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January 23, 20062 responses
Bernard Gert and David Papineau
I'm going to comment on the question of whether copyright laws are
in fact justified, rather than the question Bernard Gert addresses,
namely, of whether it is morally wrong in general to violate laws
(though in passing I can't stop myself observing that, when it comes to
internet activities, it's not always obvious which country's laws
One possible view of copyright (and of
intellectual property generally) is that the creators of such property
have an absolute right of ownership, and that the job of the law is
simply to protect this right.
But an alternative view is that
intellectual property is a socio-legal construction (however it is with
other forms of property) and that the job of the law is (a) to allow
the public to maximally benefit from the creation, while at the same
time (b) ensuring that there are sufficient incentives to encourage the
creation in the first place.
Nearly all systems of modern law are
based on the second view, as is shown by the fact that they place a time
limit on the period for which creators can control their creations
(twenty years for patents, seventy years after publication/creator's
death for works of art, and so on).
From the perspective of
this second view, it clearly makes sense that there should be some
incentives for creators. But this leaves it open exactly how the balance
should be struck between legal protection for creators and allowing the public to
benefit. (This conflict is most obvious in the case of life-saving
treatments patented by drug corporations, but the point is general.)
practice, the legal balance is struck as a result of politic0-legal
processes in which the creators' representatives argue for greater
ownership rights, and and the consumers' representatives for more
freedom.In general, the creators' representatives invest vastly
more resources in this process than the consumers' representatives.
(Moreover, at an international level, the creators' countries generally
have vastly more power that the consumers' countries.)
this, and applying Bernard Gert's test, it is hard to believe that any
fully informed 'impartial rational' person would regard the current
laws of intellectual property as justified.
January 19, 20061 response
Peter S. Fosl
December 17, 20051 response
Nicholas D. Smith
The question does not seem to me to have a general answer. But you have left out at least one of the factors that must be taken into account. Helmet laws (for bicycles and motorcycles) are not just for the protection of the riders. These laws also protect those who are dependent upon the riders and those who may be involved in accidents with the riders. For example, does a fatal head injury resulting from being hit by a car--which may well not have occurred, had the rider being wearing a helmet--put some legal limit on the degree to which the driver of the car, if he or she was at fault, may be punished or sued for the fatality? There needs to be a balance struck between the legitimate interests of society generally and the private interests of individuals (which plainly include freedom of religious expression). But I see no reason to think that freedom of religion or freedom of expression (religious and otherwise) cannot be trumped by the authentic requirements of civil society. So, for example, even if certain forms of hate speech are supported by some religion or other (a debatable point, but it seems to me that the two are often actually connected), I see no reason why that should prevent the passage and enforcement of laws against hate speech.
December 12, 20051 response
Well, you're in a tough position. (And I agree with you: I see no reason marijuana should be outlawed when alcohol and tobacco are not.) But I don't think you're likely to be compared to the Nazis. So you should let yourself off a bit. Still, as I said, you are in a tough position. I take it that deliberately not busting people for pot could get you in a fair bit of trouble, even fired.
Obviously, if you felt sufficiently strongly about this issue, you might find yourself with little choice but to quit being a cop. That'd be a tough choice to make, I'm sure. So I wonder if there are alternatives.
To what extent is it possible for you to speak out on this issue, given your profession? The issue of mandatory sentencing is a very important one here. Could you speak out on that issue?
December 17, 20051 response
I'm inclined to think, yes, that if a law is unjust it should lose its status as a law, but it doesn't immediately follow that one has no obligation to follow that law. In the case of profoundly unjust laws, such as those regarding Jews in Nazi Germany, presumably it would, at least, be permissible not to follow the law. But there are many other laws that might be regarded as unjust that are far less oppressive. One might suppose one had an obligation to follow such laws out of a kind of respect for the law. What one ought to do instead might be to attempt to get the law changed. Of course, in some cases, publicly and openly refusing to follow the law might be a way of drawing attention to its injustice: That's civil disobedience, in its simplest form.
