The Pointlessness of Evangelizing in the US

It has been a long time since I posted anything, and I doubt many people will find this post very interesting, but it is a topic that has been bugging me for a while.  I’m aware that not everyone reading this is intimately familiar with the inner workings of Christian churches in the US, especially in evangelical Protestant churches, but, as the name implies, evangelism is a big deal.  For those of you unaware, evangelism is basically the spreading of the Good News, the Gospel of Christ.  This is basically the idea that God sent his Son, Christ, the Redeemer, to die as payment for the sins of the world, and that individuals can avoid being damned for all eternity if they but accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  Having some way of avoiding eternal torment is good news indeed, and the purpose of evangelism in Christianity is to tell people about this possibility for salvation.  Of course, I am sure you’ve heard that story more times than you can count, and that’s the concern of this post.

It should be noted that evangelism is not proselytizing.  Proselytism is actively attempting to convert someone on to your view, like your religion.  The difference between proselytism and evangelism should be obvious as the former involves providing arguments for a specific position while the latter merely involves a declaration of some state of affairs.

With that out of the way I can get to the issue at hand.  I do not think it would be controversial to say that most Christians believe there is a Scriptural mandate to evangelize (Matthew 28:19,20 and Mark 16:15 are common examples of this).  But what happens when everyone already knows about the Gospel?  Does it make sense to continue explicit evangelism programs when the message completely saturates the society in which the evangelism is happening?  For anyone who suggests that the Bible doesn’t say to ever stop, I would suggest that commands generally have such understanding built into them.  For example, if I tell you to cook a meal, it would make little sense to continue to cook after the meal was completed.  Rather, the notion that you can stop once the ordered task has been finished seems implied in any reasonable interpretation of that command.  In which case, I have to wonder why evangelism is still so important.

Here’s the big point:  everyone already knows the Good News.  And no one has to take my word for it.  Check out the jesus signpicture to the right.  It has a single word on it:  Jesus.  That’s it.  No context is provided in the sign itself.  Rather, the assumption is that merely saying the name will tell the reader all they need to know.  It’s a reminder, not something that communicates new information.  And this kind of sign is not unique.  On the contrary, it is incredibly common.  In my city there are whole billboards that say nothing other than “JESUS” or “PRAY.”  That’s it.  Just big while letters on a black background.  And yet, I think people would be very surprised if anyone seeing those signs asked “What’s a Jesus?  Is that some guy?  Why is his name up there?” or “Pray for what, about what, TO WHAT?”  That would just be unthinkable to those putting up these signs.  Rather, they assume that an understanding of the intent of the “message” is available to everyone seeing these signs, else they would have included that information.  But, of course, that’s just not something they need consider because everyone already knows the story of Jesus

And that’s exactly my point.  The entire endeavor of evangelizing, at least here in the US, is completely pointless, and those people most concerned about this action are the ones most evidently aware of this fact.  It would never occur to them that someone had genuinely never heard of Jesus, and, of course, it should not occur to them.  The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the purpose behind that are so pervasive in our society that getting through without hearing the details is simply impossible.

That just leaves me with one unanswered question:  what exactly do all these evangelists even think they are doing?

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Punishment and Death

I’m sorry for not posting for a long time.  I don’t have a good excuse.  At any rate, I just read an interesting essay, and it made me want to write.

In this weekend’s New York Times, Christian Longo, a man who sits on Oregon’s death row, makes a reasonable and convincing argument that prisoners on death row ought to be given the right to donate their organs after execution.  Longo explains that he is a healthy 37 year-old who will be executed soon but that his prison (as well as many others) refuses to allow organ donation, even though the method of lethal injection could be changed to a formula that would not damage the organs.  Longo addresses several of the key arguments against prisoner donations, including issues of safety and security, as well as the question of prisoner consent, and he provides valid and intuitively plausible responses that support his case.  In the end, I was persuaded by his arguments.

