Morals, Force and Freedomware

In my last post about Freedomware I tried to define it without relying on the copyright law since I no longer believe in it. My conclusion was that Freedomware, for me, is essentially more about a particular kind of culture and mentality than it is about a given license and that the only equivalent to such a license that can exist in a free market is a contract with particular terms and conditions for use and distribution.

I further argued, especially in my discussion with Thomas in comments, that ultimately contracts which require of users not to copy the contracted software would fail in the market and be considered undesirable by both the users and developers. However I focused a little too much on how could some arbiters rule in favor of the one breaking the contract by copying because his breakage didn’t deprive the original developer of the copy. The thing is, I might be quite wrong about this as if you agree to a contract and yet break it, no matter how stupid the conditions were you’re responsible for signing up to them and should live up to them or terminate the contract by ceasing to use the product or service offered through it, even if that meant deleting a copy of the software you bought and making no backups.

However, even if we assume that all proprietary software contracts broken by the user (by something like an act of copying not authorized by the contract) are judged by the arbiter in favor of the developer and against the user, it doesn’t exactly change the likelihood of proprietary software contracts becoming undesirable. In fact, the more efficient developers are in suing the contractors that broke their contracts the more undesirable and less tolerant may customers be to accepting such contracts in the first place.

So basically, no matter how you turn this around, it seems to me that without the support of a coercive monopoly and its heinous regulation of the market, proprietary software would probably end up being rather unpopular compared to software offered under less restrictive contracts, most of which possibly being classifiable as Free Software (as in freedom), with the source code, right to copy, modify etc.

That said, I would now like to turn to the issue of morality as it relates to Free Software. Being a voluntaryist, the highest principle I uphold is the principle of non-initiation of force and the more I focus on that conditional the more tolerant I seem to become towards other people doing what I once perhaps considered immoral or unethical. Some would call this to be moral erosion, but they have to bear in mind that being a voluntaryist does not mean accepting non-initiation of force as your ONLY moral principle. It just means that whatever other moral principles you have, you shouldn’t give yourself the right to force it on other people.

You can write, campaign, try to influence people any way you can think of to accept your own moral principles as long as you don’t force them to, as long as it ultimately still remains their own free choice.

That said, an interesting question that pops up in my mind is; what else, aside from non-initiation of force, conditions the acceptance of a particular principle as a moral one? Let’s say someone is doing something you find disgusting, but he or she is not initiating force or fraud by doing it. You could still say that what he or she is doing is wrong thereby making a moral statement and implying that it is part of your own moral principles not to do that and not to condone other people doing that.

What is it that makes you consider this wrong though? Just the fact that you are disgusted by it? Often times this probably is the case. Merely the fact that something seems heinous and ugly to you makes you feel like it’s wrong. Sometimes, however, it may be that you believe proliferation of such acts will have adverse consequences to you and your society, that they will establish a path towards something much worse and so on.

But then we just get back to the old situation. If nobody is forcing you to participate what do you care? The “society” you are talking about isn’t “you”, an individual and you can’t control other people, just yourself. So all it comes back to is your mere disgust. You think an act that you find disgusting will lead to more people acting in a way you don’t like and then more etc. and wish to prevent this somehow, but the only reason you are doing so is because you are disgusted, because you don’t like what you see, not because there is some universal “wrong” in it. As I stated earlier, I don’t believe there is such a thing as morally wrong or right in the universe at large. These are the judgments human individuals assign to things and acts themselves.

What’s especially interesting about this, then, is that if the only thing that makes something wrong, aside of initiatory force is the fact you don’t like it yet your likes and dislikes tend to change over time, all other morals aside from the moral of non-initiation of force are totally relative and subjective and are NOT worth forcing people for. In other words, the moral of non-initiation of force and fraud completely overrides all others. When you realize this you might, like myself, find yourself in a situation in which you actually become more tolerant towards some things you found to be “immoral” before because, perhaps, the fact you don’t like it just doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason to sweat over, nor strong enough reason to waste your breath over.

This is how the “be and let be” mentality starts to settle in, the mentality of true tolerance.

Let’s go back to Freedomware and how this ties in to that. Richard Stallman believes and actively propagates the idea that developers who provide their software under the terms which restrict people from unlimited use, copying and modifying of it are doing something morally wrong. The first question I would ask to verify that claim is whether such developers initiate force or fraud?

1. Do developers of proprietary software force or fraud people into accepting their restrictive terms of use and distribution?

