I am taking time out today to familiarise myself with the Liberal Democrat manifesto, in preparation for a podcast later.  One of the things that bothers me as a reader of all the manifestos, from the point of view of someone unused to Westminster’s interfering ways, is how they deal with everything.  And in this micro-policy blizzard it is hard to really tell one party from another: tell me, honestly, that reading this list of things the Conservatives intend to do for Universities, that they could not have come from Labour or the Lib Dems as well.  That does not mean they are bad; just politically squidgy.

I agree with a more experienced colleague, however, that having a short important-issues-only manifesto looks cheap (or like a single issue nutter).  According to the Vote Now show of 12th April (about 6 minutes in), the Greens included in a speech on their tax policy “restore the 10p tax band, and so on“.  Yeah, tax policy, easy.

So you have to show where you stand on a lot of  different things if you aspire to be in government.  Fair enough; once in government, you end up being blamed for them all, after all.  The LibDems make this policy blizzard more apparent by having a handy index to their manifesto, which stretches from Adult Learning Grant and Dartford Crossing to Tuberculosis and Zero Carbon Britain.

And in there is Airbrushing.  A single sentence: “Help protect children and young people from developing negative body images by regulating airbrushing in adverts”.   Liberal Vision have taken issue with this ‘maternalism’.  Libertarian Tom writes:

Even if it is true that the existence or prominence of [airbrushed] models adversely influences people’s behaviour (which has in no way been proven), it is still not government’s role to protect individuals from their own actions. The state’s role is to protect people from being coerced by other people; to allow the individual the maximum freedom that does not restrict the freedom of others

Now, we have all had that feeling of waking up and worrying that we have not read enough Kant.  There is probably even a medical term for it.  I am particularly afflicted, because I have read virtually none, despite majoring in Philosophy and even penning an article in an encyclopedia on him (for shame).  I have reached that point in Sandel’s Justice where his conception of freedom is brought out.  It is the chapter after Libertarianism, which is appropriate, because its major aim is to dispute the notion of human actions in a market being straightforwardly uncoerced.  It also deals with utilitarianism. To quote from the book:

“what we commonly think of as market freedom or consumer choice is not true freedom, Kant argues, because it simply involves satisfying desires we haven’t chosen in the first place .. trying to derive moral principles from the desires we happen to have is the wrong way to think about morality.  Just because something gives many people pleasure doesn’t make it right”

To paraphrase and simplify horribly, real freedom is choosing ends as well as the means to already given ends.  Get a person addicted to burgers, crack or Arsenal Football Club and their choices are no longer ‘free’ in this sense.  In this way, Kant provides some underpinnings to Swinson; and other economists over the years, such as Galbraith.

I still remain bugged by such policies of ‘protecting ourselves from our coerced desires’ because of the sheer difficulty of determining where human free will ends.  Taken too far and you end up with the sort of miserable view of human nature that can sometimes seem to animate Labour, and also leads to kooky Behavioural Economic policies to make us all want better things.  I just don’t like where that leads.  You start with something uncontroversial, like warning kids off smoking, and end up with something Orwellian.

Libertarian is a naive creed; the assumption that all actions in a market are uncoerced is just one example of such naivity, the list of which could go on and on.  But I still find it a useful as a corrective to other creeds when they go too far.  The IEA from its appreciation of Antony Flew alerted me to an article of his criticising Rawls and his views on Justice.  I am finding it handy.  For example, it argues that Rawls seems to assume that all present and potential property really belongs to the collective and is therefore available for distribution or redistribution, and that he also assumes that all rights enjoyed by an individual either are or ought to be allocated collectively.  No doubt this is an exaggeration of Rawls, whose work I don’t know well enough to say. But I am glad to have read the thought.

Great thinkers often occupy polar opposites.  It leads actual decisions to be made by careful empiricists.  How much freedom DO we have in our consumerist desires?   I don’t know the answer.


9 thoughts on “Kant and Airbrushing

  1. I would anticipate that Kant’s answer to this question would not necessarily have recourse to the State, but rather focus on the role of the individual in determining their own ends. Kant’s Moral Law is derived from universal rational principles by the individual, rather than universal rational principles being imposed on the individual (c.f. his proof for God: ‘The starry heavens above and the moral law within’). It’s along the lines of his epistemology, inasmuch as the individual partly creates the world he or she perceives.