Though Longo is quite persuasive, pointing  out that “just one inmate could save up to eight lives by donating a healthy heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and other transplantable tissues,” I still felt a little wary of finding myself in complete moral agreement with a man who begins his essay by explaining, “Eight years ago I was sentenced to death for the murders of my wife and three children.  I am guilty.”  If I were a better person I would have resisted the urge to Google “Christian Longo” until after I had had some time to think over the validity of his arguments.  Unfortunately, I am not.  Immediately after finishing the essay, I read about how Longo murdered his wife and three children, tossed their bodies, and fled to Mexico.  Then I read about how he originally failed to confess to the murders of two of his children.  I wanted to find something about how Longo was diagnosed as a sociopath or at the very least a delusional psychotic, but instead, I read that he was “by all accounts a bright, extroverted, socially skilled, good-looking young man with marvelous potential.”  I learned that Longo had grown up in a dysfunctional home and was prone to deception and rule-breaking, but his own essay suggests that these environmental setbacks never stopped him from learning the difference between right and wrong and the value of atoning for moral errors.

What troubles me about Christian Longo is not the possibility that he is a sociopath playing some elaborate game of pretend.  I think it is quite possible that Longo is genuinely remorseful that he killed his two and three year-old daughters, his four-year old son, and his wife, and that he dumped their bodies in shallow graves off the Oregon Coast and then left for vacation in Cancun.  And, if Longo is genuinely remorseful because he fully understands the moral depravity of what he did, then perhaps he sees donating his organs to save the lives of other innocent people- mothers and children, maybe- as the type of penance that could give him a sense of moral redemption for the brief remainder of his life.  (I don’t believe in heaven and hell, so I don’t care if Longo thinks this will buy him eternal salvation; it won’t.)

Here’s what’s bothering me:  Even though I’m a bleeding-heart-abolish-the-death-penalty-type, I’m just not sure that Christian Longo deserves to feel like he somehow balanced the scales of cosmic justice by saving other lives after his death.   His organs won’t be of any use to him, and he has no choice about dying, so I hardly see his posthumous donation as a sacrifice of any moral weight.  But HE might feel differently.  In fact, Longo explicitly states that he has “a wish to make amends.” Even though Longo makes a very convincing argument about the good that will come of allowing death-row inmates to donate their organs, the thought that people like Longo might see organ donation as a way of genuinely making amends for their moral errors is troubling to me.

The prison told Longo, “The interests of the public and condemned inmates are best served by denying the petition.”  I think Longo demonstrates that he is capable of giving informed consent, so I don’t understand why it is not in his interest to donate the organs.  It is also quite obviously in the interest of the public.    This leads me to the conclusion that the real controversy behind prisoner organ donation has more to do with a fear that allowing generosity on the part of prisoners sends the wrong message.  So, I’m going to make one more argument in service to Longo’s plea by addressing an issue that he couldn’t touch.  If anybody deserves anything, then Christian Longo deserves to feel bad about what he did.  But even though the quality and quantity of Longo’s punishment feels relevant in considering whether he should have the right to donate his organs (or, even if it IS somewhat relevant), the good of organ donation far outweighs any benefit to denying a murderer solace, whether he deserves it or not.   I don’t know if there is as much injustice in a child dying of kidney failure as a child being murdered by her father, but I’m inclined to think that it is just as wrong to deny an innocent person a freely-offered, life-saving organ as it is to intentionally bring about that person’s death.  If an innocent life is so valuable that we sentence people to death for taking it, then surely the preservation of an innocent life is more valuable than the feelings and thoughts of a dying man.

Junk Science, Hypocrites, and Rentboys

I want to say something about the story of George Rekers, the Southern Baptist Minister and co-founder of the Family Research Council who was recently caught in the company of a male escort.  Stories about religious leaders who preach a standard of sexual purity which they themselves fail to practice abound.   But even in the world of Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard, the hypocrisy of George Rekers is a special case.   His hypocrisy is not merely farcical and outrageous, it is also a lesson about the dangers of junk science.  This is because for the past 25 years Rekers has been a figurehead of the conversion therapy movement which holds not only that homosexuality is caused by environmental influences (rather than genetic) but also that it can be cured.

