Audience Participation

April 30, 2006

Two somewhat related requests:

  1. Despite my relative certainty about the things I’ve discussed so far—the value and necessity of human reason, above all else—there are quite a few issues about which I don’t have ironclad opinions. In that vein, if there are any topics, specific or general, about which you would like me to post, please feel free to leave a comment here to that effect (or email me). I’ve got no scarcity of things to write about (he says, adding a twelfth post to his queue), but I’m genuinely curious about what sorts of things you’d like to see me write about, if you have any particular preference.
  2. Speaking of issues on which I haven’t come to a decisive conclusion, I’d like to get a bit of conversation going about the concept of hate crime legislation. The ‘sensible’ position, at least in the circles in which I run, is that such laws would by definition be thought legislation, in that they place an additional criminal burden on anti-[group] thoughts above and beyond already-prohibited violent actions, thus violating the principle of freedom of conscience. The suggestion of this argument is that hate crime legislation would be on principle no different from a legal prohibition against bigoted thoughts—the only difference being that bigotry would be a secondary violation, so to speak. The obvious rebuttal here is that intent and mental state are already considered in the law in quite a few places, most notably in the various distinctions between degrees of murder/manslaughter. This seems to be more a matter of the absence or presence of intent than about the content of that intent, I suppose, but hate crimes could be represented similarly–the absence or presence of anti-[group] intent in the committing of a violent crime.

    My instincts here run in two different directions. On the one hand, I am very receptive to the hesitance to regulate thought in any way, and to the theoretical dangers of encoding a sort of prohibition of certain beliefs, even if those beliefs are idiotic and hateful. I recognize that the burden rests on those doing the regulating, and that rights are assumed to exist unless otherwise specified. On the other hand, the “hate crime legislation -> thought crime” argument seems to me somewhat misleading; I’m not entirely ready to say that enforcing hate crime legislation would be the same in principle as enforcing a prohibition on bigoted thoughts. It should be noted that the desire to kill someone because of their sexual orientation/gender/race/etc. can and should be distinguished from the belief that someone is inferior because of those characteristics, though obviously they are fundamentally linked. The question there, I guess, would be whether there is something to the willingness to commit a hate crime besides the belief in the inferiority of the victim’s group and a willingness to kill in general, and I’m not really sure how to answer that. Society has a definite interest in decreasing the number of violent crimes committed, and this is one of the main functions of the legal prohibition on violent crime: to create a state where the cost of committing a certain crime (imprisonment, etc.) is greater than the perceived benefit of committing that crime (material gain, emotional satisfaction, etc.). Hate crime legislation would seem to act to create such a state of affairs by targeting one of the potential impulses towards violent crime. The other function of law is protection in a more direct sense, i.e. removing dangerously violent people from the general population so that they won’t kill people, and it seems to me that the thought crime argument is more relevant to this dimension of law. As a deterrent, though (see desire utilitarianism), it doesn’t seem to me entirely out of the question.

What say you, dear readers, on either of these counts?



On the purpose of copyright

April 13, 2006

Discussions of copyright and patent law have been coming into the sights of internet news sites with greater frequency of late. The DRM copy protection schemes supported by the RIAA and MPAA, the changing of copyright terms, and the questionable enforcement of the DMCA affect all of us as consumers and as free citizens.

The first thing I'll ask you to understand is that public domain is the natural state for information and ideas to be in; things are said to 'fall into' the public domain, which certainly does make it sound like a default state. In the interim between an idea's or work's conception and its becoming truly 'free,' legal restrictions can be placed on its distribution and use.

One important thing to note about these restrictions is that they are temporary. There is no such thing as permanent intellectual property. Both copyrights and patents expire after a set span of years. This changed with the passing of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, a piece of legislation bought and paid for in campaign donations from Disney. Here's a good article on the subject by Chris Sprigman of Findlaw.

Perhaps the most important thing everyone involved needs to recognize is the purpose of copyright is advancement itself. This point is well made by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, so I'll borrow her words:

"The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but ‘[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.' To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co.

499 US 340, 349(1991)

The law ultimately places the public good over the compensation of the individual. A challenge to the CTEA made the argument that the statute infringed on the First Amendment because it "placed a limitation on free speech without advancing any important governmental interest." (Sprigman)

Further reading:

  • A lot of these points draw from Sprigman's article from Findlaw, which is certainly better written than this post.
  • Paul Graham's interesting entry on software patents, a phrase that is synonymous with litigious nonsense to the Slashdot crowd.

Moral Reasoning vs. Moral Behavior

April 12, 2006

For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on issues of morality thus far in my blogging. Part of it is the sheer necessity of moral decision-making in a world in which one’s actions can so easily have an impact on other people. Part of it is my general interest in the ethical component of philosophy. Most of it, I suspect, is the fact that morality has become so tarnished as a concept, so twisted and misinterpreted and wrongheaded, that most of us shudder when anyone mentions “moral values,” because we recognize that as (typically) shorthand for the stubborn, arrogant imposition of one set of prejudices on an entire society. In this post, I’d like to address an important division in thinking about morality: the division between moral reasoning (process) and moral behavior (end).

