The Ones Who Walk Away

At some point in my schooling–high school or college, I can’t recall anymore–I received an assignment to read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If you like thought-provoking short stories and don’t like spoilers, I suggest taking a moment aside to read it before proceeding further! (CW: child abuse.)

The story describes a utopian city. People there live in joyful leisure, their every need provided for, never suffering more than the slightest knocks of ill fortune. There is but one catch: to sustain this perfection, Omelas keeps an innocent child imprisoned in abject squalor, fed greasy gruel and sometimes kicked for good measure. Every citizen of Omelas knows that the prisoner is there, and that if they are ever released, Omelas’s prosperity will end. Some few members of the city decide that they can not live under such a cruel bargain, and depart for the unknown lands beyond the mountains: the titular ones who walk away.

In the class, we examined Le Guin’s story as a thought exercise about utilitarianism. Do you find Omelas’s arrangement acceptable, as a utilitarian calculation might suggest? Or would you leave the city, believing that no amount of bliss could justify brutalizing a child? Self-righteous as I was (am?), I wrote my little essay response saying of course I would walk away. I couldn’t bear participating in an injustice like that.

It was a thought experiment, a hypothetical, an abstract what-if. I didn’t apply it to my own life. I didn’t stop to think: this is Omelas. I’m living there right now.

Whatever my struggles with money or productivity or mental health, I have it pretty good. I have a house, and food, and the endless entertainments of the Internet. I live (for now?) in a representative democracy where I can freely choose my religion, my friends, my self-expression.

And every one of those privileges is built upon exploitation and injustice.

The land my house rests upon belonged to the First Nations before white settlers seized it. I own the house thanks to a system of city and suburb, mortgage and credit score, that segregates white from black and rich from poor. Beneath even that is the dollar itself, token in the grand lottery of circumstance that randomly decides some people should have more of the good things in life than others, while lying that they “earned” it. The Internet, for all that it was supposed to save us by making information available to all, thrives by turning people’s attention, dreams, and relationships into data to be mined for profit. Its algorithms will happily tell you the Holocaust never happened, and the creators of those algorithms are okay with this. Our ever-worshiped democracy deploys military force against unarmed people and has selected a xenophobic rapist for its highest office.

I’ve seen the prisoner in the cellar. And yet here I still am, enjoying the Festival of Summer.

From a very early age, when I was sharply punished for saying “bad words” I parroted from my parents, I have been a fastidious follower of rules. It was many years before I would so much as jaywalk. And yet I have also always had a churning transgressive streak. I grew up near the St. Louis Arena. For the years when it lay empty, I daydreamed of trespassing there, wandering its deserted corridors and locker rooms. In college I got to toy with this dream of urban exploration by hiking through a ruined brick factory and learning the basics of parkour. Later I became a proponent of free culture in defiance of copyright. Most recently, I have taken an interest in antifas and cop watchers who stand up to hatred and unjust power in ways that are not always polite, tidy, or legal.

It seems I’m more primed for this than I’d have realized. How, then, can I walk away?

Hardcore anarchism would counsel me to literally walk away–abandon my house, my job, my marriage, and live in free and open defiance of all systems of control. I don’t think that’s me either, though. I can’t embrace the kind of nihilistic relativism that would condone so viciously hurting the people I care most about, as a middle finger to systems they didn’t ask to be a part of any more than I did.

But there are other things I can walk away from. I think I’m done with voting as a means of social change; it’s useless when your vote will just be gerrymandered, machine-errored, and Electoral-Colleged into irrelevance. And even the best possible politicians, like beloved St. Bernard, are more than willing to bow to the incoming kleptocrat-in-chief if it might help get their pet projects accomplished. Better to clog the phone lines and block the streets to make one’s desires heard.

I’ve already observed that video games etc. conspire to dull the mind and keep us from reaching our full potential. What then if I walked away from that? I’m forming a plan to live 2017 free from social media (other than blogs like this) and video gaming. I spend hundreds of hours on those things; if I dedicated all that time to writing, design, and social action, what might I achieve? If my leisure were occupied with reading instead of matching sets of three colored gems, what might I learn?

