Why do so many people care so little about stealing music?

Cartoon image of a pirate iPod

There’s been a bit of a furore recently over a blog post by Emily White, an intern at NPR All Songs Considered and GM of her college radio station, in which she acknowledges that while she has 11,000 songs in her music library, the vast majority have been obtained through borrowing from friends, mix CDs, ripping music from her college radio station, and – yes – even some from file sharing sites. She’s only ever paid for about 15 CDs in her life.

This isn’t particularly surprising; in the internet age, it is astonishingly easy to access music for free, and a huge number of people do – 95% of music downloads in 2008 were illegal. What has surprised many people is her unashamed tone:

“I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience… What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices… All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?”

There have been prominent articles condemning and defending this attitude. I don’t wish to get embroiled in a debate about the morality of her post. What I find interesting are the parallels we can draw with other moral behaviour and what this may say about human moral cognition.

Stealing office supplies

Office supply stealing cartoonBy the outrage her post has caused, you’d think that this phenomenon of being unashamed about stealing something is recent and specific to music. This definitely isn’t true. Case in point: it is perfectly normal to steal office supplies. So normal, in fact, that a recent study by Brunel University states that 80% of people do it. More importantly, these people see nothing wrong with doing it. They are as unashamed as Emily White.

At the same time, however, only 13% have shoplifted, and 97% think it dishonest to steal a DVD from a shop. What does this say about people’s moral code? Rationally speaking, stealing music and office supplies is exactly the same as stealing from shops. It is just that: stealing. In each scenario, you are taking a product that isn’t yours without some accepted form of compensation. Why should the fact that you are stealing from a shop make any difference? A principled, Kantian moral stance against stealing would decry all of these behaviours to be wrong.

Moral behaviour is not principled

The thing is, the more morality is studied, the more we have found that moral behaviour and cognition is not principled. While it may seem strange to be against stealing a DVD of a film from a shop but then perfectly fine with stealing the same film online, this is perfectly normal moral “logic”. This is because morality is just not logical. I could describe hundreds of studies in support of this, but I’ll focus on a few particularly interesting ones.

Manipulating emotions changes moral judgements

Wheatley and Haidt (2005) used post-hypnotic suggestion to implant an extra flash of disgust whenever participants read a particular word (“take” for half of the participants; “often” for the other half). Participants were then asked to make judgements about characters in moral scenarios that contained the hypnotically enhanced word. For example:

Congressman Arnold Paxton frequently gives speeches condemning corruption and arguing for campaign finance reform. But he is just trying to cover up the fact that he himself will take bribes from the tobacco lobby, and other special interests, to promote their legislation.

This was given to those who had been hypnotically imprinted to feel disgusted at the word “take”. For those who had been imprinted to feel disgusted at “often”:

Congressman Arnold Paxton frequently gives speeches condemning corruption and arguing for campaign finance reform. But he is just trying to cover up the fact that he himself is often bribed by the tobacco lobby, and other special interests, to promote their legislation.

Participants made harsher judgments of characters in scenarios that contained the hypnotically enhanced word. Some participants even found themselves condemning a character in a story who had done no wrong — a student council representative who “tries to take” or “often picks” discussion topics that would have wide appeal.

The link between stealing music and quitting smoking

To apply this to the case of illegally obtaining music: the people who condemn this behaviour (i.e. the aforementioned article) are usually those who have either worked in the music industry or been in bands. The negative consequences of illegally obtaining music are emotionally salient to them – after all, it is these people who lose out when someone steals their music or the music of their artists. The people illegally obtaining music, in general, aren’t in bands or the industry. The negative consequences of their actions have no emotional salience to them.

New FDA anti-smoking adConsider the case of anti-smoking ads. Rationally, everyone knows how dangerous smoking is. There have been many visible ad campaigns over the years stating how dangerous it is. Packets of cigarettes contain warnings such as “smoking causes impotence” and “smoking causes lung cancer”. Yet people still start smoking. Recently, however, anti-smoking ads have started to include graphic images of diseased lungs, mouth cancer, corpses, and other nasty examples of the harm caused by smoking. These images are disgusting. They cause a strong emotional response in us, more so than a line of text with a dryly worded fact. And it seems they are effective – this study showed that 50 percent of people remember the text-only warning label, while 83 percent remember the label that contained a graphic image. Whilst we don’t know whether this translates directly into a decision to quit smoking (or a decision to not smoke in the first place) it shows how effective emotional responses are in causing something to be salient to us, i.e. to have personal meaning.

When illegally downloading music, there is no emotionally salient negative image urging us to do otherwise. The main emotion we are feeling is the excitement about getting some new music. Unless images of destitute musicians are plastered all over file sharing sites, then this is unlikely to ever change. When in an actual shop, however, we can see the person who we would be stealing music from. The negative consequences are very salient to us. This explains the disconnect between stealing online and stealing from a shop. We steal from a shop, we’re harming that guy, right there. We steal from the internet, we’re harming a bunch of people I don’t know and can’t see. Emotionally, they mean very little to me.

People often can’t explain their moral judgements

An incredibly fascinating study by Haidt, Björklund, and Murphy demonstrated that people often just don’t know why they’ve made the judgement they have. He presented people with moral scenarios that were designed to make people feel disgusted but which were hard to rationally condemn as being wrong. One of the scenarios involved consensual incest:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it OK for them to make love?

Most people decided it was wrong for the siblings to do this and began searching for reasons to explain their judgement. Some pointed out the dangers of inbreeding, only to remember that Julie and Mark used two forms of birth control. Some argued that Julie and Mark will be hurt emotionally, even though the story makes it clear that no harm will come to them. As it says, it brought them closer. After running through more possible explanations that turn out to be incorrect, they usually stopped and said something like “I don’t know, it’s just wrong”. The researchers termed this moral dumbfounding.

