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Last Friday, a minor ruckus arose when Amazon Kindle owners found that unauthorized editions of George Orwell’s books had been automatically deleted from their e-book readers. Glenn Reynold’s has a short , but revealing post, on the controversy:

So I like my Amazon Kindle, but this business of remotely deleting books you’ve already “bought” is more than a little creepy, and a warning against the dangers of moving to electronic publishing in general.

The Insta-Wife and I were arguing about this this morning. Her position is that if Amazon sold you a book it didn’t have electronic rights to, then it was actually respecting property rights — of the copyright holder — by undoing the sale and refunding your money. I see that point, but on the other hand . . . it’s just creepy.

On the merits of case I’m in agreement with Glenn’s wife. But what I found even more interesting than the actions of Amazon—which the company later apologized for—is the way that all the discussions I’ve seen on this issue are framed completely in what Mary Ann Glendon calls “rights talk.”
Converging with the language of psychotherapy, rights talk encourages our all-too-human tendency to place the self at the center of our moral universe. In tandem with consumerism and a normal dislike of inconvenience, it regularly promotes the short-run over the long-term, crisis intervention over preventive measures, and particular interests over the common good. Saturated with rights, political language can no longer perform the important function of facilitating public discussion of the right ordering of our lives together.

As a proponent of virtue ethics (albeit an admittedly unvirtuous one) I would prefer to see the relevant questions framed a bit differently: Shouldn’t we strive to be the type of people who prefer not to own illegally obtained material? And shouldn’t we be grateful when the return of such material can be accommodated in a way that is most convenient for us?

Perhaps we’d be better off as a society if we gave as much thought to the right ordering of our ethical commitments as we do to DRM.

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