Friday, October 8, 2010

Knowledge and Morality

Today I was thinking back to when I was in elementary school and we had our seasonal "Sock Hops." They were always a lot of fun, and music was played from all decades that we enjoyed making fools of ourselves dancing to. One of the songs that stands out the most to me is The Four Seasons hit, "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." It never dawned on me as a child, but now that I'm a grown adult, I have to chuckle a bit and shake my head about the fact that this particular song was being played in front of a bunch of eight to eleven year-olds.

The song isn't explicit, but who in their right mind would knowingly play a song that is about a young man who loses his virginity to a prostitute to a group of grade school children? Now, I should say right off the bat that we should give our DJ the benefit of the doubt in this case. He probably had no idea what the song was really about (we certainly didn't), and it's my impression that the vast majority of adult listeners don't even know. The song was most likely played because it is upbeat and easy to dance to.

Imagine now a hypothetical situation in which the DJ knows exactly what the song is about, but chooses to play it anyway. His motives aren't necessarily sinister, but he decides to play it because he happens to like the tune and thinks everyone else will, too. This may not be the most grave moral situation ever, but is it appropriate for him to play it? He knows what the song is about, but he also knows that none of the children know. To make matters more complicated, suppose he would not be willing to play it if he thought it likely that even one of the children knew the meaning.

It is obvious (to me, at any rate), that the DJ is taking an unwarranted risk. "When in doubt, throw it out," seems especially appropriate in this context. Elementary school children know a lot about adult content, no matter how much parents would like to pretend otherwise. If there is even a significant chance that just one of the children knows the meaning of the song, then he or she is likely to tell his/her friends as the song is playing. It seems to me, then, that knowledge of something increases the force of a moral imperative, motives notwithstanding. Therefore, the DJ should not play a song that may have a negative influence on his young audience.

Of course, as I mentioned before, I seriously doubt anyone knew the meaning of this song at the time.


  1. the principle 'if in doubt, throw it out' is a bit too sweeping if we construe doubt as uncertainty that p is true, or ambigious feelings towards the truth of p or if p is the best choice to make, etc.

    Sometimes I find myself stumped on what path to choose given my options. One these cases, all known paths have their good parts, bad parts and risks. I have mixed feelings or 'doubts' about each of them, and yet if I threw them out because of these doubts, then I'd have no paths (or none that i would know of)!

    Life is hardly charitable enough to allow for such a rule.

  2. Yeah, I agree. I didn't mean to advance "when in doubt, throw it out" as a universal moral principle. I just think it's appropriate in this case.