Monday, November 05, 2007

A Couple of Ethics Questions

Some great questions as usual. Let's start with the ethics ones.

Kerry asks,

That infomercial thing at the beginning of rented DVDs--"you wouldn't think of stealing a car! ...or a wallet! ...or shoplift!"--all of which culminates in a warning against illegally downloading movies. Know the one I'm talking about? My question is this: is this really a good analogy? Is downloading a movie REALLY the same thing as heisting a car or a wallet?
The analogy is strained. One the one hand, you are acquiring something created by the labor of someone else without compensating that person for his or her work. In that sense, video piracy does seem problematic, but the problem with the analogy comes from trying to take the language of property rights and attach it to non-material things. In this way, unlike SteveD, I do see a difference between heisting a DVD from a store and copying one -- namely, the store still has the same amount of inventory to sell. They may be out one customer who might have otherwise legally obtained the movie, but they haven't also lost the thing they bought wholesale to sell retail. With a bootlegged copy, I don't have thing that someone else now doesn't have. No one is missing their analogical car or wallet.

A second difference is the victim. In the case of the car or the wallet, it is an individual whose car or wallet it was. Who is the victim in the case of making a copy of a CD for a friend? Is it the director? The producer? If we are talking about a single copy, not large scale reproduction, then the amount of damage is so small as to be unnoticeable. In the aggregate, on the other hand, it may be more significant. At the same time, it was selling the video rights where they got the bulk of their compensation, not in the sales of individual copies. So it really is the media corporation that is the victim here. Large corporate entities who have the influence to continue to get Congress pass longer and longer periods on copyrights until for all intents and purposes nothing will ever pass into the public domain. It is their property that you are wrongfully acquiring.

Is it harming them? On the one hand, you are taking something of theirs in the form of content that you have not paid for and that seems a harm. On the other hand, as Aaron Barlow cogently argues in his book The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology, the bootlegging of movies with the introduction of the VCR was a significant factor in saving Hollywood. Movie ticket prices were going up and crowds going down and the easy copying of tapes was thought to be the end of the movie theater by many in the industry until what Barlow calls "The Grateful Dead effect" saved them -- the easy copying and distribution of bootleg copies reinvigorated people's interest in movies and crowds started to grow again. So, in the overall scheme of things, it may be well to their advantage. If that is the case, would it still be wrong? Good question. From a rights based perspective, yes; from a deontological perspective, yes; from a utilitarian point of view, no. Which one gets the nod here? Since the concern really is one of utility since the harm would be to a corporate entity whose entire existence is predicated on utilitarian grounds, I'd say it wouldn't be a problem, but you would HAVE to demonstrate that copying the DVD is in their long-term interest.

pm asks,
Thinking specifically of Kant's "postulates of pure practical reason," insofar as Kant (following Aquinas) argues that in order to be moral, we must think "as if," act "as if," and, ostensibly, speak "as if," (though this last dictate is less clear, to my mind), is there a point at which heuristic moral devices (like Kant's postulates) become simply elaborate self-deceptions? And if so, what are the consequences to morality if its basic structures were to be exposed as a lie?
I've always taking Sartre's writings on ethics to address exactly this question. He wants to say that the lived life is so full of confounding details that the "as if" aspect, which would hold all other things being equal, never actually holds because in the complexities of real life everything else is never equal. I think there certainly is a point to be made there. But, in the end, I'm not sure it's as big a point as it might seem. It rules out the sort of simplistic duty-based approach that a Kant or Aquinas would be pushing, but in real life no one really buys into that nonsense anyway. Even the righties who argue so vociferously against "situational ethics" argue in a much more complex situational way when you look at the arguments they really put forward.

It is true that the "as if" move is bogus if you lean hard on it, but at the same time, it is an important move at the beginning of robust moral deliberation. when you come to a hard ethical conundrum and need to begin thinking deeply about it, you do start with the "as if" claim and then complicate matters from there. Think about how we talk to children who have just done something wrong. We start with precisely that sort of "as if" proposition and explain what situations would call for a move away from it, but how this situation was not one of them. So, in the end, I buy your skepticism about the move when it is substituted for a fuller more realistic picture of ethical decision making, but think that it would be throwing the baby out with the bath water to say that the move is worthless in that process. It is a good way in, a good first order approximation which can than be beaten viciously about the head and neck by the fickle circumstances of the real world...should one exist.