“You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts…but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.”
Donald Draper is arguably one of television’s most recognizable, morally twisted antiheros. For eight years, viewers tuned in to witness Draper’s philandering, drinking, smoking, lying and other less than commendable behavior. Draper could, in the course of one episode, day-drink, carry on an affair, lie to his wife and coworkers, berate an underling and still make it home in time for dinner in the suburbs. For all that he is, he is also a kind of moral antithesis that has challenged me in the ways that I have developed morally and ethically.
Despite the previous description, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner would not characterize Don Draper as an antihero but rather as an “every-man.” Draper carries himself with the kind of suave confidence any man dreams he could muster. Draper is a man of influence, class, power and wealth. He seduces women with his effortless charm while maintaining a seemingly brilliant family life, complete with a beautiful, blonde-haired wife, a daughter, a son, a golden retriever and a white picket fence. It’s a near caricature of the American dream, a depiction that Draper himself seems bent on squandering.
This is exactly what makes Don Draper a complex case study on morality. He is clearly a person of good and bad qualities; therefore, in order to justify a claim against his character as a “bad person,” one must determine whether or not his bad traits are more important than the good ones. I would argue that Don Draper is an amoral person who serves a moral purpose for viewers in their own moral development. One can analyze his decisions under a microscope in accordance with Aristotle’s theory of virtues and vices, the concept of reciprocity first discussed in Plato’s Protagoras, Bentham’s utilitarianism, Kant’s moral imperative principle and many other theories of ethical behavior. Under every theory, it is likely that there would be no consensus on the nature of Don Draper. Draper is not simply the composition of his choices and his mistakes are not simply rationalized out of existence. He has made choices that have caused a profound impact for those around him. Yet, viewers see his humanity every step of the way. Which is what makes him such a compelling, even relatable, character.
Don Draper, according to Jean Piaget’s stages of moral development, is in the third stage of moral development. He understands rules, has a concept of justice, has internal authority (which is perhaps his only authority) and can understand universal principle that transcends his social era. In light of Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development, Draper’s moral development becomes more ambiguous. Though I’m sure Kohlberg would hate my application of his stages, I would argue that Draper clearly displays attributes of stage three and stage six. In the pilot episode of Mad Men, foil character Rachel Menken comments on Draper as someone who looks out of place. Later on, his wife Betty remarks that he doesn’t understand money despite his wealth. That’s because Don did not grow up knowing power and wealth; rather, it is something he aspired to. But Don didn’t know what role to aspire to without society’s help, hence why this caricature of Don Draper is a reality that Don had to fulfill based on society’s expectations. This is stage three development. However, Don also self-selects the principles he lives by and makes progressive efforts to treat people equally. This is stage six development.
I’m not here to make the case that Don Draper is a morally upstanding person that everyone else should aspire to be like. I’m merely raising the issue that a human being can’t fit into little boxes of development and that moral development is a nuanced and timely process. Which brings me to the purpose of my writing on such a character. To me, Don Draper operates simultaneously as a moral antithesis and an amoral every-man. I’m not going to deny that I have been tempted to live a life like Don Draper. It’s a very attractive lifestyle, to be so progressive, wealthy, suave, powerful and self-interested. Yet, the most powerful component of Mad Men’s legacy is that it doesn’t glorify that behavior. The consequences and ramifications of the choices being made are always included in the picture. Don Draper loses both of his wives, he continues to struggle with alcoholism and his temper, he is never sure whether or not he obtains respect and love from his kids and, most importantly, he never finds purpose or meaning in his life outside of advertising. This has impacted me personally as I’ve made choices in my life. My struggles with mental illness and an absence of purpose often lead me back to thinking about the characters in Mad Men. I always think of the consequences of my actions, in part because I have witnessed said consequences from Don Draper and other Mad Men characters.
Perhaps the most moral component of Don Draper’s fictitious existence is his consistency. He’s progressive, speaking with African Americans and most of the women he interacts with as equals, which is unusual for his era. He did not snitch on his coworker Sal when he discovered that he was gay, which was a social atrocity in the 1960s. His egalitarian attitude dictates the kind of honorableness he exercises when dealing with clients. He loves his kids, but he fails to express it. He hates loneliness and craves romantic companionship, but he aspires to an unsustainable independence. He, like many men and women, is searching for purpose. He makes his mistakes. He rarely learns from them. He moves on. He always moves on. Conveniently enough, Don summarizes in season two what I would argue should be the average person’s foundational capacity for their pursuit of purpose and morality: “It’s your life. You don’t know how long it’s gonna last, but you know it doesn’t end well. You’ve gotta move forward…as soon as you can figure out what that means.”
*Header photo courtesy of Lionsgate Television.