Tag Archives: ethics


The goal of my music and ethics class is to have the students write a thesis paper, 25-30 pages of well-developed argument. I set milestones along the way: by this date, you need to have a thesis selected, by this date you need to show me ten pages of writing, by this date your draft needs to be ready for peer review, that sort of thing. This week is one of those deadlines, when I meet with the students to review the first 10 pages of their paper and a fully developed outline of their argument.

thesis-papersI ran across one of the students in passing, and he mentioned that he didn’t have anything to show me (I wish he were the only one). He then mentioned, rather flippantly, that he wasn’t all that worried, because he knew that he could knock out a “great paper” in no time once he had finished his research.

I left the encounter feeling very frustrated, for two reasons.

First, nobody can knock out a great paper in no time. The best anyone can do is knock out a great draft of a paper, a first writing. This is a recurring theme from my students; I keep getting first drafts handed in as final papers, because they’ve waited until the last possible moment to write them. When there are obvious errors, errors that any decent editor would have caught just by sniffing the ink, I know that nobody has read this paper but you. Nobody has edited for you. Nobody has done a critical review for you. Which means you’re handing in a paper expecting me to do it. Well, I will, but I do my editing with a red pen in one hand and a gradebook in the other.

Flip open any great book, any well-crafted work, and you will find the author thanking a whole list of people who graciously interposed their critical eye between the author and you, the reader. They are friends and colleagues, loved ones, and professional editors, all of whom serve the monumental and laudable goal of making sure the author doesn’t look like an ass. As a student, you have access to all of those same tools – peers, friends, family, a writing center staffed with editors. Their goal is make sure that your ideas connect to your reader with minimum hindrance by the medium. Writing is not a solo endeavor, not really, not at its best, but when a paper rolls off the printer 10 minutes before it is due it must be. And as a result, I end up grading your first draft.

My second frustration goes much deeper. In 16 years of schooling nobody, including me apparently, has managed to communicate to this student the actual value of writing a long format paper.

I don’t care about the paper. Really. The ink is pointless. I care very deeply about the process of writing a paper, because I believe that it is still one of the best ways to organize sustained, focused, rational thinking about complex topics. I care very deeply that you learn how to do that kind of thinking. The reason I was so frustrated by the student’s response is that the most important part of that process happens after you finish writing the paper.

Writing the paper is a prolonged period of pressure, cramming ideas into your brain, fighting to make logical connections between disparate bits of data. The intensity of pushing all of these ideas into a coherent, organized stream of thought requires reduction, and is mentally exhausting. You finish, hit print, the paper is done, run to class, hand it in, head home, take a nap, and then something magical happens. All of those ideas that you have been pressing down on begin to float freely. They start to shake loose from your organized stream of thought, loose from their moorings, and they rise. They bump into each other in new and interesting ways. They reorganize, like water molecules crystalizing together in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. You begin to understand things in new ways, ways that you were prevented from seeing before because your brain got in the way.

Two days after you finish writing a paper, the ideas you spent so long collating will have reorganized into something that really makes sense. Brilliant connections emerge. Small threads that barely emerged in the initial reading take on new significance as your brains chases them down in the noise beneath conscience thought, using the mental energy recently made available by the lifting pressure. That’s when you sit down and rewrite.

The way to make a writing project really useful is to research, write, release, rewrite, research, rewrite, release, rewrite, continuing the cycle until you arrive at conclusions that have the inevitability of all great ideas. That’s the way to arrive at mastery of a topic. When the topic at hand is your own value structure in an ethically complex situation, that kind of clarity is essential.

It matters to me. What you think about these topics matters to me. How you arrive at your thinking matters to me.

You will stand in front of a school administrator and have to argue that the purpose of education is the development of persons, not the development of merely useful skills, to argue that cutting music education is a dereliction of duty, and it is vitally important to me that you do it from a place of deep knowledge and the passionate conviction of rightness.

