Billboarding Our Way to Morality

My wife and I just finished visiting my family back in California. It took us over 25 hours each way to drive from our apartment in Texas to Southern California, which gave me plenty of time to listen to podcasts (including the last CAPC episode) and check out the scenery. As we drove through Palm Springs on the I-10, I noticed a series of billboards with a common theme. Apparently people in the Palm Springs area lack character and ambition, because along one short stretch of the I-10 there are several signs posted by the Foundation for a Better Life which encourage people to be moral and virtuous.

For example, one billboard had a picture of a smiling old woman holding a photograph of children and a caption which read, “Carol Donald. Fostered goodwill. And 100 kids.” Below this caption the word love appears on a stark red background, so that it is quite clear what the message is. Throughout the rest of the trip back to Texas I watched for more billboards from the Foundation for a Better Life. I saw ones promoting peace, devotion, confidence, ambition, foresight, and soul. While these are all good morals and virtues, I began to wonder about the effect they might have upon viewers. The billboards give an example of someone who did something virtuous and a brief statement about what that virtue was, but there was no claim made for why these virtues were worthwhile, which caused me to wonder, is it good to promote morality without a basis for moral judgments?

The Foundation for a Better Life is a non-profit organization and is “not affiliated with any religion,” however, the donor who sponsors the organization is Philip Anschutz, a conservative Christian who helped finance The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Amazing Grace, and the Discovery Institute. In addition to the billboards, they also run ads on TV, radio, and before movies in the theaters. According to the Foundation’s website, their purpose is to promote values: “We create public service campaigns that model the benefits of a life lived by positive values. In turn, we hope to inspire people to make values a part of their own lives, and then to communicate the benefits to others.”

The general goal of the group appears to be unequivocally good. It is an accepted fact by many people that our culture’s values are changing or disappearing entirely. As a result, the promotion of virtues has become a top priority for schools and private organizations. It is not uncommon to see posters in a public high school classroom expounding on the benefits of telling the truth, being trustworthy, and dressing professionally. These posters, and their counterparts in the Foundation ads, are meant to replace something that is lacking in our society: an accepted set of values which will allow our society (and economy) to function.

It seems self evident that our society needs to understand the importance of virtues, and so it ought to follow that the more we can promote virtues like love, the better; however, the truth is that any virtue which does not have a foundation is simply posturing, and when that virtue is called for in a difficult situation, there is no final reason for someone to follow the virtue. The only basis the Foundation offers for people to act according to the values they promote is the “benefits of a life lived by positive values.” While the Foundation’s billboards and ads recognize the tremendous need in our society for virtues, if the only motivation they can offer is “a better life,” they are communicating that the ultimate purpose of values is selfish, not selfless. I ought to act morally because it will benefit my life.

Once this assumption is made, then the virtues themselves must come under scrutiny. If loving someone else actually doesn’t better an individual’s life in a particular instance, should they love anyway? The real value is personal benefit, not virtues or morals. This matter is complicated by the fact that the billboards do not even offer the idea that values will benefit your life. All they communicate is that the featured person on the billboard acted virtuously according to the Foundation and we should too. The claim these ads seem to make is “love” or “be ambitious”; be moral because, well, just because.

The tragedy here is that many very good values are promoted in the same way other products are promoted. In Technopoly, Neil Postman describes the movement in advertising from rational arguments to irrational appeals. In the early days of advertising, a company presented their case for why you should purchase their product, but later this method was largely replaced with jingles, catch phrases, and other aesthetic and emotional appeals. Postman notes that this kind of capitalism is starkly different from the kind Adam Smith intended, where the best products rise to the top because the consumers come to rationally understand the benefit; instead, we are left with an economy where what is truly good is replaced by what is most appealing to the individual.

Just as with commercial advertising, I would argue that advertising morals irrationally (without a foundation) will lead to a similarly corrupt morality in our society. Rather than present values as profoundly important aspects of our worldview attained by thoughtful consideration, the Foundation billboards portray them as abstract ideas which can be accepted or rejected just as easily as one accepts or rejects a particular type of laundry detergent.

At this point I want to reiterate that I think the work that the Foundation is doing good in that it recognizes the tremendous need in our society for accepted values and strives to make a difference. But in order for our society to accept a set of values that will truly benefit their lives, the discussion needs to move away from advertising towards a context which treats morality as important, as something beyond our cultural choices. In addition, society needs a reason to have values, particuarly “positive values,” rather than a selfish one. If the only reason to act virtuously is to benefit yourself, then right action, in the final account, will always come down to what best benefits the individual regardless of morality.

We need values in our country, but unless they come from a sure foundation, they will not last. And unless they are aimed at a source outside of ourselves, they will always be selfish acts. While it is good to encourage people to be moral, only the grace of Christ Jesus is enough to bring about true virtue, compasion, and love.

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  • Alan that was a great article, I’m glad you found time to write again.

    This is somthing I find myself getting tangled in. That I should only sacrifice if I can anticipate benefits for myself in the forseeable future. Only pay in if I can be reimbursed. Afterall, it is no fun to do what you ought to do sometimes, so what can I look for to make it worth the effort? A while ago I was stumped by a coworker who said that in the end nobody’s sacrifices are selfless; that moral people will be rewarded for their sacrifice (even if not in this life) and therefore there is really no essential difference between them and the immoral person who lives for himself. Who would sacrifice themself if there was no payback? So the moral and immoral are both selfishly motivated in the end.
    What a tremendously tough job God has in dealing with us. He wants to reward us, next life and along the way, for losing our lives, but He wants us to lose our lives for His sake not in order to be rewarded. We have the inescapable temptation to idolatry because a major way we are attracted to God is in how He expresses Himself to us through blessings. But God Himself must be the greatest desire, not the blessings.
    Wasn’t this the whole reason God allowed Satan to take all “rewards for living righteosly” from Job: because Satan suspected Job would curse God if every good thing was taken from him? The devil was trying to prove that no one will serve God for God’s own sake, not without rewards for their service, a selfish motivation. Somehow Job did not curse God, even though he saw no end to his suffering and no blessings in his future. After conclusive proof was given to refute the devil, God restored Job with twice as much. But it wasn’t for that gain for himself that Job stayed faithful, as far as he knew he was being condemned for living righteously, and even then he didn’t curse God.

    That’s my rant, your point about the billboards’ message: that I should only live morally because it will better my life, got me thinking.

    Matts last blog post..A link has been added to the drop NatureHatesAVacuum.