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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Experience appears to teach that many people exhibit a kind of moral cognitive dissonance according to which they express moral repulsion toward some behavior (usually historical), together with approbation of some other behavior that is in many ways morally similar. At present, this most commonly takes the form of moral approbation or tolerance of abortion coupled with a denouncement of various other historical activities such as nineteenth-century slavery or the activities of the Nazi regime.

My hypothesis is that the contradiction is not true cognitive dissonance regarding a moral principle, but rather a consequence of apparently moral judgments being based on something amoral in nature, namely social mores. Our cultural rejection of the Nazi regime is more a social phenomenon than a moral one, which is why we can at the same time revile it and nod approvingly at contemporary eugenics movements. In general, people will tolerate any sort of behavior that does not violate prescribed social norms. In other words, we are fundamentally amoral. Our putatively moral principles are derived not from natural or divine law but from custom. And so we should not be surprised that perfectly ordinary and otherwise decent people can so easily be deluded into accepting the most vile moral outrages. There are a great many people who, though at present they would never dream of supporting the reinstatement of the peculiar institution, would quickly flock to it and find all kinds of rationalizations for it were it to come back into fashion. The same can be said of almost any other behavior whatsoever.

Perhaps this is an obvious truth, but it was only relatively recently that it occurred to me in these terms.

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There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. –Barack Obama.

 

HT: SDG

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I recently encountered some of these images (of the staff at Auschwitz) for the first time. What struck me was how creepy they are, in particular those depicting the staff laughing and enjoying themselves. A friend I was with at the time made the same observation. And so I began to wonder, why are these pictures creepy?

The answer, I believe, is that, knowing the atrocities these people committed, we have a tendency to view them as Moral Monsters. Evil People. The Bad Guys. Them, as opposed to Us. Because of this, it is jarring to see them behaving like Normal People; it challenges our tendency to fit them into the other half of the mold, the side that we aren’t on. It’s creepy to see Them acting like Us.

It seems to me that this dichotomy is flawed. I really doubt that the citizens of Nazi Germany were somehow more depraved than the citizens of pretty much any other time and country, such that they were capable of assisting in the commission of widespread grave evil. The first sign of this is that other times and countries have (and have had) their own widespread grave evils. The nineteenth century U.S. had slavery, the modern day U.S. and many other countries have abortion. Pagan cultures have had all sorts of evil customs throughout history.

Certainly, this observation supports that of Chesterton, that original sin is the only dogma of the Faith that is empirically obvious, or something to that effect. But what I find interesting is this. We postmoderns tend to look back at things like slavery and Nazi Germany in a sort of high-minded moral disgust, utterly certain that We are better than Them and would never participate in such evils. But of course, as noted, we have our own grave evils going on all the time in which we do participate. This seems to me to be a kind of cognitive dissonance, and I think it is informative regarding the character of moral judgment in people generally. What can we learn from it? That’s a question for the latter part of this post.

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IP, secunda pars

Update: this is pretty disorganized–read at your own risk.

I said previously that the purpose of copyright is to increase the public domain. The method by which it achieves this purpose is providing incentives to those capable of producing desirable instances of the types of matter subject to copyright. On this view, once such matter has been produced, copyright has done its job. The legal restrictions on copying are a kind of necessary evil–they exist for the sake of the production which precedes them. This is quite different from the widespread legal view of copyright as a natural right arising from “ownership” of the material produced.

There are several consequences of this view for the moral status of copyright. As noted last time, copyright infringement is not theft, though it is generally immoral. Even more obviously, plagiarism is not theft, and those who call it such have no idea what they are talking about–in the case of plagiarism, there is not usually even a potential sale of which someone is deprived. Morally, plagiarism is much more like lying than like theft; it is the misrepresentation of someone else’s work as one’s own.

As I said above, I think that in general it is immoral to break copyright law. As with other laws, however, if there are cases in which the law is clearly not ordered to the common good (in this case the optimal benefit of the public domain), it is not necessarily wrong to violate it. For instance, according to some interpretations of current law (I don’t know if they are correct), it would be a violation of copyright law to write your own software that plays DVDs. It seems to me that even if this were true, it would obviously not be morally binding. Someone who has legally purchased a DVD is its owner, and entitled to watch it however he sees fit. Regarding my use of the word “owner,” I don’t agree with the notion of things like software being “licensed, not sold” (a fiction invented in order to subvert the first sale doctrine, among other reasons); and by “don’t agree,” I mean that I think it doesn’t happen, not that I think it shouldn’t happen. But even if I did, it wouldn’t matter in this case, since even if the purchaser of a DVD were merely purchasing a license to watch it, he would have the right to watch it in virtue of the license. The attempt to sell a license to watch a movie, and at the same time to require the purchase of another another license to convert the digital data into analog form, i.e. to make it watchable, is nothing but a veiled attempt to sell the same thing twice, which is not morally justifiable regardless of whether it is approved by the legal system (cf. St. Thomas’s argument in ST II-II, Q. 78, A. 1, Resp.). Otherwise, such licenses could be multiplied indefinitely by inserting additional licensing points in the process of translation from DVD to video display.

