THE BLOG
02/29/2016 03:01 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2017

No Accounting for Taste

When I was a boy, my mother convinced me that to become a lawyer, I must study Latin. I followed her advice and took Latin for four enjoyable years. Studying another language - even a "dead" one - also taught me much about the structure and usages of English.

So when I did go to law school, I was sensitive to the use of Latin in our legal tradition. There were Latin phrases aplenty. "Mens rea," for example, was used to define criminal intent, and elsewhere, Latin phrases popped up all the time: a fortiori, a priori, ad infinitum, and caveat emptor. Constitutional law lived by "stare decisis" - the importance of generally deferring to settled legal precedents. On balance, however, I concluded that four years of Latin were unnecessary: one could acquire the necessary Latin on a "case-by-case" basis, as lawyers often say.

But a few Latin phrases learned in law school really registered. My favorite phrase came from a professor who once spoke this memorable mouthful: "de gustibus non disputandum est". Roughly translated: "there is no accounting for taste." This sentiment can apply across a wide range of human behavior: fashion, food, politics, consumerism, and marriage. When spoken, in English or in Latin, "de gustibus ..." is often delivered with a shake of the head, a roll of the eyes, and a profound conclusion that whatever human activity is being judged fails to meet some higher standard of good taste in the most important court of all: the court of public opinion.

All of which brings me to the fascinating subject of erectile dysfunction television ads. Perhaps the origins of erectile concerns can be traced to that famous, upstanding mythological figure Priapus -- a lesser Greek fertility god who became exceedingly popular in Latin writings and Roman erotic art. Priapus had no need for today's heavily marketed medications that deliver artificially what he came by naturally. Or at least by what the higher gods chose to grant him.

Not every male can be a Priapus: the will might be present, but the body doesn't always oblige. It is therefore entirely understandable that major pharmaceutical companies have now developed little pills (worth billions of sales dollars) that can turn virtually any man, within a matter of hours, into a modern-day Priapus. These medications are approved as useful and effective, but here's my quibble: why do the pharmaceutical companies have to advertise them on television during the family dinner hour? Have they no taste?

In France (and perhaps other civilized countries as well), advertising prescription medications on television is illegal. In the United States, the interpretation of our Constitution's First Amendment enables lawyers, doctors, and drug companies to advertise their respective practices and cures. Turn on any evening network news program, and you will find the vast majority of advertising to include spots for medications that treat everything from diabetes and asthma, to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, toenail fungus, and erectile dysfunction.

Most of these ads are without controversy, although the rapidly read list of possible complications and side effects from some of these medications will cause many people to question the risk. But what about the issue of family values during dinnertime?

Do you really want your four-year-old asking, "Mommy, what's a four-hour erection?" Or what might a pre-teen wonder when hearing the voiceover announce: "Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex..."? Can't these drug companies exercise the self-restraint of good taste and air these ads at a different time, perhaps during late-night television when the kiddies have gone to sleep?

The First Amendment is not absolute. Over the years, courts have made exceptions for legitimate "time, place or manner" restrictions. The most famous of these exceptions is the rule that you cannot invoke the First Amendment to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

If the drug companies persist in running these ads during the family dinner hour, then perhaps Congress should follow the French example and ban the messages. Our television networks bring us many good things, but the inadvertent, casual sex education of our children is not one of them. Corporate self-restraint versus profit maximization would set a good example for everyone.

In 1993, the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" to indicate that a society could only accept so much inappropriate behavior before its standards began to fall. In short, there really is an accounting for taste - of for the lack of taste.

Today, there are far too many examples of what Senator Moynihan might have called "defining decency down." Our culture is awash with an "anything goes" mentality that gives us rap lyrics championing violence and profanity, erectile dysfunction ads, and now even a bizarre narcissist who says whatever pops into his mind as he runs for president. Donald Trump ignores what most teenagers learn early on: that maturity, not to mention decency, usually means first filtering your thoughts before letting them spring from your mouth. Cultural maturity and social acceptance previously entailed filters that promoted accuracy, integrity, decency, and good taste. These filters happened naturally; laws weren't necessary to enforce them.

Another important law school lesson is appreciating that just because you can do something legally doesn't mean that you should do it. Sound legal decision-making, like good taste, is tempered by deliberation, judgment, and an appreciation for context. The fact that a drug company decides that it can run erectile dysfunction ads at inappropriate times, doesn't mean that it should. The proper conduct is a no-brainer, or, as the Romans might have said: "res ipsa loquitur."

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation - France from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.