Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Morality, Religion

Objective Rock Music

electric ladylandMy son is 7 years old right now, and he’s inherited my love of music. Over the last year or two he’s gotten to where he enjoys going to sleep while listening to something. Currently, it’s Jimi Hendrix’s “Gypsy Eyes” on repeat. But he’s also gone through periods where he only wanted “We Will Rock You” or Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album. He loves AC/DC, too. I love all of that music as well, but since I’m an adult, my tastes in music are much more varied. If we’re riding in my truck and an Eagles or Allman Brothers song comes on, my son asks for me to put on some rock music. “This is rock music,” I tell him.

“No, real rock music,” he’ll reply.

It’s cute. But it also brings up an interesting question: what is rock music? Is there an objective standard we can point to?

I would argue that there’s no objective standard, but it’s still something we’re all able to navigate pretty well. My son doesn’t think the Eagles qualifies as rock, but I do. Nevertheless, we both agree that Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and AC/DC are definitely rock. In fact, musical categories fall along a spectrum. The Eagles, Jackson Browne, the Allman Brothers, and other bands along those lines really fall into the Southern Rock category. And if you keep going that direction, you’ll eventually run into country or blues, depending on which turns you take. But country can split off into different directions too, one side running toward blue grass and folk — the other toward pop.

We could go on talking about music, but hopefully the point is coming through. Even though there’s not really an objective standard about musical categories, the categories are still meaningful to us. We know jazz, classical, and R&B when we hear them. There are certainly gray areas, where the genres run together and different people might label them differently. But that’s to be expected, and it’s something we can deal with case by case.

I tend to view morality in the same way. Sometimes, religious people argue that morality can’t be talked about meaningfully unless there’s a God who’s the ultimate arbiter of what’s moral and what’s not. But I disagree with that view. If we really needed an objective standard for morality, then I think we’d need it for all kinds of things: music, colors, flavors, smells, etc. Yet we move through life just fine using categories and classifications that don’t have rigid rules written down somewhere. That’s not to say that there aren’t disagreements — there are. But we’ve learned how to allow for those kinds of disagreements. My son doesn’t have to agree with me that “The Load Out” is a rock song. When he talks about rock music, I know what he means, because we’ve taken the time to understand one another (or I’ve at least taken the time to understand him…).

We run into the same things when it comes to morality. In more traditional churches, if you don’t show up in a suit and tie on Sunday, it’s assumed that you’re lacking an adequate respect for God. However, if you attend some “coffee and Christ,” non-denominational church, you can show up with a T-shirt and flip-flops, and people won’t make the same assumption. Who’s right? I think both are, and it’s okay if the two groups don’t see eye-to-eye on it. At the same time, ask any of those people about the morality of rape, and there will be no question.

So what makes something “rock music”?

So if there’s no objective standard about musical categories, how do we know when something is rock and when it’s not? We know because we’re focused on the music itself, and not because of some outside dictates. Whenever you hear a song, you’re accessing the catalog in your head built upon your vast experiences with music, and you’re categorizing it based on that. It’s a living catalog… if it weren’t, you’d never be able to assimilate new music. Remember when Alternative Rock came on the scene in the early 90s? It was different, but it was still rock. If instead we relied on some kind of rule book, would we have been able to categorize it so easily? Furthermore, what if the rule book suddenly changed? What would that mean? What if we suddenly began calling pop music country, country became rap, and rock became classical? If we only relied on the rule book, then we’d have to change our understanding. It would also demonstrate that musical classifications weren’t really “objective” anyway, since they depended entirely on the rule book. In other words, rock music wouldn’t be rock because it is rock — it would only be rock because some authority labeled it that way. And if the labeler decided that Mozart and Hendrix belonged in the same category, we’d simply have to go along with it.

