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Ask an Ethicist: Should I lower the volume of my music if a neighbor asks?

"Turn that music down!" is something many of us have heard from a neighbor or family member. In today's column, the ethicist takes a look at this predicament and offers some guidance on how to respond.

This article originally appeared on Penn State News.

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, Ask the Ethicist, aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website

Question: I like to play music in my apartment with the volume up. My neighbor complains that it is too loud and asks me to turn it down, but Don ThompsonI don't think it is fair to have to do that. I bought a high-quality sound system in order to have good sound reproduction at high volume. He likes it quiet, but I like it loud. How should this problem be resolved?

The ethicist responds: It would seem that neither of you can have his or her preference without compromising the enjoyment of the other. There may be local noise ordinances or apartment rules in the lease that could be invoked, and if they were unambiguous enough, they would provide legal resolutions to the problem. However, if there were no ordinance or lease restriction, one would be legally free to play music at whatever volume was desired. But that would still leave an ethical problem to be resolved.

An ethical issue arises when the question of what personal behavior is appropriate arises. Assuming this situation cannot be resolved legally, it might be resolved according to some normative ethical framework. Often three approaches are considered: 

  • What would be considered virtuous behavior?
  • What obligations or rights might be invoked?
  • How does benefit and harm accrue to everyone involved? 

The third approach, judging the value of the consequences of the action, may be the most common. The benefit to you is enjoyment of the music; the harm to the neighbor may be the disruption of some activity. There is a principle of justice involved in this situation, as the benefit and the harm are not equally distributed.

Additionally, you may feel that in a "free society" you have the right to do anything not explicitly prohibited by law. Your neighbor may feel that he or she has the right to a reasonable level of quiet. A classical limitation on a right is consideration of whether an action does harm to another. In this situation, some things worth considering would be:

  • Is the neighbor harmed by your action? 
  • What is the background noise level and what effect does your music have against this background? 
  • What time of day is it? (i.e., Keeping a neighbor awake late at night might lead to a greater harm than that keeping a neighbor up in the evening.)

Lastly, one could also consider whether an action would be considered virtuous (virtue) or vicious (vice). A virtuous act would be according to the nature of the person performing it. This evaluation would be in the context of what is accepted as appropriate behavior in a civil society, which could mean conforming to established rules of etiquette. Although some would argue that all rules of etiquette are culturally arbitrary, it would be good to ask whether there might be some justification on the basis of consideration for others, beyond simply showing respect for their rules of etiquette.   

None of the approaches above is likely to resolve the problem to the satisfaction of both parties without considering the value of loud music against the value of peace and quiet. You may feel that loud music is important to you, that some music can only be appreciated when it is loud, and your neighbor may feel that peace and quiet is important to him or her.

The problem occurs when the action causes a situation in which one person's values are prioritized above another's by the action of playing loud music. In most circumstances it would be considered unreasonable for the neighbor to demand perfect quiet. However, if the neighbor is engaged in legitimate projects that are compromised by the loudness of the music — perhaps studying for an exam, or listening to music quietly, or even trying to have a dinner conversation — then the issue is one of competing "projects."

Although none of these approaches provides a definitive answer to the initial question posed, thinking about these various approaches might lead the poser of the question to a more considered and thoughtful answer. I suggest that the player of loud music has a duty to show personal consideration to the person who is affected by the sound. We have an obligation to consider the effect of our actions when they have an impact on the sensory experience of others. That duty exists prior to the complaint of the neighbor, but it is magnified by the complaint. Precisely what that obligation is in practice is difficult to know, as it depends on the specific context. But, at the minimum, the player of the music has an obligation to be open to the expression of concern on the part of the neighbor.

To learn more about moral literacy and making ethical decisions, take a moment to go through the Rock Ethics Institute’s free open online courses. They offer a variety of tools that give you a better understanding of the normative ethical framework and ethical decision-making tools.

Don Thompson is a professor emeritus of food science and a senior fellow at the Rock Ethics Institute. His recent work involves ethical questions concerning the design, interpretation and communication of research about food and health, and questions concerning the use of this research in marketing of food for health. 

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