Does the legality of copying music make a difference ethically? And how do our cultural attitudes toward texts, authorship, and property affect our ethical analyses of copying?

We have now seen a continuum of possible approaches to notions of intellectual property and the ethics of copying and distributing such properties. One way to schematize that continuum looks like this:

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(Again, these generalizations about culture are starting points only.) As you review your initial arguments and responses to the questions concerning copying and distributing copyrighted materials:

Can you now see one or more ways in which your views, arguments, etc., rested on one or more of the assumptions underlying these three diverse approaches to intellectual property? That is, how far (if at all) do any of your views, arguments, etc., rest on: assumptions about the relative importance of the individual vis-à- vis the community

and/or assumptions about the nature of property rights (exclusive or inclusive)?

If they do, identify the specific assumption(s) at work in your initial arguments and views.

(B) Does it appear that your relying on these assumptions is related to your culture(s) of origin and experience? That is, do the assumptions you’re making regarding either the individual/community relationship and/or the inclusive/exclusive character of property correlate / not correlate with these assumptions as characterizing the larger culture(s) of your origin and experience?

(C) Especially if there is a correlation between the assumption(s) underlying your views and arguments and the culture(s) of your origin and experience, what does that mean in terms of ethics? This is to say: recognizing the role of culturally variable norms, beliefs, practices, etc., in our ethical arguments characteristically leads to at least two sorts of questions:

(i) Are our ethical norms, beliefs, practices, etc., ethically relative – i.e., entirely reducible to the norms, beliefs, practices, etc., of a particular culture? If so, then we could say, for example:

for persons in a Western culture whose basic assumptions tend to support individual and exclusive notions of property and thus more restrictive copyright laws – if those persons violate more restrictive copyright laws (e.g., through illegally copying and distributing music), they thereby violate the basic ethical norms of their culture and should be condemned as wrong; but:

for persons in, say, a Confucian culture whose basic assumptions tend to support more community-oriented, inclusive notions of property and thus less restrictive copyright laws – if those persons violate the more restrictive copyright laws of Western nations, they are thereby simply following the moral norms and practices of their culture, and should not be condemned as wrong.

Consider/discuss/write: Does this approach of ethical relativism to the sorts of differences we have seen “make sense” to you as a way of how we are to understand and respond to these deep differences between cultures? If so, explain why. If not, why not?

(ii) If you do think there’s something mistaken about the above scenario – and, thereby, about ethical relativism – then additional questions arise:

(a) Do you want to shift to a posture of ethical absolutism – claiming that the norms, beliefs, and practices of country/culture X are the right ones: those countries/cultures/individuals who hold different norms and beliefs are thereby wrong?


(b) Do you think it’s possible – as we saw in chapter 2 on privacy – to develop an approach to matters of copying and distributing digital media that works as an ethical pluralism?

As a reminder: ethical pluralism conjoins shared norms or values with diverse interpretations/applications/understandings of those norms and values – so as thereby to reflect precisely the often very different basic assumptions and beliefs that define different cultural and ethical traditions.

Consider/discuss/write: given what we’ve seen regarding the current conflicts between US and European approaches to copyright law (above, pp. 100–1), do these conflicts point toward an ethically absolutist approach on the part of the different countries engaged in these conflicts? And/or: in light of those conflicts, do you see any possibility of an ethically pluralistic solution emerging?

(D) If you find that your beliefs, norms, and practices do not correlate with those underlying the culture(s) of your origin and experience, why might this be the case?

Are we – especially in terms of our ethical sensibilities – somehow capable of discerning and establishing moral norms apart from, perhaps even against, prevailing norms and assumptions of our culture(s) of origin and experience? If so, how does that “work” in your view? That is, how do we as human beings come to develop our own ethical sensibilities? On what grounds?