★Professor Earl Spurgin

You’re a professor of philosophy and you wrote an article about how celebrities like Michael Phelps often find themselves into the position of being role models.  Is philosophy a field that typically grapples with issues of role modeling and what’s best for today’s youth?  What got you interested in this topic?

ESn (Earl Spurgin): Contemporary philosophers often examine role-model issues in several sub-disciplines such as medical ethics, business ethics, and philosophy of education.  Though, role-modeling issues in the history of Western philosophy date back to Socrates, who was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, and to Aristotle, who addressed how we develop our characters.  My interest in the topic began several years ago when I was accused of being a bad role model for students because I was living with a woman to whom I was not married.  In addition to thinking that the charge was based on an outdated view of human relationships, I found myself wondering how one could think my domestic relationship had anything to do with my role-model obligations as a professor.  Then, when I heard many accuse Michael Phelps of being a bad role model because he was photographed smoking a bong, I knew I had to write on the subject.  I simply could not believe that people expected an athlete in his 20s to be a role model for their children.

JR: Your main argument is that being a celebrity carries no obligation to be a role model.   But, doesn’t the fact that celebrities benefit from commercial media oblige them in some ways to behave well? Indeed, when Charles Barkley famously announced that he is not a role model, his teammate Karl Malone, told him that it was not his decision to make: “We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.”

ES: It depends on how the celebrities use and benefit from the media.  If they use it only in conjunction with their fields, then they have role-model obligations only with respect to their fields.  An NBA player who uses the media only in connection with basketball, has role-model obligations only with respect to basketball such as commitment to the game, competing with integrity, sportsmanship, and the like.  If he uses the media to promote other aspects of his life or to promote social or political views, then his role-model obligations extend further into his life.  Whenever one uses a position fame, power, or authority to portray how others should live, then one extends one’s role-model obligations into the aspects of life about which one addresses.  Although this really adds nothing to my response, I find it interesting that, despite his position on the role-model status of athletes, Karl Malone had a reputation for being a dirty player on the court and was the defendant in paternity lawsuits involving 3 children of 2 women.

JR: Some would argue that youth need heroes and idealized figures to inspire them to do their very best. Do you think kids are capable of just focusing the particular skill of their role model, or do they need a broader context of the celebrity’s life to cultivate the inspirational image?

ES: Since I am not a psychologist, I must stress that my answer to this question is speculative rather than based on an analysis of empirical studies of young people.  I believe that we all need heroes and idealized figures, youths and adults alike.  We all, however, need to be more careful about what it means to be a hero in some aspect of life.  More importantly, we need to teach young people not to draw conclusions about the rest of one’s life merely from what they observe one doing in some sport, art, or anything else that is covered by the media.  When we accuse a 20-year-old athlete of being a bad role model because of what she or he does away from sport, we are not helping young people learn that lesson.  In effect, we are doing the contrary by telling them they should be able to look to such people for role models.

JR: People who volunteer to be mentors (e.g., through a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters) are often looked up to as role models. Nevertheless, like celebrities, they may have qualities and behaviors that don’t merit emulation. What are implications of your argument (regarding the need for specificity in what is modeled) for mentoring programs?

ES: Such volunteers take on a broader role-model status because they voluntarily adopt positions that are by definition intended to have role model status.  My understanding of Big Brothers Big Sisters is that it is intended to provide role models for young people who are lacking them, to some degree or other, at home.  One who agrees to take on such an important role should understand that role-model obligations accompany it, and, should be prepared to live according to those obligations.  Of course, we all fail to conduct our lives as we should at times.  When a Big Brother or Big Sister fails, then he or she has the role-model obligation to demonstrate to the Little Brother or Little Sister why it was a failure and how one can avoid failing similarly in the future.  So, I don’t think one has to perfect to be a mentor or role model.  Rather, I feel one has to be willing to own one’s failures, do one’s best to make them right, and do what one can to teach one’s mentees what should be learned from those failures.

JR: Building on this, do you think that, in volunteering to be a mentor, an individual gives up some of his or her freedom to conduct their lives as they choose?

ES: Yes, I do.  By becoming a mentor one implicitly agrees to open up more of one’s life to the scrutiny of others.  Just how much freedom one sacrifices depends on the type of mentor relationship.  A parent gives up more than a priest, who gives up more than a professor, who gives up more than a factory supervisor, and so on.

JR: How have others reacted to your argument?

ES: I have received the full range of reactions:  from “you’re absolutely correct” to “stay away from my children.”  I think the majority of people who have talked to me about it either agree with my argument or are quite sympathetic to it.  Most of the serious objections come from the “Karl Malone position.”

JR: Other than writing about role models and being a philosophy professor, what else do you do like to do with your time?

ES: I am an avid cyclist and I enjoy hiking, backpacking, and traveling. An ideal non-teaching day starts with a morning bike ride, then turns to an afternoon spent writing, and ends with an evening out to dinner or a movie.  An ideal vacation is a cabin in Glacier National Park or the Grand Tetons with hiking and horseback riding.