You will hold the phone in a long pauses, knowing that you cannot possibly agree to play under the circumstances being presented, also knowing that it is real money you are turning down, and it is important to me that you know why you are saying “no”, or that you know what it will cost you to say “yes”, and that the knowledge be more than merely notional, that it be the result of sustained and careful thinking.

You will run down your list of players to contract for Easter services, and you will skip the names of better players to hire those share your faith (or you won’t), and it is important to me that you have grasped with full rigor the tension between art-as-art and art-as-function when you make that choice, that the conversation between theology and aesthetics has taken place in your mind before you make your calls.

It matters to me how you have arrived at your thinking on these, and the dozens of other topics that emerge as thesis papers.

There are other ways to do this thinking, but this is the way that has been placed in front of us, for now. If it matters to you like it matters to me, embrace this process of read/think/write/rethink/rewrite. Don’t cheat it by counting words and chasing ink. Give it the time it deserves.

Happy World Philosophy Day!

How is everyone celebrating World Philosophy Day? How about celebrating by pondering these four philosophical dilemmas, posed by the BBC?

  1. Should we kill healthy people to harvest their organs?
  2. Are you the same person who started reading this article?
  3. Is that really a computer screen in front of you?
  4. Did you really choose to read this article?

I’m off to plan a worship set, but when I’m done, I’ll drop some thinky thoughts in the comment section. Read the article, it’s cool.

Girl you know it’s, Girl you know it’s, Girl you …

Anybody wanna guess what tomorrow’s lecture will be on in my Music and Ethics class?

[flashvideo filename=http://addisonrd.com/WordPress/wp-content/video/music-ethics/B4MD.flv /]

[flashvideo filename=http://addisonrd.com/WordPress/wp-content/video/music-ethics/milli_vanilli.flv /]

[flashvideo filename=http://addisonrd.com/WordPress/wp-content/video/music-ethics/ashlee-simpson.flv /]

[flashvideo filename=http://addisonrd.com/WordPress/wp-content/video/music-ethics/billy_joel_superbowl_autotune.flv /]

My favorite quote of the day comes from Ray Lott, head of Arista, when the Milli Vanilli scandal broke. “Embarrassing?” he said. “I don’t mean the end justifies the means. But we sold seven million albums.”

Do It First, Then We’ll Talk

This semester marks a pretty radical shift in my teaching. I’m adopting two new philosophies for each of my courses, rearranging lecture content and schedules, changing project parameters, all around two new principles.

The first is simple. I’ve made it a goal to never “lecture” for more than 20 minutes at a time. At the 20 minute mark, I stop, and we do something else. Either a class discussion, or a small project, or a break, something else. I’ve been on a steady diet of TED talks for the past 12 months, and I’ve been trying to capture the power of that strict time limit, the intensity of a well-crafted 20 minutes. I think it represents the upper limit of my students’ attention span, and rather than fighting it, I’ve decided to embrace it and use it to my advantage.

The second principle is more fundamental, and for me much more difficult. Most of the time, my thinking moves from principle to extrapolation. Once I learn the structure of MIDI messages, I can then move on to figure out how you might use them to deliver different kinds of musical information, how you might edit or filter them, a whole host of ideas can follow out of understanding that underlying principle. I organized my classes along similar lines, first teaching all of the core principles of a field of study, and then putting them into practice in the back half of the semester with projects. The result was that I bored my students to death in the first 6 weeks of the semester, bombarding with stuff that I knew was important, but that they really didn’t care much about.

I’m flipping that around this semester. I’m following a “do first, understand later” plan. In music technology, that means getting students to record and mix something the very first week, before they have any clue what they’re doing, and waiting until November before we even start getting into vocabulary, graphing, any of the more technical parts of the course. In Music & Ethics, it means pushing case studies to the front, and systematic moral philosophy to the back end.

I’m hoping that two things happen. First, I’m hoping to make some students more comfortable with unstructured progress, the ability to learn how to function with uncertainty. I’m coming to believe more and more that this is a critical skill to success in life, and something that they have not learned well to this point in their schooling. The skill used to figure out how to record a song with a piece of software without knowing “how it works” is the same skill set that they will later use to plan a semester of music classes, or produce a recording, the same skill set that will let them survive their first year of professional life, when they don’t know how anything works. The ability to jump into something with only a vague sense of how it works, and to emerge successful, is on the top tier of necessary skills for the professional musician.

