The Central Intelligence Agency regularly asks its applicants whether they have ever illegally downloaded music. They claim not to disqualify applicants who check the “yes” box for this question, but such a question nevertheless calls us to reassess that sixth-grade Linkin Park phase when we torrented all of the band’s albums off LimeWire (only me?).
While most people know that downloading pirated music or movies is illegal, for whatever reason, such actions don’t vigorously arouse our moral sentiments. Society demonizes most illegal acts such as robbery or drug abuse, but most people reading this article would admit openly and shamelessly to piracy.
Why is this so? One satisfying answer I’ve come across is that piracy is like “having your car stolen, and it’s still there the next morning.” Granted, intellectual property is peculiar in that it can belong to many different people at the same time. From this pragmatic standpoint, pirating music doesn’t seem too bad since you’re copying the material rather than physically stealing it.
Such a distinction in sentiment from physical stealing to intellectual copying makes sense, I would argue, from an evolutionary standpoint. While our ancient ancestors guarded and shared their physical resources sparingly and conscientiously, sharing ideas (i.e., copying hunting methods or sharpening tools) was taken for granted.
Copyright laws are not part of our evolutionary past, but an action like bartering goods is.
However, does not having strong moral feelings against a certain practice make it right? Our morals are a result of our evolutionary past, but we now live in a completely different world. This is what makes contemporary ethical issues so difficult. They just don’t feel wrong, although our reasoning can sometimes come to the conclusion that they are.
Since we cannot rely on our moral sentiments to guide us through this brave new world, we’re left to resolving these issues via reason.
Take the music industry, for example. Musicians work very hard to make the music that they do, and although they don’t do it just for the money, there are producers and songwriters with bills to pay that rely on that music for their livelihood.
Of course, some artists get paid exorbitantly anyway, but the music industry consists of more people than individual artists, and taking something that isn’t yours is wrong on principle alone. Put succinctly, you wouldn’t like it if somebody pirated your music, which is why you shouldn’t do it to others.
We live in a world where technology has advanced faster than our moral comprehension of our innovations. Human enhancement and artificial intelligence are examples of recent dilemmas for which we have no base biological moral compass. Navigating through such issues is therefore incredibly difficult yet increasingly important.
However, at least some virtues are timeless and can be applied no matter how convoluted technology makes this world. So when the CIA asks us if we’ve ever downloaded music illegally, at least we can apply the ancient Aristotelian virtue of honesty and check off “yes.”