Teaching Ethics: No Shortage of Examples

I’m giving a lecture on Ethics today, which I always enjoy. Before any professional ethicists get nervous, it’s an introductory lecture that talk about the concepts, ethics, morals, different approaches and introduces utilitarianism and the categorical imperative. I also show a picture of a monkey wearing an eye patch and a pirate bandanna because, well, that’s just me. One of the great things about this lecture is that some of my students have never really thought about what it means to live in a reasonably safe society before – and what that must mean in terms of social contracts, expectations of behaviour and ethical systems. The other great thing is that there is no shortage of examples.

Today, I’ll probably refer to the recent ruling from the US 2nd Circuit Appeals Court that “since computer code cannot be physically obtained, it doesn’t fit the legal description of a stolen good“. (There are lots of links on this but I’ve chosen the Australian Gizmodo link.) An ex-Goldman Sachs programmer spent a year in jail after downloading some source code from his ex-employer and was charged with theft. The Appeals Court ruling now says that he didn’t assume physical control and, as a result, never deprived anyone of the use of the software – which are the two requirements that should have been met for the charge to stick. (Here’s the full ruling.)

The reason that I will be bringing this is up is to start discussion on codes of behaviour, the ability to commit ‘crimes’, and the legal system and how it reacts to all of this. The summary of this case is not whether the employee did anything wrong, it’s whether the acts were illegal. The programmer, Mr Aleynikov, has been arguing since 2010 that his acts didn’t constitute a crime since and, with regard to the laws under which he was charged, he now turns out to be right and he has been released from custody, with his conviction reversed.

Now, the question can be put to the class from an ethical and moral perspective – under which circumstances would this be a correct act? Forget the criminality because it’s no longer relevant. Should this always be allowed to happen? How can we evolve laws to deal with this situation when it’s malicious and not over prosecute it? Can we use laws for this? Are we now in the area of compacts and contracts? If Mr Aleynikov had signed a document stating that he would not undertake this act, then he could be pursued for breach of contract. Depending on the penalty/reward ratio, however, given that the software that was alleged to have been stolen was valuable, it is fairly easy to see why a charge carrying a custodial sentence was pursued.

Much in the same way that the RIAA has an interesting mechanism for determining value of downloaded music, it appears that heavy prosecution is actively pursued in order “to discourage the others”. The ethical framework for the determination of how prosecution should be brought is also a very interesting area.

I will be watching with interest to see what happens in the light of this, especially if new codes are brought in to deal with it, or old codes are specifically adapted to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

For those not in Australia, there has been an anti-piracy campaign that makes statements like “You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a DVD. Downloading is theft.” and so on. Almost all of the students I have spoken to have come to the same conclusion: they’re not the same because the ‘theft’ of the electronic version does not take total control of the artefact and deny someone else the use of it. It appears that the 2nd Circuit Appeals Court sides with them – the analogy is weak, at best. This, of course, does not make the deprivation of artists’, producers’ or distributors’ income a moral act – criminal laws do not have a one-to-one relationship with moral codes. This does illustrate that, in a world of easy and error-free duplication, we have to think of exactly what has occurred and be very careful that we don’t apply poor classifications and outdated codes to a new world.

And in the class, as always, discussion will ensue. The trick is to keep it flowing and avoid anyone getting too invested or ending up in a slanging match based on perceived immorality. That’s why I have the pirate monkey in there because it keeps it light. I’ll drop this example in and pull it out, for later discussion, at a hint of an increase in temperature. No doubt, there will be any number of students who will want to talk to me about this later.

I always enjoy teaching ethics!

One Comment on “Teaching Ethics: No Shortage of Examples”

  1. […] getting the students to realise the ethical framework that they all live within. I’ve blogged before about this and how easy it is to find examples of unethical behaviour but, as we hear more stories […]


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