On the Life of a Playboy-Bunny,
I recall an evening in the early summer of August 1997, when I was strolling towards a movie theatre in Santa Monica, California to take in some of Hollywood’s cinematographic delights. A friend of mine, who was, at the time, residing in Paris, rang in with the terrible news that 36-year old Princess Diana had died. As I entered the theatre, with news that had yet to break in most of America, I could not help but wonder how the people who were watching the movie with me would be affected by this death once they found out. While I was uncertain how people would react, I was somehow quite certain that most would likely have some form of reaction, be it grief, surprise, chock, or sadness.
This was not the case when I heard of the death of 39-year old Anna Nicole Smith (Thursday 02/09/07). In fact, I only just furrowed my brows a bit, turned off the news channel, and thought: ”Oh well…who cares”?! It was not until this morning I started pondering why I could possibly care so little about another human being.
This woman was after all a human, a being of flesh and blood, a real person lost. This was the death not only of a woman, but also a mother, daughter, lover, and a friend. Much like Princess Diana, Anna Nicole Smith was famous to the point of obscurity. She had suffered, gained, and lost. So why could it be that I cared so little about the state of her life and eventually the end of it, when I recall having strong feelings about the death of Diana?
Perhaps, I thought, my carelessness would be founded in my feelings about Ms. Smith as a human being, about her leading (or not leading) a virtuous life, and perhaps even her importance to human-kind. It could be that I did not really care, because to me, in the grand scheme of things, I was not so sure that Ms. Smith really mattered much at all.
Was I right about that, though? Did Ms Anna Nicole Smith not matter? And how would I ever know? Well, to me, being a ‘student of thinking’ (as my children so aptly calls it) there would be only one way to find out: Turn to philosophy!
It seemed evident that my opinion on the matter was greatly biased by my personal feelings. Descartes, however, has taught me that those cannot be trusted. To gain knowledge one must take certain steps. One of those steps is to rid oneself of things that are not based on a solid foundation of knowledge, namely those things that we cannot see “clearly and distinctly”. Descartes says that absolutely those things that we are able to perceive clearly and distinctly evidently must be true. But, did I really perceive my ‘feeling-opinion’ of Ms Smith clearly and distinctly? It seemed to me that I did. I strongly felt that she had some faults as a human being. On occasion, when my eye caught her in the news, I would be ashamed by watching her wallow in the muck of her own digression. I thought, felt, and perceived that she was sort of embarrassing to me. But alas, did I think, feel and perceive that clearly? I had to admit that I did not. There was no way for me to be absolutely sure that I perceived my feelings about her clearly. Therefore I had no choice but to dismiss my feelings and perceptions about her. Another route would be necessary if I was to ever know whether Ms. Smith had any value, and if her life ever really mattered.
Well, somehow it seemed to me that ‘to matter’ would also be closely related to ‘value’. Value is something that we tend to place on things in general. The more important things are, the higher we tend value them. Did Ms Smith have ‘value’?
In respect to value of a human life, I think there are several factors that we have to take into consideration. A human can have value to society, to family, and to self. In order to have what I would call ‘true value’, I think a person would have to be successful in all three areas as well as have a well-functioning sense of right and wrong.
Aristotle made note (and Plato agreed) that moral virtue is about the exercise of control over natural feelings, and that good values is indicated through the use of good judgment in finding an effective balance between extremes. Aristotle thus had a personal value of moderation.
Could that be it? That value had to do with virtue? Aristotle seemed to think so. In fact, he believed in the concept of ‘eudaimonia’ (happiness/flourishing). Aristotle taught that the proper goal of a human life was to reach eudaimonia. This state of happiness could be reached by practicing what Aristotle called ‘the virtues’, namely those things for which you were intended within the realm of your human community. Needless to say this would require that one had a sense of what one’s purpose would be and in order to do that, one would necessarily have to understand virtues.
Aristotle explained that the Grand-Daddy of all virtues was what he called magnanimity; meaning to be great of heart and soul. Inspired by Plato, he believed in the ‘Four Cardinal Virtues’: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance (Referred to in Plato’s Symposium), the sum of which would equate to magnanimity (http://www.philosophypages.com). So to be of virtue, one would have do much more that just want to strive for magnanimity; one would have to actually reach it!
From what information is available from various media, Ms. Smith seems to have most certainly failed to obtain this goal. While she appeared to be a believer of justice, she had, after all, been involved in some form of litigation for over 10 years, and could arguably be considered both prudent and fortituous, she most certainly could not be accused of practicing temperance. There was nothing about Anna Nicole Smith’s life that was done in moderation. She lived a life that allowed excess in everything she did and maintained, including her body, her wallet, and the scandals she engaged in .The misery that she expressed, the homes that she owned, the children she had and the dysfunction of her family appeared bigger and grosser in her life than others’ and it seemed as if there was neither aim or direction in her doings. It would appear that she was truly without virtue in the Plato-Aristotelian sense (incl. Socrates?). The Greeks would have further charged that because she had no virtue, she never had any value.
Would this be the information that I was looking for? Could I trust the Greeks or was I obligated to press on in my quest? It seemed harsh to me to say that someone, just departed, had no value. I wondered what the modern philosophers had to say.
