We’re All Criminals Now

For those of you who have never found The Dilbert Blog, I highly recommend it. Scott Adams is one of of the few people in this world who looks around and asks “why?” at just about everything. He further has the talent (unlike me) to make the questions hilarious.

On Saturday, he asked “Is Copyright Violation Stealing”, with a hope to create fodder for his Sunday post. Specifically, you take something that a lot of people do which is illegal, tell them they’re doing something illegal (and therefore bad), and then watch as they try to justify their position.

If you’ve read anything about experiments to produce cognitive dissonance, you know this was the perfect setup. You can produce dissonance by putting a person in a position of doing something that is clearly opposed to his self image. Then wait for his explanation. The explanation will seem absurd to anyone who doesn’t share the dissonance. In this case the model that produced it was…

1. Good people are not criminals.
2. Criminals break laws.
3. I break copyright laws.
4. But since I know I am a good person, my reason why it’s okay to violate copyright laws is (insert something absurd).

The fascinating thing about cognitive dissonance is that it’s immune to intelligence. No matter how smart you are, you can’t think your way out of it. Once your actions and your self image get out of sync, the result is an absurd rationalization. You can see that in the comments.

The problem with his theory, and why I don’t feel the cognitive dissonance he is trying to induce, is because I don’t agree with premise 1*. There are plenty of good people who are criminals. In fact, we’re all criminals, as Ayn Rand said a long time ago:

The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.

Simply put, there are so many things in this country that are illegal that I think anyone over the age of 2 is probably a criminal. Thus, the premise that good people aren’t criminals is mistaken. Likewise, it’s converse, that criminals are bad people is also mistaken. He is trying to force people into believing that because “criminals are bad”, violating a law makes you a bad person. The problem with such an argument is that it ignores the enormous quantity of bad laws.

This is an argument that is often faced when illegal immigration is brought up. The anti-immigrant folks use this premise to suggest that if someone came here illegally, they’re bad people. After all, good people don’t break laws, and these people obviously did. In order to bolster their argument, they’ll point out the many illegal immigrants who have broken more serious laws in order to equate breaking immigration law with committing violent acts. When you try to pin them down on this distinction, they get angry.

For example, you point out that speeding is a crime, and so anyone who speeds is a lawbreaker. Then you can quickly point out the number of people who have committed violent crimes and also speed, as if the two are equivalent. When you do this, you put the arguer in a quandary, because they can’t reconcile the fact that their own lawbreaking (speeding) doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, but that their argument asserts just such a thing with illegal immigrants.

Because I know how many bad laws are out there, I can be called a criminal by just about anyone, yet easily go to bed at night and rest easy. It’s not that I don’t feel remorse for doing bad things, it’s that I don’t feel remorse for breaking the law. In fact, I quite enjoy breaking stupid laws. The key is understanding the difference between law and morality; between what is legal/illegal and what is right/wrong. I must often determine the right action in complex situations, and to the extent that this coincides with what is legal, I do what is legal. But where they don’t coincide, I do what I believe is right.

Now, this is a difficult idea to explain to most people, and when you do, you can get into some serious debates. After all, right and wrong tend to be pretty subjective terms, because right and wrong are simply manifestations of values, and values are not consistent across people and cultures. At best, you can come up with law that’s pretty good (i.e. laws against murder), and at worst, you can end up with all sorts of hell (i.e. Jim Crow). In both cases, the laws are a reflection of local values. But it’s plainly clear that the latter are bad laws, and thus breaking bad laws doesn’t make you a bad person, even if it makes you a criminal.

I’d say that in the United States, the regulatory state has made us stray far from law which acts as an arbiter of right from wrong, and as such, many laws can be quite morally ignored. Thus, there are quite often times where the law restricts us from doing things that aren’t “wrong” in any sense of the word, and in fewer cases, in order to do what would be generally considered “right” requires that we break the law. In the former case, a moral person will not feel any cognitive dissonance about his self image when breaking the law. In the latter case, a moral person should do the right thing, and may even have a duty to break the law.

* FWIW, I’m not saying that copyright laws are bad laws, nor am I saying that pirating music isn’t theft. I’m simply saying that the groups of “actions which are illegal” and “actions which are wrong” only partially intersect.