Deconstructing Pop Culture

Deconstructing Pop Culture header image

Do Aesthetic Preferences “Matter”?

September 11th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

A. Typically, They Don’t

An interesting fact about aesthetic preferences is that there is no good way to determine their truth or falsity. To borrow an analogy, it’s not like Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, and one of them said that “opera is good and rap music is bad.” It certainly might be possible to discern whether somebody – let’s call him “John” – likes Tupac Shakur. A cultural anthropologist, for example, might observe his behavior, and note the frequency with which he played Tupac’s albums.

But all this does is attribute an ascriptive predicate to John, i.e., a liking for the music of Tupac Shakur. It tells us nothing about Tupac (other than, perhaps, John is one of his fans). In particular, it is not and never will be possible to derive a conclusion that Tupac’s music is good or bad. We can determine if it fits the criteria for what counts as rap music, by parsing out its various elements. For example, it typically is spoken in a chant-like cadence, not sung; it has a repetitive beat; etc. We can determine if it fits the criteria for any number of sub-genres of rap music, e.g. west coast rap, gangsta rap, etc. We can count the number of people who enjoy listening to it, for example, by using an opinion poll, or using record sales (or music downloads) as a proxy for popularity. We also can count the number of people who dislike it; indeed, we know there is at least one such person, because Tupac died in Las Vegas in September of 1996 after shots were fired into a car in which he was a passenger (1). But this tells us nothing about the intrinsic worthiness of the music, itself.

All of this leads to the conclusion that there is a profound sense in which aesthetic preferences simply don’t “matter,” in the sense that, standing by themselves, they do not have real-world consequences. Interestingly, sentences expressing ethical principles typically are referentially opaque in the same manner as sentences expressing aesthetic preferences. Their significance, though, is completely different. One would be hard pressed to argue, for example, that the propositional content of “murder is bad” is the same as “heavy metal music is bad.” The former has real-world consequences, in that murder is a crime and deprives a human being of life, with resulting welfare-adverse effects. Whereas, liking, listening to, or propagating heavy metal music, is not. While there is a utilitarian theory of ethics, there is no such thing as a “utilitarian aesthetics.”

G. E. Moore coined the term “naturalistic fallacy” to describe the effort to define an evaluative statement (such as “this is good”) in terms of a set of descriptive statements (such as “it has qualities x, y and z“) (2). He characterized ethical statements as particularly vulnerable to this problem. Critics of Moore appeal to the social conventions and rules that govern all species of ethical behavior. For example, if Jones uttered the words “I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars,” then it follows that Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars, because part of what is entailed in promising is that one ought to keep one’s promises (3). Aesthetic judgment, however, is not hedged by any such social conventions or rules. If Jones was to say, “I like the opera,” then it does not follow that opera is good, even if Jones was attending the opera while making this statement. Aesthetic conclusions therefore present the sine qua non of the naturalistic fallacy in application.

B. But, in a Subset of Cases, They Do

So far, this seeems pretty intuitive. However, we would be remiss not to note a peculiar sub-genre of legal cases that have arisen under the general heading of undesirable social effects “caused” by art. Algebraically, we might diagram this as follows, where AP stands for “aesthetic preference” and RWC stands for “real world consequence”:

{AP} → {RWC}.

For example, In 1774, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe published The Sufferings of Young Werther. The novel’s hero is a sensitive, emotional aspiring artist who loses the love of his life to a rival, then shoots himself to end his torment. There were copycat suicides, like the one recounted by Goethe biographer Richard Friedenthal, in which a Werther fan opened the book to the death scene, invited others to watch, then shot himself with a pistol (4). Apocryphally, during the 1920s, a child killed his father with a carving knife after watching a silent movie (5). The original 1950s “Superman” series apparently incited a few children to leap off rooftops in imitation (6).

More recently, in 1984, 19-year-old John McCollum killed himself with a .22 caliber handgun after spending the day listening to records by the “heavy metal” rock singer Ozzy Osbourne. His parents sued Ozzy’s record label, alleging that the song “Suicide Solution” from the album “Blizzard of Ozz” contributed to their son’s death (7). The rock group Judas Priest was sued when two delusional fans killed themselves after allegedly being subjected to subliminal messages while playing the song “Better By You, Better Than Me” from the band’s Stained Class album backwards (8). Slain Texas patrolman Bill Davidson’s family sued Tupac Shakur and his record company after the murderer confessed he had listened to Tupac’s album 2PACalypse Now immediately prior to the slaying (9). One of the album’s songs, “Soulja’s Story,” speaks of “blasting” a police officer and “droppin’ the cop” after a traffic stop. The Columbine killings variously were blamed on Marilyn Manson, the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries, and the television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Promised Land (10).

A handful of other cases arise from television programming. These are: Zamora v. CBS (11) [TV violence caused young Ronny Zamora to become addicted and desensitized to violent behavior, resulting in his killing an 83-year old woman]; Walt Disney Productions, Inc. v. Shannon (12) [11-year old child sought to reproduce a sound effect demonstrated on a TV program by rotating a BB inside of an inflated balloon]; Olivia N. v. NBC (13) [rape victim’s assailants allegedly acted upon the stimulus of observing a scene in a TV show]; and DeFilippo v. NBC (14) [minor hanged himself while imitating a stunt he observed on TV].