(Side note: I should probably also make it clear that I’m using ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ pretty much interchangeably in these posts. This is perhaps not the best of ideas, and maybe in future posts I’ll be more precise in using ‘ethics’ to denote the philosophical inquiry into the nature of right and wrong, and ‘morality’ to denote the social/cultural systems generated thereof. For now, though, just pretend they’re identical.)

Read the rest of this entry »

The Domain of Moral Judgment (Morality Part Deux)

February 2, 2006

One of the crucial questions I didn’t address in my previous post about morality was that of which interactions are appropriate for us to evaluate on a moral scale. Not every action has a moral/immoral component to it. Morality is a framework to govern interactions between humans, or at least between creatures with a certain degree of sentience; while we may not be able to agree on definitions or degrees of sentience, we can agree that the complete lack thereof precludes an entity from taking part in a moral/immoral interaction. (It is nonsensical to talk about the morality or immorality of a man interacting with a wooden board.) In the most fundamental sense, morality exists, as I have said, to make our lives easier and happier than they would otherwise be, were we all left to our own animalistic devices. What this boils down to in principle, and what every moral value can be reduced to, is the protection of a certain set of rights. Differing moral systems hold differing views of what rights are natural/unimpeachable, what rights should always be protected, and what rights are more properly thought of as privileges, and these discrepancies are what result in different moral values. For a moral system to be rationally coherent, though, it must focus on interactions between rights-possessing entities.

It’s likely that by now you can see where I’m going with this. The previous paragraph can be summarized as follows:

  1. A coherent moral system can only deal with interactions between two or more sentient (to whatever degree) entities.
  2. A coherent moral system exists for the purpose of protecting the rights of participants in that system.

The concept of consensual/victimless crime, then, is meaningless from a morality standpoint. Society may have an interest in promoting ‘public morality,’ but that doesn’t mean it is morally justified in doing so. Leaving aside issues of morality vs. law, an interaction which doesn’t involve the abridging of rights of either party (obviously these interactions can involve more than two participants, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume only two) cannot properly be called ‘immoral.’

Take consensual crime—actions that are deemed criminal, despite being between two fully consenting adults. There is no moral justification for prohibiting any such interactions; as long as both directly-involved parties give informed consent (more on this later), there are no rights being abridged, and thus there is nothing to qualify such a situation as ‘moral’ or ‘immoral.’ It’s simply an interaction between two people, the same in principle as two people shaking hands. It doesn’t make sense to talk about the morality or immorality of such things unless you want to suggest a drastically different and much less defensible goal for a moral system (enforcing God’s will, say).

The principles involved in victimless, one-party crimes are more or less the same. Justifications for laws against suicide in particular tend to fall into two categories: the logistical argument, which suggests that although suicide only directly impacts the person committing suicide, it has considerable indirect effects on other people; and the appeal to moral authority argument, wherein suicide is claimed to be An Immoral Act, period, end of story. The latter doesn’t hold water at all, given that no one’s rights are being abridged. Those who argue from this perspective often speak as if rights implied requirements, i.e. the right to live must be exercised (because it’s natural, because human life is sacred, or for some other nebulously defined and poorly articulated reason). This is clearly not true; my right to live can’t be seen as a requirement to live, just as my right to free speech can’t be seen as a requirement to use that free speech. I am perfectly within my appropriate moral boundaries to go my entire life without saying a word, even if I’m capable of speech. (If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess that this isn’t particularly likely for me.) The logistical argument has slightly more of a logical basis, but it rests on the assumption that acts ought to be evaluated not just in terms of the actions themselves and their direct consequences, but also in terms of any indirect consequences that may crop up in the future. This makes some sense in the abstract (and I’m not entirely sure how to rebut it on principle), but it sets a troubling precedent, especially in a world where even the smallest action can have numerous unforeseen consequences. At any rate, I’m fairly certain that it would be impossible, no matter how many causal leaps were taken, to make a case that person A committing suicide can possibly violate any fundamental, unimpeachable rights of person B, assuming we’ve more or less arrived at a reasonable consensus as far as what those fundamental rights are (the right not to be sad is not defensible as such a right; the right not to be killed is).

This is all the long way around saying that morality becomes meaningless if we try to apply it to situations that don’t have a morality component. Such situations are more properly thought of as matters of cultural norms, and obviously legislating based on cultural norms is a bit more iffy than legislating based on a rationally-generated system of morality. Especially in an increasingly globalized society. Moral judgment can only be applied to situations where someone’s natural rights are being abridged; if all parties to an action/interaction have given autonomous and informed consent, then a consistently-defined morality has nothing whatsoever to say about the situation. These actions may offend some cultural norms, but calling them immoral is a gross misuse of the term, and that’s really the sort of term we ought to get right.