Wednesday, 31 October 2012


     Last week, I spent several hours trying to help my mother perform what ought to be a fairly simple function: transferring files from a CD-ROM to her iPad. This turns out to be surprisingly difficult, thanks to the Digital Rights Management paradigm around which the iPad and, increasingly, computers generally are built. A device like an iPad is presumed to be tied to a particular computer, and so the songs and other things you've bought on your laptop are conveniently and automatically shared with your iPad. But to prevent piracy, there are barriers to sharing files with someone else's computer.
     So, all I wanted to do was use the CD drive on my laptop to move the files from the CD to my mother's iPad, but a dialogue box warned me that the syncing process would delete photos on my mother's device that weren't present on my laptop. We were eventually able to move the files over, but it took a long time and was ridiculously inconvenient.

     Okay, I understand intellectual property law, and the rationale for copyright, and why it's important to provide a means for creators to earn a living from their works. I get that, I really do. I don't agree with the calculations of how much the music and film industries lose to piracy every year, which are absurdly inflated and self-serving, but I'm sympathetic to the plight of the starving artist. I really am. 
     But really, is copyright law the best we can come up with? Are these barriers to copying really justified? Because those barriers impose costs on people, and not just the people who ought to be paying. 

     If you've taken economics, you're probably familiar with the term "externality", which just refers to any cost (or benefit) that doesn't show up on the balance sheet of the economic actor in question. The classic textbook example of an externality is the pollution from a factory. The factory owner's costs of production are the cost of the land and the factory itself, the raw materials used, the machinery, and the labour to run it, but the cost of pollution (quantifiable as reduced property values, additional health care costs, diminished agricultural yields, etc.) is imposed on someone else. 
     Factories may be necessary, but the exclusion of externalities from their accounting greatly distorts the appraisal of their economic value. You can't argue that a factory is efficient because it's profitable if it's being subsidized by everyone who has to put up with the pollution it emits; you have to take into account all the costs (and benefits; there are positive externalities as well) of an activity before you can trust in the validity of the Invisible Hand's market results.

     Now, I'm not arguing here that intellectual property rights should be abolished. (I feel sure there must be a better solution, but at the moment I'm at a loss to provide one.) But I am arguing that the copyright as it is currently applied imposes significant externalities on people who aren't pirating anything. The files on that CD-ROM my mother wanted to look at were sent to her by their creators for her to review; there was no violation of copyright at all involved. And yet, to protect the rights of a relatively small subset of copyright holders (i.e. those represented by traditional publishing and media companies), the iPad was built to make it difficult to transfer any files outside of the commercial paradigm. 
     The inconvenience of copying perfectly legitimate files is only one of the costs we pay to protect the interests of copyright holders. There are countless others, from the trivial (why can't I skip past watching that same FBI anti-piracy warning on a DVD? How many person-seconds has that wasted?) to the absurd (why can't I watch the original WKRP in Cincinnati episodes with the original music? Is anyone seriously going to use that show to listen to snippets of popular songs without paying for them?) to the genuine stifling of creative contributions to the world's cultures (Was anyone going to read The Wind Done Gone and decide they didn't need to read Gone With The Wind or see the movie now that they knew how it ended?)
     All of these costs are imposed upon you and me and the rest of the world. There may be good reasons for imposing them, but we still end up paying them, and paying them involuntarily. That basic fact undermines the media industries' attempts to claim the moral high ground. They are trying very hard to make us all accept the idea that unauthorized copying of things is stealing, and there's some moral validity to that. But I just had three hours of my time "stolen" trying to copy something the owner actually wanted me to copy. If the recording industry wants people to recognize and sympathize with their losses to unauthorized copying, this is probably the wrong way to go about it.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Two 14-year-old Girls

     Not long after I wrote my last post on insulting the prophet, I heard a debate on the radio that raised my free-speech hackles a bit. One participant took the position that people should be criminally liable for speech or symbolic acts that they know are likely to result in violence, such as burning a copy of the Koran. She articulated the principle in terms of causality, which is what I found troubling, because it seems to me that to assign moral blame to the speaker for how an audience reacts is to deny (or at the very least dilute) the responsibility of audiences to react appropriately. Even if an inappropriate response is predictable, I am reluctant to blame the speaker, except in cases of fraud or deception.
     As if to make that point clear, last week the Taliban attempted to assassinate a fourteen year old girl, Malala Yousufzai, for her audacious and heretical suggestion that girls should be educated. The Taliban have made it very clear that they intend to respond with violence to such advocacy; it was therefore reasonable to anticipate that if Malala were to continue speaking out in favour of girls' education, she would be targeted. And yet we view her (rightly in my mind) as blameless in this, and in fact we praise her for her courage. The blame, all of the blame, falls squarely on the shoulders of the ignorant zealots who tried to kill her. They did wrong, not she. 
     The same week, a successful attempt on the life of a different fourteen year old girl was made, unfortunately by someone less inept than the Taliban: Amanda Todd committed suicide after ruthless bullying. 

     The juxtaposition of these two girls and their circumstances leaves me greatly conflicted. On the one hand, I feel very strongly that Malala did nothing wrong, and that nothing she said justified any act of violence whatsoever. At the same time, though, I have great sadness and sympathy for Amanda, and anger at her abusers. And there's the conflict, because ultimately she was the one who decided to kill herself, in response to abuse which at its core was speech. (I know she had been punched and blackmailed, but I will go out on a limb and speculate that it was the insistent display of hatred and moral condemnation more than anything else that drove her to such misery.) Did I not just conclude, before being confronted with this case, that speakers are not to be held morally responsible for the inappropriate reactions of their audiences, even if they are predictable? If Malala was blameless for the attempt on her life, even though it was predictable that Taliban zealots would react with inappropriate violence, how do I still feel anger at Amanda's bullies, for her inappropriate reaction of self-directed violence?

