The most recent episode of Mad Men, 'Signal 30,' is an exploration of friendship. Workplace friendship, in particular.

Friendship is described by the show’s hardened advertising executives as a crucial part of one's strategy, a manner of winning over a client. You share some confession, you listen to theirs, and you become “conspirators,” or, as the character Roger says, adding scare quotes with his hands, “friends.”

Indeed, later, the man whose account they are trying to land explains he’d like to have some “fun” with the people he is going to work with. (They found this "fun" and it would have secured the deal, had the details of their "conspiracy" not been discovered by the client's wife.)

We see the main character, Don Draper, very reluctantly agree to go to his colleague’s house in the suburbs for dinner, but we also see him having a very nice time. (Something he even confesses to.) So perhaps there is more to work friendship than a means to an end. Maybe these guys are real friends?

Not so fast. The episode ends with Pete complaining bitterly about being beaten up in an office by Lane, (the title of the episode, Signal 30, is the police code for trauma) saying “this is an office. We are supposed to be friends.” (As viewers, we know Pete’s “friends” thought a beating was a long time coming. )

The writers of Mad Men have very ably managed to make us question the very nature of work friendships. This is when we might have thought that whether business associates can be friends is simply an empirical question, and not one that would seem to be very pressing (wouldn’t we know when we have a friend or not?) But the issue is actually of some philosophical significance.

I don’t just mean that, as the writers of Mad Men make clear, the matter is not actually obvious and is worth pondering. There is a philosophical account of the market that might be supported, or refuted, if we can figure out whether we can really be in business with someone, and at the same time be friends.

Value in Ethics and Economics

University of Michigan's Elizabeth Anderson wrote a wonderful book titled “Value in Ethics and Economics” a few years back. (Since then, she has not stopped coming up with new approaches in other areas of philosophy.) She argues that we can characterize the market through a set of norms.

Roughly, she suggests that the market is:

1. impersonal

2. marked by freedom

3. where goods that are rivals are traded (they are not “shared goods”)

4. where we care only about wants

5. where we mark our choices by exit.

Though I should probably illustrate what she means when it comes to each of these descriptors, let me here just say that, according to Anderson, only “economic goods” ought to be got (and sold) in accordance with these five norms. “Economic goods” are the only sort of goods that we ought to “use”, rather than (4.) "respect," (5.) "personally value," or (6.) "share."

In short, according to Anderson if we try to understand friends as “economic goods” we will run into trouble.

Why? Allow me to let someone else explain in the next section.

The Implications of Hiring Your Friends

On my campus we recently held an essay contest to see if students could help us settle this issue. No, we didn't relate Anderson's view to Mad Men (what an idea!) But we asked students to test Anderson's view by considering whether fraternities and sororities ought to allow members to pay other members to do their chores. Would this undermine the very values—of fraternity and sorority—that the organizations were designed around?

Here is a selection from the winning essay, by Stefan Koester.

"If a fraternity brother were to ask another brother to do certain personal chores in exchange for money, they would be introducing an extrinsic value, money, into a relationship that is supposed to be founded on an intrinsic ideal. A brother may seek the lowest price possible for the service, thus introducing competition among members of the applicant pool. This competition within the fraternity undermines the incommensurable values of which the association is founded upon by applying quantitative measures of each individual's worth. The information conveyed within the price represents a function of the utility of the individual. One member could be worth so much per hour relative to another member. The distillation of a member to a basic function of utility diminishes the dialogue required of friendship. If someone is represented merely by their monetary worth then there is no need for interaction beyond the strict limitations of market mechanisms. The value of the person is equal to their wage and its relative worth. One could very likely become best friends with their hired employee; however the basis of that relationship is founded not on the intrinsic joy of friendship, but the extrinsic function of a transaction."

It's good, right?

He continues: "By commodifying a relationship we find it difficult to make sense of both ourselves and societal norms[1]. If a person is only worth a certain amount to me I have no incentive to continue to interact with them if it conflicts with my self-interest. Societal norms such as trust, honesty, politeness and respect are, therefore, only reserved for those whom I happen to interact with within the market structure. This view of human value denies the fact that we are psychological creatures defined by our attitudes towards things.

Society is not merely a creation of causal events that establish certain attitudes in response to various incentives. We do not live in a narrow one-way-street world in which we only create our valuation of things. Our attitude towards things plays a role in how we come to value other things. Operating only within the confines of a current state of evaluation, without regard for the intrinsic value of something, we lose sight of the rational purpose for which a certain activity was pursued in the first place. If a fraternity brother seeks only the completion of some task in exchange for money from another brother he will likely neglect the non-monetary value that he receives from the other, thus undermining their friendship and relationship and the ideals of the association as a whole.

Of course, some believe that because we must orient ourselves towards the want of others wants within a market we become more inclusive and subsequently develop stronger ties[2]. While interacting with others within a market may enlighten us in regards to others’ economic desires we may care little about the other dimensions that are crucial for the development of a sound relationship.

In many business deals it is more profitable to lie to employees or customers than to deal with them honestly[3]. Businesses do not lie to their customers because they believe in the intrinsic value of lying. They lie because it is profitable and to their advantage to do so. They have no desire to be in a non-monetary relationship with anyone. Attempting to apply these norms and ethics of business to companionate relationships clearly undermines the entire point."

So there you have it, better than I can do. The "friends" on Mad Men may be "best friends," but the very values of the marketplace (necessary in their place) are bound to interfere with the quality of the friendships that result from (and even benefit) work. It looks to me as if the writers of the show agree. It seems to me as if they are actually pushing the point. But I may be wrong.

What do you think?

[1] Elizabeth Anderson, Value in Ethics and Economics (London, England: Harvard University Press, 1993), xiii.

[2] Jerry Z. Muller, “The Neglected Moral Benefits of the Market,” Society January/February 2006, 13.

[3] William W. Keep and Gary P. Schneider, “Deception and defection from ethical norms in market relationships: a general analytic framework”,  Business Ethics: A European Review Vol. 19, No. 1 (January 2010), 70-6.  

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