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Geek Ethicist: Moral Shortcuts and Property Rights

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“Dear Geek Ethicist,
Do apps that promote ethical behavior diminish our ability to make just decisions?
Librarian At Large”

Dear LAL,
Yes.  They do. But no more than any other form of moral shortcut. Rigid, thoughtless adherence to a trendy set of norms of any particular fad is not ethical decision making at all and if you make your decisions by simply sticking to a set of Pop Commandments, then any justice is by accident.

This also applies to green industries.  Have you made your green decision because it is really a social good you have thought through? Or are you motivated to go green to be trendy? All that’s green is not good.Got Ethics?

I want to cite another wonderful article by Evan Selinger and Thomas Seager in Slate, where they discuss a number of these apps.  As a librarian you may have read it.  “…Ethical dilemmas are special because they fundamentally concern what Aristotle called phronesis—well-informed, contextual judgment.” That means you cannot make a good moral decision without understanding what is actually going on around you. Real morality is based on real reasoning in real life, not just obedience to norms. The best that these sorta-ethics apps can do is give you a norm, but no app can yet make us understand whether or not that norm is really right or wrong. For this we need to apply apply our own principles to the unique circumstances we face.

Selinger and Seager give the example of teaching your own kids about lying.  Yes, sometimes lying is justified.  Learning when it’s justified takes experience. Lie or not, “You look great, Honey!” is pretty much always the right answer to give your spouse despite his age, paunch or hair quantity.

One of the most downright amoral apps I’ve seen, though, is Arianna Huffington’s “GPS for the Soul“.  She should have added a little Socrates rather than Archimedes to her list of ethical philosophers. Because, let’s be honest: any  center of the universe really is not as good as any other. It is nice to be centered and self-accepting and eat quinoa, and sometimes you won’t be at the center of the universe, but an app to tell you to stop what you’re doing and listen to a little New Age whale-singing music has nothing to do with moral reasoning.

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On the other hand, one of the most fascinating, and useful, of the ethics apps is the New York State Bar Association Ethics Opinion App. Again, it gives only opinions against which to weigh your own moral decisions, but there is reasoning to support those opinions.

“Dear Geek Ethicist,
I have spent years of work on developing a textbook and have finally managed to get it published. The book is becoming popular with professors and more of them are using it in their classes. I get a mere $5 for every textbook sold, but I desperately need the money to make up for all the time and money I lost while writing the book.

Somebody has scanned copies of the book as PDFs and put it up online on one of the bittorrent sites. The book costs $85 when purchased.

Is it okay if students in Australia, who otherwise drop hundreds of dollars on a single night at a bar, download the textbook for free? How about if it is a poor student in India who is very eager to learn, studies hard, but the textbook costs more than what his parents or she can make in a whole month? Is it okay if she downloads the book for free?
Published, Broke and Wondering”

Dear PBW,
There are people out there like Gabriella Coleman who argue that the internet should allow for ever more free exchange of ideas and consequently too bad about your losses to the bittorrent sites. This idea has been called Hacker Ethics and the implication is the internet should continually move toward more and more open source and less and less property rights.

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I completely disagree. Property rights still exist online as long as they continue to exist on land. The sad, the tragic and the immoral are not all identical. It is indeed sad that a poor student in India cannot afford your book, perhaps even tragic if he is punished for stealing it, but it remains wrong of him to copy your textbook unless you make your book a part of the open-source commons. This I can see you do not want to do, nor would I expect you to give your now successful book away since, as you said, you “desperately need the money.”

It is quite simply illegal and immoral to take someone’s work without compensation. Your intellectual property is as much your work and your publisher’s work as an automobile is the work of Toyota. And Toyota is certainly not making the Lexus an open-source vehicle anytime soon.

The problem is ancient: a severe punishment for the theft of bread by the starving is not the sort of world many would want.  But neither can the baker be punished for making good bread.  So what you present is in fact a policy problem at its root. I suggest it would be better approached as a pricing problem.

This is where a strategy of targeted pricing might work without creating resentment in those who pay a higher price for your textbook than others. Targeted pricing is a pricing strategy that charges customers what they can afford or are willing to spend, rather than charging all the customers the same price. It is always risky for businesses to use targeted pricing, since it can create anger or even envy in those who are charged more. But still it can be used effectively for the sake of both justice and profit. For example, coffee shops use targeted pricing with no ill effect by simply adding some inexpensive foamy pizzazz or using a fancy name and container for a product substantially the same as the less expensive cup of coffee.  Those customers who want to pay more for the little extras can, and those who would rather just have the coffee than the theater can go for the cheaper coffee.  It costs the coffee shop about the same to serve either cup, but those customers with less sensitivity to the price will gladly spend more for essentially the same cup of coffee. Tim Harford explains this succinctly in The Undercover Economist.

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In contrast, suffered some pretty bad publicity in 2000 for using targeted pricing when they pushed different prices to different customers based on their past spending habits. The problem is customers felt Amazon was intentionally deceiving them rather than giving them a choice. Orbitz started doing a similar thing by “showing more expensive hotel offers to people accessing the site from Macintosh computers — a group of customers that spend as much as 30% more on their hotel rooms, according to the company’s research” according to the Wall Street Journal and others.Apple Logo Equals Money

But the Aussie who can drink away the cost of your book in a single night is not going to resent the impoverished Indian who, through targeted pricing in the service of justice, can now buy the same book at a fraction of the cost.  And it is likely, if the targeted pricing is done right, it will actually increase the profits of the publisher–and you.  The idea is “no money is left on the table.”  Selling everything is better than having an overstock.

Send your ethical dilemmas to  I’ll give you my ethical analysis and you may find it helpful…or not.


Emily Cantin researched and co-authored this article.


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