David Bowie, the artist and actor, died on January 11, 2016. While I would not categorize myself as a fan of any artist, I do admit that I felt some sadness when I learned of his death. I must also confess that I listened to several Bowie songs today.
While Bowie’s art is clearly worthy of philosophical examination, I will instead focus on the philosophical subject of feeling for the death of a celebrity. I have written briefly about this in the past, on the occasion of the death of Michael Jackson. When Jackson died, many of his devoted fans were devastated by his death. The death of David Bowie has also caused a worldwide response, albeit of a somewhat different character.
People, obviously enough, simply feel what they do. However, there is still the question of whether the feeling is appropriate or not. That is, whether it is morally virtuous to feel in such a way and to such a degree. This view is, of course, taken from Aristotle: virtue involves having the right sort of feeling, in the right way, to the right degree, towards the right person, and so on through all the various factors considered by Aristotle.
In the case of the death of a celebrity, one (perhaps cynical) approach is to contend that overly strong emotional responses are not virtuous. Part of the reason is that virtue theorists always endorse the view that the right way to feel is the mean—between excess and deficiency. Another part of the reason is that the response should be in the right way towards the right person.
In the case of the death of a celebrity, it could be contended that a strong reaction, however sincere, is not morally appropriate. This assumes that the person responding lacks a two-way relationship with the celebrity. That is, that the person is not a relative or friend of the celebrity. In that case, the proper response would not be a matter of reacting to the death of a celebrity, but the death of a relative or friend. As such, what would be appropriate for David Bowie’s friends and relatives to feel is different from what would be appropriate for his fans to feel.
It could be contended that fans (who are not friends and relatives) do not have a meaningful connection with a celebrity as a person (a reciprocated relationship) and, as such, strong feelings upon the death of the celebrity would not be appropriate. From the standpoint of the fan, the celebrity is analogous to a fictional character in a book or movie—the fan observes the celebrity, but there is no reciprocity or true interaction. As such, to be unduly impacted by the death of a celebrity would not be a proper response—it would be similar to being unduly impacted by the death of a character in a movie.
One obvious response is that a celebrity is a real person and hence the death of a celebrity is real and not like the death of a fictional character—David Bowie is really dead. One cynical counter is that many thousands of real people have died today, people with whom the vast majority of the rest of us have no more personal relationship with than we had with David Bowie. As such, the real death of a celebrity should warrant no more emotional response than the death of anyone we do not know personally. It is, of course, proper to feel some sadness upon hearing of the death of a person (who did not merit death). However, feeling each death strongly would destroy us—which is no doubt why we feel so little in regards to the deaths of non-celebrities who are not connected to us.
Another option, which would require considerable development, is to argue that there can be proper emotional responses to the deaths of fictional characters—to be sad, for example, at the passing of Romeo and Juliet. This is, of course, exactly the sort of thing that Plato warned us about in the Republic.
A better reply is that a celebrity can have a meaningful impact on a person’s life, even when there is no actual personal interaction. In the case of David Bowie, people have been strongly affected by his music (and his acting) and this has played an important role in their lives. While a person might have never met Bowie, that person can be grateful for what Bowie created and his influence. As such, a person can justly and properly feel sadness at the death of a person they do not really know. That said, it could be contended that people do get to know an artist through the works. To use an analogy, it is similar to how one can know a long dead person through her writings (or writings about her). For example, one might develop a liking for Socrates by reading the Platonic dialogues and feel justly saddened by his death in the Apology. As such, people can feel justly sad about the death of a person they never met.