The outcomes of all of these decisions flounder either on the notion of “causation,” or the right to freedom of expression set forth in the First Amendment (15). None of them have validated a theory of recovery. For example, in the District Court of Nevada’s decision dismissing the Judas Priest case, the Court found that the scientific research presented at trial did not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, would precipitate the decedents’ conduct (i.e., killing themselves); and that there existed other factors that explained their conduct, independent of the subliminal stimuli (i.e., they were crazy) (16). In Zamora, the Court stated:

“Reduced to basics, the plaintiffs ask the Court to determine that unspecified “violence” projected periodically over television (presumably in any form) can provide the support for a claim for damages where a susceptible minor has viewed such violence and where he has reacted unlawfully. Indeed, it is implicit in the plaintiffs’ demand for a new duty standard, that such a claim should exist for an untoward reaction on the part of any “susceptible” person. The imposition of such a generally undefined and undefinable duty would be an unconstitutional exercise by this Court in any event. To permit such a claim by the person committing the act, as well as his parents, presents an a fortiori situation which would, as suggested above, give birth to a legal morass through which broadcasting would have difficulty finding its way” (17).

As articulate as they are on causation and the First Amendment, none of these decisions recognize the inherent opacity of the enterprise itself. Expanding on the concept of the “naturalistic fallacy,” it is not possible to derive the conclusion:

{John McCollum ought not to have killed himself}

from the premise:

{John McCollum spent the day listening to Ozzy Osbourne records}.

Put differently, the Los Angeles Times reviewed Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ as the most violent movie ever made (18). Yet, it seems unlikely that it will precipitate a wave of copy-cat crucifixions. And, to keep this issue in perspective, isn’t persuasion the objective of “advertising” in any media? – i.e., the derivation of the conclusion “you ought to buy this” from the predicate facts “it has attributes a, b and c.”


1. Hilburn, R. & Crowe, J., “Rapper Tupac Shakur, 25, Dies 6 Days After Ambush; Crime: Artist known for songs of violence and regrets had been in critical condition since Las Vegas shooting,” Los Angeles Times (Sep. 14, 1996).

2. Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica 10 (1903).

3. Searle, J. R., “How to Derive ‘Ought’ from ‘Is,’” 73 Philosophical Review 43 (1964), reprinted in Foot, P. (ed.), Theories of Ethics 101 (1967).

4. Boehm, M., “Unstable Reactions Our Fault, Not Artist’s – The ways that one is affected by art depend on the individual. Rock musicians like Ozzy Osbourne are no more responsible than Goethe or Shakespeare for ‘encouraging’ suicides,” Los Angeles Times (Oct. 4, 1990).

5. Jensen, E. & Graham, E., “Stamping Out TV Violence: A Losing Fight,” Wall St. J. (Oct. 26, 1993).

6. Ibid.

7. “Suit Charges Lyrics Pushed Teen to Suicide,” Los Angeles Times (Jan. 14, 1986); McDougal, D., “Osbourne Denounces Suit in Teen-Ager’s Suicide,” Los Angeles Times (Jan. 22, 1986). In 1990, Osbourne was sued again in Georgia by bereaved parents who alleged that their sons had killed themselves because of subliminal messages found in the same song. Philips, C., “Another Day in Court for Rock Music Law: Just weeks after the Judas Priest case, Ozzy Osbourne faces similar suits over subliminal message,” Los Angeles Times (Oct. 4, 1990).

8, Philips, C., “The Music Didn’t Make Them Do It,” Los Angeles Times (Aug. 25, 1990); Marcus, A. D. & Hayes, A. S., “CBS Is Found Blameless in Music Suicides,” Wall St. J.(Aug. 27, 1990). The ruling was affirmed on appeal, Vance v. Judas Priest, 1990 WL 130920 (Nev. Dist. Ct.).

9. Philips, C., “Texas Death Renews Debate over Violent Rap Lyrics,” Los Angeles Times (Sep. 17, 1992); Reibman, G., “Suit Ties Cop’s Murder To Time Warner Rap Act,” Billboard (Sep. 19, 1992); Philips, C., “Testing the Limits,” Los Angeles Times (Oct. 13, 1992).

10. Braxton, G., “Tragedy In Colorado – TV Execs Quickly Shelve Offensive Shows – Entertainment – Violent episodes are pulled, and video retailers are asked to return ‘The Basketball Diaries.’ Marilyn Manson concert also is canceled,” Los Angeles Times (Apr. 23, 1999).

11. Zamora v. CBS, 480 Fed.Supp. 199 (1979).

12. Walt Disney Productions, Inc. v. Shannon, 276 S.E.2d 580 (1981).

13. Olivia N. v. NBC, 178 Cal.Rptr. 888 (1981).

14. DeFilippo v. NBC, 446 A.2d 1036 (1982).

15. For an overview, see Smith, C. R. “violence & media,” (2006).

16. Vance v. Judas Priest, fn. 12 at p. 11.

17. Zamora, op. cit., 480 Fed.Supp. 206.

18. Turan, K., “A Narrow Vision and Staggering Violence,” Los Angeles Times (Feb. 24, 2004).

19. Although it enjoys somewhat less First Amendment protection from governmental encroachment than other types of speech, advertising is protected under the First Amendment, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York, 447 U.S. 557 (1979).