry to defeat law suits. After all, they argue, the poor suckers have been given "fair warning."

And so, having successfully manufactured a public demand for this dangerous and addictive substance, the tobacco industry innocently claims that it is "simply giving the public what it demands," and furthermore that smokers are "free to quit" any time they choose to do so. In the ad agencies, the customer is regarded as a programmable Skinnerian lab animal. When the consequences of this programming are brought before the courts, the unfortunate victims of the ad campaigns are miraculously transformed by the industry lawyers into informed, free, rational, and thus fully responsible agents.

This two-faced psychology is replicated in the corporate-sponsored political ideology, "conservatism." When the conservatives claim (contra the evidence) that capital punishment deters murder, they are determinist. But when they refuse to attempt to rehabilitate incarcerated prisoners, preferring "retribution" and "punishment," they are indeterminists again. Increasing top executive salaries from forty to four-hundred times that of the average workers, is presumably necessary to "motivate" these CEOs to give their best effort. However, we are told, increasing teacher salaries will have no comparable effect. It is just "throwing money at a problem." Determinism, it seems, applies to CEOs, but not to teachers.

There is a third alternative to these contradictory theories -- what philosophers call "compatibilism."  By this account, human beings are significantly influenced by the circumstances of their birth and upbringing, and thus criminals are more likely to emerge from conditions of poverty and abuse.  However, unless severely traumatized by such misfortunes, most individuals can be educated to a condition of moral responsibility -- informed as to the consequences of their acts, recognizing the humanity and dignity of others, and capable of acting according o moral principles -- whereupon each attains the freedom to conduct his or her own life.


What is to be done?
As for remedies, I have little more to offer that I have not already suggested at length at this website. (Follow the links below).  Briefly, I would suggest:

  • We must resist a system which, while it flatters us with rhetoric about our "freedom" and "dignity," treats us as nothing more than bundles of "consumer preferences" and conduits of "cash-flow."  (See "Consumer vs. Citizen").

  • We must steadfastly reject homo economicus as the model of human nature, and "the perfect market" as the model of the human community. (See "20th Century Alchemy")

  • We must reclaim our government by driving the money-changers from the temple of our politics, and we must repudiate the "one dollar, one vote" rule, endorsed by the Supreme Court in the Buckley decision. If this requires a constitutional amendment, then so be it. (See "A Modest Proposal")

  • We must reverse the erosion of support for popular government – the only effective defense by the multitude of weak individuals against the privileged few. Ronald Reagan's inaugural maxim, "government is not the solution, government is the problem," is a Nietzschean "master morality," for, rather than abolishing control, it transfers control into the hands of powerful private interests. The public at large gains no advantage from unregulated corporate license. (See "Kill the Umpire" and "With Liberty for Some").

  • We must establish and support alternative and dissenting media. Sadly, Liebling's rule now applies: "Freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses." The current trends, typified by the merger of AOL and Time-Warner, are not encouraging to those who prefer to live in an open society. Public broadcasting must be taken back from the corporate "donors" (read "sponsors"), and given back to the public.  (See "The Press and Party Symbiosis" and "Following the Light").

  • We must teach critical thinking in the schools. This can only be accomplished through public demand, since "corporate America" has no stake whatever in a public composed of intellectually discerning voters and consumers. Unfortunately, it will not suffice simply to add "critical thinking" classes to the curriculum of prospective teachers, though that would be a significant reform. In addition, we must overhaul our faculties of Education, where, we have found to our sorrow, there is no fad so weird that it might not be embraced (however briefly) by some factions in the School of Education. (See "No Mo Po Mo"). In short, the "teachers of the teachers" must themselves be taught, and must exhibit, what Bertrand Russell called "intellectual sales-resistance."

 

Make no mistake, an intelligent, informed and outraged public is the best, and perhaps the only, instrument of reform. The two-faced "junk psychology" – the determinist "operative theory" combined with the indeterminist "public theory" – is a flat-out contradiction, and contradiction is, to the analytically astute mind, the most recognizable and least tolerable of fallacies.

It is past time that we, the public, demand that those in command of corporate wealth and political power (all too often the same individuals), impose consistency upon their private and public postures, and thus treat us, their customers and constituents, with the respect that they publicly profess.

Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge
 


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .