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December 20th, 2019 3:32:03 pm

Toward a Virtue Ethics of Phish

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In this paper, I explain two versions of virtue ethics and argue that they are well-equipped to provide answers to questions about the permissibility of various practices among the followers of different bands. As a case study, I illustrate how both versions of virtue ethics can address one particular issue within the Phish community: tarping, which is the practice of marking off a section of space into which other concert attendees may not enter. I argue that most cases of tarping are not virtuous, and should therefore be avoided by Phish fans. I then show how a similar approach rooted in virtue ethics might be used by followers of bands other than Phish to address issues within their own followings. If the argument of this paper is correct, then the virtue ethics framework can help various communities to address the ethical issues peculiar to them. The aim of this paper is to show how this might be done.

Toward a Virtue Ethics of Phish

1.         Introduction

In this paper, I aim to furnish Phish fans with a framework for making productive ethical arguments so that progress might be made toward agreement about what should and should not be allowed in the Phish community. I argue here that virtue ethics is well-equipped for this purpose for two reasons. First, the band develops robust accounts of virtuous characters that followers can consider when entertaining whether doing something is part of being a good fan. They need only ask whether a virtuous character, as Phish develops it, would do this and then follow suit. Second, the band espouses certain values in their lyrics, interviews, charitable efforts, etc. These values reflect virtues that fans should cultivate themselves. Once they do so, questions about the permissibility of practices in the context of being a Phish fan are largely settled by determining whether they reflect the virtues for which fans should be aspiring. The larger aim of this paper is then to explore how virtue ethics can facilitate productive discourse for any musical community that faces ethical questions and shares a set of values. I offer some accounts of how followings of bands other than Phish might imitate the approach that I outline in the early parts of this paper. If I am correct, then ethical debate among fans might finally move forward. When confronted by ethical questions that come with being a member of a certain musical following, fans should begin by asking themselves what it means to be virtuous members of that community, and then do what it takes to become such members themselves.

2.         Normativity and (Two Versions of) Virtue Ethics

Ethics deals with normative claims. A normative claim is about how things should or ought to be, e.g., one should not cause unnecessary suffering. A descriptive claim tells us how something is, e.g., the Earth is round. Normative theories offer rules that help us to determine what the right thing to do is. There are three major candidates.[1] Consequentialism claims that the right thing to do is whatever produces the best outcomes.[2] Deontology claims that following categorical rules or fulfilling duties is the right thing to do, regardless of the consequences.[3] Virtue ethics is the view that morality requires doing some things because they are what the virtuous person would do or reflect excellent states of character. [4] The consequentialist aims for the best outcome, the deontologist to follow categorical rules, and the virtue ethicist for virtue.[5]

For the virtue ethicist, the explanation for the normativity of a claim involves the fundamentality of virtue rather than consequences or rules.[6] There are many versions of virtue ethics. This paper focuses on two: exemplarist virtue ethics[7] and target-centered virtue ethics.[8] According to the exemplarist, we are all familiar with moral paragons, i.e., individuals who are incredibly ethical and therefore worthy of emulation. The exemplarist claims that what makes the actions of such individuals virtuous is that they are done for the right reasons or flow from the right disposition. In practice, this means that they proceed from virtuous motivations or result from excellent character. On the exemplarist account of virtue ethics, we become virtuous by identifying these moral paragons, discerning what it is about their motives or dispositions that makes their actions virtuous, and following their examples to the best of our abilities. [9]

Whereas the exemplarist begins the quest for virtue with identifying moral exemplars and emulating their motivations, the target-centered virtue ethicist takes as her starting point our ordinary understanding of particular virtues. On this approach, we all have a rough understanding of what virtues there are and what they require. We know that courage, compassion, truthfulness, and other states of character are excellences that we should cultivate, ones that will lead to us being the kind of person we want to be and committing the actions that we should. Ethical inquiry proceeds from this datum. Target-centered virtue ethics starts with the primacy of particular virtues and works out the details from there.[10] It begins with the understanding that some dispositions are virtuous, and that ethics aims to get clear on what exactly these dispositions are, what in particular they require us to do, with respect to whom, and how we go about developing them. Put simply, we should identify the virtues and then get clear on how to cultivate them; the virtues are targets that must be aimed for in particular ways.[11] Ultimately, exemplarist and target-centered virtue ethics agree about a lot but differ in their primary focus. The exemplarist identifies moral exemplars and works to become like them, whereas target-centered virtue ethics compiles a list of virtues and goes about cultivating them.

