Ethics & the Smartass SF Writer

Ethics & the Smartass SF Writer

by Bruce Bethke

I'm not often asked to write about Ethics. Not because this is alien territory to me, although my ex-wife might disagree: I'm familiar enough with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics to know it's a tragedy Aristotle never met Strunk & White; familiar enough with Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil to know it's a good thing I never caught up with Nietzsche in a dark alley, preferably while I was carrying a baseball bat. But the truth is, I'm usually considered a "funny" writer, and serious think-pieces are not typically part of my oeuvre.

Still, the editors have graciously asked me to contribute my thoughts on science fiction, the Internet, and future of ethics, so I will roll up my sleeves, put on my glasses (whenever I want people to take me seriously, I wear my glasses---it's astonishing, the difference it makes), and tackle the subject head-on. Beginning with:

Some Root Concepts

Let's start by reviewing Aristotle:

Makes it sound simple, don't he? Clearly, Aristotle was a repressed white male heterosexual writing from a myopic Macedoniocentric viewpoint, who utterly failed to take into account the Persian, Theban, or Ungulate ways of looking at the world. And if I were writing a straight comedy piece I would run with this theme, but the truth is, the older I get, the more I become convinced Aristotle was onto something here. At heart, ethical behavior really is pretty simple.

Kindly withhold your snorts of disbelief while I explain. Most of us, with the exception of sociopaths, psychopaths, and my first literary agent, have an innate sense of Good and Bad. Whenever we get into a really tortured bout of situational conditional rationalization (or to use the mathematical term, "fudging"), what we're really trying to do is silence that little internal voice that's screaming, "This is Bad! Don't do it!" Thus, in clinical terms, ethical ratiocination is an enabling behavior. We use conditional adjustments to our ethical values in order to justify doing things we know we shouldn't, but want to anyway.

This, by the way, is extremely common human behavior. Alcoholics and smokers do it all the time, and you probably do it, too. To test your level of denial, consider the following proposition: have you ever actually had trouble coming up with sufficient equivocating factors to permit you to do something you knew was "just slightly" unethical, such as, say, stealing a few ballpoint pens from work?

If your answer is "No," welcome to the human race. If your answer is "Yes," please apply for sainthood immediately. If your answer is a torrential outpouring of self-justification, I want to throw one more basic concept at you: the root word of ethics is ethos. Character. Your character. Not society's character, or your boss's character, or Mark Fuhrerman's character. Your personal character, as reflected by the decisions you make.

Now let's put these root concepts to work.

The Robin Hood Fallacy

For example, let's consider one of the most pervasive Romantic notions in our culture: It's okay to steal from those who can afford to lose it. This idea underlies much of our popular fiction, from Les Miserables to last week's mega-hyped Hollywood action-adventure thriller blockbuster. It also apparently underlies much of our tax code (especially the capital gains parts), and frankly---this one should strike close to home---it's the rationalization behind most software piracy.

But let's reconsider. If ethical behavior is solely a reflection of your character, then:

If you're being intellectually honest, then the answers to the above questions have to be "No," "No," "No," and "What offsite backup?" respectively. For the first three items reflect the ethos of various executives at Microsoft Corporation (corporate ethics being an oxymoron which we can explore another time). Only the fourth item is within your control, and therefore, only the fourth item is of legitimate ethical concern to you. All the other ideas---obnoxious as they might be---can only serve as rationalizations for making a "bad" decision.

Note that this is not an apologia for wealth and power. Certainly the activities of monopolistic corporations deserve close scrutiny, as well as conscientious voting with your checkbook, and thanks to the recently signed Telecommunications Act there are things coming down the pike that will make George Orwell look like an optimist. But remember, ethics is a matter of your personal character and the decisions you make, and no matter how tortured the math, two wrongs do not add up to a right.