    One could argue that the Kantian state would focus on encouraging its citizens to effectively reason about their own desires, rather than stipulate what the end product of that reason might be. I’ve already written a little on this subject in the context of a new approach to value theory: http://declineofthelogos.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/reinvigorating-the-left/.

    1. Good post. It’s a good read – though do you exaggerate how much that Left politics might decline because of ideas? It has its special interests, even when the ideas grow stale

      1. Oh, absolutely – I concieved that post as more of a history of ideas than the relative strength of political movements. It is, however, arguable that part of the influence of an interest group is derived from the attractiveness of its underlying philosophy as opposed to its economic interests per se – regardless of whether one precedes the other. I would make the claim that one of the factors behind the relative decline of old-style socialism as an intellectual force on the British Left was the realisation that its outcomes were not as beneficial as the ideology backing it up would claim. This realisation had little impact on the economic interests of the groups backing it, e.g. the unions, whose interests are still best served by a strong State, but nonetheless forced the left to intellectually reorganise and led indirectly to New Labour.

        One could go further, and make the claim that there is a market for the available political talent in a state at a given time, and that the attractiveness of one ideology or other is based on a variety of factors, including an individual’s economic interest but also the coherency of ideas presented within it and their relationship to an individual’s inclinations. That may, perhaps, be pushing markets beyond their use as an appropriate model.

  2. I think that probably is an exaggeration of Rawls. But Rawls would have been on stronger ground if he had focused upon ownership rather than rights for the purpose of distributional justice. This is something I feel Amartya Sen is inching towards – once we recognise that people require the capability to actualise the rights they might hold on paper.

    1. I really enjoyed that Sen book – I may even get round to blogging it when the mists clear – but I did not find it as much about capabilities as the media spin would suggest. But a v strong though polite assault on Rawls

      1. I’ve not read the book, but the potted version of the theory would appear to have practical use to policymakers. The impact that capabilities theory has had on politicians is revealing: for James Purnell, quitting parliament to train as a community organiser; for Tessa Jowell, bringing Labour’s co-operative heritage into the debate about public services; for Liam Byrne, a concept that deals with the “powers” that people need – to deliver services and to get on in life – in an era of funding restraint.

  3. If it’s not the state’s job to protect people from making bad decisions, surely that still requires the state to ensure that individuals are not being lied to and manipulated? Without their connivance at least, given people can want to be lied to, and maybe separate from helping them reason effectively (which, if you’re going in that direction, can also sound sinister because it can be a problem if you determine whether people are reasoning effectively based on them making what you predetermine is the correct decision).

    In that case, would it be a more liberal policy be to require advertisers to be clearer (in the manner of ‘sequence shortened iPhone ads) that pictures are airbrushed and to release easily accesible untouched pictures to the public? Or is that still too coercive?

    (Sidenote: Views of human nature seem to jump fairly quickly from optimism to pessimism depending on the source of the problem that the human nature is going to overcome/be destroyed by. For example, worrying about slippery slopes towards Orwellian dystopias seems to me to rely on a pessimistic view of humanity.)

  4. Leaving a side all the arguments concerning coercion and the role of the state with regard to individual preferences (although I agree that libertarians have a too narrow definition of coercion), will this policy actually work?

    If advertisers aren’t allowed to airbrush or must state clearly when they have airbrushed an image there is a rather high disincentive to use airbrushing. However, this won’t necessarily mean that advertisers will suddenly start using images that are ‘warts and all’.

    If advertisers want to maintain the flawless images of women (and occasionally men), won’t they just use much more make-up and avoid airbrushing completely? Alternatively those models that just happen to have flawless physiques and beautiful skin will be in much more demand and able to command higher payment as the previous substitute (regular model+airbrushing) is no longer available.

  5. even penning an article in an encyclopedia on him


    You start with something uncontroversial, like warning kids off smoking, and end up with something Orwellian.

    Ah, here is our friend, Mr Slippery Slope.

    Presumably, you’re against allowing advertising smoking to children. If (and I am not claiming it is true) airbrushing does cause harm to children through things like anorexia, wouldn’t this be similar? Another externality for the government to deal with?

    And remember, we are talking about children. So when the libertarian says “it is still not government’s role to protect individuals from their own actions”, that is normally not true when it comes to children (I doubt few libertarians would disagree).

    Finally, on a closely related topic, here is an interesting powerpoint by Vaughan Bell on John Stuart Mill and mental illness:


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