3.         A Virtue Ethics of Phish

Exemplarist and target-centered virtue ethics are well-equipped to provide Phish fans with a conceptual apparatus for making clear whether certain practices are consistent with being good fans, e.g., tarping: the practice of laying down a blanket or tarp in order to mark off a section of concert space onto which one can deny other attendees entry. How might fans appropriate exemplarism to determine whether tarping is virtuous? To answer this, one would need to determine who the archetypes of virtue and vice are in the Phish canon. Fans can look here to The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday (TMWSIY), a fictional musical that Phish’s Anastasio wrote at Goddard College in 1988. TMWSIY tells the story of Colonel Forbin, who travels back in time to the rescue the people of Gamehendge from the tyrant who enslaved them.[12] The musical offers rather clear accounts of moral and immoral exemplars: the Lizards from long ago and the evil King Wilson who subjugates them.  If this is correct, then Phish fans asking whether the virtuous fan should tarp are ultimately asking whether the Lizards or Wilson would tarp. In order to answer this question, one must look to descriptions of both in the musical. The Lizards prior to Wilson’s reign are simple people, living for thousands of years in “utter peace and tranquility.”[13] The pre-Wilson Lizards offer a picture of utopia, a people devoid of evil and vice. On the other hand, Wilson is consistently described as evil; he steals the Helping Friendly Book, a document containing all knowledge inherent in the universe, knowing that the Lizards depend on it for survival.[14] He declares himself king and enslaves Gamehendge. He cuts down the forests, where the Lizards once lived, on which they depended for their utopic lifestyle.

If the Lizards before Wilson lived in utter peace and tranquility, their world was one without vice, and they therefore serve as moral paragons whose example we can consult. Thus the question becomes: would the Lizards tarp? I think not. The Lizards appear to live in complete harmony with one another and with nature. Tarping seems to promote dissonance rather than harmony. After all, what the tarper does is mark off a portion of space into which others cannot enter, which signals a kind of refusal to interact with one’s surroundings, harmoniously or not. Many tarpers often defend their tarped space somewhat aggressively, which certainly seems inconsistent with the example of the Lizards, praiseworthy for their peaceful interactions. Thus the Lizards seem unlikely to tarp. Since the exemplarist recommends following the example of moral paragons, which are in this case the pre-Wilson Lizards, Phish fans should not tarp.

A similar conclusion can be drawn by working backward from a picture of vice toward examples that fans should not follow. Would Wilson tarp? TMWSIY claims that “all knowledge seeming innocent and pure becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of avarice and greed.”[15] The claim here is that knowledge coupled with vicious character is not good because it is used for the wrong reasons. Knowledge goes wrong, for example, when it is put to use by someone who manifests two very specific vices: avarice and greed. This is precisely what Wilson does. His use of the Helping Friendly Book is bad because it is guided by avarice and greed. As such, whether Phish fans should not tarp comes down to whether Wilson would tarp, and this comes down to whether tarping promotes avarice and greed, which it often seems to do. Many cases of tarping involve an excessive desire for space. The tarper often marks off a portion of the venue that is larger than what the average fan needs to enjoy the show. Tarpers sometimes display an attachment to the tarped space that is too strong; their possessiveness over the tarped space is excessive. This perhaps explains why tarpers tarp in the first place; they want to mark off a bit of space that belongs to them and not others. All of this seems like something that Wilson would do, something the avaricious and greedy character is likely to do. If the exemplarist’s claim is that we should refuse to follow the example of the immoral exemplar, it seems to follow that we should refuse to tarp, at least in cases where tarping manifests the vices of avarice and greed.[16]

One might find the models of virtue and vice offered by the Lizards and Wilson from Anastasio’s TMWSIY cheesy. As a Phish fan, I understand how those outside of the community might roll their eyes at the notion that a fantasy about amphibians living in harmony with nature could have any deep significance. I have two responses to this worry. First, many Phish fans take the Gamehendge narrative to be meaningful. Fans repeat its lyrics to one another as advice and to themselves as mantras. For example, a veteran fan might advise someone new to the Phish scene to “surrender to the flow,” a line from a song in TMWSIY’s song entitled “The Lizards.”[17] The purpose of the allusion varies, but it often serves to encourage Phish newcomers to be flexible and remain open-minded. The fact that such allusions from TMWSIY are taken to be action-guiding is evidence that they are significant for some. Second, not everyone needs to see the significance of TMWSIY in order for the argument of this paper to work. The reader is welcome to dismiss the dichotomy between the Lizards and Wilson, so long as they see how it is indicative of how followings of bands might use the virtue ethics framework to address issues within their own communities. One attraction of virtue ethics is that it allows relativity among communities with respect to what the virtues and who their moral exemplars are. In this respect, virtue ethics is consistent with some eye-rolling toward the Lizards and Wilson as paragons of virtue and vice. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how band followings with differing values can import a virtue ethics framework for their own purposes. The earlier discussion of TMWSIY is merely a vehicle for demonstrating one way that such an analysis might proceed.

