The Social Benefits of Piracy

Piracy!  The musical kind is largely dead, but pirating of movies, TV shows, and Game of Thrones lives on.  Not to worry: As logic would imply, the effect on the entertainment industry is negligible.  And, in fact, piracy has an intangible but highly valuable benefit.

Spurring increased availability of legal purchase options?  Increasing exposure for small, independent media?  Forcing media conglomerates to listen to consumers?  All true, but I’m talking about something more subtle.

First bear with me while we take a detour into psychology.  In the 50’s and 60’s, Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of stages of moral development, the idea being that as people get older, their moral reasoning skills go through stages and gradually become more complex.  You can find a good explanation of the stages of moral development, which are fascinating, here; I’ll just run through them quickly.

The first couple of stages, found in children, are completely self-centered: In the first stage, right and wrong are strictly defined by whether or not one will be punished.  In the second stage, one acts more intelligently in one’s own self-interest, defining right as whatever benefits oneself the most.

Teenagers and adults have usually reached the next couple of stages.  In the third stage, one begins to seek approval and thinks of morality in terms of social interaction: having good motives and helping others.  And in the fourth stage, one finally understands the inherent value of laws for upholding social order.  Most adults are probably in the fourth stage.

But there’s a fifth, and maybe even a sixth, stage.  In the fourth stage, one is still tied to rules and largely unable to think beyond them: It’s wrong because it’s against the law and the law must be respected.  Only in the fifth and sixth stages does one learn to evaluate the laws themselves based on one’s own moral reasoning.  The fifth stage, in particular, sees laws as social contracts necessary to protect human rights and uphold justice, and this sort of reasoning is the foundation of democracy.

In my estimation, stage five moral reasoning is extremely valuable.  A culture without it is unable to recognize and strike down unjust rules.  Perhaps this is a factor in why cultures often permit, and even participate in, egregious human rights violations: The majority of the population views right and wrong through the lens of law and obedience to authority, so they have little ability to condemn unjust laws.

Fourth-stage reasoning could lead to drawing a sharp divide between right (legal) and wrong (illegal) actions, the former accepted without question and the latter unequivocally condemned, which leads to a divide between good law-abiding citizens and bad “illegals” (sound familiar?).  People who are grouped in the second category may be viewed as amoral–they broke the law, so they have no sense of right and wrong–and even as having less worth as human beings.  From there, we get problems like police brutality and illegal detention, accepted because they’re taking place against lawbreakers, not good people like you and me.

So how do you boost people to a higher moral stage?  Through situations where their current type of moral reasoning proves insufficient.  Discussions and case studies, yes, but nothing can replace real-life experience.  Stage four individuals need to face situations where the rule of law proves insufficient and their lawbreaker/good-citizen divide breaks down.

That is, they need to go break some laws.  They need to do something illegal and discover that the answer to stage four’s overarching moral question–“What if everyone did this?”–is “Nothing bad would happen.”  This opens the door to considering that the law is not always right and that some laws may be arbitrary, unnecessary, or corrupt.

From torrenting to civil resistance?  Stranger things have happened.

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There are criticisms to be leveled at Kohlberg, mainly dealing with the relationship between the third and fourth stages.  Perhaps I’ll expound on these later.

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