I am not going to rant about how infuriating it is that the same guy who was called as an expert witness to defend bans on gay adoption in Arkansas and Florida was recently perusing Rentboy.com in search of a 20 year-old with an eight-inch penis.  It may very well be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexual sex is wrong and that a homosexual lifestyle is harmful, and at the same time he can’t resist the urge to dial up a rent-boy on occasion.  It may also be the case that Rekers genuinely believes that homosexuality is caused by environmental factors such as family dynamics and early sexual experiences, which would mean some parents are responsible for raising their children to be homosexuals.  Of course, I think both of these positions are absurd*, but I can grant that Rekers might believe all of this stuff and still, at the same time, like to get his rocks off with young men.  If it it were only that Rekers were a weak Jimmy-Swaggart-type, preaching the virtues of one lifestyle while secretly indulging his dark side, I could be satisfied with a sigh of disgust and the vindication of knowing that his hypocrisy is now a public spectacle.

The problem is that Rekers is also a liar, and not just a liar about his own personal life.  Rekers is a liar because he is an officer and figurehead of NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality a group which purports to offer “effective psychological care” for “individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction.”  To be fair, the group does not promise full homosexual-to-heterosexual conversion to every person seeking treatment, but it does promise that there are “positive alternatives to homosexuality,” either in the form of abstinence or in conversion, and it publishes numerous quasi-scientific articles arguing that homosexuality is a choice influenced by experience, while minimizing or entirely ignoring the overwhelming body of contrary data published and peer-reviewed by the American Psychological Association and other mainstream medical science authorities.

It may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is wrong, it may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is caused by bad parenting, and it may be the case that George Rekers thinks that homosexuality can be “cured” either through conversion therapy or the abstinence support offered by NARTH and its partner agencies.  But I just don’t see how it can be all three.  That is, I don’t see how it can be the case that George Rekers believes it’s bad to be gay, and believes he knows how to “fix” being gay (he has, in fact, profited by telling other people how to “fix” being gay), and yet he still chooses to hire male escorts for sexual romps.  I am certain that a psychologist could map a convoluted web of competing and contradictory desires and beliefs to describe how Rekers probably justified all of this to himself, but the explanation from the outside couldn’t be more simple or more clear:  Conversion therapy to “fix” homosexuality just doesn’t work.  Rekers’ organization can’t “fix” gay in other people.  They couldn’t even “fix” it in him.

Groups like NARTH and the Family Research Council and a whole host of other religiously-bent, political lobbying machines insult our intelligence by offering up dogma and ideology and calling it “science.”  When confronted with research that does not fit their political conclusions, they ignore it or condemn it as a part of a liberal, secular conspiracy.   It is a sad fact of contemporary American life that these groups maintain disproportionate political power by mimicking the language of non-partisan scientific authorities, and pretending to have legitimate scholarly intentions.  In the wake of this scandal, these groups have already begun to distance themselves from Rekers, and we should not let them.  However they may want to portray Rekers’ indiscretion as an isolated incident, it is a case-study in why the conversion therapy/ex-gay movement has failed.  We shouldn’t let them forget it.

*To be clear, I do not think it is absurd to acknowledge that sexual orientation may be the result of both environmental and genetic factors.  In fact, I think the bulk of the data strongly suggests this.  But the mere fact that environmental factors play a role in sexual orientation does not imply that parenting is the most significant (or even a significant) factor in sexual orientation, nor that later-life therapy can significantly alter a person’s orientation.  And, I feel compelled to add, even if it were the case that homosexuality was a choice, this in no way implies that a homosexual lifestyle is immoral nor that homosexual sex is wrong.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Email to a friend

Like This!

“It Makes Me Happy” is not a Good Argument

No sooner do I post on the difference between principled and practical concerns than someone on my Twitter feed links to an article from Psychology Today that highlights the very issue at hand.  It must be a miracle. 

