File-sharing: Over-ruling Ethics?

As the global music industry launches its largest legal action yet against online music thieves, it is also steeling itself for a barrage of criticism.

Almost 1,000 lawsuits are being filed against individuals in 11 countries to reinforce efforts to stop internet file-sharing, estimated to cost the music industry billions in lost sales. An overwhelming number of the music pirates hold to the position that their activities are no longer wrong, because 1) it is so easy to do 2) so many people do it, and 3) it can’t be stopped. These completely morally empty arguments are usually bolstered by specious rationalizations, such as the claim that recorded music is over-priced, record companies are too rich, and recording artists should simply give their talents to the world.

Read any of the above arguments, and one can see that they apply equally well to looting stores in a city after a natural disaster.

Still, the file-sharing problem points up a core ethical problem: when does the fact that a particular “wrong” can no longer be prevented and is becoming widespread justify its becoming a becoming “right”? When does popularity over-rule ethics?


That’s right, all you “the war on drugs doesn’t work and too many kids are ending up in jail so we might as well abolish the drug laws” advocates. Sorry, all you “everybody lies about sex so it doesn’t count as perjury” fans.


Never, because official societal disapproval of wrongful behavior is essential to maintaining coherent values. Never, because widespread acceptance of wrongdoing is what allowed such human catastrophes as the Holocaust to occur. Never, because while mob misconduct is always difficult to stop, it is impossible to stop if nobody will admit that it’s wrong.

Wrong conduct is conduct that is bad for us, that harms individuals, the community and society. Sometimes, indeed, many times, society learns that what was once believed to be wrong isn’t. Marriage between the races. Gay relationships. Women having careers.

Rock and roll.

It also can learn that what was once thought to be acceptable behavior does cause harm, and is actually wrong. Slavery. Sexual harassment. Segregation.

But these changes cannot be dictated by whether the behavior is popular or not. Having children out of wedlock is no longer regarded by society as “wrong,” because we decided that the cost of stigmatizing an increasing number of unwed mothers was too high. And now? America has a terrible social problem of entrenched poverty arising directly out of fatherless households. Having children without a stable family to support them never stopped being wrong; it was and is conduct that harms children and society. Nothing good comes from it. Because we let a facile “everybody’s doing it” argument open the floodgates, we abandoned a critical consensus on responsible conduct.

The file-sharers would have us abandon the consensus on stealing the property of others. Don’t fall for their arguments, which are far more damaging than their conduct. When wrongful acts become epidemic is when it becomes most important to re-state and hold fast to our core values. Nothing less than our future as a civilized, just and healthy society is at stake.

The fact that “everybody does it” just means that everybody needs to stop.


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