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Are Celebrities Donating to Japan Hobbesian Agents?

March 19, 2011

After reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and discussing his philosophy in depth during lecture and discussion section, a reasonable conclusion is that Hobbes believed in the notion of psychological egoism — the idea that humans are always motivated by self-interest. In the Leviathan, Hobbes wrote that in the state of nature, humans want to obtain power and wealth and want to avoid death. In order to achieve these desires, humans act selfishly by means of self-preservation. Even acts that appear to be altruistic are motivated by self-interest, according to Hobbes. In his book De Cive (“On the Citizen”), Hobbes wrote

“I obtained two absolutely certain postulates of human nature. One, the postulate of human greed by which each man insists upon his own private use of common property; the other, the postulate of natural reason, by which each man strives to avoid violent death.”

In other words, Hobbes believed humans wanted all they could obtain and undoubtedly wanted to avoid death.

With the devastating earthquake and tsunami that recently hit Japan, numerous celebrities have decided to donate money to relief agencies in Japan. It is no surprise that celebrities are garnering support from their fans and encouraging them to join efforts to donate to Japan. In fact, it is widely known that celebrities such as George Clooney, Sean Penn, Bono, Angelina Jolie, and many more dedicate their time to help countries overseas when they are not working. Until recently, I always saw these acts as extremely altruistic and selfless. These famous celebrities were taking time off from shooting films or promoting films in order to fly to countries in Asia and Africa and help local organizations. In addition, some celebrities were endangering their lives. Most recently it was reported that after a trip to Sudan, George Clooney contracted malaria.

However, after reading and analyzing Hobbes’ philosophy about human nature, it began to occur to me that maybe these celebrities are donating millions of dollars and taking pictures with impoverished communities just as a way of publicizing their “altruistic image”. Lady Gaga designed a bracelet with the words “We pray for Japan” in English and Japanese and is selling them for $5.00 online. She is donating 100% of the proceeds to relief efforts in Japan. Blink 182 designed a t-shirt and launched an online auction of memorabilia, of which 100% of the proceeds are being donated to the Red Cross in Japan. Sandra Bullock donated one million dollars to the Red Cross in Japan. Katy Perry is donating all the proceeds from glow sticks sold at her concerts to relief agencies. Even Charlie Sheen has decided to jump on the bandwagon! He is donating one dollar from every $70 ticket sold from his new tour to the Red Cross in Japan. The list goes on and on. It is really great to see how celebrities are using their fame to reach millions of people around the world to join their efforts in raising money for Japan. Julie Whitmer, director of celebrity and entertainment outreach for the American Red Cross, stated in a CNN article

“Celebrities generate media, media delivers awareness, awareness motivates people to help those in need.”

I believe this situation is quite conflicting. On one hand, these celebrities appear to be self-interested because they are promoting their own products in an attempt to raise awareness. On the other hand, many of them are donating 100% of the proceeds from their products to various organizations, thus making their actions seem purely selfless and motivated by noble intentions. Hobbes would most likely argue that these celebrities are selfish agents purely interested in publicizing their good image to the world, thus contributing even more to their fame and fortune. What do you guys think?

To read more about celebrities’ initatives, please refer to these articles:

Garrath Williams article:


  1. Brian Wandschneider permalink
    March 19, 2011 3:45 PM

    I think most of these celebrities are acting altruistically. People like Angelina Jolie do not need to donate to relief efforts in order to gain more fame, because everyone knows her already and is going to watch her movies. Sure she, and the rest of them, will be publicized more often when they help people in need, but I’m not sure people will go see one of her movies because she acted selflessly. Most of the people you named are the most famous stars in Hollywood and need no more media attention to promote them, because everyone knows who they are and their high quality of work.

    Furthermore, psychology has proven that the greater distance people have from a situation, the less obliged they are to help or feel bad for people in need (such as Japan). We are over 5,000 miles away, and I’m assuming most of these celebrities have little physical contact with the country. So, they would not be acting simply to ease their feelings of pity, as Hobbes might say, because they are distanced from the situation and have less to feel bad about. This is in contrast to walking past a homeless man who clearly needs help and giving him some money because you see the struggle he goes through. Maybe this is a bad example, but it has been proven that you feel less responsibility for something when you are distanced from it.

    I think these celebrities are legitimately acting selflessly. They are in a position to make a difference, and are using their money and influence to help people out. All of the celebrities that help are inspiring examples of altruism. If they do benefit from their actions, so be it, but I think this is a better example of Rousseau’s belief in compassion for fellow man.

  2. Emily Slaga permalink
    March 19, 2011 3:57 PM

    I agree with you that Hobbes would think that these celebrities are acting in their own self-interest, but I personally disagree with that. To an extent, yes, people are self-interested, but that doesn’t mean everything they do is for themselves. I believe people can act selflessly. Celebrities have the means to donate and raise a lot of money, as well as the publicity to raise awareness for the crisis. These are the resources they use to help. They’re using their talents and profitability to help out. I don’t think that’s selfish, it’s just a way for them to donate money.
    Everyone has their own way. A celebrity would generate more donations by using their fame.