November 21, 20051 response
It is worth distinguishing two issues: anger that another country applies its laws to one of our citizens; and anger that another country (any country, actually) applies unjust laws to one of our citizens (to anyone, actually).
Though your question seems more focused on the former issue, I think you are really more exercised by the latter. You would be very strongly opposed to Australia hanging a "mule" and to Australia punishing a man for having homosexual relations. And you would not be upset, I guess, if an Australian abroad received a punishment you consider just for some culturally specific crime that does not exist in Australia (e.g., having sex with a woman on the basis of a false promise to marry her while knowing that such sex will make her a total and permanent outcast in her community).
As it happens, I am also in Australia and saw a poll last night showing that 47% of Australians want the hanging to go ahead, while 46% are opposed to it. I suppose those 47% think it is alright for someone to be hanged for smuggling 400 grams of heroin and, given that they find this alright, they don't mind it being done by foreigners (assuming the man had a fair trial and so on).
In sum, then, I think we should think about criminal law at home and abroad together, against the background of one single conception of justice. This conception must recognize that the criminal law must be adapted to cultural conditions which may vary from country to country. (In Australia, justice would not be served by jailing men for using a false promise of marrige to entice a women to have sex; but in some very religious countries justice might well be served by such a law.) This conception must further recognize that in some countries harsher punishments for some offense may be appropriate because this type of offense is there more frequent or more harmful or harder to suppress (think of the offense of lighting a fire without a permit). And this conception must also recognize that there is a considerable element of judgment involved in settling upon appropriate punishments: There can be reasonable disagreement over whether a drug smuggling offence of the sort you cite should, in a context like Singapore's, fetch six months in jail or two years. But, contrary to what 47% of your compatriots seem to believe, hanging this young man is a clearcut injustice.
November 4, 20052 responses
Peter Lipton and Roger Crisp
Philosophers of law spend a lot of time arguing over this question. This is not surprising since, on the one hand, there seems clearly to be some close connection; but on the other hand there are both actions that are immoral but not illegal (e.g. not keeping a promise) and actions actions that are illegal but not immoral (e.g. breaking an law requiring people to turn in escaped slaves).
Some so-called natural lawyers have claimed that the idea of an immoral law is an oxymoron. If some state diktat says that people of a certain race can't travel into certain areas, then that's not a law. That's fine -- but essentially it involves giving a new and special meaning to the word 'law'. Law and morality can be seen as analogous in various ways. They have a similar structure (both involve requirements, permissions, demands, etc.); they serve similar functions (such as coercing people into certain behaviour for social purposes); and they probably have similar origins (see e.g. the work of the anthropologist Christopher Boehm on this). If one sees both law and morality as essentially forms of social coercion, then one is not a branch of the other. In the case of each, we can ask ourselves whether we have a reason to accept it, or parts of it, and whether it can be improved in some way or other.
November 3, 20051 response
November 2, 20052 responses
Joseph G. Moore and Alexander George
It's worth distinguishing between what one is free to do and what value
to one that freedom has. Perhaps you're right that in a world in which
there was no political society (a State of Nature, as some political
philosophers call it) we would be free to do many more things than we
are now (since no laws would exist that restrict our freedom). But the worth
of those freedoms would be very small. Yes, we'd be free to travel
wherever we wanted (without the need for passports, etc.), but most
likely, absent the security that a political society provides, the
level of industrial development would be so low that there would be no
cars, no planes, no roads, etc. Even if there were roads, it would be
so very dangerous to set out on them that I wouldn't dare risk it.
Whereas now, my freedom to travel is worth something to me: I can drive
(I have a car, I can buy fuel for it, there are roads!) confidently to
the airport (there are airports!) and take a plane (there's an
aerospace industry!) to Reykjavik. The freedom to fly to Reykjavik
isn't worth much if there are no planes, no cars, no roads, no safe
So, even if you thought that freedom (the absence of
conduct-regulating laws enforced by the power of the state) is a good
thing and that freedom would be increased living in a State of Nature,
reasonable people might still choose to live in a political society
with a government that restricts their freedoms, because the freedoms they would have would be of value to them. (See also Question 291.)
October 24, 20051 response
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