The Speed of Rumor in a Vacuum

So, are we all clear on this good/bad thing? Stealing someone else's property is bad. Boosting a corporate VISA card number is bad. Having sex with a child is bad. (NAMBLA members please note: The testimony of tens of thousands of child victims is overwhelmingly on the con side, so kindly check yourselves into therapy programs, okay?) Helping people in need is good. Making Jews into soap is bad. Is this clear enough?

Good, because next I want to consider the question of Hurtful behavior, and specifically, Hurtful Speech. (Hurtful physical actions such as, say, hacking into someone else's computer and trashing their FAT table pretty clearly fall into the "Bad" category, described above.)

Now, I'm not talking about Hate Speech, in the exaggerated PC sense where calling sorority members "water buffaloes" becomes a Federal case (when in actuality of course it was a comedic reference any Flintstones fan would understand). But rather, consider this example of a bit of hurtful speech I once fired off:

I bring this up, not as a mea culpa, but to illustrate two important points:

So what's all this got to do with Sci-Fi, huh?

At this point, there are at least four directions in which we can take this discussion:

Let's start with a question: What exactly is the author/reader relationship? Well, taking the communication theory approach, what we have is a transmitter (author) sending information via a medium (book, magazine, etc.) to a receiver (reader). Applying our root ethical concept---that ethics are the actions of individuals---we can clip the publishers, booksellers, and the like out of the loop, and focus on two people: the author, and the reader. So what is the author's ethical obligation to the reader?

It is to deliver an intellectual or entertainment experience which justifies the reader's having purchased the book.

Sorry kids, but stripped down to the essentials, that's really it. You may take a moment now to shudder at naked, mercenary commercialism of it all, but when you're done, I want you to consider the next question. What then is the reader's ethical obligation to the author?

It is to not take the author's work without just compensation.

"Yeah, yeah," you say, "I got that earlier, Theft is Bad. So I won't steal any books. Is that all you had to say?" Actually, no. I'm trying to drive a bit deeper than mere shoplifting, so here's the next question: when you buy an author's work, what exactly are you buying? About a quarter-pound of pulp paper and a glossy four-color cover?

No, that's the medium. What you are actually buying, when you buy a book or a magazine, is the right to possess one copy of the author's intellectual property.

And here is the really sticky point, where ethics, the Internet, and "full and free access" to information finally collide. What if you like the story so much that you decide to photocopy it and mail it to a friend? Better yet, what if you're teaching a creative writing course, and decide it's such a terrific story that you should photocopy it and hand it out to the entire class? Or why stop there: this is such an incredible story, you decide to scan it, OCR it, post it on your web site, and share it with the entire world?!

Do you understand what you've just done?

Now, if I've done my job right, you should have reached my conclusion a step ahead of me, and realized that there is no ethical difference between making a few photocopies of a favorite short story and setting up a production line to sell bootleg copies of WordPerfect. Both are theft of intellectual property; both deprive the author of the opportunity to earn a return for his or her work. And casting my usual sarcasm aside, this is the real issue that the Internet and related emerging technologies pose: that they make it easier for readers to violate copyright law, not to mention the ethical contract in the author/reader relationship.

And no, this is not just a matter of writers being uptight prigs. Now, today, authors I know are losing significant shares of their potential income to unauthorized "fan" reprints and bootleg foreign translations. Now, today, Ann Rice has just settled a lengthy and expensive lawsuit with a bunch of well-meaning amateurs who put out their own "Vampire Lestat" magazine---not because Ann is a bitch, or made any money off the suit, but to keep Lestat from becoming a public-domain figure and thus losing control of her intellectual property. Now, today....

You get the picture. Now consider the proliferation of scanners, OCR techology, .jpg and related enhanced video-display concepts, fast-forward ten years, and consider this question: how are you going to use this techology?

Remember, ethical behavior is an individual choice. Make the right one.

About the author: Bruce Bethke's latest novel, HEADCRASH, a comedy about life on the Internet, is a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, a LOCUS best-seller, and a nine-time nominee for the Nebula Award. In spite of that, it's not half bad.