Open Source and the Lehrer-von Braun defence

Tom Lehrer’s song about Wernher von Braun is of a man who should not be described as hypocritical:

Say rather that he’s apolitical. “Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

The idea that programming as a field has no clear ethical direction is not news. As Martin Fowler says here, some programmers seem to believe that they are mere code monkeys. We build things, it’s up to other people to choose how they get used, right?

It’s in open source software that this line of thinking is clearest. Of course anyone can use commercial software, but it becomes awkward to have blood money on your company’s records. Those defence companies and minerals miners just lead people to ask questions, and it’d be better if they didn’t. You could just choose not to sell to those people, but that reduces the impact of your product.

A solution presents itself: don’t take their money! Rather, decouple the sending up of the thing and the choice of where it comes down, by making it available to people who now don’t have any (obvious or traceable, anyway) connection to you or your employer. That’s not your department! Instead of selling it, stick it up on a website (preferably someone else’s, like GitHub) and give a blanket licence to everyone to use the software for any purpose. You just built a sweet library for interfacing with gyroscopic stabilisers, is it really your fault that someone built a cruise missile that uses the library?

“But wait,” you say, “this doesn’t sound like the clear-cut victory you make it out to be. In avoiding the social difficulties attendant in selling my software to so-called evildoers, I’ve also removed the possibility to sell it to gooddoers. Doesn’t that mean no money?” No, as Andrew Binstock notes, you can still sell the software.

Anyway, perhaps it’d be useful to restructure the economics of the software industry such that open source was seen as a value-driver, so you can both have your open source cake and eat the cake derived from valuable monetary income. You might do that by organising things such that an open source portfolio were seen as a necessary input to getting hired, for example. So while plenty of people still don’t get paid for open source software, they still indirectly benefit from it monetarily.

We can, evidently, easily spin contributions to open source such that they are to our own benefit. What about everybody else? When a government uses Linux computers to spy on the entire world, or an armed force powers its weapons with free software, is that pro bono publico?

The usual response would be the Lehrer-von Braun defence detailed above. “We just built it in good faith, it’s up to others to choose how they use it.” An attempt to withdraw from ethical evaluation is itself an ethical stance: it’s saying that decisions over whether the things you make are good or evil are above (or beneath) your pay-grade. That we, as developers, are OK with the idea that we get large paychecks to live in comfortable countries and solve mental problems, and that the impact of those solutions is for somebody else to deal with. That despite being at the epicentre of one of the world’s biggest social and economic changes, we don’t care what happens to society or to economy as a result of our doings.

Attempts have been made to produce “socially aware” software, but these have so far not been unqualified successes. The JSON licence includes the following clause:

The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil.

Interestingly, in one analysis I discovered, the first complaint about this clause is that it interferes with the Free Software goal of copyleft. How ethical do we think an industry is that values self-serving details over the impact of its work on society?

The other problem raised in relation to the JSON licence is that it doesn’t explain what good or evil are, nor who is allowed to decide what good or evil are. Broad agreement is unlikely, so this is like the career advisor who tells you to “follow your dreams” without separating out the ones where you’re a successful human rights lawyer and the ones where you’re being chased by a giant spider with a tentacle face through an ever-changing landscape of horror.

I should probably stop reading H. P. Lovecraft at bedtime.

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