My second hope is that it will spark a series of questions, that it will ignite curiosity in the students, and that the back half of the course, the systematic, academic, vocabulary and principles part of the course will become a series of answers to questions that they actually want to know the answer to. Instead of saying “this is a continuous controller message, here’s how it’s structured, memorize this, it’ll be on the test,” it will become “on those projects you’ve been working on, you kept using the mod wheel to change the sounds in interesting ways, here’s what you did, this is why it worked, here’s how you can use it to do other cool things, because it’s structured in this way.”

Basically, I’m trying to trick my students into being curious about the things that I think they should know.

I’m interested to hear from those of you who are teachers, in any capacity. What do you think about these ideas? Any of you go through big upheavals in how you view learning, based on your own experiences? Am I being hopelessly optimistic that these changes will make a difference in how my students learn?

A Short Survey of Interesting Topics

I have 7 students in my Music and Ethics class this semester. They’re just about cresting the first difficult climb in writing their thesis papers. They’ve done the bulk of the research, and had to turn in a full footnoted outline of their argument. All that’s left for most of them is to spill the actual ink, and turn it into something readable. And then, of course, the editing.

They’ve picked some pretty interesting topics, so I thought I’d throw them out here for you folks to peruse. These are their thesis statements, roughly, along with some background.

  1. Sacredness is an ascribed quality, not an objective quality, therefore music that is sacred is always sacred to some person, or group of people. It is sacred because it serves the function of producing desired internal states, considered spiritually significant by people who call the music sacred. This means that 1) people outside of that group have no obligation to the “sacredness” of the music, and 2) it is inappropriately limiting to the creative process to force composers to work within a certain genre of music because of its “sacredness”.
  2. The emphasis on competition within High School music programs is detrimental to the education process. A music educator has an obligation to select repertoire for their ensemble based on artistic merit and educational value, and not competitive value.
  3. A film composer’s evaluation of a potential project should be based on the over-arching primary theme of the film, rather than content that serves that theme. She may choose to work on a film with a strong positive primary message, even if the film also contains graphic sexuality and violence. If the strength of the primary theme outweighs the presence of objectionable content, the project as a whole can be considered good, and worthwhile.
  4. There are three categories of repertoire that are frequently controversial in music education: music with sexual themes (sensual and explicit operatic works), music with overt religious themes (everything written between 600 and 1600 C.E. in Western Music), and music by controversial composers (Wagner’s pro-genocide stance, for example). A music educator has an obligation to perform these works, in spite of the controversy. To avoid them both limits that artistic experience of the students, and presents a skewed perspective on the scope and history of musical literature.
  5. A composer’s original intent is the fundamental guiding principle for the interpretation of a work. Contemporary performers and conductors have an obligation not to deviate from the best understanding of the composer’s intent in their interpretation and execution of a work.
  6. A musician has an obligation to only create works that best express their aesthetic judgment. It is a violation of the purpose of music, and the nature of the musician, to make choices based on values of broad appeal or commercial viability. There are strong parallels between a musician using their craft for less-than-art purposes, and prostitution, in that both treat the person as a means to an end, in violation of the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative. (This is going to be a helluva paper – this student is incredibly bright, and is making some very, very strong arguments in support of this thesis. Once he’s finished, I’ll give more of my thoughts on this topic).
  7. The lyrical content of music is capable of making moral claims, even in poetic and non-propositional formats. Songwriters have an obligation to produce works whose moral claims contribute to social unity. Songwriters may not plead ignorance in their understanding of these moral claims, and must take responsibility for their social impact as contributing factors to social change. To claim that songs are not sufficient causes for any particular social change is not an argument against their contributory power to those changes. The two primary case studies will be the identification by Klebold and Harris with the music of Marilyn Manson prior to the Columbine High School shootings, and the release of the song F*ck Tha Police by NWA prior to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (I think this student is going to argue that the moral claims of F*ck Tha Police actually fulfill the obligation toward social unity, by exposing an underlying reality that then prompted broader attention and calls for change.)

