Two Levels of Ethics and How Open Source Measures Against Them

Why Open-Source is Ethical
Why Open-Source Development is Moral

There are two levels of Ethics: Ethos and Morality. An ethical action is such that is allowed under objective ethics. I.e: if you wish to perform it, then no-one can prevent you from doing it. It may not necessarily be a good action to take, but it is still allowed. A non-ethical action is such that will harm others and so is not allowed.

Now an ethical action is moral if it delivers genuine gain for you or for someone else. This distinction should be made because some ethical actions are very harmful (such as committing suicide or consuming harmful substances).[Amoral]

The aim of this section is to show that working on open source software is not only ethical but moral as well.

Why Open-Source is Ethical

The best summary of what is ethical and what isn’t can be found in the Neo-Tech Constitution. This document contains a preamble, followed by three articles, followed by 6 axioms. The articles are the most relevant and I’ll bring them here:

  1. No person, group of persons, or government may initiate force, threat of force, or fraud against the person or property of any individual.

  2. Force may be morally and legally used only in defence against those who violate Article 1.

  3. No exception shall ever exist to Articles 1 & 2.

The validity of this definition is self-evident. Now, based on it, what can we say about creating open-source software? It surely does not involve initiatory force, coercion or fraud. Working on free software is done voluntarily and its distribution does not involve harming anyone.

While vendors of commercial software may lose money or go out of business out of competition with open-source software, it does not constitute of force. Competition is one of the cornerstones of Capitalism. This is similar to selling a cheaper and/or better product at the marketplace and taking market share out of the competition.

Thus, creating and maintaining open source software is an ethical action.

Why Open-Source Development is Moral

Naively, some Objectivists may come to believe that working on open-source software is, while perfectly ethical, not a good action to take. “You work on software that the masses could use, and instead of selling it and earning a honest buck, you give it away to everybody, and have others benefit from your efforts. What’s in it for you?” But let’s first formulate a definition of what is moral and what isn’t.

Again, I will extract a suitable definition out of the Neo-Tech text:

The meaning of moral in Neo-Tech is simple and direct: Whatever is consciously done to help fill human biological needs is good and moral (e.g., the productive actions of honest people). Whatever is consciously done to harm or prevent the filling of human biological needs is bad and immoral (e.g., the destructive actions of mystics and neocheaters).

The validity of this definition is also evident. So how Open-Source measures against it? Very well, actually. Open source software was so far used by millions of users worldwide, greatly facilitated some of the jobs they had to do with their computer, and generally contributed to everyone’s well-being. The very action of creating a useful software for everyone to use is beneficial as it eventually can help fill human biological needs.

Now, some hardcore Objectivists can ask “But what about your own self-interest?”. Self-interest here is relevant, but in subversive ways. The open-source developer does not economically benefit from the software he wrote, as much as he would, had he sold it commercially (and assuming it would indeed become successful). However, he does benefit, from having more potential users and co-developers, from making sure his software or one of similar vestiges will remain available as time goes by, and from a boost of happiness knowing that people are using your software.

Usually, getting a non-free piece of software to become successful would take a lot of effort on the developer’s part, and you always risk a player with better resources competing with you. While it is itself beneficial as well, it may not yield the same immediate and long-term profit from working on an open-source package.

[Amoral] Related to moral and ethical choices are amoral decisions. An amoral choice is a matter of taste and is neither moral nor immoral. Examples are: your favourite food, your favourite Ice-cream flavour, your preferences in members-of-the-appropriate-sex, your preference in music, etc.