In a post entitled “When Belief in God is Rational,” Nathan Heflick suggests that the fear of death makes belief in God rational.  And this is where I facepalm.  Speaking of the solace that some people might gain from believing in God and an afterlife, Heflick writes, “Definitions of rationality vary. But I tend to think of rationality as being consistent. If death has such a sting, and if God gives people such comfort, then how is this irrational? It seems like a logical solution to the problem of death.”

If you’re left blinking in confusion at that quote, you’re not alone.  There’s so much wrong here that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  Let me just point out a few things before I hit the big point.  First, not just any god will get you a “solution to the problem of death.”  You need a god that offers some kind of afterlife, and not all gods do.  Further, you also need some way for things like us, people, to be able to have an afterlife, something like a soul.  This goes beyond a belief in some god, and it’s important to note that.  Also, most gods who lord over some kind of Heaven also have something like Hell.  That means there might not be much solace in believing in any such entity.  After all, you might go to Hell rather than Heaven, and that’s no fun for all eternity.  Further, you don’t technically need a god here at all.  If you’re just believing in something to get out of a fear of death, to get something like Heaven, why not drop the god-belief and just believe in Heaven alone?  I don’t see where a god helps with the issue.  Next, there is little reason to think that people who believe in this kind of stuff are actually rational in the sense of being consistent.  That is, it is quite likely that they are inconsistent in applying whatever standard for belief they have.  I can’t imagine that most people who believe in some god or Heaven typically accept things explicitly without good reason, on faith only, the way they do this special class of it-makes-me-happy beliefs.  Rather, I think it’s a good bet that they typically require some kind of evidence as a ground for their beliefs, and I further bet that the more fantastic some claim, the more evidence they require.  For example, if I were to tell most people that I had ET in my closet, they would demand something like seeing it before they would believe that such was, in fact, the case, and might very well demand more than that.  Most theists share this demand for evidence in general.  Clearly, then, there is little like consistency here, and if, as Heflick claims, consistency is the hallmark of rationality, these people are absolutely not rational.

All the above out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this claim, that it is rational to believe something that makes you happy.  That’s absurd.  Being as charitable as possible, Heflick is at best offering an argument that it is prudent, that it is practical, to believe in some god.  After all, even using Heflick’s definition of consistency as what makes a belief rational, what does comfort have to do with that at all?  What does happiness have to do with coherence?  Nothing.  What Heflick has done is mistake a practical concern for a principled one.  He has made exactly the kind of error about which I wrote in my last post.  It’s a goofy error, especially in the way Heflick makes the mistake.  No amount of good feeling will ever make an argument or belief rational or consistent.  Your feelings about something and the practical results of that belief simply have nothing to do with whether or not such is a rational belief to hold.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Email to a friend

Like This!

Miracles

If I engage a believer in a conversation about faith, I will most likely get a story about miracles.   Belief in miracles is the cornerstone of faith for most people, and this has always struck me as somewhat peculiar.  If we take faith, by definition, to be belief that extends beyond the scope of justification, it is odd that virtually every person of faith holds miracles up to be a good reason, i.e., justification, for believing in God.  It is especially odd in light of the fact that belief in miracles would only count as good evidence for belief in God if that belief is itself justified by evidence.  In other words, the occurrence of miracles only counts as good evidence of the existence of God if there is good evidence that miracles have occurred.  I don’t think that there is any good evidence for the occurrence of miracles, but I don’t see the point in showing the error of specific claims of miracles with a magnifying glass and a flashlight.  Belief in miracles is never justified because of what a miracle is. The following is a brief explanation of this problem.

Sometimes the word "miracle" is used loosely, e.g. "Every baby is a miracle," or "Getting an ‘A’ on my test was a miracle."  But when people appeal to miracles in a theological debate, they mean breaks in the laws of nature.   If science can predict and/or explain an event, we don’t take it to be miraculous.  Instead, believers hold up events that appear to be scientifically inexplicable as evidence for Divine (supernatural) intervention.   The reasoning goes like this:  This event can’t be explained by appeal to a natural cause, so, the better explanation is that it must have been caused by something supernatural (God). In order for this argument to be sound, the believer must demonstrate that the following presumptions are justified:

A) Every natural (physical world) event must be caused by some previous event.

