Will Smith has gotten a lot of flak for producing movies designed as launchpads for his son Jaden’s acting career. The most recent example was the flopped* After Earth. If you google “will smith nepotism” you’ll see what I mean.
I didn’t watch After Earth—or Karate Kid or Pursuit of Happyness for that matter—and I’m not aiming to critique either Smith’s acting or his movies more generally. Rather, I just want to ask…what is wrong with nepotism?
Nepotism: where someone in an advantaged position shows favoritism to family
Critics of Smith seem to assume that nepotism is just obviously terrible. But on the face of it, isn’t nepotism more likely to be good than bad? Take these two common ethical principles:
- Familial Obligation Principle (FOP): in times of great need, we have a duty to support family members, and that duty supersedes our duty to support strangers
- Familial Help Principle (FHP): while we are not obliged to support family members at other times, it is nonetheless good to support them, assuming doing so won’t result in obvious badness
These principles seem to be at the heart of what family is all about. I’m sure they admit of many exceptions, but as general rules go, they seem pretty uncontroversial. But isn’t nepotism just the application of these principles to situations in which one family member is well-positioned to help another? What could be wrong with that?
Clearly there are cases where it is a bad thing to favor family. For instance, if I am a middle-manager in charge of hiring tellers at a bank, it would be unethical for me to pass over well-qualified applicants and hire my son instead, who has no aptitude for banking. (In fairness, he is only two years old.)
There are at least two reasons this would be wrong:
- The bank has a reasonable expectation (probably codified in my contract) that I will represent their best interests, rather than putting them aside in favor of my own
- The applicants have a reasonable expectation that I will choose whom to hire based on merit, rather than blood
So in cases where some kind of social or legal contract is violated, favoring family is at least generally wrong. But what about other situations?
I think the above example—or something similar but involving more power—is what people generally think of when they imagine nepotism. But there are certainly situations in which showing preference to family members seems like the ethical thing to do.
Imagine I run an Italian restaurant and my parents come in for a meal. I will offer it on the house (unless they come in every day…then those feeloaders can pay for their own darn steak). Moreover, I’ll tell the chef to be especially loving in preparing their food; and perhaps I’ll break out the special wine. This is preferential treatment based on blood, but it’s very hard to see that it is unethical. I haven’t violated any normal expectations, certainly. Indeed, wouldn’t I be rather a lousy son to not be nepotistic in a situation like this? Am I not expected to particularly honor my father and mother? This seems to be a clear-cut case of the Familial Help Principle.
What about a more serious example? What if I am the prime minister (I would, of course, soon revise that title to Prime-Minister-President-Dictator-For-Life). My daughter is trying to launch a new political party, but is struggling to raise the capital and awareness she needs. I help her get off the ground by pulling some strings and talking to influential contacts in politics and in the media.
Some people would say this was an abuse of my power. Others would probably disagree. It seems to me that whether it is or not depends on at least a couple of factors:
- Am I supporting my daughter just because she is my daughter, or do I actually believe in what she is doing? In other words, would I have supported her, at least in principle, if she was a stranger to me?
- Does my supporting my daughter compromise my ability to represent the people of New Zealand, or otherwise do my job?
In regards to (1), if I don’t support someone in principle, surely I should not support them in practice regardless of their relationship to me. A politician, like anyone, should be a man of principle. This is not to say that if my daughter were trying to start the Communist Racist Abortion Party, I would use my influence to stop her (I believe that would violate my obligations, as prime minister, to democratic process). My lack of support for her is not the same as my trying to shut her down. But I should certainly not help her in starting CRAP just because she is my daughter.
But if I did approve of her party, doesn’t the Familial Help Principle indicate that I should support her if I can do so without violating my other obligations?
In that regard, how does asking people, whom I am privileged to know, if they can do me a favor, compromise my ability to represent the people of New Zealand? Have I broken any social or legal contract by requesting this help for one person over another? I can’t see that I have. Perhaps if we examined the contract of the prime minister we would discover that there is actually something preventing this sort of thing in there. But on the face of it, it doesn’t seem obviously wrong to me.
Enter Will Smith
Needless to say, acting carries far fewer responsibilities than being prime minister. Indeed, this is not even strictly about acting at all. Rather, we’re talking about someone who wants to be an actor (Jaden), who—unlike most aspiring stars—happens to have a father with the resources to help him achieve that goal.
Now, you can question the wisdom of throwing a teenager into the Hollywood lifestyle, and suggest that Smith’s parenting leaves a lot to be desired. There may be some merit to that objection. On the other hand, Smith does seem to have far more interest in parenting than many high-falutin’ people do; and his interest in helping Jaden become an actor seems to be motivated by a strong belief in the importance of “growing up in the family business”, as he did with his father. So there are two sides to that coin.
But leaving that aside, what is the problem with Will Smith’s nepotism? Is there some reason, some morally objectionable outcome, that mitigates the force of the Familial Help Principle in this case?
I can’t see one.
* “Flopped” is a relative term. If I could pull in $26 million in one weekend, I’d regard that as a major success.