In the realm of the ‘modern’ philosophers and views on morals, one cannot avoid considering Immanuel Kant. Kant, I have learned, believed in deontological ethics. These are ethics that focuses on action rather than consequences. This is opposed to utilitarianism which take a much more consequensialistic approach. For Kant, ethics had to encompass everyone that would be affected by them. This means that the ethical framework that will hold for one, would necessarily also have to hold for all others. So ethics would have to be universal, impartial, unexceptionable, absolute, unconditional, and duty-bound (from Sports Ethics lecture, UNF Spring 2007). It is easy to spot a few problematic areas in Kant’s theories. One can take issue with his idea that ethics are absolute. Lying, for example, would always be unethical. Say you are hiding a person in your house, however, and a murderer comes to your door asking for that very person: Would you lie to save a life, or would you do as Kant would want…and tell the truth, knowing that you would be sending someone into a certain death? Problematic as Kant’s ethics are, they also do not do much in the way of solving the mystery of Ms Smith’s value. While she most certainly did not adhere to the stringent rules of ethical behavior that Kant liked, his theory seems so flawed that one cannot comfortable use this to evaluate Ms. Smith. Furthermore none of his work was intended to regard women, as they were considered innately morally corrupt.
So, all I knew so far was that neither ‘the ancient’, nor ‘the modern’, would have seen any value in Anna Nicole Smith. It seemed so sad to me that philosophy had been able to rationalize itself to the conclusion that someone was worthless. I felt I needed to try and view this woman with more feeling and empathy. What I needed was compassion and I had an obvious next area of investigation: Philosophy of Religion. With time Aristotle and Plato’s ideas spilled into Christian morals and ultimately Western contemporary society. The Christian Bible addresses the topic of virtue and value, in particular when it comes to women. In Proverbs 31:10-31, the virtue of women, is addressed. I immediately thought to myself upon reading this section of the Bible that perhaps Ms. Smith had just found some saving grace.
It is said in the Proverbs that a virtuous woman is priced far above rubies. “Her husband trusts her explicitly.” We know that this is true of her late husband. In fact, he trusted her so much so that he never even wrote a will (hence the decade long litigation Ms Smith had with her husband’s offspring). For the same reason I am sure that we can argue that she must have “done him good and not evil all the days of her [married] life.”
A virtuous woman also “does not shy away from work and bring[s] food from afar.” The hardworking Guess-model would certainly fit that category. For those who had the distinct displeasure of watching her TV-show “The Anna Nicole Show”, the statement that “a virtuous woman rises, while is still night and feeds her household (including her servants) because her candle does not go out by night”, would also seem true.
After her long battle with overweight, she conquered her demon, signed with “Trimspa” and lost all excess body-fat. There is no question for those who saw her ‘post-fatness’ that “she girdeth her loins with strength and strentheneth her arms.” Ms Smith did “perceive that her merchandise [was] good” and she even “stretched her arms out to the needy” (she had several charitable foundations). As it turns out, Ms Smith does well with her virtue according to the Bible up until chapter 26 (“She opened her mouth with wisdom”). That may be a little sketchy. In her last years she seemed unable to form whole words and complete sentences. She had a speech impediment that may have been an indication of drugs-use rather than an inherited disposition. We may never know if this woman was actually a genius, but there is good reason to think (from media reports) that she may not have been all-together ‘there’. Chapter 28 (“her children rise up and called her blessed”) may also be a bit problematic for her virtue. One child, a son, by all account loved her, yet he was so miserable with his life that he killed himself with his drug use. Had he ever had a chance to recover from his addiction it is unlikely that he wouldn’t have had a few harsh words for his mother. Her other child, a 5 month old baby-girl is still too young to talk. When she get older she can, on her part, rightfully be upset by a mother whose apparent drug use caused her death. Because a father has yet to be determined for the baby, the child is left orphan for the time being. This is not an optimal situation for any child and certainly does not indicate a responsive and responsible mother of children who would have called her ‘blessed’.
While many would judge her for her failure as a mother and her lack of worldly knowledge (education and perhaps even wisdom) the God in the Christian Bible does not. Instead a person is, after all of one’s life is counted and calculated, judged on his or her faith. Chapter 30 therefore tells us that ‘a women that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised [at the gates to Heaven].” So according to the scripture here, the overriding question in determining virtue and therefore value, would not be the totality of a life, but the totality of one’s faith. If one fears God, then one is virtuous.
So was Anna Nicole Smith a God fearing woman? I don’t really know. I could guess that she perhaps was raised in a Christian environment, as she was from a small town where this religion was prominent. This unfortunately does not tell me whether she subscribed to the faith and the God that it holds as true. In a way I sort of hope that perhaps she did because, assuming that what God promises in the Bible is true, then we can all at least look at this dysfunctional woman and say: “What a loss”, “what a fine woman”, and “there goes a great one”. The only other alternative I seem to have uncovered is that Anna Nicole Smith, considered from a strictly philosophical perspective has no human value at all.
So I ask my colleagues:
- Are there other options for her (virtue/value) that I have failed to see?
- Does the very fact that I even took this time to consider her life afford her some value?
- Does that fact that she is leaving behind viable offspring make a difference?Was that her fulfilling her duty to society?
- What does it mean that she will make it to the cover of People Magazine next week (which I am certain she will), while President Ford’s passing was barely mentioned?
- What was the human interest in her?
- Was she just a personification of our obsession with beauty and chaos?
- Was she a traffic accident that we rubber-necked?
- What was it about this bunny that caused the most distinguished news-channels in the country to full their programming with updates on her last hours?
- Why does it all matter so much, if she did not matter much at all?
With the very best regards,