The Candy Apple
This Month’s Candy Apple Is Golden (the Golden Rule, That Is)
I just wrapped up a unit on ethics with an introductory philosophy class and thought some of the stuff we learned might be applicable to the rest of us. We often face decisions about how to participate in a technological society; maybe some of these ideas will help simplify those choices. We’ll talk about the ideas first, then try some sample problems.
Idea 1—Behave toward other people in ways you believe they should behave toward you. It doesn’t matter what we think or feel, as long as our actions are grounded in respect for others. If we behave well toward others, eventually the thoughts and feelings of benevolence follow. Maybe. But that almost doesn’t matter. What really matters is that we don’t harm others.
Idea 2—Behave so as to maximize happiness for everyone. This one is difficult to quantify, but certain actions are recognized as being generally contributory to many people’s happiness. The definition of “happiness” here is not giddiness or ecstasy, just a general feeling of well-being that lasts and is not constantly under attack.
Idea 3—Behave properly out of a state of character that makes it obvious what you should do.
Idea 1 is duty ethics, Idea 2 is utilitarianism, and Idea 3 is virtue ethics. Grossly oversimplified, all of them, but clear enough for our purpose, which is to apply them to real-life choices many of us make or have already made.
Problem 1—Whether to download an MP3 from someone else’s computer. The issue is whether the music is copyrighted and ought to be paid for rather than shared. This does not include instances in which explicit permission is given to copy a file. If an artist is losing money by my copying the file rather than purchasing it, then the artist is being harmed.
Using duty ethics, we ask, “Would it be OK if I were trying to sell music and people didn’t pay for it but instead copied it for each other?” If the answer is No, then we will commit an unethical act if we download the file.
Using the principle of utility (utilitarianism), we ask, “Is it good for society for me to copy this file without paying for it?” If the answer is No, because it introduces an erosion of trust that will reduce future good for the society, then we commit an unethical act when we download the file.
Using virtue ethics, we never have to ask the question. We spend a lifetime cultivating a virtuous state of soul. If the virtues of courage, justice, moderation, and wisdom are sufficiently nurtured, when we arrive at moments of choice, we know what to do. We have a sense of what is just, and how that means that things belong in their proper places. We are sufficiently savvy in the subtleties of when to make exceptions and under what circumstances. We are courageous about doing the right thing even if it is not easy (especially when it is not easy!). We temper our desires with the knowledge that we are doing the right thing.
Problem 2—Whether to send in the shareware fee on an application. If the creator is not properly rewarded for her hard work and ideas, then we harm her. A reasonable trial period is understood as part of the demonstration. My hypothetical problem is concerned with what happens once that trial period has resulted in a decision to keep the software.
Using duty ethics, we ask, “Would it be OK if I were trying to make a living by making my program inexpensively available on the honor system, and nobody sent in the 10 bucks?” If the answer is No, then we will commit an unethical act if we use the program without paying for it.
Using the principle of utility (utilitarianism), we ask, “Is it good for society for me to continue using this program without paying for it?” If the answer is No, because it means that eventually shareware writers and artists will stop producing their work because they are not being fairly compensated for it, then we commit an unethical act when we use the program without paying for it.
Using virtue ethics, just like on Problem 1, we never have to ask the question. We are such great people that we know what to do. We test the software for a while, decide we want to keep it, and then we send in the money. Easy.
• • •
So there you have it. Three different ways to tackle life’s toughest ethical problems. And all you have to do is decide whether to download some tunes, or whether to fork over that $10 you’ve been meaning to send in for that nifty piece of software you use every other day.
Also in This Series
- On Temptation · July 2010
- Beyond Pen Pals · July 2007
- Just Because We Can Do a Thing, Does Not Mean We Should Do a Thing · March 2006
- Google Tells Big Brother to Take a Hike · February 2006
- Wikipedia Is Not the Lovefest We Thought · January 2006
- Star Trek Gadgets Have Arrived · December 2005
- The Silver Screen Keeps Shrinking · October 2005
- It’s Just Business · July 2005
- Age Has Its Advantages · June 2005
- Complete Archive