Will you walk with me out of Omelas? How?

Tactical Fatalism

(Content notes: This post will cover some bleak stuff. Donald Trump, political apathy, plausible apocalyptic scenarios, existential dread, religious belief or the lack thereof, etc. It’s also got an Undertale spoiler. If that’s likely to bum you out beyond your spare cope, might best pass this on by.)

This strange and dramatic election season, combined with my spending a bit more time on social media sites than usual, has prompted me to think hard about my voting decisions. In particular, conversations with a friend of mine, who’s a diehard Bernie Sanders fan of the “Never Hillary” persuasion, have made me ponder justifications for choices that had previously been reflexive.

Back in my days of unflinching Catholicism, I obediently followed the Church’s voting recommendations: vote for whoever would protect the rights of the unborn. A single-issue voter, you’d call it. At first, I took this to mean supporting the head-of-the-pack Republican of the moment. Later, grappling with the fact that Republicans had a love of unjust war, I went with a third-party protest vote like “Average Joe” Schriner. Even then, I knew that such a vote would not put the tiny underdog in the White House–but it felt good to cast a vote whose target compromised as few of my values as possible.

Today, not only have I discarded the narrow “pro-life” agenda, but I’ve come to accept the inevitability, and to some extent value, of tactical voting. I’ve made my peace with choosing the lesser of evils, in other words. I would have loved to see Bernie Sanders attain the Presidency, but given how clear it is that’s not going to happen, I am quite content to support Hillary Clinton instead.

You fool! cry the Sandernauts; By capitulating, you shore up a corrupt and unjust system! If we consent to support a candidate who is merely less horrible than the alternative, we will never see a truly great candidate succeed. And if we are to right the course of the United States and the world, we need a truly great President! Turn back, and cast your vote for the best choice, even if you know it will fail–it will pave the way for the future!

Well. Here’s where it gets bleak.

I’m convinced we don’t even have time to play the long game.

Humanity has always been on a clock. All things are finite. It was only ever a question of how long we had, and what our doom would look like once it materialized. Over the last few centuries, we have chosen our apocalypse, and like Robert Frost, we have held with those who favor fire. Or, at least, slow cooking. I mean, of course, global warming.

There is too much momentum to the problem of greenhouse-gas-driven worldwide temperature increase for us to stop it. For that we would have needed to change course, dramatically, long before I was born. We can perhaps hope to slow the process unto the second or third derivative*, but no more. I may not believe in the worst-case projections that posit the collapse of human civilization within fifteen years; but I would be not at all surprised if at least some members of my generation live to see it happen.

Even if we elected the grandest unicorn ever to grace the political stage; even if, evidence to the contrary aside, that unicorn is Bernie Sanders; the magic horn would not erase countless billions of tons of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. We are fucked no matter whom we put in charge of the United States executive branch.

I do admire the optimists. There is something beautiful about Papyrus, having refused to raise a hand against a genocidal player, saying with his dying words that he still believes in them. It’s one reason I still hold out hope that religious truth might exist, despite lacking the conviction to call myself a believer: I want to think we all have a second chance. For all that it’s hopeless, I support efforts to buy a little more time for Earth via green power, emissions reduction, etc. etc. Confronted with the dying of the light, I am pro-rage.

But for now, I cannot stomach choosing a path of short-term harm for long-term idealism, because I don’t think there’s much “long term” left for it to take fruition in. We may have only a few decades; I want my friends to be able to live with a little less hate, a little more freedom, a little more happiness in that period. I thus cannot cast my one vote, my infinitesimal scrap of democratic power, in such a way that would empower the likes of Donald Trump. Maybe Clinton won’t do as much as Sanders would to slow our inexorable descent into apocalypse, but that’s OK. She will, at least, not plunge us into an immediate maelstrom of xenophobic hatred, and that’s good enough for my conscience.


* That is to say, we can’t stop the world from getting hotter; but we may be able to help it get hotter slower or, failing that, reduce the acceleration of its getting hotter. I credit my older brother, a math professor, for my even having retained this concept from high school calculus.

