My 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.