Ah, another Sunday, another chapter in the crusade of Randy Cohen, a.k.a “The Ethicist,” to redefine the definition of “ethical.” I used to read “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times magazine out of professional curiosity, later, bemusement, and now I read it as a diagnostic exercise. Where did Randy acquire his bizarre fondness for certain forms of dishonesty? For the record, Cohen’s batting average of actually giving ethical, rather than unethical, advice appears to be holding steady at .750, which means that he advocates unethical means one out of every four inquiries. I’d say Charley Rangel would do better, and nobody’s likely to call him “The Ethicist” any time soon.
This Sunday, Randy is endorsing web piracy…really. An inquirer who was eager to get Stephen King’s latest 20 lb. horror tome on his Kindle found that the book hadn’t yet been offered for sale in electronic format. So he bought the hard-cover version, and then downloaded a bootleg, pirated version of the book to his e-reader to take on a business trip. “I generally disapprove of illegal downloads, but wasn’t this O.K?” he asked “The Ethicist.”
Now why would he think this is “OK”? The legal owners of the publication, as well as the author, have not authorized the creation of an electronic version of the novel, which is a tangible product that only they have the right to create and distribute. Does he think it’s OK because he paid for a different product with the same content? That’s a rationalization: what he wants is the e-version of the book, and he has no right to have it until the owners choose to let him. His purchase of the hard copy version give him leave to lug it and all 1,074 pages on his travels, and that’s all it allows him to do.
When the e-version of the King novel becomes legitimately available, will the inquirer buy it? Of course he won’t, which means that the rightful owners will have been robbed of their fair compensation because he took advantage of web piracy earlier. If a friend ask to download the novel, will he refuse unless they also buy the hardcover volume? I doubt it. Actually, his friend won’t need to do that: thanks to the collaboration of the web piracy consumer and “The Ethicist,” anyone who reads the New York Times now knows that they can get a free, illegal version online.
Illegal, yes, but not unethical, writes Cohen:
“Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.”
No, Randy, it’s not. Turning a song on a CD into an iPod selection is easy, and is also anticipated and approved by a song’s owners. You can’t plug a book into a e-reader: someone has to create the electronic file and put it online. The author and publishers own electronic rights, and those have value that a distributer will compensate them for in a formal sale. You are endorsing robbing them of that value, right, and profit opportunity.
Randy “Arg!” Cohen continues his pro-cyber-Blackbeard manifesto:
“Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform.”
Ah! So “The Ethicist’s” theory of the law is that as citizens we are only ethically obligated to obey laws as we think they should be, not as they are. Interesting! This opens up all sorts of possibilities. Maybe I think I shouldn’t have to pay taxes when the Federal government uses it to save the jobs of millionaire bankers. Maybe the principal of the school across the street thinks that he shouldn’t have to hire otherwise qualified teachers who happen to be gay. Maybe my neighbor thinks the law should allow him to cold-cock his wife now and then, when she really asks for it. Sorry, Randy: even ethicists don’t get to ignore a society’s judgments about what is right and wrong as articulated by its laws. Violating laws for personal convenience undermines societal values of right and wrong in a surreptitious and underhanded manner. If you think a law is misguided, you have to work to get it changed the old-fashioned way. Anything else is—surprise!—unethical.
Cohen–“Aye, matey!”—goes on to say:
“You’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.” [Emphasis mine]
Yes, it’s true; Cohen believes his “threshold of acceptability” of harm trumps that of those who actually suffer the harm! What astounding arrogance and disrespect. This is a useful clue, however, to understanding “The Ethicist’s” ethical blind spots. He consistently slides into consequentialism, the invalid ethical theory that weighs the ethics of an act according to its eventual results. Lies, theft…Randy will wink at them, as long as nobody is harmed within his “threshold of acceptability.” Thus we can assume that Randy sees nothing wrong with a patron sneaking into a movie theater to see a film she already paid to see once. After all, nobody is hurt, since she wouldn’t pay to see it again anyway, and there were seats unsold. Cohen also, presumably, sees nothing wrong with an organization’s treasurer using its funds to pay his personal bills, as long as he replenishes the money supply so there’s no harm to the organization’s finances. “No harm, no foul”—the consequentialist’s creed.
Cohen concludes his travesty of a response by admitting that the illicit download could be construed as encouraging piracy, but “only in the abstract: no potential pirate will actually realize you’ve done it.” First of all, this isutter nonsense, a statement of the most fatuous of all rationalizations, the “I’m only one person, so it doesn’t really make a difference” argument. “What difference does it make to the environment is I don’t recycle? None…I’m just one person!” “Why should I vote? The result will be the same whether I do or not.” Fact: if nobody access illegal downloads, then web piracy ceases. Every individual who takes advantage of web piracy is contributing to, aiding and encouraging an illegal and unethical practice.
Even more ludicrous is this: Cohen’s own column is announcing to the world that the inquirer downloaded the pirated copy! Of course the pirates will know that he did it!