In 2008, a court placed pop super-star Britney Spears under a conservatorship led by her father, Jamie Spears, and attorney Andrew Wallet, giving them complete control of her assets after a series of incidents indicating that Britney suffered from various emotional problems and might be a danger to her children, herself, and most importantly, perhaps, her earning potential. The conservatorship has continued all of this time, and so has Spears’ performing and recording career along with her supplemental income as a professional celebrity. (She received a then-record salary of $15 million to be a panel judge on the American version of “X-Factor, for example.) For many years, apparently, Spears has been trying to end the conservatorship, and this week there was a court hearing on her request.
I’m going to stray from the usual practice in Ethics Alarms Ethics Quizzes by asking the question before the facts you need to base your answer on. The “facts” are contained in the now 39-year-old Britney Spears’ statement to the court, which she delivered over the phone. The question is this:
Is it ethical for Spears to be forced to continue under the control of her father?
A couple of points to consider was you read the transcript:
- Spears’ children are now in their late teens, unlike when their welfare was a major consideration in granting the conservatorship.
- She has been handled much like a performing monkey, working almost constantly, and not having control of her own funds.
- Many who have seen her perform live report that she appears drugged or robotic.
- While there is little doubt that Spears is not mentally or emotionally well, many, maybe even most, successful artists lie somewhere between madness and sanity, but they are seldom “normal.” Many have personal lives that spiral out of control, sometimes fatally. Many could be called dangers to themselves
How much do we value personal liberty and the freedom to live our own lives in the United States of America? Is making an artist like Britney Spears a virtual prisoner and robbing her of agency and autonomy necessarily better for her than allowing the singer to make her own choices, even bad ones?
Bill James once made an observation about the Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Rube Waddell (1876 – 1914) that stuck with me. James concluded from his study of Waddell that he was what we would call today “mentally challenged.” It wasn’t just that he was an out-of-control drunk to his dying day; he couldn’t take care of himself. His managers handled his money and doled it out as Rube needed. If he heard a fire engine go by the ball park, he was likely to leave the dugout and chase it if he wasn’t stopped. He sometimes missed a start because he was fishing or playing marbles with kids. Once he disappeared for days during spring training, and was found leading a parade down the main street of Jacksonville, Florida. Opposing players placed rubber snakes on the field to upset him, and he lost one game because an opposing manager had told him he has a puppy to give him and Rube kept thinking about the dog while he was pitching. Yet he had great physical gifts. James wrote that today someone like Waddell would be institutionalized, but in his era, he was left alone (to a point) to do what he wanted to do, and live his life. James asked which, in the end, is the kinder, more ethical approach by society.
Now here’s Britney: