Saturday, April 2, 2016

Morality In Two Commercials… for both Good and Ill

One of the most challenging things to communicate to young people about the moral life is how our actions have larger implications than we could ever envision. Understanding this "law of unintended consequences" requires a great deal of imagination. Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the spiritual life is the necessity to use one's imagination in the service of imagining the larger consequences of our behavior. Yet this is true not only for the bad things, but for the good as well. We celebrate the imagination for children, for novelist, but what about the rest of us?

The ultimate problem with the moral life comes down to this: sin is extremely generous up front, but robs us blind on the back end, while virtue is initially a bit like working pro bono, in that it pays us nothing up front, but on the back end rewards us handsomely.

Consequently, I present the following commercials as a kind of imaginative effort to illustrate and illuminate what is most challenging and subtle about the moral life. My hope is that both ads, like a kind of visual Ignatian exercise, provide encouragement to the reader in his or her efforts to recognize the consequences and trajectory of our actions, and how their implications are often much larger than we would/could have imagined.

The first commercial is one for DirecTV (currently their "Settlers" ad campaign is very popular as well). The memorable tag line, as you may recall, is "Don't end up in a roadside ditch."
While the moral culpability of the gentleman in this ad may be negligible at best (or so it would seem), the larger point is still valid. Our actions have a domino effect well beyond that of our original intention. Like Mickey Mouse as the Magician's apprentice in Fantasia, the consequence of one misdeed (or attempted shortcut) can have cosmic implications. Try as we might to quarantine them, our actions take on a life of our their own, and sometimes, in the spirit of Frankenstein, they literally come back to haunt us. We can see this occur in a general sense with our sins, but also in a generational sense as well (see commercial below).

Obviously I do not consider the failure to purchase DirecTV to be a sin, but I do believe that the instinct of this advertisement is quite right (at least in this very specific sense). Vices never happen in a vacuum. And they not only affect our own fate, but those with whom we interact as well.

The second ad campaign that lends insight into the moral life is a recent State Farm advertisement. In this case, the insight is a bit more positive. Yes, sin has a cumulative effect, and like karma there is nothing that you put out into the universe that won't (in some fashion) come back to you. You must "pay every last penny" of your debts. Depressing, no?

However, there are also many moments in the moral life that seem initially off-putting, something otherwise to be avoided. Indeed, this is perhaps the best argument for immorality. Not that goodness isn't reasonable or justifiable, or even beautiful, but rather that goodness is too difficult, and thus rationalization is preferable to bravery. If bravery exists at all, it is a one-off thing, not something that you must build towards day in and day out.

At the risk of sounding maudlin, love and sacrifice open us up to a new horizon of generosity. The super manicured, hyper-controlled existence that we may have originally envisioned begins to dissolve when confronted with this higher sense of beauty and goodness. Initially, when we sacrifice, we say "I will do this... but only this". Yet the more we give our bodies to that love, and the deeper we enter it, the more irresistible it becomes.

The two ad campaigns are a description of the moral life going in opposite directions. Our actions have power, and they can be deadly in ways that defy our initial intentions. Yet in the positive sense the moral life can lead you to positive surprises, a lifestyle that also defies your intentions… but in the best possible sense. In any case, if there are going to be surprises that defy our original intuitions let them at least be holy surprises!        

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