Should philosophy and ethics be kept out of software?

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Fri, 2007-04-27 22:08 -- admin

Should the software industry be an ethics/philosophy free zone? Should we aim for the best software regardless of whether you are free to use it how you see fit? Should it all be about the quality of the software or the freedoms that come/don't come with it? Are you a "freedom comes first" person or a "whatever software does the job better" person? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle? Let us know where you sit on this subject?

Jonathan Roberts's picture

Philosophy and ethics should be present in every aspect of life - but in a world where technology is increasingly at the center of everything we do it is especially important in software.

Considering issues such as freedom, from a philosophical and ethical point of view, keeps us on our toes and keeps the government in check.

A current example of this issue is with electronic voting machines. We've seen all the problems that they suffer from in the US and we're now trying it in the UK - without free software how can we be sure that the votes are being counted in an accurate way? Or that a secret ballet is being maintained! These issues are fundamental to the ideals of democracy and freedom in our society as a whole and technology has the power to take it away from us; free software has the power to protect these ideals.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I agree that there is always some kind of philosophy present - even pragmatism is a philosophical standpoint. However, in many cases, I'm mostly interested in having my computer do the work I need. Philosphy does play a part (all other circumstances being equal, I choose Free over proprietary), but it's not the first thing I look for in software. Living in a third world country, software freedom can be the least of my worries sometimes.

Terry Hancock's picture

Philosophy and ethics shouldn't be left out of any enterprise, but neither should tolerance. The truth is that there is not one single "ethical" framework that results in a belief that free software is worthwhile. Naturally, this means that people will be working together who do not necessarily have the same apprehension of what "ethics" means when applied to software.

For example, I draw a very strong distinction between what is "ideal" or "good" and what is "unethical" or "wrong". They are not complements of each other, but extremes. In the middle there are always cases where the particular axis being discussed is ambiguous -- and in those cases we have to look to other criteria to decide what is best.

And even granted a shared view of morality in general, personal interest will draw any number of distinctions there. So, it becomes necessary not to ask "what is the right thing to do?" but rather "what is the right thing for me to do?" And of course, along with that comes a necessary respect for what other people decide is right for them to do.

For example this whole business about the relative merit of binary non-free drivers for Linux exists very much in this gray area. Clearly it has both positive and negative effects. So which position you prefer clearly depends on whether the negatively affected behaviors are more or less important to you than the positively affected ones.

Since everybody is going to be in a different position on that, it follows that opinions will be all over the map. AND THAT'S OKAY. The thing to do is to let people do what they feel is right, and not try to force your opinions on other people.

Mauro Bieg's picture

The thing to do is to let people do what they feel is right
I agree. But in order to make a choice, people should be informed about the issues and be aware off the freedoms they might loose by choosing a more pragmatical solution. If they're aware of the trade-off, it's okay, whatever they choose. But we shouldn't stop talking about philosophies. People will never demand freedom if they don't even know that freedom could exist. In a prorietary-software-only world, people might not know that they were able to program without being given the right (expensive) tools and education from a software company.