Generally, no! There are of course some exceptions and Microsoft is guilty of some of them (often using law because this is the only way they can “legitimately” force people). But most proprietary software developers probably don’t force anyone to accept their terms. They wont give you a copy, of course, but they wont force it upon you either. You might even get a copy of their software elsewhere for free (warez…) and most of them still wouldn’t actively go about pursuing you.

So in what way is offering software under restrictive terms unethical??

Well, that’s where I reach the crunching point. I don’t seem to have a very satisfactory answer. Universally speaking, nothing. It’s not initiation of force and nobody is being harmed. If someone accepts the license then (s)he is responsible for accepting the restrictions that come with it. So what makes someone, like Richard Stallman, believe that it is unethical or immoral is pretty much because he doesn’t like it, a feeling that he developed throughout his life’s experiences, when he felt like being pressured into non-cooperation by the trend of releasing software under restrictive terms.

This trend, however, wouldn’t have continued if people refused to accept such restrictive terms. However, it would also have quite a bit of difficulty continuing should have the market been free of government regulation. Just think of continuous extensions of the term and scope of copyright law and the “limited liability” blanket for big corporations (obviously, including Microsoft) or all the lobbying those corporations then successfully did to force even worse restrictions upon us. The state played a very significant role in fueling the trend of restrictive licensing. What I’m basically saying is that we probably wouldn’t have a proprietary software monopoly in 90s nor would some of us be so adamantly disgusted by proprietary software if state regulation didn’t help make restrictive terms THE standard contract under which software was distributed.

If it was a Free Market and restrictive contracts somehow gained such foothold then we would just be the “unfortunate” minority, but at least it’d be much easier for us to just do our GNU thing and be left alone, no laws to fight against which threaten the existence of even our nice GNU software itself (DMCA, software patents etc.).

So in essence the true problem was not the fact that many people wanted you to agree to certain restrictive terms before they give you the binary of it, because this is a choice every individual is free to make. The problem was that the governments, coercive monopolies, actually helped make such a model standard – they forcefully (how else) interfered with the natural developments in the market to artificially create a situation in which we are.

So what do people who don’t like such terms do about it? Earlier I expressed that I believe that whatever you do it shouldn’t include initiatory force or fraud. Richard Stallman responded with a license, turning copyright law’s default terms on their head: copyleft. Given the circumstances this probably was the smart thing to do. However, there is a problem.

It was the state, the government and their laws which created the bulk of the problem in the first place and now we are trying to solve it by using, again, the state, the government and its laws. We are “forcing back”. We are “regulating back”. We are spinning in circles. And what is the ultimate conclusion of this trend? What would happen in Free Software way of using copyright, regulating the market etc. took as much foothold as proprietary software has today? Take it from Richard Stallman’s mouth:

“Proprietary software should be illegal” — Richard Stallman

There you have it. Richard’s morality imposed on everyone else by force through law. People who for whatever reason want to release their software under more restrictive terms than Stallman would allow could be punished for it.

It’s just replacing one kind of regulation with another. Free Software may be better, but forcing it is not the way and that’s what Stallman wants to do.

The bottom line is this. Freedom is not “be free or I’ll rob you or throw you in jail”. Freedom is not “freedom or else”. Freedom can only exist without force. You therefore CANNOT force freedom.

Therefore, I would rather live in a free market where proprietary software has 90% market share than in a state where Free Software is enforced by law.

Of course, I extremely doubt that proprietary software would ever win in the free market. The point is, I would have exactly the same amount of freedom whether proprietary software has most or least market share, if it was a free market. Compare that to our “regulated market” with all the laws actually favoring proprietary software and threatening the existence of Free Software.

Another point I want to make, based on all this, is that someone using proprietary software is a choice everyone has a right to, just as the choice to use Free Software. This whole “100% Free Software or you’re helping evil” mantra is largely missing the point. You wont be free if you put exclusively Free Software on your computer. You will be free once you become aware of the fact that only you can control your own life and nobody else and that you have no right to control anybody elses life. By realizing this you would become a voluntaryist and you would free your mind.

That’s where freedom is, not in how many which licenses or contracts you willfully accepted, but in being aware of your personal power enough to make what you think and feel is the right decision in any moment, yes even if that decision sometimes includes proprietary software.

Thank you

Tags: ,

This entry was posted on Sunday, June 22nd, 2008 at 4:55 pm and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through this RSS 2.0 feed. You're welcome to leave a response, or a trackback from your own site.