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Crude Ethics

by James Lileks

A website aimed at design professionals had a piece this month about keeping your ethical character snow-white when asked to work for dubious clients. Star profile: a young fellow who found himself in the horrible position of designing something for — steel yourself — a pesticide company. He begged his boss to dump the client; the employer, perhaps blinded by such crude concerns as keeping the lights on, declined to listen to his better angel. The article noted that the fellow was going to quit anyway, so he did a shoddy job on purpose. It has his name and picture, so bosses of design companies: fair warning.

The ethics of taking the king’s shilling and doing your worst work wasn’t addressed. But the article discussed another design firm with High Standards, and that meant they wouldn’t take work from . . . petrochemical companies. If you don’t believe liquefied dinosaur juice is Satan’s plasma, it’s like reading that someone won’t do work for Nazis, pogrom coordinators, vivisectionists, anthrax lobbyists, and hairstylists. One of these things is not like the others, as the children’s song goes.

According to the article, however, the firm realizes that there are many shades of grey in this morally ambiguous world. One of those shades resembles green, under the right light. That’s green as in money, not green as in coming up with new ways to guilt affluent Westerners into taking shorter, colder showers. Some clients, after all, may get money from oil companies, which try to wash away the moral stain of filthy carbon sauce by funding the Center for Innocuously Renamed Leftist Agendas. It’s a form of alchemy: Bad money turns into good deeds when you walk it through an office where people use the word “sustainable” in every press release. If you can print the work on paper made of 80 percent post-consumer materials with soy ink, all the better! Stick it to the man!

Watching these exquisitely calibrated moral sensibilities display their plumage in public makes a preening peacock look like a turtle in a mud pit. Pesticides are bad because they’re chemicals. Boo hiss chemicals that kill and have side effects! (Except The Pill. All praise to The Pill.) Oil is bad; oil brings naught but sorrow. The New York Times did a piece on the boomtowns of the North Dakota oil fields, which are boisterous and messy, awash with testosterone, and not an art gallery for miles. The pictures of the treeless expanse with their lines of grim dormitories lacked only “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” over the gate.

It’s odd. We’re told conservatives are “anti-science,” a charge that reassures the clever set that their opponents believe Ogg the Caveman rode dinosaurs around while shouting “Yee-haw, the world is 56 years old!” But the “anti-science” rap mostly comes from conservative reservations about growing people in dishes to suck out their cells for experimentation. When it comes to big scientifical thingamabobs, like huge humming nuclear power plants, or finding new ways to extract oil from all the cunning places Mother Nature has hidden the delicious stuff, the Right is generally pro-science, and the Left runs away fluttering its hands, shrieking in terror.

The characterization isn’t completely fair — you’re probably more likely to find the Left funding a scientific experiment that smashes atoms together to discover what happened in the seventeenth trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, because it expands our knowledge of the universe, and can’t possibly enrich the Koch brothers. The Right might put off these things until the day when we’re not seventeen trillion in debt. The universe isn’t going anywhere. Well, it is expanding at an incredible rate, flinging itself into the void with a velocity that beggars the imagination, but so is Medicare spending.

Anyway: Petrophobia — an irrational, unreasoning fear of oil — is one of those things that set modern mopey liberalism apart from its brawny antecedents. When the Left was about good jobs for ordinary joes, a forest of oil derricks meant working people, roughnecks who could be persuaded to band together against Oil Barons. But now the Left isn’t concerned about jobs; it’s concerned about careers. Either a career managing tax money, or low-impact carbon-neutral careers that involve sitting in a glass-walled conference room with iPads discussing a branding campaign for a new line of hemp clothing. (Five percent of profits go to charity!) Horrid oil may have brought you to work and trucked in the organic arugula on the artisanal sandwiches served at the meeting; horrid coal may heat your building and keep the computers running so you can tweak that logo — honestly, the client can’t decide if he wants Gill Sans or Neutra for the font, it’s an absolute nightmare — and your clients may exist only because they’re funded by the third-generation heir to a pipeline fortune who wants to pay for the sins of his forebears. Oil may make your entire brittle existence possible — dare we say, sustainable — but as long as you’re not dipping your quill in the stuff, you’re a good person.

At this point the petrophobe may kindly request that we stop daubing straw men with creosote and setting them alight. The problem isn’t oil, it’s the need for clean alternatives. If we continue to use oil, we won’t feel the need to invent a new technology by slathering a dodgy business model with the magical paste of federal subsidies. If the company wastes the money and goes bankrupt and the technology doesn’t work? Well, they meant well. Besides, some of that money hired a design firm, and that created jobs!

The CEO of the start-up went to jail, but the logo was super ethical.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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