Free Will For Others

I was listening to a 2009 Design Matters podcast where Debbie Millman interviews Milton Glaser, a celebrated graphic designer.

At around minute 28:00 they were talking about the ethical limits in the use of design services; where would the line be drawn when a designer was asked to promote a product or service or idea that could possibly end up causing harm.

Based on a survey of design students Milton took in one of the classes he taught, they were discussion whether there was a difference between promoting a product that involved child labor in its fabrication and a product that could kill the voluntary (adult) user. Is there a case to be made for one saying the deadly product is OK to promote because it involves the free will of one who may not care enough about his own well-being to refrain from using it? Is he choosing it freely? Many in that survey said yes.

Milton made the point that, when you defend the so-called ‘free will’ of another person to choose a harmful thing, it requires you to objectify that person who uses his free will in a way that may harm himself. This person you refer to must be a faceless, nameless other that you really don’t know or care about. But if you were talking instead about the freedom for your loved one – such as your spouse, sibling or child – to choose something that harms himself, most likely you would reconsider your role in making that harmful product available.

The ethical line we draw when it affects those closest to us – our family and tribe – is often much tighter than the line we draw when it affects people who mean much less to us personally. We are much more likely to exercise a right to interfere with the free will of a loved one where we stand to lose if they lose.

But, in this age where (I hope) humanity is slowly starting to emerge from a my-tribe-only mentality, does it make sense to refrain from interfering with the choices made available to the rest of the inhabitants on this small, struggling planet? Can we afford any more to say, “It’s not my problem. I’ve got a job to do.” ?