With morality, we can take an event and analyze its qualities to decide how moral it is. It’s wrong to kill a person. But we know that, not because someone had to tell us, but because of the consequences involved. We all want to survive, so death is automatically unpleasant and something we avoid. We also don’t like to be in pain — death often involves pain. And we know how awful it is to lose a loved one. It doesn’t take a huge leap to realize that other people feel the same way. However, there are circumstances that can change the morality of killing an individual. It’s certainly more moral to kill a terrorist who’s indiscriminately killing innocents than to let the terrorist continue his rampage.

And sometimes, we’re faced with new situations that we need to incorporate into our view of morality. When someone is dying from a terminal illness and wants to end his life, what’s the moral thing to do? Some people, because of their religious beliefs, think it’s immoral to help that individual die. However, most of us naturally feel compassion for a person in that situation and feel that the moral thing to do is help ease their suffering. I think this is a prime example of how morality really works. It’s intuitive. It’s the same way that I can hear a song from Wolfmother for the first time and know that it’s rock music. I don’t have to consult a catalog first.

In a religion like Christianity, we even have examples of the rules suddenly changing. The Israelites are given the command “thou shalt not kill.” But very soon after, God commands them to exterminate whole tribes of people, including children (Deut 2:33-35; Deut 3:3-7; Num 31:7-18; 1 Sam 15:1-9; Joshua 6:20-21). So what’s the right thing to do there? If God provides objective morality, then it would be objectively moral to slaughter children and infants. Or perhaps we already know how immoral that would be.

I would argue that there’s really no such thing as objective morality — at least not in the way that most people use it when they’re having these philosophical discussions. But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as morality, any more than someone could argue there’s no such thing as rock music. It’s simply how we classify good behavior and bad behavior. While we may sometimes disagree on the gray areas, there are plenty of areas in which we all can agree. And in the end, that’s really all it takes.

31 thoughts on “Objective Rock Music”

  1. What if we suddenly began calling pop music country, country became rap, and rock became classical?

    IIRC, there was a moment in the movie Star Trek Beyond where The Beastie Boys are referred to as classical music.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hey Nate,

    You’ve highlighted several important aspects about morality. The idealists as you know will press you for more.

    I think the question about whether or not there is morality somewhere out there independent of human minds is currently an unknown. It is a metaphysical question which goes beyond our empirical methods of determining truth. That said though I personally think there are many hints that point toward moral anti-realism which is one thing you talked about here. I would highly recommend “The Moral Animal” by Robert Wright. I’m halfway through and have found some very interesting things about the process by which natural selection likely had a hand in the development of morality. There seems to be a growing consensus among scientists of this fact.

    I’ve always had an uncomfortable feeling about moral anti-realism and still have a twinge of it, but I’ve read some interesting points of view which make a good case that it’s moral realism which is actually something to be uncomfortable about – you’ve given an example of that here as well.

    I’ve also been finding this paper to have a whole lot of insight on the topic: , but I have to say that it’s a bit of a tough read.

    One thing I think that gets missed in a lot of these discussions is the distinction between “realism” and “objectivism”. I lean toward moral anti-realism – which says that there are no moral facts independent of human minds. But I am an objectivist in the sense that I believe that there are objective reasons to act in a way that is moral due to the consequences (as you mention) of not acting morally. It’s about pragmatism which in the end is really what everyone should be concerned about.

    If you get some opposing viewpoints in the comments good luck with all the twists and turns! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Howie! I really appreciate the thoughts you’ve laid out. I have to admit that I’m not as familiar with the different philosophical terms… this is just something I’ve been thinking through in an “arm-chair” fashion. I’ll definitely check out the book you mentioned soon (reading through a couple of others at the moment), as well as the pdf you linked to — the abstract alone looks interesting.


  4. You just knew I would love this post, didn’t you?

    I believe it is almost immoral not to have Hendrix played in church. Whereas, forcing children to listen to Tammy Wynette should be considered indoctrination and maybe even one of the Deadly Sins.

