Glitterati Ethics

Over at Duck of Minerva, Charli Carpenter notes:

It’s easy to make light of the glitterati for this self-serving humanitarianism. (For another example, click here.) Celebrities use causes to brand themselves.

But so what?

Governments do the same thing when they tie foreign aid to official recognition of their beneficence. And whether it is Bono peddling poverty reduction, George Clooney advocating for Darfur, or Leonardo diCaprio condemning conflict diamonds, celebrity sponsorship seems to go hand in hand with public awareness of global issues.

But scholars of humanitarian affairs should be asking: under what conditions are these humanitarian players effective in practical terms, and at what? Is theirs an agenda-setting effect: can the rise of new issues in the transnational primordial soup be traced to celebrity influence? Or do they essentially bandwagon on issues that have already gained prominence? If so does this at least have a catalyzing effect on transforming campaigns into mass movements? Do they exercise power, as Dan Drezner’s recent National Interest piece argues, through social networks of access to policymakers and donors – civic activism plus? Or, is the power of celebrities not their personal crusades but the stories they tell on screen?

I personally suspect that given that (i) each of these mechanisms and processes are regularly witnessed, (ii) the mechanisms well-specified, but (iii) also an absence of any law-like rule on motivations and psychology, any clustering in a specific direction will be largely an accident. But I was interested another issue raised by the post. Personally, I imagine that many of our desires, noble and base, reinforce each other. Caring about Darfur and building brand can coexist, be mutually buttressing, and be sincere. Yet, we take the selfish or self-interested desire to be authentic and the other-regarding desire to be an instrumental one for the ends of the former. I have a hard time imagining an other-regarding desire that is purely isolated from all self-interested ones, but it seems to be a common standard for judging the involvment of prominent individuals in any social and political cause.