Ethics, in the classical Greek sense, is an attempt to answer the question, "How should we live?" Or, to put it another way, "What would be a good life?" If you develop a system of ethics, you should be able to apply it to your own life, or any other life for that matter, and answer the question: "Was that a good life?"
Which brings us to Michael Jackson.
Yes, sirree, that's a real stumper.
People find meaningfulness in all kinds of things: success, fame, power, impact, uniqueness, love, happiness, virtue. On some of those measures, Michael was off the charts. He was enormously talented, enjoying the kind of fame and fortune and cultural influence that was shared by few, and not likely to be repeated again in our hyper-fragmented culture. Thriller not only holds the record for most albums sold, it's actually still a really good album; popular music doesn't often have that much staying power. The economic productivity of this one life is staggering -- Jackson's annual residuals alone are about 100 times greater than my entire lifetime output. He generously supported lots of charities, which almost lets you forgive the new levels of personal extravagance he reached with his Neverland. And man, could he dance. It must have been fun, to be able to dance like that. So, yeah . . . a lot to admire. Who could say it wasn't Good?
And yet . . . there is the other side. It's hard to gauge whether he was happy, since he was so far withdrawn from reality, but the smart money would guess he was miserable in his freakishness. Lots of people withdraw from reality, but few have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal to propel their weirdness. We accept that great artists sometimes suffer for the sake of their creative powers, and even behave badly. We are not used to them becoming barely recognizable as human. Robbed of a real childhood, he spent the rest of his life trying to get it back, and becoming more and more grotesque in the process. (The Onion, as always, nailed it with their headline: "King of Pop dead at 12." I doubt that he molested those children, but I do think he lusted after their innocence in a manner that was disturbing. None of this was immoral, exactly, though it was repulsive.
So how do you add all that up? Was it worth it? Had a 12-year-old Michael been offered a vision of his future life, would have accepted the whole deal? Unparalleled fame and accomplishment, along with misery, isolation, suspicion, and disgust? Some people would, but I know I would not and, I suspect, neither would Michael. Achievement is pretty empty when you find yourself cut off from the rest of world. It's not the sort of life one would choose. That, I think, is the source of the international mourning – people recognize the tragedy of someone being so poor while being so rich. Now that the awkward man-child is gone, everyone is free to embrace the good things of his life and try to forget, or at least forgive, the shadows. I like to remember him playing the Scarecrow in The Wiz, when he was at the peak of his powers, still recognizable as a black male with magnificent talent and vitality, and not yet transformed into mythological figure, the fey creature with the one white glove.