Ethics & Ownership

I just wrapped up teaching a course in Ethics.  It was an eye-opening experience in a variety of regards, which I’ll be posting a series on in the near future.  But on a side note, we got into a discussion about the nature of property, property rights, intellectual property, copyright, file sharing and illegal download options, and the Internet.
Having come of age along with the personal computer, I expected that most of my students would be pretty comfortable with the idea of swapping and sharing their software, illegally downloading music or applications, and other such practices.  I wasn’t surprised in that respect.  What I was surprised with was how difficult the vast majority of my students found it to make a strong statement about the ethics of this topic and then link that to an internalized behavior pattern.
For instance, one student argued very vociferously that there was no such thing as theft since what was being ‘stolen’ (in terms of digital media) is not really being stolen but rather copied, and even then the copy is only a bunch of digital 1’s and 0’s, as opposed to some sort of tangible work that could be considered private property.  It sounds like an interesting argument on the surface.  But it breaks down pretty quickly.  Yes, you’re not technically stealing the digital bits from someone when you download it (legally or illegally).  You’re copying those digital bits.  And yes, you’re copying a bunch of 1’s and 0’s that your computer is capable of interpreting.  
But those 1’s and 0’s are being copied (illegally or legally) because when your computer interprets them, the result is a movie, or a song, or an application.  Very definitely a tangible product, even if that product can be replicated infinitely without degradation of the product.  The fact remains that someone worked hard to assemble those digital 1’s and 0’s into just such an order so that, when interpreted by your computer, they equate to something much larger than merely the sum of their parts.  
Most of the rest of the students seemed to recognize that illegally downloading music or movies was wrong, but most readily admitted that they had in  the past or still engage in the practice now.  For them, the issue was enforceability.  Since there was practically no chance that they would be caught or punished for their behavior, they felt it unreasonable to expect people to act on their beliefs.  They might believe that what they were doing was wrong or unethical, but without the threat of arrest or punishment of some sort, they felt no need to police themselves.  For them, ethics ultimately boiled down to some sort of equation of what was permissible and what they could get away with in terms of a reasonable level of risk.  Ethics (despite their insistence that ethics are individually formulated – more on that in a later post) is really an externally imposed pattern of behavior.
While this may not make much of a difference in the realm of digital downloading (though I’m sure artists and others who suffer actual loss of income from digital piracy would be quick to say it makes a difference here as well), it certainly can have massive implications in other areas of ethical behavior.  Is murder only impermissible because you could get caught and punished?  Is lying really only problematic if you become known as a liar?  Is illicit behavior justified by a certain level of skill that keeps you from getting caught?  
A lot of interesting questions, and ones that are traditionally pretty clear cut to people.  If something is wrong you ought not engage in it regardless of how unlikely it is that you will be discovered.  Ethics was once upon a time something internalized (not internally created, as our relativistic, post-modern culture insists), but rather internalized.  It seems that for some young people, what is now internalized is just a desire to avoid negative repercussions.  But if these repercussions can be safely avoided, then many more avenues of behavior become available to them.
Does that make anyone else nervous?  

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