Fame and the Question of Ethical Intent

“Hi, I’m Richard Gere, and I’m speaking for the entire world”. (Richard Gere, actor)

This is the type of over-the-top turn of phrase and dramatic word choice that thespians are known to use to incite emotional reactions in an audience, and it was an equally dramatic cause that Gere was addressing by encouraging Palestinians to vote in the 2005 election, and stating the world was with them. This may seem appropriate to us today, and we’d probably applaud Gere for his efforts – and indeed this may not be all that surprising or troubling a thought if it weren’t becoming more and more ingrained of the minds of both the public and the actors themselves, that they actually do speak for the entire world. Should they?

Recently, in his first Oscar acceptance speech, Leonardo DiCaprio addressed the issue of climate change, an obvious score for the sustainability and environmental community, as it raises awareness on the issue in a way that no politician or environmentalist could, and so we are simply grateful and nod approvingly as such speeches are given on different topics by different celebrities around the world. Shouldn’t we be questioning why it is, though, that sometimes the least qualified, informed, and accurate representatives to a cause are able to bend the ears of the masses, while people dealing with said issue and those in positions to affect change (i.e. a state senator, a predominant industry leader, a genius in environmental science) do not hole the same sway?

In 2010, the Journal of Business Ethics published an article by Chong Ju Choi and  Ron Berger entitled “Ethics of Celebrities and Their Increasing Influence in 21st Century Society.” The article applies the managerial concept of “mission creep,” or expansion beyond original goals, to celebrities, into foreign policy, economics, climate change, etc. The authors believe that the wide use of the internet has contributed to this shift, and put it like this:

The 21st century’s internet society seems to thrive on a harmonious three-way relationship among celebrities, audiences and fame addiction. The global internet in turns moulds this three-way relationship and accelerates its dissemination and communication. This in turn allows celebrities in the 21st century to ‘‘mission creep’’, or expand and accelerate their influence into various new areas of society.

      Fame has always been coveted, but with the help of the internet celebrities have more  visibility, and more opportunity for fame, and Choi and Berger give an interesting commentary on how this will affect future generations, stating that, “In surveys of teenagers’ shows in terms of a wish list, American teenagers in the 21st century overwhelming chose ‘‘fame’’ over all other attributes, including intelligence or wealth.” So fame is going to hold even more sway, hypothetically, in the future and it follows that the state of being famous is going to keep being coveted.

So then, what implications does this have for the world of organizations, managers, and corporations? What ethical implications? The decrease in attention to, and public influence of, people who are known experts on sustainability, shareholder theory, corporate social responsibility, etc., coupled with the rinsing influence of celebrities, may cause more and more managers, CEOs, founders, entrepreneurs, and business-people will be fame-focused. On one hand we could have younger generations who want to be famous when they grow up and so use organizations as a vehicle to that fame, and on the other we could see managers adopting celebrity tactics and seeing celebrity status for the benefits of influence and sway that it provides. A desire for fame is by no means new to the world of business, and one could make the argument that it is part of what has driven capitalism all along. However, I think that with our focus on business ethics we could miss such things as the tension and conflict that I perceive between fame-orientation and ethical behavior. One could argue that Immanuel Kant would see such a view of organizational employees, consumers and stakeholders in general as treating them as a means to the end of fame for some leaders and executives, violating the second formulation of the categorical imperative. Virtue ethics, as well, could be used to inquire about the character of such a person and the intent behind their reasons, even for doing “good” things. Take Elon Musk for example. As a frequent focus of our blogs, and as someone ranked #13 in the list of Gallup’s “Most Admired Men” list as of today, he is a figure that seems to be held in high regard for his actions and values, and perhaps rightly so (I haven’t done very much digging on him, but it seems that he is very ambitious, intelligent, and forward thinking). However, if we examine intent and character of such a person, and (hypothetically) found that all of his work with Tesla, the open-sourcing, the goal of functional electric cars and freedom from fossil fuels, if we found that much or most of those decisions and behaviors were based on garnering personal fame, then the question of “Are these the actions of a virtuous man?” has a less rosy answer. In short, Elon Musk and many other leaders may be doing the right things for the right reasons, but my point is that fame-addiction is becoming more and more ingrained in our society. The private and non-profits sectors are not impervious, and serious consideration should be given to how we evaluate fame and fame-orientation in business ethics, how it affects decision-making.