OK, the last paragraph was something of a rant. That’s because (to continue the rant) I think that we presently have a lot of laws that fail, to a greater or lesser degree, to promote the common good, and the field of copyright law has more than its share. For example, I can’t recall ever reading about a single instance in recent years (or earlier) in which a country shortened its copyright periods. Goverments seem only to extend them, and when they do, others start talking about the need to create parity by extending their own. Noticeably absent is any explanation of how the proposed extensions will benefit the common good. In fact, I’m not sure that those who propose copyright extensions even realize that they ought to be explaining this; the proper function of copyright seems almost completely forgotten today.

Update (following three paragraphs): Again, based on my prior reasoning, it doesn’t seem to me that copyright law can be intrinsically morally binding in cases in which it provides absolutely no advantage to the copyright holder. For example, many companies hold copyright on old computer software from ten to twenty, or more, years ago. They no longer offer the products for sale because no one would buy them. Consequently, some do not bother to enforce their copyrights (against, e.g., distribution via the internet), while others do. While these copyrights maintain their legal force, it’s not so clear that they maintain their moral force. This is because, as stated previously, intellectual matter is not really the “property” of its authors. They have no natural right to prevent its being copied, but only a legal right derived from the authority of the state; and the state only has this authority insofar as the advantages it confers to authors contribute to the public good. When the advantage of exclusive copyright ceases to make this contribution, it ceases to exist. A related consequence of this that copyright also has no moral force if its holder is merely using it to prevent publication of something, that is, not itself offering the content to the public it in any way.

Some proponents of IP piracy like to use the phrase “information wants to be free.” While they draw an erroneous conclusion from their principle, they nevertheless assert the principle because they see that it must be true in some way. It is true in the sense that what belongs to the intellect is ipso facto common to all.

At this point I should note a possible objection to the foregoing. In many cases laws which are in themselves unjust ought nevertheless to be obeyed for prudential reasons; for instance, lest people lose respect for the law even when it is not unjust. This may well apply to some of the cases I discuss here. But my point has to do with the extent to which copyright laws are per se morally binding.

This train of thought is beginning to raise a whole web of related topics that threaten to become hopelessly (inside joke: snarky comments from the peanut gallery on my use of this adverb will be ignored–you know who you are) disorganized. So I’ll stop. I need to collect my thoughts before saying more.

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I read something recently, though I’m too lazy to find the link, about certain liberal commentators calling certain conservative Christians hypocrites for refusing to criticize Bristol Palin for being pregnant out of wedlock. My first thought regarding this was “What exactly is wrong with being pregnant out of wedlock?” On further reflection, I came up with the following hypothesis.

My impression of radical leftists is that they tend to be moral consequentialists (if they have a moral system at all). For a consequentialist, the moral character of an action is determined solely by its result. On this view, premarital sex can only be morally wrong if it has bad results. Since pregnancy is the most obvious (potential) result, the natural conclusion is that premarital sex is wrong because it is bad to be pregnant/bear children outside of wedlock (not a necessary conclusion, since the bad consequence might conceivably be something other than pregnancy–but easy to draw nonetheless).

In reality, unfortunately, the source of this and similar criticisms is likely much more emotive and much less rational.

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The notion of intellectual property seems to be a contradiction of sorts, since the intellect deals with what is universal. The very possibility of private property, I believe, arises from the fact of matter which individuates physical things such that they cannot be common to all. Because of the material nature of things, my possession of them ipso facto excludes someone else’s possession of them, rendering private property a necessary feature of society. If my car were a universal, such that other people could possess and benefit from it without in any way detracting from my use of it, would it be legimate for me to assert that these others had no right to benefit from it? I think not.

If this is right, it has important implications for the question of the justice of the present IP regime which has been codified into U.S. law largely through the influence of corporate interests. The entertainment industry is currently waging a war against online file-sharing of music, movies, etc. On the one hand, it seems clear, for example, that it is unjust to acquire a music collection by illegal file-sharing. On the other hand, it is not at first evident why this is so.

The recording industry generally refers to sharing music as stealing. This is inaccurate, since it does not involve depriving anyone of their property. At one time, the industry was running an advertisement that stated something like this–you wouldn’t steal a car, why would you steal music? In response to the phrase, “you wouldn’t steal a car,” some pundit retorted, “I would if I could download one!” There is a certain point to this riposte inasmuch as it points to a clear disanalogy between the two cases. Copyright infringement, the technical name of the offense, does not constitute theft, that is, “usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner” (CCC 2408), both because the matter is not property in any real sense, and because there is no usurpation, since the copyright holder loses nothing (and no, the fact that the copyright holder could have been paid and was not, does not constitute a loss, except perhaps in the world of MSM journalism in which a decrease in the rate of increase of funding constitutes a funding “cut”).

Perhaps it would be better to describe the action as a violation of the principle that the laborer deserves his wage. A person who downloads music illegally treats the musician (and the musician’s agent, etc.) as though the musician had performed labor for the downloader, but refuses to pay his wage.

This perspective is also helpful inasmuch as it makes clear why the American Founders were correct regarding the limitations to the right of Congress to establish exclusive copyright:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries; [my emphasis, obviously]

Copyright must be limited in time because there is not an unlimited recompense due to authors (composers, etc.) for their contributions to the common good. Further, it seems to me that the recompense is due precisely insofar as they have contributed to the common good. Copyright produces an incentive to create. Beyond a certain point, however, it actually diminishes the incentive, since with sufficient copyright length a copyright holder may no longer have any need to create. In other words, the proper function of copyright is not to benefit authors per se, but to increase the public domain, which is done by benefiting authors temporarily.

More on this later.

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