When does overhearing become eavesdropping?
Which of your neighbors' noises must you tolerate?
Should joggers be permitted to listen to headphones?
Are some news stories better told than shown?
Why did Plato want to ban the major scale?
What constitutes "musical torture" of prisoners?
What does it mean for a voice on the phone to "sound gay" or "sound black"?
Why is the moral conscience thought of as a "voice inside the head" and not a "picture in the mind's eye"?
Do people who talk to themselves have greater self-control?
How can we hear another's pain?
Is seeing--"enlightenment"--the best model for moral understanding?
Why are there visionaries but no listenaries?
Is music a language? If so, can it lie?
Could a computer compose a tune that makes you cry?
Is hearing active or passive?
Who wants to silence women singers in Iran?
Why was St. Augustine worried that he liked music too much?
Was Schopenhauer right that music is our best hope for liberation?
Does God have a native tongue?
These and other questions are the province of The Ethical Ear, a new space dedicated to the moral analysis of the soundscape. A soundscape is an aural environment we inhabit, experience, and create, the heard manifold of the home, the street, the subway car, the concert hall, the classroom, the battlefield, the sanctuary, or the ear buds.
The kingdom of academic moral philosophy has tended to subdivide itself into two phyla. Metaethics is preoccupied by questions of the form, What are we really talking about here? What is the nature, meaning, and justification of moral claims? So-called normative ethics is more concerned with questions like, What are we to do about it? The relatively new sub-fields of normative "applied ethics" are carved along topical joints, giving us environmental ethics, biomedical ethics, business ethics, computer ethics, sexual ethics, et cetera ethics.
At The Ethical Ear, I will instead cut across these territories in a way that hasn't been attempted before--by way of one of the senses. I will be doing the meta-, normative, and applied morality of the auditory. Therein, the question will be, How does it strike the ear? A leitmotif of The Ethical Ear will be that sound, hearing, and voice are not peripheral to morality, but rather are central to notions of the self, its agency, its responsibility, and its relation to others.
Here, for instance, is one suggestive line in thought. Perhaps no feature of our mental lives is as obvious, and as unnoticed, as the inner monologue in which we rehearse difficult conversations, reflect on past choices, and literally tell ourselves what to think. The psychologist Alain Morin argues that this inner voice--which is somehow "heard" though it makes no sound--comes to us developmentally by way of outer voices: those of others, and of ourselves. The inner voice shares the natural language or languages we have acquired. It even gets tripped up by tongue twisters just where our tongues would if speaking them aloud (bizarre but true--try it yourself!).
Inner speech may also be integral to the sense of self. Stroke victims who suffer a temporary loss of inner speech report losing with it their sense of self and hence moral responsibility. And the present best explanation of some schizophrenics' tormenting experience of hearing voices is that they are experiencing their inner voice but failing to attribute it to their will, something non-schizohrenics normally do unthinkingly.
And why should we have a self at all, a first-personal narrator of our lives? Evolutionarily, the answer must surely be that we had to respond to demands and offers in the second-personal mode. If a member of an ultra-social species is to get by, it must be able to answer, genuinely, Me! to Who goes there? Who's gonna make me? and Says who? The first rule of making trustworthy promises and credible threats is to remember who you are. Hypothesis: We are moral beings because we have selves, we have selves because we can hear ourselves think, and we can hear ourselves think because others had to hear us think out loud. It could be that the moral self had to be heard to be believed.
I hope you will join me for adventures in the philoso-phonic, along with stories from my project on banned music from around the world, The Impossible Music Sessions.
Let me take you by the ear.