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Carry That Weight?

‘Yesterday’ imagines a world where just one person remembers the Beatles’ catalog and passes it off as his own. Does the joy those songs bring outweigh the moral issues of the lie?

Universal Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Yesterday, the Beatles-suffused film directed by Danny Boyle and released last week, is a mediocre rom-com wrapped around a remarkable premise: What if only one person remembered the biggest band of all time?

Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis are more interested in answering familiar movie questions—will the girl get the guy (and vice versa), will protagonist Jack (Himesh Patel) find fulfillment, will Ed Sheeran come to terms with not being the best songwriter ever?—than wrestling with the ones most viewers will walk away pondering. How did almost everyone in the world forget about the Beatles? Would an alternate reality without the Beatles (and Oasis!) really be so similar to our own? Would the debut of the Beatles’ music actually cause the same sensation in 2019 that it did in the 1960s?

One question the movie does deal with is whether Jack should feel bad about passing off the Beatles’ compositions as his own. The story seems to take it for granted that he’s doing something wrong. As the unknown singer/songwriter rides the Beatles’ songs to stardom, he’s increasingly tempted to come clean, lamenting, “There’s money and success coming, but I feel like I’ve become the definition of living a lie.”

Desperate to unburden himself, Jack finally confesses to a capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium—which seems overjoyed that he’s crashed the Sheeran concert they paid to attend—that the songs he’d claimed to have written are really by John, Paul, George, and (somewhat generously) Ringo, the members of a band called the Beatles. The crowd boos a bit but then applauds deliriously when he announces that he’s gone against his label and released the songs for free. After the concert, his love interest, Ellie (Lily James), tells him he’s been bad but forgives him immediately.

Although Jack’s guilty conscience seems to make the virtuous course clear, the ethics of his situation are far from straightforward. Is it truly wrong of Jack to say he wrote the songs if he’s not taking credit away from anyone who exists in his universe? (The members of the band are part of Jack’s new world, but they never became the Beatles and they never wrote the songs.) Doesn’t the good he’s doing by sharing so much music count for something, even if he’s acting out of self-interest? Might it not be better to let listeners believe that he did write the songs, given that the world seems to be charmed by his humble origins and considering that the truth could come at great cost to himself (because most people would think he’s lying or delusional) and to others (because anyone who did believe his story would probably be distressed by its existential implications)? Plus, wouldn’t it be reasonable for Jack to conclude that he did somehow summon the songs from his mind fully formed and merely imagined the Beatles? After all, Paul McCartney did dream “Yesterday.”

To untangle this ethical quandary, I surveyed several expert ethicists and moral philosophers, none of whom had seen the movie but all of whom were apprised of its premise. We asked these real-life equivalents of Chidi from The Good Place to weigh in on what they thought the most ethical behavior would be in Jack’s place, as well as what they thought the recommended course would be according to various philosophical traditions. As it turns out, moral philosophers really like discussing the premise of Yesterday. So as University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Louise Antony, one of our respondents, says, “Let [us] do what philosophers do and take a fun premise and think it to death.”

To decide how Jack should act in the scenario he encounters at the beginning of Yesterday, we need some framework through which to assess the morality of the various options available to him. Fortunately, philosophers have spent thousands of years developing ways of classifying ethical and unethical choices. Unbeknownst to those great thinkers, all of their efforts have been building up to tackling the Yesterday dilemma, the defining hypothetical quandary of our time.

As Neal Tognazzini, an associate professor of philosophy at Western Washington University who judges beer taste in addition to right and wrong, says, “When it comes to ethical decision-making, philosophers tend to think in terms of these three questions:

  1. What would be the good/bad consequences of my doing this?
  2. What duties or responsibilities do I have to others that might be violated if I do this?
  3. Is doing this consistent with the sort of person I should strive to be?”

Those three questions roughly align with what Muskingum University philosophy professor Todd Lekan characterizes as the “three major branches of moral theory”: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Most of the philosophers I canvassed via email summarized what wisdom each of those schools of thought would offer a person in Jack’s position.

The best-known strain of consequentialism is utilitarianism, a philosophy most closely associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Benjamin Chan, an assistant professor of philosophy at St. Norbert College, explains that utilitarianism “counsels us that the most ethical course of action is whatever best promotes utility (roughly speaking, the happiness of all).” From the utilitarian perspective, the outcome of Jack’s actions is all we need to know to determine whether he behaved in the most moral way.

Of course, the net happiness produced by an action isn’t easy to calculate after the fact, and it’s even harder to forecast. In this case, though, we’re dealing with such a widely beloved commodity—Beatles songs—that we can say with some confidence that his actions are ethical up to a point. “It’s a tricky business to weigh up things like pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, love and heartbreak, but if you hold the view that the consequences are really what matters at the end of the day, then I think there’s a pretty strong case that not only is Jack morally in the clear for playing the songs, but that perhaps he was morally required to play those songs,” says Tognazzini, who speaks from experience; the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” he notes, was “an enormous comfort” to him as a teenager, when his parents’ marriage was going through a rough patch.