It’s fun to sit in conferences with these students and read through their arguments, to see the evidence of their critical thinking. I love the fact that I don’t have to prod any of them to find the value in this process – they all seem to understand that spending time thinking deeply about these themes will be beneficial to their development as musicians, and as people.

Moral Theory: Introduction

Posts in the Moral Theory series

  1. Moral Theory: Introduction
  2. Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics
  3. Moral Theory: Natural Law

An Introduction

Well, now that the Music and Ethics course has been approved here at APU, I have to get serious about actually teaching it. That means brushing up on some of that good old philosophicating. Good practice for me, fun for you, and safe for the whole family. Unless Uncle Jimmy is a nihilist, in which case, probably not safe for him.

I’m going to write a series of posts, each trying to answer the question “What makes an action right?” Each post will look at how different schools of thought, different moral theories, answer this question. My goal is to discuss these theories with a minimum of technical philosophical language, in a way that invites everybody to be part of the conversation. I can’t promise that it won’t involve some heavy lifting, but I will try to make sure that the ideas are presented clearly.

the property of ought

This question, “What makes an action right,” the starting place for thinking about ethics, requires a little bit of explanation before we can understand what it’s really asking. There are a few assumptions buried in the question that we need to tease out before we can really ask it.

The most basic assumption of the question is that actions can have properties, features about them that can be talked about in the abstract. If I’m holding a red apple, it has the property of “redness”, and I can talk about the redness in the abstract, without having to talk about the apple itself.

What does it mean to say that actions have properties? Well, think about someone who steals candy from a child. In addition to talking about the facts of the event (at a certain time and place, this person caused this series of events that affected this person, blah blah blah), we can also say, “That act was selfish.” It identifies something about that act, some quality or group of qualities that can be identified, and discussed in the abstract. “Selfish acts cause one to become embittered” is a statement about abstract properties, not about any one act.

So, the first assumption in the question “What makes an action right” is that an act has properties (not all philosophical systems will agree with this point – more later!).

The second assumption is that some property, or set of properties, about an act can together cause that act to be ethical, or unethical. In other words, we can evaluate an action for abstract qualities, and those qualities will determine if we have an obligation to perform that act, or to not perform it.

Let’s assume we determine that selfishness = unethical. We can then look at an act, and ask whether or not it contains the property of selfishness. If it does, then it’s unethical. We establish a standard for measuring actions that is separate from any one action, which all actions can be evaluated against.

If this works, we can then say that the act has an additional property: call it the property of ought. Action that have it, we are obligated to do. Actions that contain it in the negative (ought not), we are prohibited from doing.

So, the conversation in ethics centers around this question:

What property of an action determines that we ought to do it?

In the series of posts to follow, I’ll try to show how that question is answered by Divine Command Theory, Natural Law Theory, Utilitarianism, Kant (how awesome do you have to be to get on this list with just your last name? Pretty awesome), Moral Relativism, Moral Pluralism, and (my favorite, which is why I put it last) Virtue Ethics.

Hang on to your protractors – it’s about to get nerdy up ins!

Next in series: Moral Theory: Divine Command Ethics

Ethical Content as a Commodity

It may not be intuitively obvious what American Apparel, fair-trade coffee, the Toyota Prius, and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch have in common. The connection is hiding beneath the surface, and it signals what may well be a seismic shift in the function of free-market economies. The connection is this: each one of these products carries something in addition to the basic goods, some value added component that makes them marketable in spite of a higher initial purchase price: they have an ethical content.

Ethical content is becoming a market commodity. It is being advertised and sold as an integrated corollary to consumer transactions, something extra that you can purchase along with your coffee, or jeans, or car. At the Starbucks online store, a pound of fair-trade coffee costs $11.49, while a pound of houseblend costs $9.99. What am I buying for my extra $1.50? It seems to me that I’m getting at least the appearance of a more ethical process, a transaction that favors local growers more than it favors distributors and consumers. I am buying an ethical commodity.