Ethics and Copyright, Part 3: The Categorical Imperative

Lyn Hawthorn:

For our last venture into the ethics of copyright and copyright infringement, we explored how the moral framework of utilitarianism might approach the issue. I expect I’ll return to that topic and post later, since my rustiness with philosophical argumentation is pretty evident there, but for now let’s move on to the ideas of Immanuel Kant.

Kant is among the best known of the deontological ethical thinkers. In contrast to consequentialism, which concerns itself with the effect or outcome of an action, deontology evaluates the moral right or wrong of an act based on whether or not it adheres to objective rules or duties–laws that do not change according to circumstance. To clearly contrast this idea with rule utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism would acknowledge that if, by some strange and catastrophic event, everybody found themselves reacting with joy to the discovery that someone had stolen things of theirs (“oh happy day! My life has been simplified without any effort on my part!”), the rule that we shouldn’t steal things from one another should be reevaluated and maybe softened or eliminated. A deontologist, however, would hold that shifting circumstances have no bearing on morality: it is always and simply wrong to take someone’s rightful property without prior consent, no matter whether it does them good in the end or not. I don’t see copyright defenders use this angle as often as I see consequentialist lines of argument, but it does come up: “I don’t care if peer-to-peer sharing broadens my audience or even gets me more sales in the end. I have a right to control how my intellectual property is used, and I don’t want it shared that way.”

Immanuel Kant attempted to boil down an entire deontological ethic to one reasoned-out law, from which you could derive all others. What he came up with is called the categorical imperative. It has several formulations, the first and best-known being thus: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” It resembles rule utilitarianism or even our childhood Golden Rules in that it posits a sort of thought experiment: “what if everyone did what I’m doing now?” Unlike rule utilitarianism or the Golden Rule, however, it’s not concerned with whether the thought experiment shows a better- or worse-off society, or leads to personally undesirable situations. Instead, it supposes that if we look at our present action as a universal law, and it becomes logically impossible or rationally absurd, then what we’re doing is wrong. For the “stealing” example, if “I may take things from others without prior consent” were a universal law, the whole point of taking something in the first place would come apart: I could no longer count upon using it myself, since anybody else would be free to snatch it away from me in turn. It’s not that this would go badly, but that it leads to contradiction.

So how does this come out for copyright infringement? The tricky part lies in formulating what axiom an infringer is acting upon. We need to sum up the whole of their action without weaselly additions. The Devil-May-Care Infringer comes out in the wrong, at least! “People may download whatever digital content they like without sharing it in turn” leads to contradiction–without anyone seeding or hosting, there could be no downloading, so the axiom undoes itself. Less moustache-twirling Infringers are trickier, though. There doesn’t seem to be anything immediately contradictory about “People may freely download and share digital content,” for instance, an axiom the Casual or Compulsive Infringers might be said to follow. If you argue that such an axiom would mean no digital content would ever get created to be downloaded in the first place, that’s an economic conjecture, and gets us to my thesis: the moral question is contingent upon the resolution of the economic one.

Perhaps a later formulation of the Categorical Imperative might serve the copyright defender better, though. Kant eventually shaped the Imperative into “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.” That’s wordy and precise, but expresses the idea that we should never make people into tools, using them to further our own purposes without recognizing their own rights and worthiness of respect. We shouldn’t step on people on our way to the top, but cooperate with them and find ways to enrich their lives at the same time. This formulation serves the copyright defender pretty well! Whenever we flout the content creator’s desires in how their work should be distributed, we’re pretty clearly treating them as a means to an end (entertainment, or education, or whatever), in contrast to purchasing and copying according to their preferred model, which brings them into the transaction as an end. Somebody like the Huge Fan, who works very hard to treat the content creator as an end in themselves, fares better–but is still in the wrong at that moment of unauthorized downloading. The non-consequentialist nature of the Imperative forbids us from arguing economic boons and benefits to society in any Infringer’s favor.