From a consequentialist standpoint, then, Jack is ethically in the clear when it comes to releasing the songs. But the act of sharing the songs wasn’t what bothered him. The thing that gave him nightmares and ultimately incited his soul-baring moment at Wembley was how he’d shared the songs: allowing others to assume—and even encouraging the belief—that he had written them himself.

Colgate philosophy professor Ben Lennertz says that the benefits of Jack’s somewhat self-centered actions probably still outstrip the drawbacks according to the consequentialist view. “In the Yesterday case, it seems unclear whether coming clean would, overall, have good consequences—it would relieve Jack’s guilt and might make the Beatles get various benefits—or bad consequences (it might lead people to take the music less seriously or make them doubt the nature of reality),” Lennertz says. “It’s hard to figure out how to weigh these, though I suspect the risk of unseating many people’s senses of stable reality (and possibly doing so falsely) might be such a bad that, even if the probability of it occurring were low, it would still be best for him not to come clean about it.” (Philosopher Saul Smilansky says something similar about free will: Free will doesn’t exist, but it’s better that people not know that, because they might lose their sense of self-worth.)

Clemson professor Todd May, who knows his way around a far-fetched philosophical what-if—he’s served as a consultant to The Good Place—agrees, giving Jack the consequentialist OK. In the consequentialist tradition, he says, “It is probably better not to say anything, since the world has gained some good entertainment and revealing the information would likely cause more problems than it solves.”

Consequentially speaking, Jack did nothing wrong by releasing the songs as his own works, even if he was motivated mostly by a desire for fame and fortune. The world is a happier place than it was without the Beatles’ songs, and it’s arguably a happier place than it would have been had he been honest about the songs’ origins from the start. So why does he still feel like he’s doing something wrong?

The deontological, or rule-based, perspective has something to say on this subject. In contrast to consequentialism, deontology, Lekan says, “holds that some actions are just right or wrong, period.” The classic formulation of this philosophy expressed by Immanuel Kant, Lekan continues, says that “you should only act on actions that you could will to be universal laws and you should respect rational beings as having inherent value.” Thus, lying is always wrong, because it violates the categorical imperative; generally, we don’t want others to lie to us as a means of achieving some end.

Kant was famously inflexible on this point, going so far as to forbid a hypothetical person from lying to a murderer about the whereabouts of their friend, even if it would save the friend from becoming the murderer’s next victim. Chan says most Kantians would agree that actions must pass a “publicity test” to be ethically kosher. “If I can’t make my purpose known without undermining the effectiveness of my action, then my action is unethical,” Chan says. In the friend-saving scenario, the friend can’t publicize his purpose without alerting the murderer to the deception, thereby rendering the lie ineffective. And in Jack’s case, announcing that he’s covering up the songs’ actual authors to enhance his own reputation as a songwriter would rob him of credit for writing the songs. Therefore, Chan continues, “Publicizing his motives would seem to undermine the success of his actions, which implies that Jack’s actions are unethical, according to Kant.”

Now, most of us aren’t strict Kantians; provided we weren’t placing ourselves in harm’s way, we would probably lie to the murderer without feeling bad about it. Straight-up plagiarism, though, is an obvious no-no: We wouldn’t want others to use us as a means to an end by taking credit for our work. For that reason, Lennertz thinks Jack should reveal the songs’ authorship, albeit with one difficult condition. “It seems to me that the members of the Beatles are the same people as before (albeit with strange memory gaps) and that they deserve the credit for what they have done,” Lennertz says. “But I do think he would also be required to try to make good on this in a way that avoids any chaos caused by revealing the strange rift in the structure of their world.”

As Lennertz acknowledges, though, the idea that Jack is wronging the Beatles “is super fraught because whether you have stolen from them (and thus treated them merely as a means) depends on … whether they are the same people as before the incident,” Lennertz says. The philosopher John Locke’s “memory theory of personal identity” says that a continuity of consciousness and memory is essential to establishing personhood. Because the John, Paul, George, and Ringo in Jack’s new reality are unaware that they (or their discrete counterparts in another place and/or time) ever banded together as the Beatles, Lennertz allows that according to Locke, “they wouldn’t count as the same people as the authors of those songs.”

Antony takes that contention further. As she observes, it doesn’t seem to be the case that the people populating the world of Yesterday are suffering from selective amnesia. In this world, the events Jack remembers actually haven’t happened. As best we can tell, Jack has what Antony terms “‘trans-modal memory,” meaning that “he remembers things that happened earlier but in a different possible world.” As Antony notes, we can imagine a possible world in which, say, Thomas Edison discovered radium in 1877. That doesn’t diminish what Marie Curie accomplished in our world by discovering radium in 1898, and it doesn’t mean she wronged Edison because he could have discovered it. In this world, he didn’t, and what he might have done doesn’t matter. For that reason, she says, “I don’t see that Jack, in this circumstance, has committed a wrong against John, Paul, George, and Ringo.”

