15 Jan 2008 steve   » (Master)

Moralizing about Free Software

Over on robots.net, I posted a link to an interesting Steven Pinker article about the human moral instinct. Aside from the obvious aspects of the article relevant to cognitive science and AI, it struck me today that the "moralizing trigger" Pinker describes may help explain the difference between the Open Source and Free Software movements. While they're both effectively doing the same thing, they're doing it for different reasons. Pinker uses vegetarians as an example:

The psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the toggle switch by comparing two kinds of people who engage in the same behavior but with different switch settings. Health vegetarians avoid meat for practical reasons, like lowering cholesterol and avoiding toxins. Moral vegetarians avoid meat for ethical reasons: to avoid complicity in the suffering of animals. By investigating their feelings about meat-eating, Rozin showed that the moral motive sets off a cascade of opinions. Moral vegetarians are more likely to treat meat as a contaminant — they refuse, for example, to eat a bowl of soup into which a drop of beef broth has fallen. They are more likely to think that other people ought to be vegetarians, and are more likely to imbue their dietary habits with other virtues, like believing that meat avoidance makes people less aggressive and bestial.
Substitute a binary blob in the Linux kernel for the drop of beef broth in the vegetarian soup and this sounds exactly like the difference between the Free vs Open camps. The article goes on to explain how mammal brains seem to have five "moral spheres" which appear to represent something akin to moral absolutes. The way different cultures and individuals map things to those five area creates the moral differences we see and leads to a lot of unfortunate conflict. Could it be that understanding the physiological basis of morality will help not only to solve big problems like Middle East vs West but also smaller ones like Open Source vs Free Software?

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