Software Piracy and a Classic Case of Doubt of Conscience

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: If we are contemplating some behavior that we believe might be wrong, we should refrain from acting until we settle the question.

Software (photo: Innova Labs / Pixabay/CC0)

Q. Recently I’ve partnered with someone selling software license keys. I’m pretty sure the way we sell them is against the license terms of the vendor, but my partner told me that everything we do is fine. I assume he is honest because he knows better than I about how licensing works, and I know very little about it. Should I listen to my conscience, or just trust him? Should I continue this business? If so, would that be sinful? I need the money but most important I don’t want to offend God. — Frank

A. You ask whether you should listen to your conscience. The answer is Yes, always.  

But in your case, your conscience is in doubt: You think something might be wrong with what you’re doing, but are unsure; and your partner, who says it’s all good, seems honest but his honesty doesn’t settle the question.

This is a classic case of what moral theology calls a “doubt of conscience”: You are doubtful of the right thing to do.  

It’s not clear from your description what your uncertainty arises from. It may arise from one of two things: Either you are uncertain as to whether you are doing something that if you were doing, you’d know was wrong — namely, selling software license keys against the vendor’s stated terms — or you are sure you are selling them against the owner’s terms, but are doubtful as to whether doing so is wrongful.

The following moral principle applies to all cases of doubtful conscience: If we are contemplating some behavior that we believe might be wrong, we should refrain from acting until we settle the question.  

This is because one who willfully does what he believes might be evil is willing to do that evil. And a will willing to do evil is a bad will.  

Thus, you should answer the question over which you are in doubt. Since the putative honesty of your partner does not settle the doubt, you should set his honesty aside for purposes of settling the question.  

If after investigation it turns out that you are doing something you know to be wrong, you should stop doing it and engage in business practices that are certainly upright.

Let’s use a stronger example: A pregnant young woman is confused as to whether she should procure an abortion.  Her boyfriend has told her, and the worker at the local abortion facility has agreed, that she’s so early in her pregnancy that what’s growing within her is not yet fully human, but merely a pre-human clump of cells. She trusts her boyfriend and has no reason to doubt the clinic worker. But still she has doubts: “What if the fetus growing in me is a little baby? Then I’d be killing my own child.”  

She knows this would be wrong. She’s tempted to take the short and easy way out, but her conscience holds her back: She is doubtful as to the status of the being growing within her. What should she do?

Like in your case, she should not act until she resolves the question of conscience over which she is doubtful — in her case, the status of the fetus, and in yours the question of whether selling software in the way you sell it is wrongful.  

In your case, the act’s legality settles the question: Is selling software against the vendor’s terms illegal? Why does the act’s legality settle the question? Because the law here aims to prevent harm to real human goods, in this case, fairness towards owners. 

In the abortion case, legality doesn’t settle the question because the legal permissibility of abortion is an abuse of law. But the nature of the doubts is similar. Some fact or facts settle the moral question: What is factually the case about the status of the fetus? Is she fully human? If she is, then in every relevant sense she is my baby. For you, there are two factual questions: Are we acting against the vendor’s wishes? Is this legal?

One might object saying that one who is invincibly ignorant can do something objectively wrong without culpability.  Do not one’s very doubts here mitigate culpability?  

This is not a case of invincible ignorance, which involves acts that I doubtlessly believe are morally upright. In other words, I am completely ignorant of the action’s wrongness. Moreover, I am not culpable for my ignorance (e.g., I tuned out my parents when I was young, or I’ve blinded my conscience through other sins such that I don’t see the evil in what I’m now contemplating). In such an instance, there is no guilt associated with choosing that behavior (Catechism, 1793).

But the fact that you have doubts means you are not invincibly ignorant.  

Either you are or are not violating the vendor’s licensing terms. Investigate and settle the question. If you are, then determine whether this can be done legally. If not, then stop doing it. If you think the licensing terms are unreasonable, then, if possible, communicate with the vendor about the terms.

A final word about the common rationalization associated with piracy questions: “This company makes obscene amounts of money; surely it won’t suffer any hardship from my illegal use of its product.”

Standing behind this is a real ethical problem. The value system of a community that compensates software companies (movie studios, movie stars, athletes) with sums of money unimaginable even 50 years ago is indeed confused. But this does not erase our duty to conform to just laws.  

It is good that the rule of law protects the rights of owners. It protects not only wealthy owners, but all owners. In the absence of such property laws, it’s hard to see how we could have a functional community.  

Thus, to unilaterally decide that certain owners — namely, of products from which I wish to profit through illegal resale — do not deserve the same legal protections that I myself enjoy and desire to keep enjoying is a self-serving rationalization.