File sharing dumbfounding

Pirate Party flyerThe reasons people gave for being against the consensual incest scenario aren’t real reasons: they’re just attempts to justify their gut feeling. This is moral confabulation, which, as this post puts it, is when you dislike something so much that you make stuff up. This also applies to liking something so much that you make stuff up, which is what you see when people attempt to defend stealing music. I might as well call this file sharing dumbfounding. From following this issue for a while, I’ve seen a remarkable number of justifications for this behaviour. Here’s a selection:

  1. Sharing files is a basic internet freedom, a fundamental right of the internet. This is the main ideological stance taken by the Pirate Party. The flaw in this stance is obvious. No one is claiming file sharing is wrong. People are claiming illegal file sharing is wrong. Furthermore, it seems there is a conflict of rights here. Rights are a difficult issue, but I’m fairly sure the right to be paid for ones work could also be argued to exist. Rights frequently conflict in this way: recent political developments in the USA have lead to “a right to religious freedoms” being defended by those who wish to act on beliefs that are potentially harmful to others, e.g. anti-homosexuality beliefs. At the same time, one could argue that gay people have a right not to be discriminated against. These two rights are in conflict. If one is claiming a right exists, that does not mean that it necessarily applies all across the board with absolutely no qualifiers.
  2. Record companies are evil and treat artists poorly. We’re really stealing from them, not the artists. The problem here is that regardless of what you may think about record labels, you are also depriving the artists of royalties through not paying for their music. There is no question of that not being the case.
  3. At least I pay for some music. If a CEO embezzles a large chunk of investors’ money and claims in her defence that she didn’t embezzle some of it, I’m not sure anyone would come out in support of her actions.
  4. But I pay to see them live/buy their merchandise. Again, the analogy from 3) applies here.

I could go on. There are a wide variety of confabulations used by people to justify why they are downloading music illegally.

Motivated moral reasoning

Finally, on a related note to the last point, people are motivated moral reasoners. This means that we are more likely to find evidence to support a claim we want to defend and are generally quite bad at rationally weighing up either side of an argument. For example, Kuhn notes that when children and young adults were given evidence that was inconsistent with a theory they favoured, they often: “either failed to acknowledge discrepant evidence or attended to it in a selective, distorting manner. Identical evidence was interpreted one way in relation to a favored theory and another way in relation to a theory that was not favored” (p. 677).

This study, of course, is looking at children and young adults, not adults. The thing is, I could have chosen any study from hundreds here looking at all ages. If you want to look into this in more detail, here’s an overview of all the work done on motivated moral reasoning.

The point of all this

Found money LOLCatIt seems that the debate surrounding illegally obtaining music won’t be solved through rational discussion unless people become aware of the underlying explanations for why they are making the moral judgements they are. The vast majority of human moral cognition is not rational, and is motivated by strong emotions and desires. People on either side of the debate will selectively use evidence to support their claims, and will distort the evidence of those opposing them. People whose livelihood depends on royalties will be more likely to condemn illegally obtaining music, and people whose livelihood does not depend on this and who can’t afford to pay for all the music they’d like to have will be more likely to defend illegally obtaining music. Each side will be motivated to confabulate explanations that defend their emotional desires.

This situation is not unique to music. Whether it’s stealing office supplies, finding money on the floor, or downloading a film, human moral cognition responds in highly emotional, desire motivated ways, frequently changing depending on the personal and social context. The sooner we move away from an assumption that people are moral reasoners and begin to understand that people are actually anything but rational when it comes to moral judgement then the sooner we will have a better understanding of what’s going on in this debate.


  1. Seems a pretty cynical and defeatist conclusion to come to. We shouldn’t rubbish morality because that is at the basis of justice and fairness in human society and organisation. Without this there can only be lawless chaos, we shall slip back into the dark ages where greed and expediency are the drivers for every motive and activity and life is nasty, brutish and short

    1. I guess there is a danger of being too defeatist about morality after reading a lot of the moral psychology research. You’re right – morality is obviously an incredibly important part of human culture and we should not abandon it. The issue is how to approach moral problems knowing what we now know about how morality works. This article is just an attempt to shed new light on an important contemporary moral problem. The main problem is that I don’t give any positive suggestions about how to deal with the problem in the light of this research. To be honest, I just don’t know. It’s a very tricky one.

  2. This article is founded on the assumption that sharing music is “stealing.” Most avid music downloaders would disagree with that premise, so there is a big piece of the puzzle missing here.

    1. Very true – I did consider discussing this in the article, but I decided not to in order to keep the article a decent length. The thing is, in the majority of cases illegal downloads are quite transparently stealing. There are a few cases where downloading is arguably not stealing; so, for example, if an artist releases something themselves on bandcamp or some other similar site and charges for downloads, yet is not particularly bothered if people download their songs without paying because they primarily just want people to hear their music. Another case would be if an artist releases something via a record label but the artist themselves is not particularly bothered about people downloading without paying. The label may want their royalties, but if the artist isn’t bothered then it becomes a bit of a grey area.

  3. I’m late to reading this article, but this practice of stealing music and software always blows my mind. I’m constantly talking to gamers that feel that this is no big deal because “the companies are so big and make plenty of money”. Yet when I ask them if it is ok then to walk into a business and take a pack of gum, or a $20 book, that qualifies as stealing. No matter what, you are stealing someone’s ability to make a living. Someone worked to produce a product, generally quite a lot of people – from the conceiver, marketers, through all the middlemen, to the final website or shop. Stealing is stealing, and we need to make sure people understand that just because it is easy, or hard to enforce, or small, it is still completely and unequivocally – wrong.

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