Morality and Ethicality

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It has been stated by many that the arbitrary changing of a published work (erroneously termed editing) is not an immoral activity. I have demonstrated that it can be. I believe that it often is because it involves theft and deception.

But let's assume for the moment that the given instance is not immoral. I have taken the works of William Shakespeare and I have updated the language, deleted scenes I don't care for, changed around characters, added language to smooth transitions, and given the entire oeuvre a feminist/homosexualist agenda. I then publish the book as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare without any acknowledgment of the changes I have made, my name appears no where on the work, neither as editor nor as interpreter.

The work is in the public domain--there cannot be a question of theft because you cannot steal what belongs to all. One cannot libel the dead, and Shakespeare's reputation is well enough established that this will more likely result in outrage from the literary community than in damage to Shakespeare's reputation.

Still, what is lacking here is ethicality. When one chooses to make changes to a work and publish that work not as one's own--Steven R. redoes David Gopperfield or even David Goldmeadow: A Glancing Blow at Dickens--one has not adhered to the ethics even of the artistic world.

Ethics may be a lesser hurdle than morals. Ethical conduct demands something less of one than truly moral conduct. But the ethics of a situation are such that when one alters the work of another artist (not uses it for a jumping off place) it is meet and just that one puts one's name on it as "Editor." (Again, the more appropriate term here is "redactor" but I bow to the popular ignorance of the difference between the two and to the common usage that tends to conflate them.)

The ethics of the artistic world are simple--if you change a work, acknowledge that you have changed it. And for the most part the egos of the artistic world are such that there's usually a scrambling for credit rather a sly hiding behind anonymity in the production of a change.

However, I like the modern policy in cinema of noting when and how a film has been altered. (The standard disclaimer that "This film has been altered to fit your television screen.) This tells me I'm seeing something less that what the original artist conceived. So, if I'm dissatisfied with it in some way, I have recourse to the original to see if my dissatisfaction is with the revision or with the original. This is ethical conduct--it informs the person who is interested in the art of the production that what he or she is viewing is not the work as it was originally conceived. That is a valuable piece of information. And the placement of these sometimes annoying announcements is an ethical practice. It tells us that there is something awry in what we're viewing. And if we're watching for mere entertainment, then we acknowledge or ignore that and move on. If, however, I am a film student, I now know that this is not how the original was framed and I need to see something other than what is showing on my screen. (That should go without saying, but it is none-the-less good practice and ethical practice to acknowledge the truth of it.)

So, while the alteration of a work of art is not necessarily immoral, I would tend to say the unacknowledged alteration of a work in public domain or even for a licensed work is probably unethical.

This stands apart from the creation of a new work based on an older work. I always think of the classical pairing of Samuel Richardson's barely readable Pamela with the sparkling delight of Henry Fielding's Shamela. I have not yet read it, but The Wind Done Gone might be an amusing or interesting play on Gone with the Wind. And in younger days, I remember howling over Bored of the Rings--I don't know if I would do so now, one is eventually released from the follies of youth because one enters the follies of middle age--but at least they differ in kind if not in number.

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The distinction between morals and ethics is what I was missing earlier in this conversation. Thank you.


Funny, I would actually consider this an example of something immoral - a species of lie, if you will. But then I've always had difficulty understanding "moral" and "ethical" as distinct terms. I suppose the former implies perfect objectivity, while the latter implies the norms of some group which may or may not correspond to the former, or ideally would be consistent with the former but flesh it out as actual practices.

Dear Zippy,

Two points. I'm uncertain of your antecedent for "this" with respect to the post. If you mean my contention that you could alter something in the public domain without saying you have done it--I may agree with you. It is certainly what I have been arguing up until now, but I've been persuaded to back off my arguments of what was moral and ethical.

As to the difference--you describe my understanding to a "T." Ideally what is ethical should always be moral, but it might be possible to void ethicality without being immoral. For example, if is considered unethical to send one piece to two separate publications at the same time for consideration for publicaiton (some groups do think this), it certainly isn't immoral to do so. Ethicality has to do with conventions which should be, more or less, bounded by morality--but I can think of lot's of unethical things that might in fact be more moral than the ethical acts. (This happens a lot in business and law in my experience, where it is perfectly ethical, right and proper to defend someone who you know for certain is both guilty and lying. It might be a more moral act to ask someone else to defend said person.)

But, you may be right--it may be immoral and not merely unethical. I was simply bowing to those who said that they really don't see a problem with unilateral change to a work. I couldn't do anything more than to make it out as a species of theft, but you can't steal what already belongs to you (via public domain). And if you change it, it may be a form of lying--but that's really a tough call, but it is certain unethical practice. But thank you. This gives me more to think about with regard to the issue.



Ah, sorry, I was referring to changing a work and passing it off as the original as a species of lie. In other words it isn't the changing that is immoral, it is the passing it off as unchanged even though it is changed that is immoral. (And incidentally the two acts are distinct: one person might have done the changing whereas another intentionally misrepresents it as unchanged).



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 21, 2006 9:38 AM.

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