[ExI] (The Independent 2013-08) Plumpy'Nut: The lifesaver that costs... well, peanuts

Dan dan_ust at yahoo.com
Thu Sep 19 23:08:16 UTC 2013

 Mike Dougherty <msd001 at gmail.com>
 Wednesday, September 18, 2013 12:50 PM
>> There's no getting round the fact that if you hold a patent on a life-saving
>> technology, and enforce that patent to prevent it being available for cheaper,
>> people will die because of your decision.
> How about using the patent to block for-profit business but not waiving that
> option when non-profit and humanitarian/aid providers distribute the product ?
> Is that immoral? 

I think the problem here is with considering this doing X will cause a person to die view. I'm not going to side with causing people to die, but understand that many actions one might take might cause someone to die -- even mundane. For instance, not donating all your wealth above the level of just keeping yourself alive might, by this standard, cause someone to die. There's someone out there -- probably many people -- who might have lived another day had the wealth you used for other things -- whether saving for your retirement, enjoying a meal above subsistence, paying for Internet access, paying to live above the lowest level of housing (i.e., in many nicer climes, not living in an alley or under the open sky), and so forth-- been spent on helping them.

But I don't think it's immoral as such to spend money on yourself or on things other than helping other people to live. (This doesn't mean there's no moral concerns for the well-being of others. I just don't think it overrides all other moral concerns.) And there's a separation, I think, between what moral concerns can be enforce and what ones can't be enforced. For instance, a contractual obligation freely chosen (which should be redundant, of course) can be enforced (within limits, presuming the contracting parties have rights to what's involved, etc.). There is a moral claim there that where force can be used to compel the parties involved, depending on the details of the contract. But other moral concerns can't be enforced in many cases. To take a non-controversial (I hope) example, think of honesty. In many cases, this can't be enforced, such as, for instance, someone being honest about their feelings or their beliefs. We don't, I hope, think that
 if someone lies in general that they can be compelled to confess the truth. (Of course, when a lie is used to defraud someone, that's another matter, but I'm talking about the general case.)

Aside from this, there's also the problem of whether patents themselves are morally defensible -- and not because people might lose their lives over patents. (In the same, it's immoral to do many unjust things -- even if the unjust thing doesn't kill anyone. For instance, it's immoral for me to steal your toothbrush -- even if I only do this once. I presume here that it's justly your toothbrush, you don't owe me anything of comparable or greater value (or haven't wronged me in any way to justify me taking it), stealing your toothbrush once is only going to set you back a small amount and not kill you. But it's still immoral to do this.) If patents aren't defensible, then this kind of answers the question above in a very different way...

But let's leave that aside for the moment. I was going to suggest merely putting whatever life saving technology you invent into the public domain, avoiding patenting all together. Then it's up to whomever wants to to manufacturer whatever technology is there. I'm not a legal eagle, but I believe if it's in the public it can't be patented. Isn't this correct? (I'm also not sure how this varies from nation to nation.)


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