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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Prescriptive Songs

There is an interesting thing I’ve noticed recently about certain types of songs, which I’ll call ‘prescriptive songs’. These are songs which the character singing is giving advice or instruction to another. Three examples I thought of are: “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack, “Forever Young” as sung by Rod Stewart, and “Just the Two of Us” as rapped by Will Smith.

In all three of these songs, the singer is giving advice for living and hopes for a good life apparently to a young child, usually their own. I analyzed the lyrics of each of these songs line by line, and identified three different types of statements:

(1) Ethical Prescriptives: These are instructions on how a child should behave, and are of an ethical nature. They deal with matters of morality, virtue, ethics, honor, integrity, kindness, and so on.

(2) Non-Ethical Prescriptives: These are instructions on how the child should act, behave, or carry out life, but they are not ethical. This means they may simply be meant as good advice, or strategic manners of living.

(3) Hopes for good fortune: These are simply lines which express hopes for good fortune for the child, usually in the form of access to opportunity, health, good relationships, or material wellbeing.

There were a number of other lines which were either continuations of the same concept, repeats, or irrelevant to any of these, which I ignored. Here is how the three songs broke down...

I Hope You Dance
Ethical prescriptives: 19%
Non-ethical prescriptives: 62%
Good fortune: 19%

Forever Young
Ethical prescriptives: 67%
Non-ethical prescriptives: 0%
Good fortune: 33%

Just the Two of Us
Ethical prescriptives: 67%
Non-ethical prescriptives: 11%
Good fortune: 22%

There are a few interesting things I found as I looked over these songs and compared them. First, I can’t help but think that the various percentages reflect the time, subculture, and artists personality and beliefs from which they sprang. Surely, none of these artists analyzed the percentage of each type of statement, but it seems likely that they would tend to dwell on proportionate areas according to their inclinations.

But most importantly, I noticed something philosophically significant about what all of these songs were doing. Here we have three examples of a litany of ethical prescriptives. To name a very few, these include things like:

Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance.
Do unto others as you’d have done to you.
Always tell the truth.

Yet, the tone of all of these songs is not one of admonition, warning, condemnation, or seeking to impose control over the child. In all of these examples, the tone is one of seeking to deliver to the child that which will ensure prosperity and happiness in life. Most people don’t seem to understand that ethical prescriptives are not restrictions, but rather go hand in hand with happiness. Considering that most people don’t know this, the fact that these ethically prescriptive-laden songs are delivered in the tone of help rather than imposition of rules is really quite profound. It may be fitting to draw attention to these sorts of songs, and their loving, caring motivation, when attempting to explain to young people what ethics are all about.


  1. How many ethical-prescriptives does "Achy Breaky Heart" contain?

  2. Um, after checking it out, zero.

  3. I am wondering if the ethical and non-ethical prescriptives are essentially overlaps of the same concept. Acting ethically and morally lead to a more effective life in all phases. The opposite is also demostratively true. In fact, I submit that it is life effectiveness which is the standard by which ethics is measured. In this sense, ethics really are natural laws that must be followed to lead an effective life. The extent to which you are aligned with natural, ethical laws is the extent to which you are strategically effective in life.

    For example, if telling the truth is an ethical prescriptive, then I would argue that the reason you want to be truthful is to be worthy of trust and be more effective with people. So it is both an ethical prescriptive and an effectiveness strategy.

    This is the crux of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is a moral framework and a effectiveness framework. To me, both are inseparable.

  4. Hi Jim - Thanks for the comments :)

    I think you are quite right. Until I noticed your name, I thought for sure you were one of my penpals (keyboardpals?) from the International Stoic Forum.

    What you describe is a huge part of the Stoic philosophy perspective on ethics. I was intrigued when a user on the list said, "in reality, every decision is an ethical decision".

    When you say, "the extent to which you are aligned with natural, ethical laws is the extent to which you are effective in life" this is almost ver batum from the Stoic playbook which tells us that the aim is to 'walk in accordance with Nature' (with perhaps some room to quibble over whether it is 'effectiveness' or rather a contented life 'eudaimonia' which is the ultimate aim here - two mile markers on the same road).

    I haven't read 7 Habits myself, but it sounds like it borrows heavily from Stoic philosophy.

  5. The 7 Habits really is a collection of wisdom literature that pulls from many traditions, some religious, but more to do with what makes people effective in life. I call similar works "Effectiveness, Success and Excllence" education. In that way, it is more an empirical study of "social technology" that has co-evolved as humans moved past tribal groups to larger social groups.

  6. An excellent way to look at it :)