Champion swimmer Michael Phelps photographed in embarrassing situation
The Michael Phelps drug use photo brings us back to a central cultural question of our time: Do celebrities owe their public anything?

The AP story asks the right question: "Should Phelps be considered a role model?"

The story answers with the following:

It depends on what we want and expect our youthful role models to be: perfect, or flawed like the rest of us.

That’s an awful evasion, and it’s emblematic of our society’s attitude toward such things. We’d rather they just go away. But they won’t until we answer the question honestly.

First of all, nobody is expecting anyone to be perfect. What we are expecting is that they obey the law and that they don’t engage in obviously reckless behaviors. (Here I am not criticizing the use of marijuana as such but instead the foolishness of Phelps doing so when he knows a great proportion of the people who make him rich disapprove of it and think it wrong.) Second, it is entirely false to argue that it’s unfair or unreasonable to expect celebrities to comport themselves properly in response to an understanding that they serve as role models. After all, they are perfectly willing to accept the money and adulation, but when it comes to being criticized for their transgressions, suddenly the public is not to be allowed to affect them.

Such an attitude is sheer elitism, and a desire to have one’s dope and smoke it, too. A celebrity always has the choice of whether to be a celebrity, and that choice does not affect whether they would be able to do what brings them celebrity. To wit, they can do their acting, singing, swimming, or whatever, and give all of their money to the poor and resolutely refuse ever to do any interviews promoting themselves.

That may sound fantastic and even stupid, but it clarifies one point admirably: asking celebrities to serve as role models is neither unreasonable nor an imposition on their personal freedom. One should always have the choice of whether to accept all the trappings of success and fame or none of them, but being allowed to pick and choose should not be an option.

The use of the word "should" requires further support, of course. The key element to that is the fact that children and other impressionable people watch with intense interest the people they admire, and they are greatly affected by their actions.

Case in point: I happen to know a young girl who is positively infatuated with the Olympic diver Thomas Finchum. Rightly or wrongly, she sees him as a hero, and admires him for his accomplishments and his classy personal demeanor. For him then to reveal himself to be a self-indulgent slob or, even worse, a criminal, would break her heart. Multiply that example by tens of millions and you have the reality of contemporary life.

So, the question is whether it is right for celebrities to ignore the effects of their actions on such persons. Not whether they ought to have the power to do so; we know that that is an immutable fact of a modern communications system. The question is one of morals, plain and simple: Does it not matter if a person’s behavior harms another? Certainly there is harm in this hypothetical but all too common case. Yes, the young girl probably would eventually get over her disappointment, but the resulting dose of cynicism such a resolution would require is a real and serious consequence. And any parent would argue that it is indeed a harm

Such dismaying news stories do occur in our society daily, and they accumulate by the dozens over the course of weeks and months. Surely they must result in a great deal of confusion over what it takes to succeed in this world,  and in particular where personal responsibility lies and how much we can expect of others. This is a critical question in the functioning of any society.

The reality is that even if we discard the notion of role models, people see what celebrities do, and young people are among those witnessing. And the fact is, young people do gain their understanding of how things work not only from lessons their parents and schools teach but also by seeing the consequences others’ actions bring. And when a superathlete or other celebrity is caught doing something the kids are constantly told is wrong, they are going to judge the situation by seeing the consequences toward the athlete.

In the current case and most others (in fact, basically all of those except prominent Christian church figures, Republican politicians, and overweight people), the consequences are as follows: One, the behavior clearly did not prevent this person from becoming a success, so obviously it has no personal negative consequences; and two, it had no important social or economic effect on the person other than a temporary burst of negative publicity and a potential decrease from $100 million annual income to $98 million annual income.

Thus all the moral work any child’s parents have done over the years is undermined by a dire reality: the daily announcements of celebrity transgressions. Hence it is evident that the achievement of personal success does indeed bring a real, moral responsibility with it, and that economic and social success cannot be seen as a pure gift of chance that is entirely divorced from any obligation to the public.

Clearly, then, celebrities—such as athletes, actors and actresses, musicians, politicians, well-known clergy, and business executives, should be held to at least the same standards as the rest of the public. Yet the fact is indisputable that they’re usually held to a lower standard. A construction worker or office manager can’t get away with one such incident and quick, obviously insincere and obfuscatory apology, whereas celebrities nearly always get multiple chances to fail and fail again at the simplest aspects of the moral life.

A basic understanding of economics and incentives brings up a serious question regarding the effect of this indulgent attitude on the celebrities themselves: Does the fact that the public and press give them multiple chances create a moral hazard? Instead of forcing celebrities to be more careful, it often appears that their fame ends up emboldening them. Thus our indulgence of celebrities’ transgressions may well be harming them as much as anybody, and probably a good deal more.

Thus it is clear that an indulgent social and media attitude toward the misbehaviors of celebrities harms both the public and the celebrities themselves.

As a believer in liberty, it is my opinion that this problem should be solved by the free choices of individuals. The real solution would seem to be for people in both the media and the general public (especially the latter) to express their disapproval of celebrities’ misadventures in no uncertain terms. If we are going to place a social responsibility upon celebrities, as we should, then we must all be willing to accept some consequences ourselves.

These are as follows: members of the media will have to place themselves in the uncomfortable position of holding other people morally accountable, and hence put their own lives in order lest they be charged with hypocrisy. And the public must be willing to forego some pleasures—movies, music, sporting events, and other happenings that feature people whose personal behavior sets a bad example for others.

Gresham’s Law observes that bad money drives out the good. The same is true in the social realm. Bad behavior drives out the good.

Until we’re all willing to set our own houses in order, we cannot expect others to do so—and both those others and the people who admire them will suffer the consequeces of our own moral cowardice.