SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, is currently making its way around Washington, D.C., and the negative response of the online community is resounding through its marbled halls. There are lots of places on the web where you might find explanations of what SOPA is about (here’s one), as well as why you should or shouldn’t support it (Here’s one of those, too, thanks to Brian Leiter for sharing it). What I want to do here is just briefly consider three arguments that are floating around in the blogosphere, and evaluate their soundness. By that, I mean that I will apply some basic philosophical analysis, to determine whether any of these are “good” arguments. I won’t try to convince you of what to think about SOPA (and PIPA for that matter). But I will try to help clarify what issues and principles these arguments turn on, so that you know where to look to find more information, and make a decision for yourself.
“SOPA is the sort of thing China would support!!!”
The argument here seems to be something like the following:
1. If China would support a piece of legislation, we ought not support it.
2. China would support SOPA.
3. Therefore, we ought not support SOPA.
Let’s suppose the second premise is true. Maybe it is, maybe not. The point is, even if we grant this second premise, why would we think the first premise is true? Surely there are pieces of legislation China would support that are not objectionable. We participate in many international organizations of which China is also a member, and we’ve probably agreed about something during all that time together. This first premise is falsified by a single piece of legislation that China would support, which we think we should also support. I’ll leave it to you to explore whether there is such a piece of legislation, but I imagine it won’t take long to find one.
“SOPA is intended to stop online piracy, but there’s nothing wrong with online piracy, so we shouldn’t support SOPA.”
This position is much less popular than the first, in part because it involves supporting an activity that seems morally questionable, at best. But let’s think about what an argument for this view would look like.
1. We should support SOPA only if it would prevent morally bad outcomes.
2. Online piracy is not a morally bad outcome.
3. Therefore, we should not support SOPA.
Again, let’s grant the first premise, just for the sake of discussion. You can look at the text of the act itself to see whether the prevention of morally bad outcomes is a reason that’s given in support of it. But what about that second premise again? Is it true that online piracy isn’t a morally bad outcome? It’s certainly not a legally permissible practice, but not everything that’s illegal is morally bad. What an advocate of online piracy who adopts this argument must do is explain why there’s nothing morally bad about online piracy. This seems a dubious task. Intellectual property is still property, and taking a person’s property is a form of theft under most circumstances. Even if famous musicians and actors are still making a ton of money, as some piracy advocates point out, it doesn’t follow that these individuals aren’t wronged by having their property rights infringed upon. The burden of proof, for this line of argument against SOPA, is on the pro-piracy constituent to explain why online piracy is morally permissible. The prospects of making this case stick, I think, are not particularly good.
“There are less liberty-restricting ways to stop online piracy than SOPA. So we ought to reject SOPA in favor of another bill that isn’t as restrictive.”
This argument already has some advantages over the other two. First, it accepts a premise of the SOPA supporters: Online piracy is bad, and we ought to try to prevent it. However, it also appeals to a highly plausible principle about restrictions on liberty. The argument here is something like the following:
1. If we are going to restrict individual liberty, for the sake of preventing some bad outcome, we ought to do so in the least restrictive way that will still prevent the target harm.
2. SOPA is not the least restrictive way to prevent online piracy.
3. Therefore, we ought not support SOPA.
The first premise is, I think, hard to dispute, but I’ll leave it to commenters and respondents to try and do so. The second premise is subject to debate, though there are a great number of people, such as the folks at Wikipedia and Google, who seem to think it’s true. Since I don’t know much about online piracy, I’m inclined to believe the experts in that field. And if the premises here are true, we have a sound argument for not supporting SOPA.
What’s the moral of the story? First, it’s that even if online piracy is a morally bad outcome that we ought to try to prevent, SOPA probably isn’t the best way to do it. By remembering that restrictions on freedom are themselves a harm, we are reminded that the prevention of bad outcomes ought not be accomplished by adopting policies with far worse consequences.
Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to your comments.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.