Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Selling" Ourselves: The Ethics of Self-Marketing

Do we inevitably do ourselves an injustice when we try to “sell”1 ourselves? Can there ever truly be an ethics of marketing or “selling” ourselves? Is the phrase “the ethics of self-marketing” an oxymoron?
      Is it ever morally right for us to place a price tag on, or assign a monetary value to, ourselves? When we “sell” or market ourselves, do we inevitably risk demeaning and devaluing ourselves? By putting a monetary value on our time, labor, skills, and abilities and expecting to be financially compensated for them, are we thereby confirming the justness and appropriateness of their monetary valuation?
      When we market or “sell” ourselves, we may be offering to provide others (in exchange for their money, assistance, approval, or sponsorship) a variety of things, such as our labor, skills, expertise, advice, ideas, experience, personal services, personal endorsement, personal spokesmanship, or personal image rights.
      We may try to “sell” or market ourselves in a variety of ways. For example, we may try to "sell" ourselves by telling others about ourselves, by talking with them, by listening to them, by developing personal relationships with them, by building friendships and partnerships with them, by trying to respond to their interests and concerns, by engaging them in our own interests and concerns, by educating them, by entertaining them, and by trying to inspire them.
      Methods of self-marketing may include handing out business cards, mailing out brochures, sending out emails, creating a website, blogging, writing magazine or journal articles, writing books, giving talks, conducting seminars, creating online videos (e.g. on YouTube, Veoh, or Vimeo), using social media (such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn), appearing as a guest on a radio talk show, becoming a professional coach or mentor, becoming a professional consultant, becoming a member of a professional society, and doing volunteer work for a nonprofit organization.
      Self-marketing may also include “personal branding” (e.g. Donna Karan Fragrances, Martha Stewart Home Decor, Hilton Hotels, and Oprah Magazine), “self-packaging” (e.g. developing a signature style or creating a look) and “image management” (e.g. personal, social, professional, and political image management)
      The ethics of self-marketing may presuppose that there is an external market governing transactions between buyers and sellers, and that there are market rules regarding buyer and seller behavior. Violations of marketing ethics may therefore trigger external (market-imposed) as well as internal (self-imposed) sanctions.
      “Selling” or marketing ourselves may consist of demonstrating our aptitude, ability, knowledge, competence, trustworthiness, and reliability to others. It may also consist of making others aware of, or making others believe in, our merit and value.
      “Selling” ourselves may also consist of promoting our ideas and demonstrating their meaningfulness, significance, and relevance. It may also consist of demonstrating the value of our physical, mental, social, or professional traits and assets. It may therefore be a kind of performance that can be judged according to ethical as well as aesthetic criteria.
      In order to properly investigate the ethics of self-marketing, we may need to recognize that there is an art (including a visual, auditory, and performing art), as well as a science (including a cognitive, behavioral, and social psychology) of self-marketing.
      The ethics of self-marketing may define not only our duties to ourselves (including the duty not to surrender or compromise our own human dignity and moral integrity), but also our duties to others (including the duty not to make intentionally false or deceptive claims about ourselves).
      Our duties to ourselves may include the duty not to “sell” or market ourselves in a manner that is harmful to our physical and mental well-being. Thus, we may have a duty not to “sell” or market ourselves in a manner that is harmful to our sense of self-worth and self-respect.
      Our duties to others may also include the duty not to “sell” or market ourselves as something we are not. Thus, we may have the duty not to exaggerate or embellish our personal accomplishments. We may have the duty not to misrepresent the level of our technical expertise, practical knowledge, and professional training. We may have the duty not to intentionally create false impressions about our educational, academic, or professional backgrounds. There may be moral limits as to how we market ourselves, and as to what we say about ourselves.
      We also have the duty not to accept bribes or unethical inducements for “selling” ourselves and for selling our time, labor, services, personal companionship, personal property, or privacy.
      The ethics of self-marketing also demand that we not participate in illegal markets, including markets in illegal drugs, markets in illegal weapons, markets in smuggled goods, and markets in stolen or pirated goods.
      We have the duty not to sell our knowledge, expertise, skills, services, etc. to unlawful or criminal enterprises. We also have the duty not to let ourselves become the knowing or unknowing instruments of corrupt business or political interests.
      If there are ethical ways for us to “sell” ourselves, then how do we avoid selling ourselves short? How do we avoid misjudging our value to others? If we “sell” ourselves to others, then we may need to be mindful of, and try to avoid, “underselling” or “overselling” ourselves.