The existence of the ethical commodity can be seen in the reverse, as well. Companies like Walmart are perceived as having a negative ethical content in their products. In pursuit of the lowest possible source-to-shelf costs, their economic and environmental policies are perceived as being detrimental to both local and global communities. In this case, the difference between paying $18 for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) at your local book seller and paying $15.69 at Walmart is a negative ethical commodity. You’ve saved two bucks by not purchasing a more ethical process along with your savory teen fiction.

The idea of commoditized value in a transaction beyond the consumable goods is nothing new. Think about the difference between a $25 pair of shoes from Payless and a $225 pair of shoes from Nordies. Of course there are some differences in materials and in manufacturing, but most of the difference in cost between those two shoes has to do with the name Cole Haan, or Steve Madden, or Kenneth Cole. You’re buying a fashion commodity along with the piece of stitched leather. The value of the fashion commodity is demonstrated by the fact that people will buy $225 shoes. Think too about the difference between buying a mini-van and buying an SUV. For most people, the mini-van is more practical, and more economical, both in initial price and in long term ownership costs. But when you drive a mini-van, nobody thinks you might be on your way up to Yosemite for some base-jumping off of Half Dome. There is a lifestyle image that is commoditized with the SUV that doesn’t exist in the mini-van. When my wife and I bought a stroller for my daughter Sophia, we purchased one that had a higher safety rating than similar models. In addition to the cost of materials and assembly, we purchased a perceived safety commodity.

The emergence of an ethical commodity is a significant shift in economics. It is a redemptive use of one of the most powerful social forces around; free-market capital. The establishment of ethical content as a valuable commodity means that, rather than market forces driving consumers toward the lowest price, consumers can make decisions about whether or not to purchase a better process with their goods. In a commodified economy, this means that there are people who will want to purchase ethical content, and there are also people who will want to be perceived as people who purchase ethical content. For both groups, market forces will propel them toward goods and services with recognized higher ethical content (ordering Striped Bass instead of Black Sea Bass). As a raging free-market fanboy, you can see how this would make me ecstatic. Anything that accomplishes beneficial results within the community without sacrificing consumer choices or economic incentive is a good thing, and a robust thing.

I do, of course, have some concerns. First, I’m concerned that ethical content might be a fad. Introducing elevated market prices for fair-trade coffee growers in South America might be a good thing, but it can turn into a disastrous thing if those markets collapse when ethicism becomes unfashionable again. The farmer who made capital investments in equipment and stock on the basis of those inflated prices will be hardest hit when he can no longer sell his goods at $1.25 / lb. The same is true for the New England fisherman who invests in equipment to switch over to line-caught seafood, on the assumption that investing in a more ethical process will enable him to recoup that investment by marketing to ethical consumers. When those consumers are no longer willing to pay an extra $2 for his more ethical process, he is stuck bearing the costs of the market’s fadishness.

I’m also worried about the social perceptions that will trickle down to the poorest consumers. There are millions of people in this county for whom there is no real option; they can’t afford the two dollar difference between the cheapest item and the item with higher ethical content. American Apparel is not an option for them, the Walmart t-shirt is. In our striving for a more socially and environmentally aware marketplace, we need to make sure that we don’t denigrate those who can’t afford the commodity of ethical content.

We also need more accountability from independent organizations. As ethical commodity becomes a viable marketing tool, there will be companies that want the shine without the spit. There will be companies that appropriate the language and appearance of ethical content without the supporting processes. The Fairtrade Foundation and the Seafood Watch list are both examples of independent organizations with transparent goals and standards. We need similar organizations for apparel, sustainable farming, retail, and every other facet of this robust economic milieu. Consumers who are choosing to purchase ethical content with their goods need to do so in an informed way, and these sorts of accountability structures help ensure that.

So here we are. It has never been easier to make ethical choices as a consumer, and to do so within a coherent market structure that preserves consumer choice and economic incentive. I’m a fan.