Ethics of Yesterday

I am very much looking forward to seeing the movie Yesterday soon, as I am a huge Beatles fan and am quite a geek about Beatles trivia. The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh asked a bunch of us philosophers about the ethics of the events depicted in the movie. I personally do not like the “three views of ethics, utilitarianism, Kantian, and virtue ethics” ways of framing all debates about morality, especially in the press, so I tried to do something different in my response to Ben. His finished article is here. My response to him is in full below.

Philosophers are used to evaluating the morality of some of the most fanciful hypothetical situations, but one of the biggest challenges for ethics in Yesterday is that the potential victims of Jack don’t occupy the world in which he inhabits, but rather occupy an alternative world that only Jack seems to know about. And even then, it isn’t as though Jack victimizes the Beatles in that world, because they’re still super famous and successful there. So in Jack’s new universe, he isn’t victimizing John, Paul, George, or Ringo of that world, because none of them actualized their potential and became the Beatles, and from that new universe, he isn’t victimizing any of the Beatles within the old universe. So from the perspective of any realistic moral perspective, Jack is morally in the clear? So what could possibly be rational behind the guilt, because I think Jack is onto something in thinking something ethically fishy is going on with him capitalizing on the success of other’s work in an alternative universe.

The closest answer I think you’ll find in the history of philosophy is in Hegel. Hegel justified the existence of property rights with the idea that the things we deem rightfully our property are so because they are in some sense manifestations, extensions, or direct products of our personality. Our personality is whatever the set of interest, talents, character traits, or creations that flow from who we are as a unique person. Martha My Dear is the song it is because it is an expression of Paul’s particular emotions toward his sheep dog, no one had the unique experience that generated the unique song Julia but John, who connected both the loss of his mother and the new love of his life Yoko in a single lament. It is because of the connection between personality and the art that person’s create that we seem to have the very modern concept of intellectual property and feel so strongly about theft of intellectual property in the west.

The other alternative view of property you want to consider is Locke’s famous “mixture” theory, or the view that when a person mixes their own labor with something in nature, the result is the property of the person whose labor is mixed in. There are extensions of this in Marx in the 19th century. Jack may be feeling that the actual tunes themselves, the abstract set of musical notes and lyrics that constitute the ouvre of the Beatles, are simply not the result of any of his labor, and therefore for both Hegelian and Lockean reasons, he holds no moral property rights to the music he is benefiting from.

What makes the movie interesting, morally and aesthetically, is that neither the Hegelian nor the Lockean moral claims are straightforward in a world where Jack occupies a different possible world from the world where the Beatles actually are successful, and remembered, and not some foursome of regular Liverpudlian joes. To my knowledge, philosopher’s can’t really make sense of the claim that your doing something in this world which violates the moral rights of someone in an alternative world makes your act wrong. In fact, its easy to see the absurdity of this claim. In an alternative world in which my wife weren’t my wife, but my mistress, and in that world I was actually married to a woman named Jana, it would be a harm to Jana if I had sex with my wife IN THE ALTERNATIVE WORLD, but it would be absurd to say that my having sex with my wife in this world is a harm to Jana either here in this world or in the alternative world! Jana neither knows me here nor cares who I sleep with, and Jana in the alternative world only cares if I sleep with someone else in that world!

As I see it, the central moral quandary in Yesterday is that Jack is right about HALF of the moral problem; the songs he is profiting from are not manifestations of his personality, nor his labor. But it is also not the case that they are the manifestation of someone else’s personality and someone else’s labor in the world in which Jack is living. Rather, they are the manifestation of John, Paul, and George’s personality and labor (I’m assuming he doesn’t cover any Ringo songs, because, well, they wouldn’t be hits in my opinion) IN AN ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE, it just so happens that Jack is FROM the alternative universe and no one else seems to remember it.

So in many ways, Jack is a lot more like a time-traveling inventor, or an alternative-universe slider, someone who is in a unique position to KNOW about certain things, and then exploits that knowledge for his own gain in a way that does not victimize, but in fact benefits everyone in the world in which Jack inhabits. And we the audience know that the rightful owners of the property to which Jack benefits belong in another alternative universe, so we can fault Jack, but good that Jack is providing in his own universe at NO COST WHATSOEVER to anyone else within that universe gives a compelling utilitarian argument (Bentham, John Stuart Mill) that Jack is doing nothing wrong whatsoever.

Finally, I’d call attention to something that is still a hypothetical, but in fact very realistic. The story behind the actual song Yesterday that Paul wrote is a lot closer to how Jack profited from Yesterday than, for instance, songs like A Day in the Life, or Julia. Paul woke up from a dream with the tune,  but not the lyrics, in his mind, and asked everyone in the Asher house, where he was living at the time, where the song was from because it was so familiar and beautiful. Only after he was convinced that it wasn’t someone else’s song that he put his own lyrics to it and recorded it as what is now the most covered pop song in history.

Yesterday is most certainly Paul’s song, notwithstanding Yoko’s refusal to grant Paul full publishing rights to it. Everyone who was there and who knows the history acknowledges this. But does Yesterday count as flowing from Paul’s unique personality, or his labor? In fact, I would argue that Paul’s encountering of the tune to Yesterday counts closer to how Jack remembers Yesterday in the film than, say, Paul’s writing of Hey Jude. It was very little labor (that’s the gift of genius isn’t it? You do something with almost no effort, it just comes to you in a dream), and about as much personality as any other thing that may occur to us in a dream.

In fact, you can take it an easy step further with a little philosophical thought experiment. There is an alternative universe in which the theme to Yesterday originally came from Peter Asher, Paul’s flatmate at the time, who happened to bang something close to those chords, by SHEER ACCIDENT the night before as Peter was trying play a different tune (assume that Peter is a horrible musician, and it was all just a mistake). Paul dreams the tune, plays it the next day, no one including Peter recognizes it as anything other than an original song that Paul must have been lucky enough to dream up, and the rest is history as WE remember it today. I think this scenario is closer to Jack’s that we would like to think. Hegel, Locke, Mill, etc. all have theories of property that make intuitive sense in ordinary cases that don’t involve alternative-universe sliding or time travel, but they also expose some rather stark deficits in how we normally think about credit, praise, and rights when it comes to artistic work once we build in even the simplest of sci-fi scenarios, even ones that are realistic.

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