B) Super-natural (non-physical) entities can cause physical events.

C) The best explanation for mysterious events (ones without an obvious natural cause) is that they have a supernatural cause.

If any of these assumptions fails, then the conclusion that a miracle is the best explanation for a mysterious event is not justified.  And, if belief in miracles is unjustified, then belief in God based upon the "evidence" of a miracle is also unjustified.   So, let’s look at at whether these assumptions can be defended.

Assumption A is close to being an axiom of science.  Though most scientists would agree that some quantum events don’t appear to be caused by anything, the assumption that physical events are caused by prior physical events is fairly uncontroversial on the level of everyday observable phenomenon.   If your car starts making a thumping noise and the mechanic says there is no cause, you find another mechanic, you don’t question causal necessity.  So, for the time being, let’s bracket Assumption A and take it for granted.

Assumption B sounds reasonable if you’ve never considered the meaning of the word "cause," but it falls apart under conceptual scrutiny.  The concept of a non-physical cause is problematic because our normal use of the term pertains exclusively to events in the physical world.  For example, the heat of the liquid caused the cold glass to shatter, or the finger on the trigger, caused the gun to fire.  These are physical causes.  It is difficult to imagine what a non-physical cause for a physical event could be.  Some might argue that beliefs are the non-physical cause of actions, but if beliefs were non-physical causes, then manipulation of the brain wouldn’t necessarily affect either beliefs or actions, as we know it does.  The fact that brain states, not the stated beliefs of the agent, are the best predictor of action demonstrates that there is a physical cause underlying the phenomena.   It also illuminates another problem with appealing to non-physical "causes," namely that they are explanatorily useless.

This brings us to Assumption C, which is really the foundation of the miracles argument.  People believe in miracles when they conclude that an act of God/magic is the best explanation for a mysterious event.  This begs the question, "How does positing the existence of supernatural causes explain anything?"  When we assume that physical events are caused by previous physical events that follow patterns of law-like regularity we are able to make lots of predictions that enable us to navigate the world.  So, Assumption A is practically useful.  The truth (or approximate truth) of A is also the best explanation for why we are able to make consistently successful predictions when we assume it.  In contrast, Assumption C is neither practically useful nor likely to be true.  We can’t predict anything new by positing that there are supernatural interventions into nature, and the best explanation for why supernatural explanations are consistently replaced by natural explanations (e.g., hearing voices is schizophrenia, not demonic possession) is that supernatural causes aren’t real.

We don’t have a good reason to believe in miracles because we don’t have a good reason to believe in supernatural causes.  In fact, the whole notion of a non-physical cause is conceptually confused.  Saying ‘God caused the event’ is just as explanatorily informative as saying ‘nothing caused the event’, and we have no more reason to believe in the former than in the latter.  It is, of course, possible that there are are supernatural interventions into nature, just as it is possible that some events are entirely uncaused by anything, but neither of these assumptions jibes with the majority of our experiences, and neither of these assumptions tells us anything useful about the world.

Positing the occurrence of miracles is never the best explanation for mysterious events.  We have lots of reason to believe that strange events can and will be be explained by natural science because so many previously mysterious events have been explained by science.  But even if we can’t explain the physical (natural) cause of an event, we have no good reason to believe it was supernaturally caused.  The possibility of a miracle doesn’t answer any questions, it just begs them.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Email to a friend

Philosophers, Scientists, and the New Atheism

I am an atheist, and I am sympathetic to the so-called "New Atheists."  I am also a skeptic, and I have a background in philosophy, which means that I adopt a more tentative stance about knowledge and the justification for belief than most of my counterparts in religion and the hard sciences.  Because of my background, I find the recent trend among certain prominent philosophers and public intellectuals to mark out a kind of middle-ground position between hard-atheism and theism to be both disingenuous and alarming.   It is disingenuous because philosophers understand the distinction between questions of knowledge and questions of justification, and it is alarming because they are willing to disregard this distinction for the sake of promoting a politically-attractive position.

