DIFFICULT MORAL ISSUES: If we are contemplating behavior that we think might be wrong, we should refrain from acting until we have resolved the issue.
Q. Recently, I partnered with someone who sells 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’s being honest because he knows how licensing works better than I do, and I know very little about it. Should I listen to my conscience or just trust it? Should I continue this activity? If so, would that be a sin? I need money, but most importantly, I don’t want to offend God. — Franc
A. You are asking whether you should listen to your conscience. The answer is Yes always.
But in your case, your conscience is in doubt: you think something is wrong with what you are doing, but you are not sure; and your partner, who says everything is fine, seems honest but his honesty doesn’t settle the matter.
This is a classic case of what moral theology calls “doubt of conscience”: you doubt the right thing to do.
It’s not clear from your description where your uncertainty comes from. This can be due to one of two things: either you’re not sure you’re doing something that you would know if you were doing it 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 doubt that this is wrong.
The following moral principle applies to all cases of questionable conscience: If we contemplate behavior that we believe might be wrong, we must refrain from acting until we have resolved the matter.
It is because he who voluntarily does what he believes to be evil is ready to do that evil. And a will disposed to do evil is an evil will.
Thus, you must answer the question on which you have a doubt. Since your partner’s supposed honesty does not resolve the doubt, you must set aside their honesty for the purpose of settling the matter.
If after investigation it turns out that you are doing something that you know is wrong, you should stop doing it and engage in business practices that are certainly right.
Let’s take a stronger example: a young pregnant woman does not know if she should have an abortion. Her boyfriend told her, and the worker at the local abortion facility agreed, that she is so early in her pregnancy that what is developing inside her is not yet fully human, but simply a clump of pre-human cells. She trusts her boyfriend and has no reason to doubt the clinic employee. But she still has doubts: “What if the fetus growing inside me was a little baby? Then I would kill my own child.
She knows that would be wrong. She is tempted to take the short and easy route, but her conscience holds her back: she doubts the status of the being growing inside her. What should she do?
As in your case, she should not act until she resolves the question of conscience she doubts about – in her case, the status of the fetus, and in yours, the question of whether to sell software the way you sell it is illegal.
In your case, the legality of the act settles the question: is selling software against the vendor’s terms illegal? Why does the legality of the act settle the question? Because the law aims here to prevent harm to real human property, in this case fairness to owners.
In the case of abortion, legality does not settle the question because the legal authorization of abortion is an abuse of the law. But the nature of the doubts is similar. One or more facts settle the moral question: what really is the status of the fetus? Is she fully human? If she is, then in every relevant sense, she’s my baby. For you, there are two factual questions: Are we acting against the will of the seller? Is it legal?
One could object by saying that one who is invincibly ignorant can do something objectively wrong without guilt. Don’t the very doubts here lessen the guilt?
This is not a case of invincible ignorance, which involves actions that I doubtless consider morally right. In other words, I completely ignore the harm of action. Furthermore, I am not guilty of my ignorance (for example, I ignored my parents when I was young, or I blinded my conscience with other sins so that I do not see the harm in this which I now contemplate). In such a case, there is no guilt associated with the choice of this behavior (Catechism, 1793).
But the fact that you have doubts means that you are not invincibly ignorant.
You either violate or do not violate the provider’s license terms. Investigate and settle the matter. If you are, determine if it can be done legally. If not, stop doing it. If you think the license terms are unreasonable, then, if possible, contact the provider about the terms.
A final word on the common rationalization associated with piracy issues: “This company makes obscene amounts of money; he will surely not suffer any difficulty from my illegal use of his product.
Behind that, there is a real ethical problem. The value system of a community that remunerates software publishers (movie studios, movie stars, athletes) with sums of money unimaginable even 50 years ago is indeed confusing. But that does not erase our duty to abide by just laws.
It is good that the rule of law protects the rights of owners. It not only protects wealthy owners, but all owners. In the absence of such property laws, it is difficult to see how we could have a functioning community.
Thus, unilaterally deciding that certain owners – namely, products that I wish to profit from through illegal resale – do not deserve the same legal protections that I myself enjoy and wish to continue to enjoy is a self-serving rationalization .