Using the elements of Kames’s moral theory

Using the elements of Kames’s moral theory (i.e. the role of mimickry and games) analyze a business topic from a non-American setting

Mimicry, Mind-Mugging, and Mexico:

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Mimicry and Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry

            In order to gain market share, companies adopt various methods of appeal to customers, both in terms of their products and their brand image as a whole. Value tones, the subtle ways in which both products and brands carry thematic appeal to their audiences, are one such aspect of this process. Consider The North Face, an American clothing company. Through various marketing strategies, the firm has managed to instil the value tones of ‘pioneering’ and, even more vaguely, ‘the wilderness’ into their products – leading to purchases from customers that find themselves with some admiration for these tones. As such, the value tones an article of clothing presents can be particularly profitable. The work of Lord Kames notes this phenomenon well, stating that the “love of novelty, desire of occupation, beauty of action, are strong attractions.”[1] Of course, as is the case of human nature, when the potential for profit arises, so does the opportunity for theft.

Larceny is a straightforward enough crime to identify when it comes to material items – gold, gems, the like. However, theft can also occur in the realm of the conceptual. When one finds a successful idea, the temptation to seize the idea for oneself can fester. Lord Kames seems to make clear his opinion on the notion of a human being that only persists on the work of others – subsiding through this sort of intellectual theft, “Were every thing furnished to his hand without thought or labour, he would sink to the lowest of the brute creation.”[2] Indeed, that which can only take, copy, or mimic is a contemptible existence. However, Lord Kames does not believe that mimicry is, in and of itself, morally reprehensible. On the contrary, the mimicry of virtuous actions is to be applauded, as in the case of the martial valor of pugilists, “Nothing animates and inspires us more than examples of courage and bravery. We catch the spirit of the actor, and turn bold and intrepid as he appears to be.”[3] When something contains value tones that are admirable, their emulation, in turn, becomes an admirable act. Furthermore, this sort of emulation is a universally replicated action, being, as Kames notes, “visible even in children, striving for victory without knowing what moves them.”[4] What then, in regards to Kames’s notion of mimicry, is the difference between right and proper emulation, and intellectual theft?

One suggestion of an answer may be intent, as the philosopher notes, “Two things cannot be more intimately connected than a being and its actions: for the connection is that of cause and effect. Such as the being is, such must its actions be.”[5] When a being’s act of mimicry is possessed with dubious intent, such as stealing a collection of values simply to profit from the work of others, then the act is immoral. On the other hand, if mimicry is performed with the intent of taking on the values of the object being mimicked, and appreciating them, then the act is moral. The murky gray area between these two intentions can become particularly relevant when discussing the sale of clothing from cultures other than the seller’s own. In this respect, what constitutes wholesome admiration, and what constitutes theft?

In relation to this question stands the Spanish ‘fast fashion’ company Zara, and their use of indigenous Mexican designs. The Economist reported that the company “put on sale for 1,000 pesos a blouse strikingly like those made by the women [of a particular indigenous village].”[6] Needless to say, having their artisan crafts replicated by a foreign company for dirt cheap was displeasing to the locals. One seamstress was reported as stating, “It’s not fair. We were first.”[7] This statement appears to be reflective of an attitude that equates the actions of Zara with intellectual theft, particularly of a variety commonly referred to as ‘cultural appropriation.’ The article defines this term as “the use by a dominant culture of ideas and practices of a downtrodden one.”[8] While in this story, there exists a clear power gap between the Zara designers sitting in a luxurious Galician office and the impoverished indiginous seamstresses, many claims of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry are more dubious.

However, many allegedly socially-conscious consumers are wary about the issue of cultural appropriation when it comes to the purchase of any sort of cross-cultural garment. A recent poll in the United Kingdom “found that 43 percent of Brits were unaware of any non-Western fashion retailers, while 9 percent of respondents said they worried about being accused of cultural appropriation if they were to wear BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] clothing.”[9] This phenomenon has led to the issue of minority clothing being unable to tap into potential markets, ones that their creators would very much want to access. In regards to this, one scholar of international fashion, Valerie Steele, notes that “fears of cultural appropriation rank as a ‘silly excuse’ for not wearing non-Western fashions because designers from those countries are eager for their clothes to be worn.”[10] Regarding a particular tunic she wore in the interview, made in the style of Northern India, “”My friend Farha Ansari from India made this with her company Leaves of Grass. She’s trying to sell it to people all over the world, including people like me. So, you know, I think that from her point of view that would be crazy. This is something she sees as a beautiful look that could be worn by anybody.”[11] These notions might lead one to circle back to the principle of intent, when determining whether an act might be considered moral mimicry, or immoral theft. In this example of fashion designers deliberately wishing to have their products be appreciated across cultural lines, for others to share in their value tones, it is clear that the former act is taking place.

Regardless, this is not always how such interactions are perceived by onlookers. Often, even the purchase of garments manufactured for the particular purpose of being sold to international audiences is accused of cultural appropriation – usually through social media platforms such as Twitter. Kames’s work discusses a relevant concept, noting the human drive to seek out examples of fictional injustice – through mediums such as theater – and garner pleasure for identifying them as such, “Nothing contributes so much to improve the mind and confirm it to virtue, as being continually employed in surveying the actions of others, entering into the concerns of the virtuous, approving their conduct, condemning vice, and showing an abhorrence at it.”[12] At the same time, however, Kames is cautious to note a clear distinction between this concept of fictionalized condemnation, and the real world. From his perspective, “were this sort of discipline confined to scenes in real life, the generality of men would be little better for it, because such scenes rarely occur.”[13] These words seem rather relatable to the errant condemnations of cultural appropriation that often occur at any point in which cross-cultural fashion choices are discussed. While there certainly do exist instances of obvious intellectual theft and exploitation, such as Zara’s treatment of indigenous villages, these examples are not necessarily reflective of general norms. Why then, is condemnation of even the smallest perceived slight so popular in the modern social media landscape? The words of Lord Kames on the nature of dramatic tragedy might offer insight to this question, “It [tragedy] serves to humanize the temper, by supplying feigned objects of pity, which have nearly the same effect to exercise the passion that real objects have.”[14] Since empty condemnations mimic the satisfaction gleaned from accurate ones, they retain a similar draw. In conclusion, it seems as though it is not only possible, but entirely expected under the philosophy of Kames for one to mimic outrage about wrongly-mimicked mimicries. The author of this essay might mimic annoyance in regards to this mimicked outrage aimed towards these wrongly-mimicked mimicries, but fears such an act would contain far too many layers of mimicry than would be desirable.



[1] Henry Homes and Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005), 18.

[2]  Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, 22.

[3] Ibid 21

[4] Ibid 22

[5] Ibid 24

[6] “Copy that; Craft in Mexico.” The Economist, August 25, 2018, 28(US). Gale Academic OneFile (accessed February 26, 2021).

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Socha, Miles. “Consumers Lag in Adopting Non-Western Labels, Survey Suggests.” Women’s Wear Daily, November 5, 2020. EBESCOhost (accessed February 26, 2021).

[10] Ibid

[11]  Socha, Miles. “Consumers Lag in Adopting Non-Western Labels, Survey Suggests.”

[12]  Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, 18.

[13] Ibid

[14] Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, 221.

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