    Letting your kid listen to Gypsy Eyes is an excellent method for raising a happy, well-balanced child. Astor Piazzola, Mozart, Ellington, Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn and even the Sex Pistols also qualify!
    Just be on your guard in case he tries to play Black Sabbath records(?) cds backwards.

    My current favorite piece of music is Freeway Jam, Jeff Beck.
    I guarantee you’ll love it. And him too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s quite an old piece from Beck but still demonstrates his impeccable mastery and original approach to the guitar.

    This is from the album Blow by Blow, the first record of his I bought. It has a brilliant rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Because we’ve ended as lovers.
    Much of his stuff can be listened to on Youtube. A wonderful way to while away an hour or so.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Nate, music and morality …..

    If your son still thinks Paranoid is “real” rock (a view I once had some sympathy with), you may, or may not, like to introduce him to Dillinger Escape Plan, who turn all that macho apocalyptic stuff up to 11. They are not for the faint hearted, and to me they are a parody, but ….

    On morality: as usual, I find myself somewhere between your view and the conservative christian view that you are partly reacting against. (Reviewing this comment before I post it, I feel it is fairly critical, not of you, but of the view you hold. I’m sorry, I don’t respect you any less, but I just think you have said some wrong things about something very important.)

    I think it helps to separate out different components of morality.

    1. Morality is about things we “ought” to do, not things we naturally do. It doesn’t require ethics to enjoy chocolate or sex, but it may require ethics NOT to enjoy them sometimes when it would be harmful or hurtful.

    2. We need to distinguish between moral principles and moral actions. A principle such as “Do unto others ….” is arguably universal, but HOW we may do that will vary with time and place and circumstance. I think your comments on what to wear to church miss this a little.

    3. On top of the principles and “rules” there is also the reason WHY we should obey an ethic. I think your discussion doesn’t address this well either.

    “With morality, we can take an event and analyze its qualities to decide how moral it is.”

    So I question this statement. You can only test something if you have some criterion to test it against. So if there is no objective ethics, what are your criteria? You say “we know that ….. because of the consequences involved”. But consequences don’t tell us whether something is moral, they are just the data we use to compare to the criterion. If the criterion is that something causes pain, as you suggest, then it is reasonable to ask why you choose that as the criterion. Why not the criterion that it is only someone that I care about experiences pain?

    What you have done, I suggest, is assume something without offering evidence or reason. Either you have assumed that how you feel about causing pain constitutes an “ought” (as in my #1) or you have assumed an ethical principal (as in my #2) without offering any objective reason to do so (my #3). You say there are no objective ethics but then you say ”It’s wrong to kill a person.” Is this true (objectively) or is it just your opinion?

    The test of a good philosophical argument is whether it convinces someone who doesn’t assume the same as the proponent but has an open mind. So, how would your argument go against someone from a poor oppressed and desperate minority in the US, or in the third world? What if they said (1) I don’t care if I cause pain, they didn’t care when they caused me pain! or (2) why shouldn’t I kill someone I hate? Unless you have some agreed ethical principle, there is nothing you can say logically except I disagree with you, I think hate is unhelpful, I don’t like causing pain. And when that doesn’t sway him, hope you can draw your gun quicker.

    Now of course I know that no amount of arguing about ethics will convince some people, and you know I generally agree on the rightness and wrongness of almost every behaviour that affects others. We would both agree with the universal declaration of human rights, for example. But I think we shouldn’t expect others to follow our ideas unless we can give a set of ethical principles and a justification for following the, And the ultimate and only justification is that they are REALLY (objectively) RIGHT.

    So I don’t think you have in any way solved the problem of ethics. Ethics are different to music because it really matters what is morally right, but our taste in music doesn’t really matter. You have acted as if ethics are objective while denying that they are. The almost universal human judgment that some things are truly wrong is something that begs an explanation, but you haven’t given it, simply assumed an ethic while denying its objectivity.

