The Proliferation of Moral Cause

November 25, 2010

If there’s one exemplar of capitalism, it’s Coca-Cola. The sheer pervading nature of this brand means that no matter where you go in the world, the inhabitants will always know at least two English words – also, perhaps, ‘Hello!’ if you’re lucky. It’s success is not in itself the reason for it being the poster boy of our Western economic system; rather, it’s the nature of that success.

Put simply, Coca-Cola is the prime example of the creation of want that has defined an economic system based on consumption. No-one needs Coke, but nonetheless they drink it. Why? Since the invention of carbonated drinks, Coke has had many competitors come onto the market, but people are still willing to pay a premium for a product with a lower-priced equivalent that differs in perhaps branding alone.

The answer lies in the subtle subversion of judgement that advertising begets. A high-profile brand has more social status associated with its consumption than a low-profile brand; any child mocked in the 80s and 90s for drinking Panda Pop would understand that. The added value that permits the price premium is this accrued social status modifier arising from Coke’s superb advertising campaigns. That said, it’s not actually true that Coke gave Santa his red cloak.

What does any of this have to do with the title of this post? The answer is that I want to examine a parallel between the invention of want by Coke’s advertising campaigns and the invention of moral cause by agents interested in the consequences of its creation.

Being attached to a particular moral cause confers a certain amount of prestige; if that cause is sufficient, it can also confer funding to work on that cause. To give an example, today’s news of the Government deciding to retain the implementation of ‘go orders’ to protect victims of domestic abuse was discussed on the Today Programme with the head of Refuge, the domestic violence help charity. She made the point that in the 48 hours initial ‘go orders’ would last, the victim of domestic violence would require expert support to ensure he or she was able to cope with the situation appropriately. Refuge provides that sort of service.

I do not wish to accuse Refuge of pushing its wares on a national radio programme – the work Refuge does is very important and worthwhile – but it’s clear that this move by the Government has opened up an area of what I would call moral want, rather than moral need. It is not clearly the case that the absence of this sort of provision would have a negative impact on all people in the situation prescribed; but nonetheless comprehensive support appears to be being advocated.

This sort of moral want argument is not the preserve of charities alone, but was a feature of the Labour Government’s policy making, as well as the media’s approach to issues of public good. Edge cases identified by media stories contributed disproportionately to the previous Governments’ policy making, and continue to contribute disproportionately to the response to the policies made by the present Government.

The division between moral want and moral need is the division between an instance of a particular failing with apparent moral implications, but which can be avoided given the choices of an individual and the moral implications of a systemic example of injustice over which an individual would have minimal influence. For example, Labour’s implementation of the ASBO was in response to neighbourhoods that had difficulty in dealing with problem tenants – but the powers to deal with such (e.g. eviction from council properties) already existed. Rather than tackling the systemic injustice of poor use of existing powers and lack of access to information that would support local action, ASBOs answered the moral want rather than the need. In doing so, they created a new support structure for the bureaucracy around them, generating an interest group in their retention. They were then able to sell this to a media trading in the moral want generated by particular cases.

Labour’s method of media-driven policy making seemed designed to serve moral wants, and in doing so built an industry based on their expansion. The political premium associated with responding to a moral want became a reason to do it. This resulted in the expansion of the third sector, as organisations realised they could bid to run services to meet a want they identified in their research.

This public identification of ‘wants’ and the political premium associated with funding them over and above the amount necessary to meet the moral need is functionally equivalent to the marketing of Coca-Cola; both are strong examples of irrational behaviour based on marketing. In this, the main offender is perhaps the media, who have realised that there is a strong market in tales of moral want – including examples of moral want such as families on benefit who are abusing the system – and so tell those tales, and have the commensurate political impact.

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