Rationalizing Illegal Activities

One evening I had a conversation with someone who mentioned he had downloaded a movie and watched it. Upon futher examination it turned out this had been an unauthorized download. He paid nothing, he never got permission to download it. I suggested that what he did was possibly illegal, or at least unethical. He responded with what I consider rationalizations.

First, he said, he never would have paid for the movie if he had not been able to download. In other words, it wasn’t his kind of movie, so the production company would never have gotten his money anyway. So I asked him, "Would you sneak into a movie theater? How about if it was a movie you would not pay to see? Suppose you sneak in and find plenty of empty seats? When you sneak in to a movie you’d never pay to see anyway, you do not deprive the theater or movie producers any money, so why not? How about a can of caviar? Would you ever buy caviar? No? So is it OK to take a can of caviar from a grocery store? They’ll never get your money whether you take the can or not, so why not take the can?"

Another argument he made was that the production company will make so much profit on the movie, one guy downloading it for free is not going to affect their bottom line. "Only one guy? Are you the only person downloading? If not, how many people doing this would it take before it becomes a bad thing? Ten, twenty, one million, 100 million? If it’s 100,000, then is the wrongness split among the 100,000, so that you have only committed 1/100,000th of a wrong? Or is it wrong for you to be one of 100,000? Or is the wrongness attributed to the 100,000, and each individual bears no responsibility?" I also asked, "Honda is making huge profits these days. If you steal a Honda they’ll still make lots of money. So is it OK to steal a Honda?" Of course not, he replied, but the movie and the cars are different.

Cars are a big ticket item. So would the situations be different if we were talking about cans of caviar? How about coffee mugs? Or a cheap key ring? How about a post card from Disneyland ("Hey, it’s only 20 cents and I’m actually providing them with some advertising.")?

These things are different. When you make an unauthorized download of a movie (as opposed to stealing an actual physical copy of the film in a container), that does not prevent the production company from selling another copy of the movie. When you steal a car, a cell phone, a key ring, or a post card, the seller no longer has the ability to make money off of that item. (This is why unauthorized downloads are copyright infringement, not theft.)

However, I still think the reasons given are rationalizations. I think that people can rationalize improperly downloading movies and music because there is no tangible thing that is taken. It’s easier to overlook ethics when nothing touches your skin. Also, the actual act of downloading is fairly easy (well, for someone who makes the effort to find out how to do it). If you had to develop some skills or use your fingers to actually touch the thing you were taking, if you could see the thing as a physical entity, it would not be so easy to rationalize away. Another element is how much you like the think your taking. The more you want something, the easier it is to come up with a reason to get that thing by "alternative means." And, of course, so many people are doing it ("so many people are getting it for free, I’d feel like a sap if I paid for it").

"The record companies are big corporations, they won’t miss it. They’re evil, they’ve been stealing from the artists for years." The record companies steal from the artists, so it’s OK for you to steal from the artists as well? And don’t we hear that excuse given in lawsuits? "Sure the guy was drunk and should have never been smoking while he was siphoning gas from the the big corporation’s car, and sure what he was doing was illegal, but we’ll find for the plaintiff because it’s a big corporation, they have plenty of money, the insurance company will pay for it so no one is hurt anyway." When we hear that we think it’s wrong.

"Other artists are figuring out how to make money in this environment, so if someone won’t adapt, that’s not my fault." Newspapers are finding the new environment of the internet makes it more difficult to make money, some are adapting to it with online editions. But if a newspaper doesn’t adapt, does that mean it’s OK to take a newspaper without paying for it?

The issue of downloading material is not cut and dried, the whole world of intellectual property is complex made even more complex by the internet. I’m not going to say there is a moral, ethical, and legal absolute on this question. However, making rationalizations is the wrong way to come to a solution.

Some thieves rationalize their activities by saying they only steal from people who can afford it, or that they need to put food in their bellies and the capitalist system we have makes it impossible for them to do so unless they steal. Some even say that it is your responsibility to prevent the theft: if someone is able to steal something from you, it’s your fault, the thief bears no responsibility. (I recall an English soccer hooligan who, after 39 people were killed in Heysel stadium in 1985 when the hooligans launched an attack on Italian fans, placed the blame on the Italian fans because they didn’t fight back hard enough.)

We see these rationalizations for what they are, very few people would accept them as valid ethical justifications. We know the thieves employ the rationalizations to allow themselves to continue doing what they’re doing without suffering the emotional pain of a guilty conscience. (Well, some thieves, others have no ethical qualms about doing what they do.)

So when it comes to improper downloads, don’t rationalize.

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