    In the end, I think atheists like you want to get as close to objective ethics as you can, because that reflects how you feel, but your logic knows it doesn’t follow from naturalism. I think your good-heartedness is a clue to there being more in this world Horatio than is dreamt of in your philosophy. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

    ”Moral considerations give all a reason to examine the proposition that there is a God very seriously. For if there is no God, morality is a more perilous enterprise than if there is.”

    Sorry that rave was so long, but this is an intriguing and important topic. Thanks.


  7. @Unklee

    <blockquote.In the end, I think atheists like you want to get as close to objective ethics as you can, because that reflects how you feel, but your logic knows it doesn’t follow from naturalism. I think your good-heartedness is a clue to there being more in this world Horatio than is dreamt of in your philosophy. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

    ”Atheists like you” ?

    Really? How frakking condescending can you get.

    Tell me, are gay atheists different than straight atheists for example? Or do they believe in a slightly different god than straight atheists do you think?
    What about Australian atheists? How much different are they from ….say… Swedish atheists?
    Or Peruvian atheists.

    Please enlighten us exactly how Nate’s atheism is different than mine, or Jon’s or Nan’s or Gary’s?

    Or are you truly still so thick that you do not know what an atheist is?

    I’ll let someone else tear to pieces your, ”’…doesn’t follow from naturalism” crap.

    Funny, I could have sworn you claimed you accept evolution?
    Seems you want to interpret that as well, right?



  8. Hi unkleE,

    Thanks for the comment! I think you bring up some really important points.

    This may sound dismissive, but I don’t mean for it to be. Right now, I’m at a point where I don’t really think the why of ethics is really all that important. I know there are plenty of philosophers who would disagree, and this is something I could easily change my mind on. My current apathy toward it may be a lack of imagination as much as anything else. I’ll try to explain why I see it that way.

    When it comes to flavors, it doesn’t really matter why we taste things the way we do — it’s just “a matter of taste” — literally! A chef isn’t going to offer asparagus as a dessert, because there’s very wide agreement on the kinds of food that qualify as desserts and the kinds that don’t, even though people sometimes disagree about a specific food within that category. My grandmother isn’t crazy about cake, for instance. But cake is still a perfectly normal food to offer as dessert.

    Why we like sweet foods for dessert isn’t all that important. To paraphrase Jesus, food classifications are made for man; man isn’t made for food classifications. I see morality similarly. If there were no humans or no other “intelligent” life, then morality would be irrelevant. It only “exists” in that it’s a principle that has utility for us.

    Sometimes I feel like discussions about morality get into this nebulous area where we all start to pretend that we don’t know what morality is because we can’t explain why certain things are more moral than others. But to me, this is like arguing over semantics. By and large, the people living in a society understand what the rules of that society are. We can call those rules “morality” or “ethics” or anything else we like, but that’s all they really are: rules for how to get along in society. And there are some really good, concrete reasons behind those rules. Society doesn’t work as well when there’s inequity, slavery, rampant rape, murder, etc.

    This comment’s long enough for now. I’ll see if you have any other thoughts before trying to say more. And thanks for the reference to Dillinger Escape Plan. You’re right about them cranking it to 11! It goes a little far for my tastes, but it’s definitely interesting. 🙂


  9. Ark, I appreciate the comment, but I didn’t take unkleE’s statement that way. Shortly after his statement, he mentioned my “good-heartedness.” I don’t think he was trying to be condescending, but thanks for the defense. 🙂


  10. By the way, you guys might like this band (Typhoon):

    I ran across them a couple of years ago, and I think they’re great. They’re one of those rare bands where the whole album fits together well. They remind me of Pink Floyd in that way. And I find the instrumentation really interesting. If you don’t listen to the whole album (and you should!), at least check out “Artificial Light” (the whole song), “Young Fathers,” and “Morton’s Fork” (again, the whole song), which leads right into “Possible Deaths.”

    It’s hard for me to suggest only certain songs, but at least check those 4 out. Enjoy! 🙂


  11. @Nate.

