Understanding Richard Stallman

I’ve never really understood Richard Stallman and what he fights for, but with this recent email of his to the gcc list (on a thread about the impact of the GPL vs the BSD licenses on the gcc vs clang projects, which is worth a read), I think I have a better idea.  It starts very simply:

Non-free software is an injustice.

After reading that, I think I have a much better understanding of both him and free software debates like the one that email was on.  I think this is a case of one side seeing the argument as a technical one, and the other seeing it as an ethical one.  The best analogy I can think of is abortion: it doesn’t matter how many stats might be true about abortion leading to better lives, if you believe abortion is murder, then there’s no way that the benefits could  justify it.  Furthermore, it’d be pretty understandable to think that people suggesting murder have pretty troubled consciences.  You’d be seeing the other people as saying “hey I think murder is ok, but to each his own right?” which is something that I hope you’re not ok with.

In these cases it feels silly to try to reason with the side that sees it as an ethical problem, since to them it’s inherently not about what is reasonable or not.  I’m not trying to say that that makes them “unreasonable”, just that that particular point is one to which they don’t think reason applies.  For instance, the “correct” reaction to A Modest Proposal is abhorrence, no matter how much “sense” it might make; it doesn’t mean that you don’t understand the need to fight hunger, just that you think eating babies isn’t something that is in the class of things that can be justified.

I feel like whenever I realize this about a debate I relax a little, because there isn’t much you can do: either you think there’s an ethical problem or you don’t.  While the ethicists can debate on it, I feel like there isn’t much grounds to say that one ethical stance (issue vs non-issue) is more justified than the other.  I think the only thing to be done is what some hardcore FSF people are decrying as a “popularity contest”, and to lay out the arguments for both sides and see how people feel.  For example, conspiracy theorists might be able to come up with a theory that can’t be refuted and claim that whether it happened isn’t a popularity contest, but I think people might say something like “most reasonable people would not agree with that argument” or that “the general agreement is that it didn’t happen”; I think the same kind of resolution-system  applies to these debates.

Anyway, I don’t believe that fetuses are people or that non-free software is an injustice; I’m happy to get the sense that popular sentiment is going in that direction as well, but so long as there are people who view the issues ethically, I don’t think the debates are going anywhere.

One response to “Understanding Richard Stallman”

  1. Hi Kevin,

    that was incredibly insightful. It’s been a long time since I last got into a heated discussion about abortion or free software, but I never thought about the others in the way you describe. And it makes total sense. Thanks for sharing it.


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