Why Ethical Open Source Really Isn’t

A lot of virtual ink has been expended debating the practicalities of the new push to adopt so called ethical open source licences. The two principle arguments being it’s not legally enforceable and it’s against the Open Source Definition. Neither of these seems to be hugely controversial and the proponents of ethical licences even acknowledge the latter by starting a push to change the OSD itself. I’m not going to rehash these points but instead I’m going to examine the effects injecting this form of ethics would have on Open Source Communities and society in general. As you can see from the title I already have an opinion but I hope to explain in a reasoned way how that came about.

Ethics is Absolute Ethical Positions are Mostly Relative

Ethics itself is the actual process by which philosophical questions of human morality are resolved. The job of Ethics is to give moral weight to consequences in terms of good and evil (or ethical and unethical). However, ethics also recognizes that actions have indivisible compound consequences of which often some would be classified as unethical and some as ethical. There are actually very few actions where all compound consequences are wholly Ethical (or Unethical). Thus the absolute position that all compound consequences must be ethical rarely exists in practice and what people actually mean when they say an action is “ethical” is that in their judgment the unethical consequences are outweighed by the ethical ones. Where and how you draw this line of ethical being outweighed by unethical is inherently political and can vary from person to person.

To give a concrete example tied to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (since that seems to be being held up as the pinnacle of unbiased ethics): The right to bear arms is enshrined in the US constitution as Amendment 2 and thus is protected under the UNDHR Article 8. However, the UNHDR also recognizes under Article 3 the right to life, liberty and security of person and it’s arguable that flooding the country with guns precipitating mass shootings violates this article. Thus restricting guns in the US would violate 8 and support 3 and not restricting them do the opposite. Which is more important is essentially a political decision and where you fall depend largely on whether you see yourself as Republican or Democrat. The point being this is a classical ethical conundrum where there is no absolute ethical position because it depends on the relative weights you give to the ethical and unethical consequences. The way out of this is negotiation between both sides to achieve a position not necessarily that each side supports wholeheartedly but which each side can live with.

The above example shows the problem of ethical open source because there are so few wholly ethical actions as to make conditioning a licence on this alone pointlessly ineffective and to condition it on actions with mixed ethical consequences effectively injects politics because the line has to be drawn somewhere, which means that open source under this licence becomes a politicized process.

The Relativity of Protest

Once you’ve made the political determination that a certain mixed consequence thing is unethical there’s still the question of what you do about it. For the majority expressing their preference through the ballot box every few years is sufficient. For others the gravity is so great that some form of protest is required. However, what forms of protest you choose to adhere to and what you choose not to is also an ethically relative choice. For instance a lot of the people pushing ethical open source would support the #NoTechForICE political movement. However if you look at locations on twitter, most of them are US based and thus pay taxes to the US government that supports and funds the allegedly unethical behaviour of ICE. Obviously they could protest this by withdrawing their support via taxation but they choose not to because the personal consequences would be too devastating. Instead they push ethical licences and present this as a simple binary choice when it isn’t at all: the decision about whether forcing a political position via a licence is one which may have fewer personally devastating consequences, but which people who weigh the ethical consequences are still entitled to think might be devastating for open source itself and thus an incorrect protest choice.

Community, Discrimination and Society

One of the great advances Open Source Communities have made over the past few years is the attempts to eliminate all forms of discrimination either by the introduction of codes of conduct or via other means. What this is doing is making Open Source more inclusive even as society at large becomes more polarized. In the early days of open source, we realized that simple forms of inclusion, talking face to face, had huge advantages in social terms (the face on the end of the email) and that has been continued into modern times and enhanced with the idea that conferences should be welcoming to all people and promote unbiased discussion in an atmosphere of safety. If Society itself is ever to overcome the current political polarization it will have to begin with both sides talking to each other presumably in one of the few remaining unpolarized venues for such discussion and thus keeping Open Source Communities one of these unpolarized venues is a huge societal good. That means keeping open source unpoliticized and thus free from discrimination against people, gender, sexual orientation, political belief or field of endeavour; the very things our codes of conduct mostly say anyway.

It is also somewhat ironic that the very people who claim to be champions against discrimination in open source now find it necessary to introduce discrimination to further their own supposedly ethical ends.


I hope I’ve demonstrated that ethical open source is really nothing more than co-opting open source as a platform for protest and as such will lead to the politicization of open source and its allied communities causing huge societal harm by removing more of our much needed unpolarized venues for discussion. It is my ethical judgement that this harm outweighs the benefits of using open source as a platform for protest and is thus ethically wrong. With regard to the attempts to rewrite the OSD to be more reflective of modern society, I content that instead of increasing our ability to discriminate by removing the fields of endeavour restriction, we should instead be tightening the anti-discrimination clauses by naming more things that shouldn’t be discriminated against which would make Open Source and the communities which are created by it more welcoming to all manner of contributions and keep them as neutral havens where people of different beliefs can nevertheless observe first hand the utility of mutual collaboration, possibly even learning to bridge the political, cultural and economic divides as a consequence.

1 thought on “Why Ethical Open Source Really Isn’t

  1. Simon

    Agreed, and I’ve said as much in comments on other blogs on the subject. Obviously, it’s fine for individuals to hold ethical positions on various subjects — but I think it’s essential to keep them separate, because to do otherwise is a recipe for conflict… the people who agree with you on one might disagree on others, and trying to leverage one to support the other will antagonise those who see it as coopting them for something they don’t support.


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