The Noble Cause

“It’s not the right thing to do, but I did it.”

That’s 92-year-old Hyman Strachman, a World War II vet, after spending eight years and his own money duplicating and sending thousands, according to The New York Times, (Apr. 26) “hundreds of thousands of copies of The HangoverGran Torino and other first-run movies from his small Long Island apartment to ship overseas.”

“And, he has sent every one of his copied DVDs, almost 4,000 boxes of them to date, free to American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

When pressed about the violation of copyright laws Strachman says, “Every time I got back an emotional e-mail or letter, I sent them another box.”

“ ‘Our downtime is spent watching movies as we clean our weapons,’ one handwritten note said. Another accompanied a flag from a combat mission over Afghanistan: ‘I can think of no one more deserving than you, and no one who understands what this flag stands for and means to our veterans.’ ”

Strachman points out that he has never accepted money for the DVDs or been told by authorities to stop. Apparently, at this point in time, it doesn’t matter. “Strachman explained in a recent interview that his 60-hour-a-week venture was winding down. ‘It’s all over anyways — they’re all coming home in the near future,’ he said of the troops.

So, what do you think, is Strachman legally and morally guilty?

C’mon Jim, you’re not going to try and sell me that the copyright police should break down the door of a 92-year-old vet, and haul him and his equipment down to jail?

Well, no I wouldn’t go that far, but…

The ethical impropriety that Mr. Strachman is engaged in is commonly referred to as The Noble Cause rationale: “Because I do not personally gain from the action,” the rationale goes, “and I’m doing a good deed for others, it’s okay.”

In other words, the end-justifies-the-means.

A similar strategy was employed when Colonel Oliver North, a staff member of the National Security Council, lied to Congress in order to conceal covert activities in support of the Nicaraguan Contras. In an immunity deal, North defended his actions as patriotic demonstrations of support for the so-calledFreedom Fighters in Central America.

In a stunning 2009 report, almost 200 teachers and principals in Atlanta, Georgia cheated on tests to raise student scores due to pressures regarding the importance of high-stakes testing to hold teachers accountable to meet certain educational goals.

The most notable problems associated with The Noble Causerational: 1) Once you go down that path, what else are you likely to rationalize for a good cause; and 2) After the lie is discovered, your reputation, as well as whatever organization you represent suffers.

The years of cover-ups by officials at Penn State regarding child abuse at the hands of one of their football coaches may have saved the reputation of the school in the short term, but has proven costly in the long run.

But what about something that is done out in the open, without apology, for the clear benefit of many, like copying and sending DVDs of movies to our troops overseas? Strachman doesn’t seem to care about his reputation, in this case. He still believes that what he did was done out of necessity. How else could he put his hands on hundreds of thousands of DVDs?

Ethicist Michael Josephson asks us to look closer at The False Necessity Trap:

“Is the ultimate goal truly necessary? What would you do if you knew you couldn’t get what you want? Would a disinterested outsider believe the goal was necessary? Would you do it if you knew your goal was a ‘want’ rather than a ‘need’?

“Are the specific means you are considering truly necessary to achieve the goal? What would you do if those means were unavailable? Would a disinterested outsider think the conduct is necessary to achieve the goal? Will the means jeopardize or change the nature of the goal?”

Looking at the Josephson test, how could Strachman achieved his goal?

Well, he could have reached out to friends, neighbors and family for any used DVDs or collected donations to allow him to buy used DVDs. He could have contacted local media to help spread the word about his goal and enlist support from all who read or watched a news report. He might have reached out to local video stores around his community or state. He could’ve contacted the CEOs of Blockbuster and Netflix to enlist their support. Finally, he could’ve reached out directly to studios, producers, directors and actors to help achieve his goal.

“Most of us,” Josephson says, “overestimate the cost of doing the right thing and underestimate the cost of failing to do so.”

So, is Strachman legally and morally guilty of copyright infringement?

You bet. While his actions clearly do not rise to the level of a bank heist, Watergate or Enron, Strachman did have other means available to him to achieve his goal.

I have caught myself in similar Noble Cause issues. What surprised me each time I considered an unethical action for a worthy cause was how easily I found myself rationalizing my actions, and the rationale only gets easier each time.

Ethics is not about being perfect. It’s about striving to live-up to the best you can be in spite of falling short in the past. Because what we do ultimately determines the purpose and course of our lives.

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