  3. Shannon Hittson permalink
    March 20, 2011 8:12 AM

    You reach a valid conclusion in saying that though Hobbes may assume celebrities are only acting out of self-interest, almost the entirety of their efforts is going to the victims. This realization brings to the surface a flaw in not only Hobbes’ perspective, but also the perspective of other theorists we’ve read, which is the extremity of their beliefs that leaves no room for a “middle ground”. Most people, including these celebrities, are not entirely selfless or merely self-interested beings. When making their point clear in written language, social theorists might not be able to address this reality because their deposition must be strong and unwavering in order to be read and remembered; but, in real life, people are not as simple and one-dimesional as Hobbes claims. Each person is driven by different intentions and emotions, and also by conflicting intentions working in unison. For celebrities, publicly giving aid to Japan is definitely a way to boost their image, but it’s also effective in supporting the victims, as well as serving as an example to their millions of fans to help as well. Celebrities realize how much of an impact the image of their help can have on society, because they are the people the rest of the world watches relentlessly. Therefore, if George Clooney is seen risking his health for Japan, many of his fans will be inspired and compelled to do their part as well. On the other hand, they will also believe him to be an altruistic citizen of the world, and will pack the movie theater for his next movie out of love for him. In this sense, I agree with you in considering what Hobbes would say about such celebrities, as well as examining what really seems to be happening.

  4. Pierre Gerondeau permalink
    March 20, 2011 8:10 PM

    This was a very interesting post and look at Hobbes’ beliefs as they pertain to the modern world. I too have always wondered about celebrities’ motives to help people after world disasters, etc. On one hand, I do believe that some celebrities help out because they are genuinely good people, and hope that their presence/image will make other people donate to the cause or provide aid. For example, I believe that Bono truly wants to help people and doesn’t think as much about his image, Sean Penn did a lot of physical work/donated to the Haiti relief cause, and like you mentioned George Clooney contracted malaria. However, I also believe that Hobbes is correct in saying that people are self-interested even when it appears as if they are doing good for the sake of doing good. We always hear of the large salaries that celebrities make, and the thing that has always puzzled me is why they don’t donate more to certain causes. It can sometimes be seen as celebrities helping just enough to get positive public relations statistics, when they donate $1 for every $70 ticket such as with Charlie Sheen. Someone like Sheen, who usually has negative press, probably wants to build up his public image by donating money. While a $1 million donation is huge for regular people, to celebrities it is only a small part of their salary. If you make that much money, and you are really self-interested about your image, you should at least make an enormous donation that really blows people away, instead of doing just enough to get positive press.

  5. Valerie Van Hulle permalink
    March 21, 2011 12:41 PM

    In Hollywood, image is everything, and everything is a business.
    While I think everyone can agree that we would all like to do something to provide relief to the disaster and poverty stricken areas of the world, donating large sums of money publicly positively affects a celebrity’s image.
    While I understand George Clooney may want to inspire his fans, in the back of my mind I can’t help but think, why do celebrities need to make these donations so public?
    Every time Madonna or another celebrity goes to a foreign country, it becomes a personal press junket.
    If these celebrities claim they do not need the fame from donating this money because they are already that popular, why make the donations so public?

  6. Rebecca Birnbaum permalink
    March 21, 2011 12:45 PM

    The truth is, we’ll never know what’s going on inside their heads. I think there are valid points on either side, and even though celebrities may not be receiving a penny, it IS helping their fame (whether they need it or not). Celebrities have the ability to use their fame to raise money and awareness, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t take advantage of it – even if it does give them a boost of “good” fame. There are many extremely wealthy individuals that give anonymous donations that are very generous ($1 million+). This is obviously selfless. But celebrities have the power to influence others because of their fame. I guess I just view that as taking advantage of an opportunity. When it comes down to it, though, it doesn’t really matter why celebrities do it. Money is getting to where it needs to be and that’s the most important part.

  7. Lisa Sarni permalink
    March 28, 2011 3:08 AM

    I think that you read a book and suddenly decided that if you are famous AND decide to use your wealth and celebrity status to help others, you are only out for your own self interest. The fact of the matter is that yes, certain celebrities can and will use charity work as a way to portray themselves as these selfless good samaritans. However, ALL people do good deeds because they expect good things to happen to them in return; obviously if a celebrity donates money to a cause, they will receive a great deal of attention because of their fame; but if Joe in cubicle three decides to donate money to a particular cause or commit some act of charity, he will also receive attention from the people that know him. Since he is less famous, does that not mean he did not want to be recognized, or because he received LESS attention for his good work he is a better person? Whatever good people contribute to the world, the most important thing is something positive is being contributed to it, being recognized, and hopefully inspiring others to do the same. Even if the initial person or “celebrity” decided to commit a charitable act for a selfish reason, their motivation is not as relevant as the idea that what they did could inspire others with less selfish intentions to follow their lead.

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