What is ethics?

Surprisingly, the struggle between the two camps of Free Software and Open Source leads us to a fascinating question: What is ethics?

The archetype representing the Open Source camp is, of course, Linus Torvalds whose attitude can be described as pragmatic, practical and engineery. In addition to this approach being natural to Linus, he also believes his position as leader of the Linux project commits him to being as neutral as possible. That's why he doesn't want to get involved in political issues. His maxim is more or less, we do what works best, and in programming Open Source is what works best.

Richard Stallman, father of the Free Software side, considers it very dangerous to limit oneself to such simple thinking. He thinks there is a significant difference between open and closed software development, and this difference influences things as important as equality and the transparency of State administration, but also important technical issues such as data protection and trust. All this leads directly to the conclusion that, more than anything else, the question of the best model for developing software is an ethical one.

So what is ethics?

Mad cow disease - or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) - was caused by feeding cows a mixture of meal made from the brains and bones of dead cows and sheep. I don't know what's wrong with European farming, but here we go again! Since good brains were going to waste, somebody thought it would be a good idea to feed them back to the cows and save the money farmers would otherwise spend on real feed. A few years later we had mad cow disease and tens of Europeans dead as a result of eating the beef from these cows.

Although Finland was spared this epidemic, which mostly devastated the British farming industry, the crisis was widely discussed here. On a TV chat show, a farmer from the north said that in the early nineties feed which had included brain matter had been offered to farmers in Finland. However, Finnish farmers considered that having cows grow fat on the offal from other cows was completely unethical and they refused to buy the feed.

So, in northern Finland we had a farmer who spoke of what is ethical. Today, the infamous "meat-and-bone meal' is banned throughout Europe. Yet, ten years earlier, farmers in Finland had refused to use it because they didn't think it was ethical! And since the meat-and-bone meal had not been used here, Finland was spared mad cow disease and the tragic consequences that followed it in other parts of Europe.

In hindsight, it's easy to say it would have made sense to ban the meat-and-bone meal from the outset. It ought to have been clear to anyone that cattle shouldn't be fed such fodder. If no farmers had ever fed their cows the meat-and-bone meal, Europe would have been spared the unnecessary loss of life and livestock caused by the epidemic. But how could anybody have guessed all that would happen?

A good question! And yet there were farmers who chose not to use the meat-and-bone meal - not for any practical or scientific reason but because they found the idea of it unethical. In hindsight, their taking an ethical standpoint saved lives. And in hindsight that's what worked for the best.

In a way, when the adherents of Open Source speak - with political incorrectness - of "only what works', they are right. But could Richard Stallman have used the same argument in 1984, when the business world was moving only in the direction of closed software? Because the field of software as a whole was so young, there were no facts and practical experiences to draw on to defend either model. So Stallman was forced to talk about ethics. And he was right, but that didn't become apparent until much later.

In a sense, the reason Stallman, too, ended up making his Free Software crusade was that he found that closed software didn't work as well as the free kind. In his essay "The GNU Project', he tells of an office printer they had in the lab at MIT. Because it was encumbered with a clumsy driver program, using the printer was extremely frustrating. Being a talented programmer, Stallman knew he could easily fix the problem, but the company that sold the printer refused to hand over the source code of its software! This episode affected Stallman's later conclusions.

So we've come full circle. When Linus Torvalds sticks to his "only what works' line, he is actually talking ethics! Ethical solutions are ethical precisely because they are the right ones. And the right solutions are right because they work.

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