Deontological ethics, as emphasizing, for example, duties to respect and protect the rights of others – whatever the costs of doing so – can be invoked in these debates as offering reasons for obeying the law (e.g., RIAA – Even if the consequences of doing so may be unpleasant – e.g., not having access to music one would otherwise enjoy – doing so nonetheless reflects an important duty to respect the property rights of others. Such duties, however, crucially depend on establishing that the laws in question are just laws – that is, grounded in one or more sets of values and principles that are used to demonstrate that such laws are justified as means to higher ends.

And so, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (not to mention, the signers of the US Declaration of Independence) famously argued that, while we are morally obliged to follow just laws, we are allowed, even morally obliged, to disobey unjust laws.

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The trick, of course, is demonstrating that a given law is indeed unjust.

Some arguments I’ve heard in the debates over illegal copying sound as though people are attempting to construct a deontological argument along the following lines:

The laws established to “protect” the work of wealthy artists and marketed by wealthy and powerful corporations are unjust.

They are unjust because the laws are not the result of a genuinely democratic process, one in which the consent of those affected plays the deciding role. Rather, they are laws that result from a legislative process controlled by the powerful – those with the money to do so. Those laws thus represent and protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful – they do not represent or protect the interests of the rest of us.

Given that these laws are unjust, I am allowed (perhaps even obliged) to disobey them.

Perhaps with the help of your instructor and/or cohorts, review some of the important deontological sources for arguments supporting disobeying unjust laws. And/or review broader critiques of, especially, the US copyright system and dominance from the perspectives of indigenous peoples and developing countries. Can you find/develop deontological arguments along these lines that support disobeying prevailing copyright laws as unjust laws? And, if so, how closely do they parallel the sorts of arguments offered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example? In particular, how good an analogy is there between: the situation and context supporting King’s arguments that segregation laws are unjust – and thus must be disobeyed; and the situation and context supporting the arguments you find/develop showing that copyright laws are unjust and thus can or must be disobeyed?

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