Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Moral Quality of Music

In Jerrold Levinson's collection of papers on music, Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music, he talks about the moral quality of music. I need to quote a substantial passage to get the idea across:
The fundamental criterion of musical moral quality, perhaps too crudely framed, is whether the mind or spirit displayed in the music is such as to elicit admiration and to induce emulation, or instead such as to elicit distaste and to induce avoidance. If the former, the music has positive moral quality; if the latter, the music has negative moral quality; if neither, then the music is simply morally neutral. 
But why, one may ask, does such a property of music deserve the label of moral quality, and not simply aesthetic quality? Before answering let me relabel the property in question as ethical, rather than moral, quality, appealing to a broad sense of “ethical” that is familiar to us from Aristotle and the Stoics, comprising all aspects of character relevant to living a good life, and not only those corresponding to the moral virtues narrowly understood. With that relabeling in place, I see no way to avoid replying, to the question of why the display of an admirable mind or spirit makes for ethical quality in music, that it is simply because some minds or spirits are ethically superior to others, in the sense that they are such as to conduce to living a good life or to living as one should. Music can thus have ethical value in the sense of presenting exemplars of admirable states of mind that are conducive to, perhaps even partly constitutive of, living well, even if no demonstrable effect on character is forthcoming. And ethical value of this sort, one may add, in general makes music that possesses it artistically more valuable as well, artistic value being a broader notion than aesthetic value, plausibly covering rewards afforded by a work that are not directly manifested in experience of it. 
So music might, in principle, have ethical quality without that resulting in moral force of either the behavioral or the character-building sort. But in fact it is difficult to believe that repeated exposure to music that is ethically superior, in the sense I have indicated, should have as a rule no effect on character at all. And that is because of the plausibility of a contagion-cum-modeling picture of what is likely to result from such exposure. Just as spending time with certain sorts of friends invariably impacts on character, if perhaps in a transitory manner— this is what parents have in mind in classifying their children’s pals as on the whole either “good influences” or “bad influences”— so does keeping company with certain music rather than other music. It seems manifestly better, for one’s psychological and spiritual well-being, to spend time with music of sincerity, subtlety, honesty, depth, and the like, than with music of pretension, shallowness, or vulgarity.
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 2547-2567). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
 This is a different view than that expressed by Peter Kivy, who believes that, while instrumental music can have a temporary uplifting effect, it has no real long-lasting moral influence. It also departs from what we might call the received wisdom of our day that holds that music, classical music at least, has no moral influence; indeed it may have a negative influence as witnessed by the behaviour of the Nazis who were perfectly capable of genocide against Jews, homosexuals and gypsies during the day and contentedly listening to Schubert and Wagner in the evening. It is perhaps because of this black stain that moral monsters like Hannibal Lector are seen in the movies listening to music by Bach.

The problem with Levinson's argument is, while it seems perfectly plausible, the way he presents it seems to lack evidence. He cites the quality of mind or spirit that shows itself in the music, such as the optimism of the first movement of Dvořák's "American" Quartet and the good humor that saturates the music of Haydn. He makes the odd argument that musical works are like persons and may have a similar moral influence:
Though they are not sentient, musical works are somewhat like persons. They possess a character, exhibit something like behavior, unfold or develop over time, and display emotional and attitudinal qualities which we can access through being induced to imagine, as we listen to them, personae that embody those qualities. In short, musical works are person-like in psychological ways. If so, then it hardly seems implausible that music regularly frequented will have moral effects on one, just as will being in the company of, and spending time with, real persons. This may transpire through the mere contagion or rubbing off of mental dispositions; or through a conscious desire to model oneself, in thought and action, on impressive individuals in one’s environment;
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 2585-2591). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
 While I am very sympathetic to this view as it correlates with my own impressions, I am surprised to find it standing in for an argument in a book by a professional philosopher. Because, again, it is a mere claim without any real evidence. This essay goes on to discuss in detail some jazz standards which, because of the text, do not really equate with instrumental music.

If the contrary argument is that very bad people can listen to classical music and continue to do very bad things, therefore classical music is either morally neutral or negative, then how should it be countered?

Let us imagine some scenarios: a concentration camp guard goes home each night and listens with great pleasure to Bach. The music not only presents intense expression, but it also models the virtues of industriousness and creativity. The guard then goes on to exhibit the virtues of industriousness and creativity in his duties as a concentration camp guard. Whatever empathy the music may suggest, it does not alter his lack of empathy towards the prisoners in any way.

There seems something missing in this account. How could you listen to the deeply religious and deeply human music of Bach and not be made more human and empathetic as a result? I think that what we are encountering here is one of the subtle differences between morality and aesthetics. These two things share a number of similarities as was noted by philosopher David Hume, but they are also quite different.

There are a number of different moral theories available: utilitarian ones stress the greater good of the greater number, which is sometimes used to justify killing one person to save hundreds. It is perhaps some variety of utilitarianism that might have justified the killing of Jews in Nazi Germany. Deontological ethics are based on the idea that morality is governed by rules that enable us to judge the morality of an action. Levinson in his essay seems to be following an older ethical theory that dates back to Aristotle and the Greeks, the idea of virtue ethics which is based on the idea of virtues of mind and character.