Image: http://adam1.scripts.mit.edu/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/great-gatsby-dicaprio-cheers.jpgk


8 thoughts on “Fame and the Question of Ethical Intent

  1. Josiah — I think you bring up a really interesting point in regards to fame. From what you mentioned with Leonardo Dicaprio, I think concept ties back to the underlying question, do the ends really justify the means? Even if Leonardo is uninformed as an environmental activist and could be advocating for his own selfish agenda, does it really matter if the end result is getting people to rally behind an important cause? Looking back to our discussion on Mike Daisey and the idea of deontology, if everyone were to adopt these “means” for every cause, when you incorporate intentions it does not seem that adopting celebrity tactics (ex. Elon Musk) is universally sustainable.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Overall, I agree with you on this. I can’t help but feel that statements like this from has-beens like Richard Geer are only an attempt to remain relevant and in the spotlight of society. What credentials does he have to speak on this? Hardly any. However, I am reminded of celebrities like Emma Watson who speak for women’s equality and I see a clearer connection between the speaker and the cause (obviously because she’s a woman speaking on behalf of women). In the end, it’s the blurring of “professional” lines like this that makes me wonder “As a scientist, should Bill Nye really be telling me how to vote in the political system?” Clearly, we’re meant to be swayed by the emotional positional pull of those we admire or subscribe to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is an interesting topic you have brought up here. It does seem that people who are famous for acting or entertainment do have this way of creating an aura of credibility for themselves. Many people in this country see these people as role models and take what they say at face value. I agree that most of the famous people who speak out on controversial topics are not fully qualified to speak for others.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Maybe you picked Leo simply because he is the biggest and most recent example but not all fame-fueled, global discourse talk is blind. Leo has his own foundation which he created almost 20 years ago committed to sustainable living, serves on various sustainability related organization boards, and was named a UN Messenger of Peace in 2014 along with people like Jane Goodall. These are just a few examples I pulled real quick. I know you may have chosen Leo because of the relevence to the argument, but sometimes it is very well intentioned by well regarded people.


    Liked by 2 people

  4. Celebrities understand their ability to reach a large audience because of their fame. The responsible ones use that fame to promote things like saving the environment, fighting disease, helping animals who suffer, etc. So, while they may not be the most informed on the subject that they are promoting, they can use their fame to spread awareness about things that people may not normally think about. So it is good if a celebrity talks about a cause they are concerned about because he or she is only spreading awareness and encouraging a lot of people to make a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think fame for fame’s sake is as problematic as profit for profit’s sake. Both fame and profit are a measure of success, not an end. Or should be. If you are famous for skill, of you are profitable for creating real value, then that is a different outcome than otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Had to acknowledge Ben Schumacher’s well placed burn here. I picked DiCaprio arbitrarily as a symbol, but it seem’s he’s pretty bomb. Sustainable guy, and I should’ve known that.

    As to the other comments, I want to clarify that I have no issue with celebrity endorsements or speeches, as many (DiCaprio being a good example) are doing the what they can to use their sway well – what I was questioning was the sway itself, and society’s “Fame addiction” as my sources called it. In particular, I was wondering about the motivation behind sustainable, social responsible CEO’s figureheads and others, and whether or not they are driven by this recent trend of fame being the literal thing we (we being teenagers and kids in school at least, according to the researchers) want more than anything else.

    Basically, I’m questioning if we’re doing good (good business, good CSR, good whatever) for fame. And does that make it any less right?


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