Let us now apply the target-centered virtue ethics approach to the issue of tarping. Doing so requires getting clear on the relevant Phishy virtues, i.e., excellences posited by the band that seem to bear on whether fans should tarp. One can do this by considering which values the band espouses. These values reflect virtues for which fans should aim. If the cultivation of any of these virtues seems inconsistent with tarping, then fans have reasons on the target-centered approach not to tarp. Consider the lyrics to “Weekapaug Groove,” which consistently repeat the phrase, “sharin’ in a (Weekapaug) groove.”[18] While it remains unclear exactly what this phrase means, it provides a description of how fans experience Phish: it is something they share intimately with one another. On this basis, one might infer that sharing is a virtue of Phish fans, and the permissibility of tarping now depends on whether marking off a portion of concert space into which others cannot enter is consistent with sharing in the groove virtuously. Whether this is so will depend largely on the motivations of the person tarping. If someone tarps merely to reserve dancing space that is larger than what one reasonably requires to enjoy the show, it seems that such a person fails to share in the groove appropriately. However, if someone tarps in order to create a space in which children can enjoy the show safely, this person might appropriately share in the groove. Whether tarping is virtuous depends on what it means for different persons with different reasons and capacities to share in the groove virtuously.

Beyond lyrical analysis, band members might espouse values in public statements that bear on whether tarping is virtuous. Drummer Jon Fishman explained in a 2018 interview with Danny Cashman that the band avoids taking overt political stances because “…politics are divisive, and music is supposed to bring people together.”[19] Fishman suggests here that politics are bad partly because they divide people, whereas music does the opposite: it unifies them. This implies that community, rather than division, is a virtue for which Phish fans should aim, which reinforces the reading of “Weekapaug Groove” from above. If this is true, then the application for tarping is the same. If tarping fragments members of the Phish community, impeding their ability to share in the groove intimately, then it is not virtuous. If it promotes togetherness, perhaps in the way that tarping to create a space for children to enjoy the show safely does, then it might enhance community, making room for families within the larger Phish gathering.

4.         Broader Implications

Up to this point, the argument of this paper has been quite narrow. The case has been made that Phish fans need a conceptual apparatus that enables productive ethical discourse, and that virtue ethics provides this. In turn, it was argued that exemplarist and target-centered virtue ethics yield the conclusion that many cases of tarping are unethical, although whether this is so depends largely on the disposition and motivation of the person tarping. However, the aim of this paper is not just to offer a few arguments about the permissibility tarping for Phish fans. A larger aim is to show how virtue ethics can address other issues in the Phish following and beyond.

As for the other issues, Phish fans have ongoing debates about whether many other practices should be tolerated, e.g., should fans use nitrous oxide at shows? If this paper has been successful, the reader will now have a better sense of how to work through this question and others like it. Consider the exemplarist approach. Is using nitrous something that the Lizards or Wilson are more likely to do? There is certainly room for disagreement here, but I contend that the Lizards are less likely to use nitrous than we might think. Recall that the pre-Wilson Lizards live in utter peace and tranquility with deep reverence for nature. Nitrous is often sold by an organized criminal element, the effects of which on the Phish scene are negative.[20] It seems reasonable to infer that supporting this enterprise is likely to take away from the peace and tranquility of the community, and it follows from this on the exemplarist account that purchasing nitrous in such circumstances is not virtuous. Purchasing nitrous often has negative environmental consequences too. The balloons in which it is sold are often littered all over the venue. It seems odd that followers of a band whose lyrics display such respect for nature would participate in an activity that often brings about such pollution. For these reasons, it seems dubious that the Lizards would support the use of nitrous, or if they did, they would insist on proper disposal of the balloons in which it is sold. Even if the balloons were disposed of properly, there remains a question about whether it is virtuous to add to the amount of rubber waste at a show just because inhaling nitrous oxide causes a pleasant sensation temporarily.[21]