      “Selling” or marketing ourselves may be a part of ordinary work skills. A teacher, counselor, attorney, architect, engineer, or professional speaker may have to “sell” herself in some way to her students, clients, customers, or audience in order to be recognized as a reliable and credible authority in her field of training or expertise. A salesperson, shopkeeper, vendor, broker, or entrepreneur may also have to “sell” herself in some way to a prospective client or customer in order for that client or customer to consider buying a product from her or using her professional services. If a marketer or vendor fails to “sell” herself properly, then the prospective customer may consider buying the same product or the same services from some other marketer or vendor.
      One reason that we may fail to get a job promotion or be recognized for our job performance is that we may fail to “sell” ourselves properly to a supervisor or employer. We may fail to make an impression on a supervisor or employer or make her aware of our value and importance to the organization we are working for.
      We may also sell ourselves short by failing to "sell" ourselves tactfully and effectively. We may fail to identify and personally connect with our prospective employers, clients, customers, or audience. We may fail to develop a strategy for reaching, appealing to, and mobilizing a particular market sector, customer base, readership, viewing audience, or listening audience. We may fail to utilize a variety of methods in order to develop a marketing platform and communications network. We may fail to recognize our own strengths and virtues, and may fail to make others aware of how those strengths and virtues could be helpful or useful to them.
      Some of the disadvantages of selling ourselves short are that we may miss out on opportunities (personal, social, professional, and financial) that we would otherwise have had, and we may reinforce negative feelings that we have about ourselves. We may also promote negative images that we have of ourselves. We may also subject ourselves to mistreatment or abuse if we feel that we don’t deserve to be treated any better. We may try to find various reasons to continue dysfunctional or unsatisfying personal relationships. We may also accept being told that we are inferior and undeserving.
      Some other disadvantages of selling ourselves short are that we may settle for a lower level of financial compensation than we deserve for having fulfilled a professional obligation, and we may settle for less recognition than we deserve for having performed a particular service. We may even settle for being discriminated against and being denied privileges that have, under similar conditions, been granted to others.
      On the other hand, the ethics of self-marketing require that we not demand excessive reward or excessive compensation for providing our goods and services. We have a duty not to make false and deceptive claims about our skills, expertise, professional background, and work history. We have a duty not to claim intellectual property rights over intellectual property that does not rightfully belong to us.
      In order to comply with an ethics of self-marketing, we must also avoid “selling out” (compromising our moral principles for the sake of personal reward or financial gain). We must avoid making a Faustian bargain with a supposed benefactor by sacrificing our moral principles and “selling” ourselves to that supposed benefactor in return for temporary personal gain (in the form of power, fame, or success). We must also avoid taking unfair advantage of others for the sake of our own personal gain.
      Techniques for “selling” or “packaging” ourselves may include wearing particular styles of clothing (“dressing for success”), grooming ourselves in a particular manner, trying to make a good first impression, being relaxed and outgoing, being courteous and friendly, establishing eye contact with whomever we are talking to, trying to be considerate and kind, and trying to appear calm, assured, confident, knowledgeable, and competent.
      The ethics of selling ourselves (or of selling various parts of ourselves) may also apply to such practices as paid blood donation, paid bone marrow donation, paid sperm or egg donation, paid hair donation, paid organ donation, paid breast milk donation, paid surrogacy, paid participation in scientific research trials, paid companion services, paid escort services, paid sex work (such as stripping, lap dancing, adult film performing, and prostitution), and selling ourselves into bonded labor or slavery.
      A moral question raised by the selling of our bodies or body parts is whether we have the moral right to sell them, even though no one other than ourselves has the moral right to claim ownership of them. How can it be morally wrong for us to voluntarily sell our own bodies or body parts, if we are not harming anyone else by doing so? Those who affirm that it is indeed morally wrong to sell our own bodies or body parts may argue that it is inherently harmful to our own moral or psychological well-being. They may also argue that our own bodies or body parts cannot rightfully be regarded as buyable or sellable commodities. They may also argue that by claiming the right to sell our own bodies or body parts, we are contributing to the development of markets in bodies or body parts, and thus to human trafficking.
