What's so important about the ethics of free software?

Jonas Oberg jonas at fsfe.org
Mon Dec 19 10:23:57 UTC 2016

Hi everyone,

as Alessandro, I would like to give some thoughts to this discussion, but
they are my thoughts and not necessarily reflecting the opinion of neither
the FSF or FSFE.

> FSF(E) is making an unproveable moral statement which alienates people
> from its mission.

I believe it's difficult to talk about ethics and morals of free software,
and I usually try to avoid doing so. If taking inspiration from
consequentialist theory or virtue theory of ethics, the goal of ethical
conduct is to realise a good life for people through their experiential
well being or fulfillment of their desires.

Does free software fit into an ethical conduct? It certainly does for
some, whose desires match the freedoms free software give you. For others,
it may be experiential well being: perhaps the free software powering my
elevator at home is much better than the proprietary one. But I would
argue there are also many for whom using or developing proprietary
software has a higher net benefit.

And therein lie one of the most important constraints: we must respect
people's autonomy and treat everyone as being competent to make decisions
on their own. This is a powerful norm in ethics, and we need good reasons
to go against it. Going against this norm means telling someone our idea
of what will realise a good life for them is morally sound, even if it
goes against the wish of the individual.

There are situations where such a claim could be made. In public spending,
for instance, especially as it relates to software which a government
forces its citizens to use. There, the norm of autonomy no longer applies,
because the user has no choice in the matter. But we could argue that it
should, and this in itself is part of an argument for free software in public

What organisations such as the FSFE can do, and does, is inform people
and businesses about free software with respect for their autonomy. We
can also help safeguard the ability to develop free software: making sure
we have strong legal foundations backed by policies supportive of free

Ethics is tricky, and I don't feel completely competent discussing it.
Ultimately, my goal is to foster free software and copyleft: to keep
pushing companies and governments to move in the direction of free
software. Where there are solid ethical arguments, I would not be afraid
to use them, but if there are other arguments which get me to where I'm
going, I would also use those because getting there is more important than
the journey taken.

Put differently: let's be critical about the arguments we give about free
software, ethical or otherwise, to make sure they can be scrutinized. And
at each occasion, where one is different from the next, let's put forth
those arguments which are most suitable to the situation and gets us faster
towards our goal.


Jonas Öberg, Executive Director
Free Software Foundation Europe | jonas at fsfe.org
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