The question of God’s existence is incredibly loaded because, if God doesn’t exist, the majority of people in the world derive meaning in their lives from a lie.  For this reason, the capacity for natural science to explain why things happen without appeal to the supernatural is threatening to religion and to religious believers.  After all, if we can explain everything without appeal to God’s intervention, why introduce Him into the equation at all?  Nowhere is this issue more clearly demarcated than in the debate between evolutionists and creationists.  If evolution can explain why we are here, why we feel the way we feel, and why we do the things we do, then it looks as though God’s part in the equation (creation, intelligent design, etc.) is superfluous at best.  Moreover, if the human brain is just one more twig on the evolutionary tree, then there is no good reason to believe that there is some essential, special part of us, such as an immortal soul, which sets us apart and gives us free will and the possibility of life after death.  So, from a purely political perspective, it is easy to understand why the scientific community is cautious about addressing the implications of evolutionary theory.  If believing in evolution means believing in a Godless, soulless world, fewer people are going to find evolution attractive, and many people are going to be wary of teaching evolution to their kids.

Because of these implications, most supporters of empirical science have chosen one of two strategies in debate with religious detractors.  The first strategy is to insist that religion and science are "non-intersecting magisteria", that is, they address different kinds of questions.   For example, religion answers big, important, ultimate questions, such as the meaning of life, whereas science only describes the world as it is.  The second strategy is to grant that a literal interpretation of Scripture contradicts evolutionary theory but to minimize the importance of this contradiction by observing that a non-literal interpretation of the story of Genesis can be compatible with evolutionary theory.  Both strategies offer the promise of peacefully promoting scientific understanding, but unfortunately, in both cases, this peace is won dishonestly.

The first strategy is dishonest because it is plainly untrue that science and religion are non-intersecting.  Science and religion both make objective claims about the observable world, and these claims absolutely have moral implications for how we should live our lives.  It certainly is the case that people with religious worldviews tend to hold a slightly different set of values from people who hold materialist/naturalist worldviews, but this does not mean that the non-religious have no position on how they ought to live their lives, nor does it mean that the religious have nothing to say about how the world works.  On the contrary, the battle between religion and science exists precisely because people on both sides do have answers to both types of questions and those answers contradict each other.  For example, it cannot be the case that prayer both works and does not work, nor can it be the case that spirits exist and do not exist.  If a person is hearing voices, either the voices are coming from evil spirits that must be exorcised by prayer OR the voices are the result of schizophrenia, which must be treated by medication.  The way we answer these questions matters, which is why our grounds for selecting answers -the justifications for our beliefs- matter.

The second strategy, which might be called the "accommodationist" position, does not make any out-and-out false claims, but it is deceptive nonetheless.  It is perfectly true that God could exist as a kind of blind watch-maker who got the evolutionary ball rolling and then sat back for the rest of eternity.  However, a non-interventionist God, while no contradiction to a naturalistic world view, is entirely superfluous to the evolutionary account of the origin of life.   It doesn’t do any explanatory work for the theory.  Moreover, it is patronizing for scientists to pretend that this concession is a real accommodation to people of faith because the kind of God that is compatible with naturalistic evolution is not the kind of God that answers prayers or performs miracles, i.e., it is not the kind of God that most religious people worship.   Most accommodationists don’t see the harm in religious people praying or believing in an interventionist God because they recognize that most people who hold this kind of faith but also believe in evolution do not recognize the internal contradiction.  This makes the accommodationists particularly insidious because they tacitly promote one kind of ignorance (contradictory beliefs) over another, ostensibly more offensive kind of ignorance (religious fundamentalism), rather than risk promoting a more honest but unpopular position.