    I noted the ”good heartedness” believe me, but he went on to slam you with his derisive ”naturalism” phrase.
    So you are a good-natured atheist, who is basically an idiot because you can’t figure out that morality cannot possibly derive from naturalism. What’s the matter with you Nate? Are you blind? It’s obvious…Goddidit.
    With internet friends like unkleE who needs enemas? sorry … enemies.

    Nate, if only you would let Jesus back into your life, I promise he will make it all better again for you. You need the holy spirit. And don’t forget, if you continue to hate God, good-natured atheist that you are,you are responsible for your kids going to hell .. however you interpret it. (Ask unkleE)

    After all, Alice Cooper was a real ”wild boy” heathen back in the day and even he has now turned to Jesus. So what’s stopping you, Nate?

    And what a bonus, his golf handicap has dropped since he became a Christian. God does indeed move in mysterious ways.
    Don’t whisper to god what for? Yell, ”What? Fore!”

    Don’t turn your back on God,Nate. He might make you a good golfer …. or a rock star.


    Liked by 1 person

  12. he went on to slam you with his derisive ”naturalism” phrase.
    So you are a good-natured atheist, who is basically an idiot because you can’t figure out that morality cannot possibly derive from naturalism. What’s the matter with you Nate? Are you blind? It’s obvious…Goddidit.

    I hear you. It still didn’t bother me though. I mean, I know unkleE is a Christian, so he’s going to think that naturalism isn’t enough to explain morality (though I disagree), but I don’t think he looks at me like I’m an idiot. Of course, would an idiot notice…? Crap…

    Really, I’m almost never bothered by any of unkleE’s points — I know what his overall perspective is, so I’m not surprised (or offended) when he makes additional comments that fit within his world view. I actually like to hear how he see things.

    Btw, I loved the rest of your comment. 🙂


  13. Sorry, Nate, not my cup of tea.

    Hey, no worries! If I still like unkleE when he doesn’t agree with my religious views, I can still like you when we part ways on music! 😉


  14. For years, I’ve asked apologists to identify one objective moral standard. So far, none have been able to do so.


  15. It is interesting, since they will very often proclaim that there cannot be morals without God or the bible to provide an authority for them.

    But if we look closely, with that good and honest heart, we see God killing innocent babies, ordering the Israelites to slaughter women and children, while keeping the virgin girls for themselves, making a bear kill 42 children who made fun of an old man’s bald head… If god cannot partake in evil, then these actions could not be evil in and of themselves, which would mean the bible is indicating that those actions are neutral, while It’s god’s approval that makes an action either good or evil, right or wrong.

    Maybe ISIS is good. Maybe God approves. If he does, then ISIS is righteous by God’s divine, biblical authority.

    So tell me again how we need the bible to know what’s moral?


  16. I wish I had your words in my head when these sorts of arguments come up with my family. It is so hard for them to see this point. Morality is fluid, from person to person, from situation to situation.

    And I think you hit it on the nail when you said you and your son have an understanding of each other (or, at least, you of him and his definition of rock music). If we don’t make the effort to understand each other, how can we possibly ever hope for something like unity or world peace?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Oh, it’s so frustrating when you can’t seem to communicate your thoughts to someone else. My wife and I have been running into that lately with her family. I don’t know why it’s so hard.

    Btw, I’ve just started reading Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, where he argues for objective morality based on science. I gotta say, it’s pretty interesting. So far, I’ve read the introduction and the first chapter (there are only 5 in all, but each one is fairly lengthy). I’m not sure where I’ll land on his argument once I’m finished with it, but he’s definitely got my gears turning. You might find it interesting, if you get some time and need something to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I’ve read quite a few of his books. Always thought-provoking, but I don’t always agree with him. His arguments stem from…his background, which don’t always seem to encompass a lot of…hmm…how shall I say it…compassion?…towards folks with different backgrounds (and education levels). Still, he’s definitely worth reading. I’ll get it on my Kindle right now so I can dip into it whenever a moral quandary presents itself (like, everyday).

    Liked by 1 person

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