Moral Confusion at MIT

Whether you take someone else’s property by pointing a gun at them and demanding it or by pounding out a code on a keyboard and taking it by stealth it’s still thievery. In the first case you’ve committed armed robbery and the second, grand larceny.

When you read a story in today’s Boston Globe about MIT setting up what is in effect a legal defense fund for students who commit felonies and major civil offenses — you see a venerable academic institution going off the moral rails a bit.  MIT proposes to provide “legal resources” for students who get into trouble, i.e. are charged with criminal and civil offenses.   These are not Daniel Ellsbergs in training.  They are stealing for fame and for fortune.

I think that when we consider crimes by the brightest of our students we fall prey to economists call the Framing Bias.  We judge the act, or the information, by who is doing it or telling it to us, not by the objective content.  Most of us have been mesmerized* since radio, so we are easily sucked in.  When Aaron Schwartz, who had so much to potentially give to the world, took his own life, the tragedy understandably shook his family, his colleagues at MIT and the computer science community.  I’ll even concede that the US Attorney’s Office was too harsh in its charging.  HOWEVER, Mr. Schwartz stole other scientists’ published works.  For the life of me I cannot see who would be in interested in the obscure journal articles he “liberated,” other than scientists and libraries who would gladly and easily pay for them.

Should an MIT student get into trouble for doing something innovative and pro-social that only looks criminal to those, like me, too dumb to understand the technology, I say spend whatever it takes to resurrect Clarence Darrow and defend scientific progress.

But don’t sell us clever, adolescent computer crimes as Galileo facing the chopping block.  MIT would serve the world better if it convened a year-long exploration of how to better use digital technology ethically to serve moral ends, instead of the other way around.


* This word comes from another time when society was dazzled to a distraction by science.  Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) was a German physician who theorised that there was a natural energetic transference that occurred between all animated and inanimate objects that he called animal magnetism, sometimes later referred to as mesmerism.  Later, a noter scientist proposed the term hypnosis for a technique derived from animal magnetism; today this is the usual meaning of mesmerism.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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1 Response to Moral Confusion at MIT

  1. bob282 says:

    Here here, hip hip hooray , huzzah you point out as you did in your Harvard note , the great institutions of higher learning sometimes get confused.
    Just what is being taught and what is being learned are opposites. All lessons do not come from a book or lecture and often what is promoted as a good intent looks rather cloudy in the rearview mirror.
    Some see ethics, and accountability in business and government as the challenge for the future.
    It is said “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”….
    Perhaps it is time for some in the Ivy League to course correct and encourage more Galileo’s than Madoff’s.

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