     I've struggled with this, and for a while I thought I could explain it this way: The bullies are not to blame for her death, but for something very nearly as evil. They are to blame for treating her with such devastating cruelty as to make her miserable enough to want to die, and that's plenty blameworthy enough.

     But I'm not sure that rationalization really does the trick, either. After all, Malala's speech clearly caused great distress to the poor sensitive Taliban, hurting their delicate feelings or their religious sensibilities or whatever badly enough to provoke them to violence, and yet I have almost no sympathy whatsoever for them and their reaction, whereas I do have sympathy for Amanda.

     The real answer, I think, is uglier. I said above that only in the case of fraud or deception can we blame speakers for the actions of their audience, and I think we have all deceived Amanda and each other. Malala spoke truthfully and frankly; she said she believed girls deserve to be educated, and the Taliban assassins could have tried to reason with her and her audience, to explain why she was wrong and to convince us all that no, after all, girls ought not to be educated. But they didn't do that. They surrendered the moral high ground and shot her instead.

     In contrast, Amanda's bullies told her, through their words and actions, that she was worthless and bad and deserved to die. Some creep manipulated her into showing her bare chest to him online, but we told her, collectively, that was something for her to be ashamed of. We empowered him to blackmail and humiliate her, by making a federal case out of "wardrobe malfunctions", by making it a big deal, a grave moral concern. In short, we told her a lie that she believed, and on that basis killed herself. We've got to stop telling that lie, and I suppose the first step there is to stop believing it ourselves. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Explaining is not Excusing

     I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago who expressed a certain dissatisfaction with my earlier post on the Man-Cold. It's not that she thought it was necessarily false, she said. She just didn't like my giving men an excuse to be such wimps. Well, I don't think I did that. I gave an account for why it might actually have been a survival trait for men in our evolutionary past to be laid low by a simple cold, but I never said anything about whether or not it was morally appropriate. Indeed, while it might once have been sensible, most of us don't hunt mastodons anymore, so being unable to wash the dishes or take out the garbage just because you have a cold is just silly. We no longer live in an environment where being a wimp about a simple cold has any practical justification. We can understand why men might be wired this way without committing ourselves to saying it's perfectly all right for them to lie incapacitated on the couch if they get the sniffles.

     But the tendency to equate explanation with excuse is powerful and widespread. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker discusses at some length the surprising levels of anger faced by scientists who make any pronouncement about, say, the reproductive advantage that a tendency to rape might offer. Now, I should think it would be uncontroversial that, all other things being equal, a male of some species who was willing and able to force his attentions upon an unwilling female would have more reproductive opportunities than one who wasn't, and that it therefore shouldn't surprise us to find that some males carry such an urge. (Unless, of course, there really were some sort of magical shut-down system in the case of "legitimate rape", as a certain woefully ignorant politician recently claimed.) Yet, thanks to this instinct we have to confuse explanation with excuse, the very suggestion that some men might have an instinctive desire to rape is tantamount to declaring open season on women.

     It's not, of course. Recognizing that people have desires or instincts that may be inherited says nothing about the morality of acting upon those desires. No one would suggest that hunger is a culturally learned behaviour, that we only eat because we've been taught to. Hunger is a perfectly natural and hardwired instinct, but that doesn't mean we excuse all acts of eating as appropriate. (And we almost never justify cannibalism, an act of eating with a human victim. When we do, it's always in survival situations: "But I was really, REALLY hungry" is not the defense; "But I was going to die otherwise" is.) So what if we have a hardwired instinct to get horny? Unless it's possible to actually die of lust (I should be dead if it were, and I say this as someone who's been through cancer and chemotherapy), there can be no excuse for rape.

     In fact, I think those who object to explanations of bad behaviour as "excusing" it are promoting a very dangerous idea. The argument that a hardwired biological urge absolves us of moral responsibility is absolutely poisonous, because if it turns out that as a matter of scientific fact we do have hardwired biological urges, then we can no longer object morally to anything. Far better, and far more realistic, would be to acknowledge the plainly obvious fact that people do have instincts and desires, sometimes very powerful ones, that push them in the direction of doing evil things, and to say that we ought to cultivate the self-discipline to overcome these urges. Denying the reality of these feelings helps no one to resist them.

     There's another aspect to this that I feel is also morally dangerous. I had a conversation with another friend last week who said that she would rather not understand some things, because she never wants to understand how some people can do the evil they do. I can sympathize with that sentiment, but I think it's dangerous because it encourages us to think of evil as something other people do, and thus something we don't really have to worry about.
     That isn't how it works. People don't do evil because they are privy to some sort of secret knowledge that authorizes them to do things the rest of us find abhorrent. They generally do evil because they lack some belief or understanding or value that the rest of us consider important, or because they have managed to convince themselves that what they do is necessary and right. Or, I should say, that is why we do evil. We are unaware of mistakes we have made in our moral reasoning.
     That's the important point I want to make. Our moral responsibility is for what we do, and to ensure that we have made the best choice of action available to us. To do that, we need to be alert to the kinds of errors we might make, and to take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. The greatest evil is done by those who refuse to consider that they could be wrong, and the refusal to try to understand evil-doers is no protection against becoming an evil-doer oneself. It only makes it likelier.