At times the reviewer of audible art will be forgiven for being brought to his or her knees by a sublime musical performance: Handle’s “Messiah,” Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
Yet it is the third that comes under attack as Top 40 mush, even when close observation shows that besides mass appeal, the song is part love song and part effective tirade again utilitarian ethics.
The song begins with a young man professing his love to his first love, and his first love then saying that she is in love with someone else.
“You know you love me,I know you care/ Just shout whenever, And I’ll be there/ You want my love, You want my heart/ And we will never ever ever be apart/ Are we an item? Girl quit playing/ We’re just friends, What are you saying?/ Said theres another, Look right in my eyes/ My first love broke my heart for the first time”
Had Bieber been a utilitarian, he would’ve undoubtably seen that his girlfriend was in the right to abandon him. Clearly she is not happy, and her being with another man would make her happy, and that in turn would make the other man happy. Therefore, two people would be happy and one person would be unhappy.
Now utilitarianism, according to its most popular espousal by John Stuart Mill, says that the morally right thing to do is to provide the greater good for the most people, so that each person counts as one. As two people would be happy and one person unhappy, the moral rightness rests with the new couple, and Bieber would be left outside, sacrificed to utilitarian ideals.
This is something that Bieber existentially rejects. From the perspective of the marginalized lover, his cries against injustice go unheeded. To find an understanding of the world that makes sense out of his hurt in the matter, he must turn away from the cold hedonic calculus of utilitarianism and seek out the warmth of objective ideals of justice. He must seek a Kantian, nay, Platonic, deontological set of principles.
Deontology says that there are principals established for all times for all peoples that should never be broken, even if the majority of the people would be happy with breaking them.
Hence the repetition of the words “Baby, baby, baby oh” exactly 14,000 times. He is using a term of affection for the lost lover while at the same time calling for that time of childhood (“baby”) innocence and moral goodness that can become calloused through utilitarian calculations. He is harkening back to a time before society embroiled moral law with earthly considerations and made it contingent on anthropology.
In short, Bieber is calling for a return to a prior moral reasoning, when girls who were skanks betraying their boyfriends could be called out as unethical.
The final line in the chorus crystalizes the disillusionment with utilitarianism and the search for the eternality of love.
“I thought you would always be mine,” Bieber sings.
To some it might seem doubtful that Bieber intended all of this from the beginning, that perhaps the same principles apply to any song lamenting the loss of a loved one. Yet we shouldn’t underestimate Bieber. As one who has shown initiative and dedication in an early career, it is possible that he too, between dance practices and vocal lessons, has been reading the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre and Bernard Williams, who have long decimated serious arguments in favor of utilitarianism. We may have much to learn watching the young Bieber has he continues his thought provoking and delightful singing career.