However, that doesn’t mean that Jack is off the ethical hook. Even if he isn’t hurting the not-so–Fab Four in either reality, he’s still deceiving the audience, which he finds out for sure when two other Beatles truthers approach him near the end of the film, demonstrating beyond any doubt that he’s not a mad genius who spontaneously conceived the songs. “Insofar as he allows people to believe that he composed these songs, he is perpetrating a fraud,” Antony says, adding, “It’s just as if he had discovered the scores in some ancient piece of pottery, transcribed them, and claimed them to be his own compositions.” Deontologically speaking, that’s out of bounds.

That takes us to the third philosophical school of thought, virtue ethics, which isn’t quite as clear-cut as the previous two. Virtue ethics, Lekan says, contends that “the locus of moral evaluation should not be actions but rather persons. The question ‘Who should I be?’ is more important and fundamental than ‘What should I do?’” As Lekan notes, one complication of virtue ethics is that different traditions—Christianity, Confucianism, Aristotelianism, and so on—advance different definitions of living a good life. We don’t know which set of values Jack tries to adhere to, but Lekan concludes that “most virtue ethics traditions would condemn Jack’s deception on the grounds that we should aspire to be the sorts of people who don’t lie for personal gain.”

In other words, Jack has grounds to feel bad about how he’s behaving even if he’s not slighting any actual composers or, for instance, using his fame to manipulate Ellie, who loved him long before he enjoyed any musical success. As Barry Lam, an associate professor of philosophy at Vassar and the host of Slate’s Hi-Phi Nation podcast, says, Jack could feel pressure to come clean because he’s defying the definitions of intellectual property espoused by Georg Hegel and Locke.

“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,” Lam says. Hegel, Lam observes, would say that the Beatles song “Martha My Dear” is the song it is because of a unique person, Paul McCartney, and his feelings about his English sheepdog. That connection between personality and art explains why we “feel so strongly about the theft of intellectual property.” Similarly, Locke argued, Lam says, 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.” When Jack is asked to explain how he “wrote” certain songs, all he can do is regurgitate the Beatles’ reasons for writing them. Thus, Lam says, 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.”

In essence, Jack is selling out. And as Tognazzini notes, “We tend to dislike sellouts, not because selling out has bad consequences, and not necessarily because selling out is a violation of any duties, but instead because it just seems unworthy of admiration. Someone is giving up on their dreams, or wasting their talents, for the sake of some ultimately unsatisfying, meaningless, worldly goal.” When he’s playing cover versions of Beatles songs to massive crowds, Jack isn’t trying to develop his talents and character as he was when he was playing his less memorable but more original “Summer Song” to empty rooms.

Most of the philosophers who expressed an opinion declared that the most ethical course is close to the one Jack ultimately adopts. Tognazzini says he’d seek out John, Paul, George, and Ringo, try to convince them to form a band, and then teach them all of the Beatles’ songs. If that failed, he’d release the songs himself but credit them to an anonymous author and tell journalists he’d come across the sheet music and been unable to trace its source. Antony, Lennertz, and Lekan, and University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson roughly concur, although unlike Tognazzini, Lekan thinks Jack can’t ethically collect money for recording and releasing the songs under any circumstances.

Crediting the music to an anonymous artist, an unknown band, or four regular guys who’d likely deny that they’d written it would take a toll on Jack’s life. Journalists would hound him for details about where he found the music, charlatans would claim credit, and the mystery might overshadow the music. If he stuck to a story about alternate realities, people would probably think he was duplicitous or strange—but, “The songs are great, so probably no one would care,” Antony says. “They’d all believe what they wanted to. Jack might eventually give up trying to get people to believe him, but as long as he never actually claims to have written the songs, I think he’s ethically in the clear.” In the end, the music might matter more than the story associated with it, even after Jack’s confusing confession; classical musicians still value the work of 20th-century violinist Fritz Kreisler, who in a reverse-Jack sort of scenario pretended for decades that many of his own compositions were actually the creations of earlier composers. “As in Kreisler’s case, it would be up to the public to decide whether his gift to the world of recovering these songs was enough to forgive him,” Anderson says.

Because it almost inadvertently poses profound questions that it barely bothers to explore, Yesterday is more likely to surface in a philosophy syllabus than a moviemaking course. Lekan says the movie reminds him of a thought experiment discussed by some philosophers that centers on an “experience machine.” The machine perfectly simulates reality, complete with pleasure and happiness—the Matrix, more or less, except without the glitches and the nutrient-sucking machines. A person could choose to spend their life inside the simulation, hiking the Appalachian trail or becoming a concert pianist, and to them it would be indistinguishable from the real thing. “Those who think this is a bad choice believe there is something about the objective truth of accomplishing feats like hiking the trail or performing for real people—and the real risks of failure involved—that carries objective value,” Lekan says. “There is an important difference between an ‘experienced accomplishment’ and ‘real accomplishment.’”

What we think of the fanciful ethical quandary in Yesterday, then, may reveal how we decide what is or isn’t moral in real life, even if the conditions Jack faces don’t quite mirror our own. Like other tales more artfully told, Yesterday’s alternate reality forces us to reflect on the choices we make in more mundane settings. “The movie’s premise bears the same relation to philosophy that the premises of many stories bear to science,” Antony says. “We call the latter ‘science fiction,’ so maybe we should call this story ‘philosophy fiction.’”

Better that than “mediocre rom-com.”