25 May 2000 aireymouse   » (Apprentice)


I wrote something for the free software ethics thread, just to recognize that I am not allowed to post here -- I am not apprentice level --, so I abuse the diary.

I am glad to see a discussion about ethics come up here. But its a nifty topic. For me, a typical experience whence it comes to ethics is: you hold a specific personal opinion about it for a while, say for testing purposes, and you come almost to the point, where you think you have found the solution with this opinion. But suddenly you are struck by an example that renders your whole personal "theory" obsolete -- and you wonder how you could ever have even seriously considered this point of view.

I wouldn't raise voice here unless I had read a book about a related question recently: Benjamin Davy: Essential injustice. The author suggests that there are three diffrent, but *incompatible* of theories of justice, which are mutualy exclusive. Each one of these has a distict maxim. They are

  • Maximize liberty! -- this is elitist or libertarian justice and favors the strong, intelligent, gifted etc.,
  • Maximize happieness! -- utilitarian justice, it favors the most, even at the cost of a minority, and
  • Minimize pain! -- which is named social justice and favors the poor.
Each one of these concepts of justice has its strengths and its weaknesses, and I for myself know that I where supporter of each for at least some shorter period of my life -- without noting that they are fundamentally exclusive, I have to admit. You always miss something.

Each of the principles is very strong, I think. Lots of people would endorse that the human spirit is a divine instance, and no one has any right to narrow the liberty of a real genius. This is what the libertarian would think, perhaps. Proponents of this are, for example, inspiring figures like Friedrich August von Hayek, but also more naive and dangerous versions like Nietzsche's "Ubermensch. An associated idea is that of the minimal state -- which has few to offer to the elderly and the poor. It's the justice of the market place. (Another one is Adam Smith.)

Also, a lot of people would agree when you ask for the greatest happieness in sum (but what was the unit, stupid ...). This is closly related to the ideas of the social contract of the society. Maximizing happieness allows for cutting the liberties of the few -- wether strong and gifted or poor and weak -- and makes possible, i.e. the police state. This flavor of justice is championed by Jeremy Bantham, John Stuart Mill and partially Thomas Hobbes.

The third kind of justice wants to minimize pain, a legitimate goal one might come to think. It is the idea behind the european welfare state ("Wohlfahrtsstaat") and the American New Deal, the concept of social justice of the roman-catholic church, and some communist movements, recently also of social movements for gender, racial and environmental justice.

I think I am not the only one who would refuse to decide which one is first priority. A puzzle. Davy makes one suggestion to solve it. He calls these three maxims the "pure and simple" and states that every strict policy following one of these is "essential injustice" with regard to the other two. Therefore "pure and simple" justice is no good idea.

Now there comes his interesting twist: Davy proposes to concentrate on minimizing injustice and rejects maximizing justice at all. Think about it, I like it. He calls this "junk justice" and also suggest a thought experiment for how to accomplish this task of minimizing. A "ghost of social contracts" collects every ruling and put them in one box. Then he invites all different kinds of stakeholders (he specifies this, but I skip it for the sake of shortness) and asks for each ruling each stakeholder the question "Is this highly injust?" -- and in case *one* of them responds "yes," the ruling is put to a box with the lable "Highly injust." Round two again iterates through the whole bunch and asks for "moderate injustice" of each ruling. The moderate injust rulings are put into another box. Now there might be a remainder of rulings, and these are not even moderate injust to neither party.

All this is Davy's argument. I hope I didn't screw it up to much. The initial question was about free software ethics, culminating in the question "Who pays the bills, when closing source is not an option?" The favorite approach of governments worldwide seems to be the "police state" thinking option, which demands Maximize happiness of the most (and forget those hackers and cypherpunks)!.

I don't know how much this can help further the free software ethics topic, but it helped me to think clearer about justice and its pitfalls in general.

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