Using late Kantian deontology, then, would be a good way for copyright defenders to argue the immorality of unauthorized downloading, without having to demonstrate the economic harm of it. However! What’s good for the goose, and all that: what happens when we apply the Imperative to the copyright holder’s side of the operation? Many features of today’s copyright monopoly run afoul of treating the general public, consumers, etc. as means rather than ends. “Creators should keep their work out of the public domain as long as possible.” “It is acceptable to price educational materials out of the reach of students in developing nations.” “Seek maximum statutory damages against infringers, regardless of the scope of their infraction or their ability to pay the debt.” All these axioms are horrifically awry with respect to Kantian ethics! It somewhat shifts the goalposts of the conversation to take this tack in this series of posts, but I leave it here as an avenue for further thought. Even when we find a moral framework that successfully condemns copyright infringers, it still leads to conclusions that we should reform and moderate our system of copyrights!

Ethics and Copyright, Part 2: Utilitarianism

Lyn Hawthorn:

For our first venture into the good and evil, right and wrong of copyright infringement, we’ll dive into utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a poster child of the consequentialist model of ethics, which holds that we should look to the outcomes or effects of our actions to determine right and wrong. It’s not the act itself, or our motivations in doing it, or the way it reflects on our character, that matters. Rather, we look to see if the action helped or hurt, made the world a better or worse place, and judge accordingly. It has a definite common-sense feel to it: coming to someone’s defense with “leave him be, he’s not hurting anyone,” or appealing to modern Paganism’s “do what thou wilt, but harm none,” and so forth, take a consequentialist perspective. In discussions about copyright, proponents of copyright argue this angle with lines like “piracy hurts artists!”

Utilitarianism in particular is based on the Greatest Happiness Principle: we should act as to promote the most happiness (well-being, pleasure, fulfillment) for the most people we can, and similarly minimize suffering (pain, frustration, lost opportunity) caused by our actions. In its early form, called act utilitarianism, we do this sort of calculation on any individual act to determine if it’s morally praiseworthy or blameworthy: if I do this thing, how much boon and harm will come from it? If it comes out a net positive for happiness, it’s acceptable, and if negative, it’s to be avoided. A further developed theory called rule utilitarianism works more subtly with this ethical calculus; we’ll get to that in a bit.

Amusingly, act utilitarianism struggles to paint copyright infringement as wrongful, even in the egregious case of our Devil-May-Care Infringer. The Infringer gains some happiness by acquiring and consuming his music or movie; the author or artist loses out on some happiness by the fact that they didn’t get revenue from that consumption. Especially under traditional royalty models, the author’s benefit from a single sale is pretty negligible, so what does that come out to, on balance? About neutral? What’s more, the Infringer’s other expenditures continue to enrich haberdashers and moustache-waxers, so if we’re to say the world comes off worse for the Devil-May-Care’s action, we would need to mount a demonstration that haberdashers and moustache-waxers promote less happiness or common good than artists and filmmakers do. That might indeed be doable, but is a direction that a utilitarian should tread with caution: the more extreme a maximization of happiness we expect of people under our moral system, the less sensible or intuitive it will come out. (Imagine what a paralyzing horror a trip to the grocery store would be, if you were required to purchase only those items that utterly maximized charitable works, environmental safety, etc.)

The other Infringers come off even easier, since their tactics are less extreme. The discussion gets more interesting, however, when we introduce rule utilitarianism. Under this scheme, we look not at an individual act, but consider what rules or laws we should enact and follow to bring the greatest happiness in society. There might be some odd case, rule utilitarianism acknowledges, where someone robbing someone else comes out happiness-positive; but if we didn’t disallow robbery as a general rule, the resulting might-makes-right definition of property would greatly diminish our safety, human progress, etc. So instead of puzzling out who’s helped and harmed by one infringing act or the individual choice to download a movie and buy a hat with the savings, we ask: what would the world be like if everyone were free to download and share copyrighted material, unrestricted? Would that setup be a net boon or harm to us all?

