A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2009

While pirates are often seen as a thing of the past and suitable mainly for Disney movies, pirates have never really vanished. While piracy has generally not gotten much media coverage in the past, the recent surge in piracy off the coast of Somalia has lead to increased media attention.

In general, pirates are free-lancers who seize vessels for their own profit. However, some people categorize any illegitimate capturing or attacking of vessels as acts of piracy. For example, some might consider Israel’s recent ramming of a boat attempting to bring aid to Gaza as an act of piracy. After all, the boat was a civilian craft and was operating in international waters when it was attacked. Of course, nations prefer to describe their actions as legitimate military operations rather than piracy.

From a legal standpoint, that distinction can hold quite nicely. After all, nations have the legal right to do all sorts of nasty things to ships provided that they do all the right legal things (like declare an embargo, blockade or war). Of course, the moral distinction between pirates and nations can often be a very fine one. In fact, during times of war nations have often employed private citizens to augment their naval operations. These legal pirates were called “privateers” and were considered a legitimate part of warfare. They were employed by the major European powers against each other and also by the United States. Of course, when they decided to strike off on their own after the war, they then became pirates. After all, they were no longer killing and looting for some king or president-they were killing and looting for themselves. That is, of course, what makes them criminals.

As always, it is interesting how committing acts of theft and violence for a country is often regarded as acceptable while such acts done for private gain are universally condemned. However, the moral distinction does seem blurred. After all, if a navy attacks ships because doing so is in the interest of the state, then it would seem that an individual could make the same sort of argument for his acts of piracy.

Naturally, it can be argued that a state has legitimate interests that pirates lack. However, states often seem to have the same motivations and interests as pirates-to gain power and wealth. As such, it would not be unreasonable to often see them in the same pirate boat.

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