A target-centered analysis could yield the same conclusion. I claimed earlier that the band espouses values in its charitable efforts that fans should adopt as virtues of their own. Phish’s Waterwheel Foundation addresses issues that are (among others) environmental, focusing on clean water and land conservation with public access.[22] The target-centered virtue ethicist might take this to show that Phish heralds environmental conservatism as a virtue. As such, if the consumption of nitrous at shows turns out to be inconsistent with this, then the virtuous fan should refrain from using nitrous at shows. Perhaps there is no such inconsistency. Again: the real aim of the paper is to convey how ethical analysis can proceed on exemplarist and target-centered accounts of virtue ethics. I very well might be wrong on who count as moral exemplars in the Phish canon, what count as virtues in the context of Phish, and how any of this applies to particular ethical issues, such as the permissibility of tarping or using nitrous at shows.

An even larger goal of this paper is to demonstrate how fans of bands other than Phish might navigate ethical issues unique to them using exemplarist and target-centered virtue ethics. Accessibility to the live music experience for those with disabilities is a common concern among the fans of bands from a variety of different genres. The Grateful Dead have hired sign language interpreters at shows to translate the lyrics of songs to those deaf and hard of hearing, for whom there is a “Deaf Zone” gated off by concert organizers.[23] In doing so, the Dead display a concern with inclusivity, so that providing accommodations for the differently abled appears a virtue to be cultivated. On the exemplarist and target-centered accounts of virtue ethics, this would mean that fans should aim to follow this lead and cultivate similar virtues. Something similar could be argued for The Who and its followers. Townshend claims to have written Tommy after becoming fascinated with the Indian spiritual advisor Meher Baba, who preached the values of compassion, love, and introspection.[24] Townshend aimed to tell the story of a boy born “deaf, dumb, and blind,” whose view of the world we can experience through music.[25] If Who fans want to know whether a certain practice is virtuous within their following, e.g., providing accommodations for disabled attendees, then exemplarist and target-based virtue ethics can help. One can reasonably infer that Meher Baba would think so, since being more inclusive signals compassion and love for others. If understanding the experiences of those who are differently abled is a virtue, as the history of Tommy suggests, then The Who and its fans have a target for which to aim, and aiming at it successfully might mean making the experience of their live shows more accommodating.

One benefit of the virtue ethics approach is that it allows for a certain amount of relativism within how bands and their followings respond to ethical issues. According to exemplarist and target-centered virtue ethics, what should be done is a function of who count as moral exemplars and what count as virtues. Bands and their followings have considerable discretion when it comes to who count as moral exemplars to be emulated and what count as virtues for which fans should aim. One might praise aggression toward others via moshing as some punk and metal bands, rather than compassion and love for others as many jam bands. I might take moshing to express togetherness, whereas someone else might take it to express hostility. Two followings might agree about whether a particular practice should be allowed, but their explanations differ because they prize different virtues. For example, fans within many followings debate whether it is good practice to buy scalped tickets. Some Phish fans object because scalping makes it more difficult for the less privileged to see shows and Phish should be accessible to the masses. Rage against the Machine fans would also object, but because buying scalped tickets perpetuates a capitalistic system that is problematic for other reasons. I take this to show the versatility of the virtue ethics approach, which speaks to its widespread applications for followings of bands across different genres and eras. This is why it can be of service to any musical following with aims of facilitating productive discourse about being a good fan.

5.         Conclusion

I have argued here that exemplarist and target-centered virtue ethics provide a useful conceptual tool for fans of Phish and other bands to have constructive ethical discourse with one another. In practice, this means that when the followers of a band aim to get clear on whether a certain practice is ethical within their community, they should begin by determining who their moral exemplars are or which excellences they hope to embody as fans. They can then come to an agreement about the permissibility of these practices by settling whether they are ones that their moral exemplars would condone or whether they contribute to the cultivation of the excellences they value. The suggestion that being a fan comes with such moral responsibilities might surprise some readers. To others, this will be obvious. Those who consider themselves dedicated followers of a band will see that being members of such communities comes with ethical issues peculiar to them, and that it is often difficult to work through these productively. It is my hope that virtue ethics can be of service to such fans. For those of us who want to be good fans of the bands we love, I suggest that thoughtful meditation about our moral exemplars and the excellences we strive to embody can help us progress toward a more virtuous fandom.  



Alexander, L. “Deontological Ethics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last revised October 17, 2016.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. In The Complete Works of Aristotle Volume Two. Translated by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Cashman, Danny. The Nite Show with Danny Cashman, WABI TV5/Bangor, May 21, 2018. Video, 4:10.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jurgensen, John. “‘Deafheads’ Marked a Milestone of Their Own at Final Grateful Dead Shows.” The Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2015.