Plainly, such a paradigm shift would force a reevaluation of business models across the creative industries, which lands us square on my thesis: in order to evaluate the moral question of copyright, we need to have out the conversation of what economics would be like without it. If it turns out that creative industries could thrive the same as or better than now, were they to adopt non-monopolistic practices with respect to copying their material, then it seems infringement might be acceptable under rule utilitarianism. At most we would have to ask, does infringement under the current regime help accelerate the coming about of a thriving post-copyright business environment, or does it hold it back? The answer there would give final blessing or sanction.

Other fruitful conversations we could have, in a discussion of copyright and utilitarianism:

  • Which is more conducive to the general good: the current “permission culture,” where any use of a creative work requires permission and possibly licensing from the copyright holder; or a “remix culture” where people can freely reuse, transform, and build upon prior art? The tremendous vibrancy of mashups, music videos, and the like on the Internet and beyond, versus the chilling effect of legal threats and DMCA takedowns, suggests utilitarianism would favor a looser arrangement than we have now.
  • The public library effect: our Compulsive Infringer and Hoarder (or, to put a different perspective on it, the Pirate Bay and its ilk themselves) are modern Libraries of Alexandria, storing up knowledge and cultural works against future disaster. Free copying by the general public would be strong insurance against the art itself being lost forever, should the originals ever go missing or be destroyed. Which is the greater good vis utilitarianism: nearly undefeatable historical preservation, or the ability of a copyright holder to profit from every copy made?
  • While we’re on the topic of knowledge, a common point of pain under the current copyright regime is educational material. In colleges and universities, students must often pay exorbitant sums for the textbooks needed in their classes; in developing countries trying to bring their educational systems up to speed, the cost of licensing educational resources can stop a course of study before it’s ever taught. Which is of greater utility: education for all, or only for those who can pay a premium?

On the whole, utiltarianism looks to favor less copyright rather than more, and might even condone individuals’ infringement! What do you think? What other arguments can we bring to bear in the context of utilitarianism, for or against copyright?

Ethics and Copyright, Part 1.5: Piratical Archetypes

Lyn Hawthorn:

As I embark upon this series of posts examining the ethics of copyright and the infringement thereof, it occurs to me that one more bit of preparation would be useful. For various thought experiments, and to look at infringement through the lens of different theories of morality, these are a few scenarios we can refer back to over the course of these posts. Keep these portraits of different sorts of unauthorized downloading in mind as we go on!

The Casual Infringer: This is the sort of person we’ve all likely met, and if we’re not talking about any other template, we can assume we’re on about this person. The causal infringer sometimes buys copyrighted materials according to the law, and sometimes gets them by unauthorized means, according to their needs and feelings of the moment. They might watch a pirate stream of a sporting event one week, then buy a deluxe Blu-Ray film the next. They don’t give the ethical considerations much thought.

The Devil-May-Care Infringer: Our extreme example of piratical attitudes, this is the “wants everything for free” media consumer that copyright proponents love to hate. He doesn’t pay for any entertainment if he can get away with it! Nor does he buy merch or do anything else that could be construed as generating revenue for the artists and authors whose work he soaks up. In fact, he’s selfish even by pirate standards, not even sharing out what he downloads–always a leecher, never a seeder, on the torrents. We can suppose he spends the money saved on entertainment to buy black hats and moustache wax. Surely if we can succeed in nailing anybody with moral blame for copyright infringement, this guy would be one!

The Compulsive Infringer: This odd duck doesn’t even use the stuff she downloads. She simply amasses as much of it as she can and shares it back out to whoever is in search of it. The ultimate torrent seeder, building as vast a catalog of copyrighted stuff as she can find, without much attention to what it is she’s getting or distributing. A variation where she downloads anything and everything but doesn’t share it back out might be called a Hoarder.

The Huge Fan: This person is a devoted follower of one or more media creators. They download and share things because it’s the fastest and most effective way to get ahold of new content, and they want others to have the chance to see, hear, or read their favorites too! They might not always buy copyrighted material according to their object of adoration’s wishes, but they’re conscientious about making up for it in concert tickets, T-shirts, direct donations, etc.