Perhaps the best way of analyzing the problem of the moral quality of music is to recognize the complexity of both human nature and historical context. It is the commonest thing in the world for humans to not only deceive themselves as to their good and the means used to achieve it, but to devise elaborate intellectual strategies to deceive themselves! Utilitarian ethics, for example, are very susceptible to being used for this purpose. Essentially you can justify any action, no matter how horrendous, by stating a Higher Good or Purpose. Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death in order to hasten industrial collectivization or to suppress Ukrainian independence, take your pick. In either case it was an instance of the Higher Good prevailing over the mere survival of individuals.

The same applies to the Nazi genocide: it was simply a case of the Higher Good of the Aryan peoples prevailing over unimportant minorities. We can see similar political activities today in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, North Korea and other places. Whether a few individuals starve is a lesser issue compared to the Higher Good of whatever ideology the rulers hold to.

So we can look at the case of the concentration camp guard and his love of Bach in a different way: it is perfectly plausible that the moral quality of Bach's music make no change in the moral behaviour of the guard because he is governed by a more powerful ideology that tells him what he is doing is both good and required. For him Bach is nothing more than a pleasant interlude.

Music lacks the moral rigor of an ideology. I have seen some video clips by Jordan Peterson recently that characterize ideologies as crude, simplifying templates applied to the world in order to give simple answers to all questions and this seems to me to be a good way to conceptualize it. There are many videos from him on this subject, some of them quite lengthy, but I think this one sums it up nicely in just over a minute:

Music is one of those things that can, if you allow it, help you develop your individuality, but it does not have the crude power of a political ideology, nor, without your engagement as a thinking individual, can it overcome the urgings of a crude ideology. But then, the best music never pretended to do so.

UPDATE: I just saw this news story which we might also reflect on: Legendary opera conductor molested teen for years: police report.
Legendary Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine molested an Illinois teenager from the time he was 15 years old, sexual abuse that lasted for years and led the alleged victim to the brink of suicide, according to a police report obtained by The Post.
The alleged abuse began while Levine was guest conductor at the Ravinia Music Festival outside Chicago, a post the wild-haired maestro held for two decades.
This brings up the related issue of how classical musicians, exposed to music of high moral quality every day for their entire lives, can fall so heavily to moral depravity. Again, it is likely a case of something more powerful overwhelming the positive example or influence of music, in this case, sexual desire.


Will Wilkin said...

Interesting questions, all centered around how the human being as a moral agent, does not react to influences in straightforward or predictable ways. An influence is not the same as a controlling force, and different people take very different paths even coming out of the same environment.

Very sad to see the reputation of Maestro Levine besmirched. I myself was 16 and the woman was 24 --God Bless Her!-- but somehow it does seem different when the elder is a man, and especially when the younger is also male, as there are so many complicating social and personal issues surrounding homosexuality, which gives a whole additional dimension and seems to me to thereby compound the sin of taking unfair advantage of youth.

The legal age of consent has its force because in a complex society with a complex division of labor, more education delays the entry into adulthood. But certainly teens are thinking about sex, and looking back now at how naive any of us were as teenagers, many teenagers certainly estimate themselves to be more mature and adult-like than we older people see. There is the complication that puberty comes before emotional maturity, and thus the very real physical impulses are there. A good thing perhaps in a hunter-gatherer society or wherever life is short and precarious, but again, in a complex civilization I think the later age of consent is right and good.

Bryan Townsend said...

I wonder if out of all the unmasking of bad behaviour amongst the social elite will come a revaluation of traditional moral norms. One could hope!

Will Wilkin said...

The phrase "rape and pillage" pairs these words as shorthand for savagery that is antithetical to civilization. Slave societies undermine my argument to a degree, but my retort is there are always cracks in civilization where crime and other antisocial behaviors fester like wounds that harm but do not kill the larger body.

Based on what I've read so far, the allegations against James Levine amount to child rape. That is an affront not just to "civilization" but to human dignity, the kind of human feeling that I imagine even paleolithic people would have afforded at least to those they loved, even if not applied as a rule of war (and certainly there were group conflicts and a rate of death by violence significantly higher than in our "civilized" age of modern warfare).

Van Magazine (online) published a few days ago an article "Silence, Breaking" by Ben Miller that gives insight into a few additional aspects of the problems surrounding the credible accusations against James Levine. Focusing on classical music but also mentioning the comparable problems in the Catholic church, Mr. Miller discusses how institutions in decline, especially those that give great prestige and or power to selected individuals, end up enabling those individuals by protecting them from the consequences of their crimes, not because the enablers are malicious but rather their commitment to their institutions and often also awe for the individual overrides their moral compass. Ultimately this is bad not just for the individual victims but for the institution itself, and even for the larger purpose for which that institution exists.

I highly recommend Mr. Miller's short article; hopefully this link will work:

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Will. That is a very enlightening essay. I do think that the discipline and order and beauty of music, and particularly classical music can help us become better people. But that is no guarantee whatsoever that some talented people might not have weaknesses and passions that they indulge at the expense of others. People are complex.