Kawall, Jason. “In Defense of the Primacy of the Virtues.” Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 3, no. 2 (1990): 1-21.

Marsh, Dave. Before I Get Old: The Story of The Who. Plexus, 1983.

Phish. “Waterwheel Foundation.”

Phish. “Weekapaug Groove Lyrics.”

Sinnott-Armstrong, W. “Consequentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last revised October 22, 2015.

Slote, Michael. Morals from Motives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Swanton, Christine. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Tucker, John H. “Inside the Nitrous Mafia, An East Coast Hippie-Crack Ring.” The Village Voice, July 6, 2010.

Watson, Gary. “On the Primacy of Character.” In Identity, Character, and Morality, edited by Flanagan and Rorty, 449-483. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990.

Zagzebski, Linda. Divine Motivation Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.


[1] This list is not exhaustive. There are other normative ethical theories, but these are the three most prominent.

[2] For an excellent overview of consequentialism, see W Sinnott Armstrong, “Consequentialism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last revised October 22, 2015,

[3] For an excellent overview of deontology, see L. Alexander, “Deontological Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last revised October 17, 2016,

[4] I do not mean to suggest here that all virtue ethicists agree on what makes something right or wrong. Different virtue ethicists disagree about what explains the rightness of right actions. They just agree on the primacy of virtue. See Gary Watson, “On the Primacy of Character,” in Identity, Character, and Morality, eds. Flanagan and Rorty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 449-483.

[5] This is an oversimplification for the sake of making clear the major differences between consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Much has been done in recent philosophy to argue that these purported differences are misleading, that consequentialists can care about virtue, that virtue ethicists can have categorical moral rules, that deontologists can take consequences into account when determining how to act, etc. For more on what virtue ethics does and does not share with consequentialism or deontology, see Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (New York: Oxford, 1999).

[6] Jason Kawall, “In Defense of the Primacy of Virtues,” Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 3, no. 2 (2009).

[7] This is sometimes called agent-based virtue ethics.

[8] Aristotle develops a third version known as eudaimonist virtue ethics. On this version, what is fundamental is the value of eudaimonia, the activity of living and faring well. For Aristotle, the virtues are excellences of soul that are ingredients of eudaimonia. We become just, for example, by committing just actions, and we determine the just course of action by identifying what the mean course of action is between opposite vices of excess and deficiency. See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in The Complete Works of Aristotle Vol. 2, translated by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).  

[9] Linda Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 53.

[10] Christine Swanton, Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ernest Joseph “Trey” Anastasio, The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday (Senior Thesis, Goddard College, 1988).

[13] Anastasio, TMWSIY, 29.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Anastasio, TMWSIY, 24.

[16] There might be cases in which tarping does not manifest these vices, or any others, and it would follow that in such cases tarping is not vicious. Even stronger, there might be cases in which tarping manifests virtues, from which it would follow that tarping is virtuous and that some should do it.

[17] Phish, “The Lizards Lyrics,”

[18] Phish, “Weekapaug Groove Lyrics,”

[19] Danny Cashman, The Nite Show with Danny Cashman, WABI TV5/Bangor, May 21, 2018. Video, 4:10.

[20] This is not to say that all Nitrous sold at Phish shows is done by an organized crime element and always has negative effects. But often the sellers are highly organized and violence results from the selling. My claim here is that, given this likelihood, exemplarist virtue ethics militates against participating in such an enterprise. See John H. Tucker, “Inside the Nitrous Mafia, an East Coast Hippie-Crack Ring,” The Village Voice, July 6, 2010,

[21] Ibid. 25 Nitrous tanks were seized at a Phish show in 2009, and each fills up to 350 balloons, totaling 8,750 used balloons. Phish played 10 shows during their summer tour that year. Supposing that the tanks seized were the only ones at this show, that 25 is the average number of tanks per show, and that Phish only played 10 shows in 2009, 87,500 balloons were used by Phish fans during 2009 alone. It is difficult to justify this level of rubber usage on any virtue ethics framework, let alone for a musical following that takes environmental conservatism to be a virtue.

[22] “Waterwheel Foundation,”, accessed May 28 2019,

[23] John Jurgensen, “‘Deafheads’ Marked a Milestone of Their Own at Final Grateful Dead Shows,” Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2015,

[24] Dave Marsh, Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who (Plexus, 1983), 294.

[25] Marsh, Before I Get Old, 313-314.



    Toward a Virtue Ethics of Phish



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