The Underserved Customer: A Casual Infringer with a coherent pattern to what they infringe on and what they don’t. This person has particular standards on price, convenience, format, quality, or the like. If some content hits what they feel is reasonable on those criteria, they buy; if it doesn’t, they pirate. People who live outside of regions where content is legally available, but acquire it anyway, fall into this category.

The Broke Infringer: Somebody who simply doesn’t have disposable income to pay for copyrighted material. For our purposes, we can say they have exactly enough money for basic needs and an Internet connection, but not a penny more. If they’re to partake of copyrighted media at all, they have to get it for free somehow–which they regularly do, typically by pirate download.

That should cover most of our bases! What reactions do you have to these portraits? Are there any other motivations for or patterns of infringing behavior that might be relevant to these discussions?

Ethics and Copyright, Part 1: Thief! Thief!

Lyn Hawthorn:

When discussing the topic of respecting copyrights vs. infringing upon them, proponents of copyright protection often make their case from a moral or ethical perspective. Say what you want about free speech or economics, the assertion goes, an illegal download is just wrong.

As somebody interested in both philosophy and copyright reform, I find this question a fascinating thing to explore! So in this series of posts, I’ll construct arguments and counterarguments about the idea that copyright infringement is a moral wrong, and see where it leads. From my brainstorming so far, my rough thesis is thus: ethical arguments about copyright infringement collapse into economic arguments about the viability of post-scarcity business models. If it can be shown that monopolizing the right to copy is the only sustainable way to promote the arts and technology, then to infringe on copyright is a moral failure. But if culture and business can thrive as well or better using some other way of making money from what’s termed “intellectual property,” then infringement is not morally blameworthy.

My philosophical skills are very rusty, by this point; I graduated with my Philosophy major more than eight years ago, now, and even then it was only a bachelor’s degree! So my argumentation and my understanding of different theories of morals will likely have terrible flaws. Let me know! I’m itching to reveal what of these ideas are defensible and what not, which can only happen in the fires of criticism.

By way of a warm-up exercise, here’s a light Socratic dialogue from a typical starting point: the accusation that infringers of copyright are “thieves”. Tani-ro will speak for the infringers, Kali-ra for defenders of copyright.

Tani-ro: When you say that an unauthorized download is “stealing” or that somebody who infringes is a “thief”, you’re obviously not making a legal argument. The law treats infringement very differently from burglary or robbery or bank fraud. If not a legal point, then, what’s the thrust of the accusation?

Kali-ra: It’s morally equivalent to stealing. You’re taking something that doesn’t belong to you, something you haven’t paid for as you ought.

Tani-ro: These things seem very different, though. In the sense of “taking” that applies to theft, one person loses an object to the thief. I had a fine vase; a burglar broke in and hauled it away in a sack; now I have no vase. But in the case of infringement, the perpetrator has only made a copy. The original still remains. In what sense “taking,” then?

Kali-ra: You’re depriving the creator or seller of the thing of rightful income. The copying’s supposed to take place after a transaction where money passes from you to the author. If you make the copy without the payment, the creator comes up short–in the end you take away their ability to buy other goods, maybe even pay rent!

Tani-ro: That can’t be the whole story, though. If “depriving of income” were theft, then any number of actions resulting in less money for the author would also count as theft. Writing a bad review of the work that dissuades other people from buying it would be theft. Choosing to buy a competitor’s product instead of yours would be theft. My having this conversation with you, when I could be out buying any of myriad copyrighted works, would be theft! I think you do not consider these things to be thievery; how then is infringement different?

Kali-ra: You glossed over the “rightful” part. By acquiring the work, you’ve incurred a debt to its creator. With the review, or the purchasing decision, or whatever, you aren’t in a situation where you owe the author anything. But as soon as you take the step of downloading, you have an obligation to pay back the creator according to the price they’ve set on the work. By infringing, you renege on that obligation. If you don’t think the word “thief” fits that, then take “cheat”, or “oathbreaker”, or “cad” instead–those work too!

…and here I think we have arrived at the copyright proponent’s strongest position. In future articles, I’ll try to explore just what sort of debt or duty is incurred in consuming media, and see if Kali-ra has the right of it here!