      Arguments against legalization of the selling of body organs or body parts include (1) that it is morally wrong, (2) that it is a violation of human dignity, (3) that it treats body organs or parts as if they were commodities, (4) that it promotes an inequitable system of organ distribution, with access to available organs granted to those who can afford to pay, and access to available organs denied to those who cannot afford to pay, (5) that it promotes a system of organ distribution in which the wealthy will be the recipients and the poor will be the donors, treating the poor as sources of organs to be distributed to the wealthy,2 (6) that it might not alleviate the present shortage of available donor organs, since donations might decrease if selling were allowed,3 and (7) that it might lead to the kidnapping and murder of children and adults in order to harvest their organs.4
      Arguments for legalization of the selling of body organs or body parts include (1) that legalized selling of body organs might help to alleviate the present shortage of available donor organs for medical patients who need organ transplantation, (2) that voluntary donation of body organs allows the donors to help those in need, (3) that legalized selling of body organs might encourage more people to donate their organs, and (4) that human beings should have the right to treat their bodies as they desire and should be able to voluntarily sell their own body organs or body parts if they are not harming anyone by doing so,
      Arguments for legalization of prostitution include (1) that prostitution is a “victimless crime,” (2) that legalization would reduce health risks for sex workers by requiring them to be tested regularly for sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s), (3) that it would reduce violence against women, by providing safer environments for sex workers, (4) that it would enable greater regulation of the sex trade, in order to prevent human trafficking, (5) that it would prevent child prostitution, (6) that it would save law enforcement resources, (7) that it would be a source of tax revenue, and (8) that it would allow sex workers to obtain labor rights, such as minimum wage, health care rights, safety rights, and protection from discrimination.5
      Arguments against the legalization of prostitution include (1) that prostitution is morally wrong, (2) that it is inherently dehumanizing, (3) that it promotes the abuse and exploitation of women, (4) that it promotes the victimization of children, (5) that it promotes human trafficking, (6) that it promotes the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, (7) that legalization does not protect sex workers from exploitation, and (8) that it promotes the spread of prostitution.
      Perhaps the two most basic requirements of self-marketing ethics are (1) that we have the right to market or sell whatever we are marketing or selling, and (2) that we do so in a truthful, honest, and socially responsible manner. Thus, the ethics of self-marketing informs us of the duty to engage in ethical advertising  and promotional practices, regardless of what kind of marketing strategy we are employing (e.g. mass marketing, multi-segment marketing, targeted marketing, or niche marketing).
      Self-marketing ethics also include an ethics of self-disclosure, i.e. an ethics governing the nature, kind, and amount of personal data we release to others in our “selling” of ourselves. To the extent that release of our personal data affects the well-being of others, we have an ethical duty not to unnecessarily harm, offend, trouble, or inconvenience them by unnecessarily releasing such data. We also have an ethical duty not to be selfishly attention-seeking and exhibitionistic in our self-promotion or self-marketing. We also have an ethical and legal duty not to engage in such acts as breaching the peace, creating a public nuisance, infringing on the privacy rights of others, and using public resources, property, or communications without proper authorization.
      In some cases, we may have to “sell” ourselves to ourselves (convince ourselves of our own merit and value). We may also have to “sell” ourselves on the act of “selling” ourselves (convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing by “selling” ourselves to others). Self-marketing may therefore in some cases involve marketing ourselves to ourselves as well as to others.


1The word “sell” is here placed in quotation marks to distinguish the metaphorical from the literal sense of selling. We often try to “sell” ourselves to others in everyday life by trying to convince others of our intelligence, sophistication, resourcefulness, attractiveness, sense of humor, and other admirable qualities, but this metaphorical sense of selling is to be distinguished from the literal sense of selling that is exemplified by the selling of human beings into bondage or slavery, the sex trade, and the selling of human body organs or body parts.

2Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 198.

3C.J. Dougherty, “Body Futures: The Case Against Marketing Human Organs,” in Health Progress, Volume 68, Number 5, June 1987, p. 51.

4R.R. Kishore, “Human Organs, Scarcities, and Sale: Morality Revisited, in Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 41. 2005, p. 362.

5Erin Fuchs, “7 Reasons Why America Should Legalize Prostitution,” in Business Insider, No. 13, 2013, online at

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