Michael Jackson: Weighing Good & Evil
Today is, of course, the date of the memorial service for Michael Jackson. While vast throngs of people are weeping at their perceived loss and praising Jackson’s perceived greatness, some folks have some harsh things to say.
New York Representative Peter King has pulled no punches in his remarks. He called Jackson a pervert and has been highly critical of the hoopla surrounding his death. The gist of his view is that Jackson’s past (alleged) misdeeds outweigh the fact that he was a good singer and dancer-hence, to praise and honor him so lavishly is a mistake. King also added that the people who have died doing real good, such as soldiers, should be honored.
In general, King does make two good points. First, people should be publicly honored for doing good rather than merely entertaining people. In an interesting coincidence, I am teaching Plato’s Apology in my Intro class today. This dialogue contains the following relevant passage:
There is not any thing more adapted, O Athenians, than that such a man should be supported at the public expense in the Prytaneum; and this much more than if some one of you had been victorious in the Olympic games with horses, or in the two or four-yoked car. For such a one makes you appear to be happy, but I cause you to be so: and he is not in want of support, but I am. If, therefore, it is necessary that I should be honoured according to what is justly my desert, I should be honoured with this support in the Prytaneum.
Socrates‘ general point can be taken as this: while people are inclined to heap great honors and love on those who entertain and amuse them, our real debt is owed to those who provide the reality of happiness. That is, to the people who do more than just create illusions to amuse but change the world in better ways. While Jackson did donate some money and time to charity, his main function was as an entertainer. While he should be praised for this, the praise should be suitable to what he actually did.
Second, it is quite reasonable to take into account a person’s misdeeds when assessing him and deciding what honor and praise are fit. On the positive side, Jackson was an impressive entertainer and he did donate some time and money to charity. On the negative side, there seems to be evidence that Jackson was improperly involved with children. After all, he was acquitted of child molestation allegations in 2005 and in 1995 he settled another such case out of court-allegedly to the tune of millions of dollars. Of course, because he was acquitted and the other case was settled, it is not completely clear what he did or did not do. Naturally, the fact that he settled out of court does cast some negative light on him. But, this is hardly conclusive-sometimes innocent people do decide to settle a case outside of court. Given these facts, claiming that he did actually molest children would be problematic (and perhaps slanderous).However, these facts do provide adequate grounds for legitimate concern.
Sorting out the overall balance of a person’s life can be challenging. After all, there is no clear measure of how to weigh the good a person does against the evil they do. And, of course, the nature of the misdeeds matter quite a bit. For example, although Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior is supposed to have plagiarized some of his work, it seems clear that his good deeds massively outweighed that academic failing. Whether the misdeeds were relevant to the good a person did also matters. For example, a soldier who killed enemy soldiers to save his fellow soldiers did some wrong, but had to do that wrong (killing) to do what was right (save his fellows).
In Jackson’s case, if he did (as Peters alleges) really abuse children, then his entertainment value would certainly be outweighed by those (alleged) misdeeds. To not condemn this sort of thing would be to say that it is okay for a person to molest children provided that he entertained people. That is, of course, absurd.
Of course, some folks (such as Al Sharpton) are saying that the alleged misdeeds should be ignored and the focus should be on the good he did. While that is the sort of thing one often says of the recently departed, that seems to be the wrong approach to take. If we are going to praise a person for what good he did, then honesty and fairness also compels us to condemn the bad things he did. Naturally, the special circumstances of death do move us to correctly forgive small misdeeds and flaws. But, death does not provide a complete moral absolution.