Those who play D&D are familiar with the spell Animate Dead. It allows the caster to re-animate the corpse (or bones) of a dead creature and make it serve their will as an undead slave. This sort of necromancy is considered evil and is avoided by good creatures.
While the entertainment industry has yet to recruit true necromancers, they have worked out a form of holographic Animate Dead—the celebrity hologram. With this light necromancy does not raise up the corpse of a dead celebrity, it re-creates their body and makes it dance, sing, and speak at the will of its masters. Tupac Shakur is probably the best known victim of this dark art of light (though it was not exactly a hologram) and he might soon be joined by Amy Winehouse. As might be imagined, these holograms can create strong emotional responses with some people seeing them as desecrating the memory of the dead. There are also spiderwebs of legality entangling the creation and use of such holograms. Fortunately, I can leave the legal wrangling to those who are paid for that task. I will focus on the ethics of the matter.
One relevant factor in assessing the ethics of this matter is how the holograms are used and what they are made to do. Consider, for example, the holographic Amy Winehouse. If the hologram is used to only re-create a concert she recorded, then this would seem to morally on par with showing a video of the original concert. While the hologram would be a change, it would seem to be analogous to remastering the original video in HD or creating a VR version of the concert from original digital recordings. That is, it is merely a modification of the medium. As such, using a hologram in this manner would seem to be morally unproblematic. If the use of the hologram goes beyond merely recreating past performances, then the morality can become more complicated.
One matter of concern is the ethics of making the hologram perform new shows, say new things and perform in new ways. That is, the hologram is not merely re-enacting what the original did in a way analogous to a recording but being used to create new performances using the image of a dead person. This is of special concern if the hologram is made to perform with other performers (living or dead), to perform at specific venues (such as a white nationalist event), or to endorse or condemn products, ideas or people.
If, prior to death, the celebrity worked out a contract specifying how their hologram would be used, then this would lay to rest the general moral concern about this matter. After all, the use would be with the permission of the person and would be no more problematic than if they did those actions while alive. If holograms become a thing, presumably such contracts will become common.
If, as is most likely, the celebrity did not specify how their hologram should be used, then there would potentially be moral problems. To illustrate, a celebrity might have been against this use of holograms (as Prince was), a celebrity might have disliked the other performers that their image is now forced to sing and dance with, or a celebrity might have loathed a product, idea or people that their light corpse is being forced to endorse. One approach to this matter is to use the guideline of legal ownership of the rights to the celebrity’s works and likeness.
When a celebrity dies, the legal rights to their works and likeness goes to whoever is legally specified to receive them. This person or business then has the right to exploit the works and likeness for their gain. For example, Disney can keep making money off the Star Wars films featuring Carrie Fisher—though she died in 2016. On this view, the likeness of a celebrity is a commodity that can be owned (and thus bought and sold). While the celebrity can disagree with the usage of their likeness while alive, after death their likeness is controlled by the owner who can use it as they wish within the limits of property rights. This assumes that the celebrity did not set usage restrictions while alive. This usage is analogous to the use of any property whose ownership is inherited and it can be thus contended that there should be no special moral exception that forbids monetizing a dead celebrity’s likeness by the owner of that likeness. That said, the next essay in the series will explore reasons as to why the likeness of a celebrity is different in morally relevant ways from other commodities.