Stealing and Physicality

Ars Technica reports the results of a study into students’ feelings on the morality of downloading music from p2p vs stealing a CD from a shop under the headline, Students: shoplifting CDs worse than downloading music via P2P.

Overall, the sample agreed that shoplifting a CD was morally wrong, they were socially influenced not to do it, and they felt a high obligation to obey the law. Comparatively, the students ranked downloading music from the Internet as much less severe on nearly every scale—their respect for the music industry was largely the same as the shoplifting scenario, but the rankings indicated that students feel significantly less deterred from stealing online, that it’s not as morally wrong, there’s virtually no social influence not to, and they feel no obligation to obey the law.

In all honesty, I don’t think this is just students; my gut feeling comes out similarly for whatever reason. My baseline thinking on this subject is that there are two primary causes of this disparity.

Firstly, that CDs are a scarce rival good, whereas mp3s and other digital files are non-rival. It doesn’t feel so much like theft to take a non-rival good, especially where the theft is of intellectual property—perhaps because thinking feels cheap.

Secondly, people in general seem to value a physical object more than the labour which produced it. Following this doctrine, mp3s are inherrently of less value than CDs. This is the same reasoning which says books or CDs are too expensive because they are cheap to produce as physical items: a substantial discount on intellectual labour over physical product. I’ll leave making up evolutionary reasons for this as an exercise for the reader.

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