I don’t claim to know for certain that God does not exist, nor do I claim to know for certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I think that my beliefs are well-justified.  If my beliefs are well-justified, then people who have access to the same information that I have but hold opposing beliefs are not as well-justified.  This is an implication of holding considered opinions:  I cannot apply a standard of justification for my own beliefs but pretend that there is no objective hierarchy of justification for the beliefs of others.  To pretend that people who believe that the Bible is literally true are wrong, but that those who merely believe in an interventionist God are justified is both absurd and dishonest.  But, this is exactly the position upon which the "middle ground" between theism and naturalistic materialism is founded.  It is not a moderate position at all.  It is sophistry, and it is condescending.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Email to a friend

Is Digital Piracy Wrong?

Recently, I rented a DVD and saw the all-too-familiar anti-piracy ad before the movie started. This got me thinking.  Most of the people I know would not take a CD from a store without paying for it.  Most of the people I know do go online and download unlicensed copies of songs and other digital media without paying for them.  It is clearly in the interest of organizations such as the RIAA and MPAA to try and prevent illegal downloads which cut into their bottom line.  This is why they publish ad campaigns portraying the two acts as morally equivalent examples of stealing.   However, the ease and availability of free pirated media online suggests that anti-piracy groups have been largely unsuccessful in changing behavior.  People may call file-sharing “stealing” with a nudge and a wink, but most of the people who “steal” digital media would not take a hardcopy of the same media from a store.  This makes me think that ad campaigns aimed at exploiting this  intuition are doubly wrong-headed.  If people shared the intuition that it is wrong to copy a file in the same way that it’s wrong to take a CD, the ad campaign would not be necessary in the first place.  Moreover, it is precisely because most people do not share the intuition upon which the ad is dependent that the ad is ineffective.

The ineffectiveness of anti-piracy ads speaks to a larger point about moral intuition and behavior.  When asked why stealing is wrong, most people will answer in one of the following ways:  1)” It hurts someone” (Consequentialism), 2) “What would the world be like if everyone did that?” (Deontology), or 3) “It won’t work out for me in the end” (Prudence…also, sort of Nihilism).  Since very few people are caught or prosecuted for illegal file-downloads, the prudence argument against file-sharing is not compelling.   The consequentialist argument depends upon identification of a victim who is harmed by the copying of digital media.  The fact that the recording industry has yet to come up with a sympathetic poster child* to summon the guilt of the pirating public strongly suggests that such a victim doesn’t exist.  That leaves us with the deontological argument which is weakened only by the fact that the hypothetical question it poses already has an answer, and that answer is surprisingly pleasant.  We already live in a world where most people consume pirated media, and yet musicians still record songs, writers still write novels, and filmmakers still make films.

Leaving aside opinion polls and behavioral statistics, a compelling argument can be made that copyrights constitute a moral right which corresponds to a moral obligation on the part of the media consumer.  If copyrights are a subgroup of property rights, and if property rights are a subgroup of moral rights, and if we have moral rights (inalienable, natural, God-given, or what-have-you), then you can make the argument that we are morally obligated to pay artists for their copyright in the same way we are morally obligated to refrain from trespassing or violating another person’s body.  The problem here is that an equally compelling argument can be made that these rights aren’t equivalent.  Moreover, the concept of natural rights is itself highly problematic.  We don’t want to say that copying a digital file is as much of a moral crime as stealing physical property or intruding on another person’s body, but if stealing is wrong because it violates a right, then the same wrong has been committed in all of these cases.

So, to conclude:  1) most people don’t think copyright violations are morally wrong.  2) They don’t think it’s morally wrong because they can’t identify a person who gets harmed, and they don’t think their behavior is contributing to an imminent catastrophe.  3) The only way to make a good case that it is morally wrong to download music is to give heavy moral weight to copyrights. 4) Nobody really gives heavy moral weight to copyrights.  I’m not suggesting that anyone ought to participate in digital media piracy.  I’m just saying the arguments against it are weak at best.

*Though, of course, there have been some famously unsympathetic ones.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Email to a friend