Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: Ian Lance Taylor <>
Date: 28 Oct 1999 01:03:09 -0400

   From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <>
   Date: Thu, 28 Oct 1999 13:11:04 +0900 (JST)

       Ian> I'll just note that I personally disagree with that ethical
       Ian> assumption as stated.

   Stated where and when?  You mean the "elephants are not community
   members" assumption?  Or the "activities which tend to destroy
   communities in the long run, although they can't do it quickly, are
   immoral" assumption?  Or the "`the community' is an emergent
   phenomenon of the web of interpersonal community bonds" assumption?
   Or the "preservation of `the community' is a positive ethical value"

   I'm not being tendentious; I'm trying to show directly why it is
   useful to make ethical assumptions explicit.

Sorry, I wasn't trying to be complicated.  The paragraph to which I
replied, not quoted above, ended with ``Yes, in the sense that basing
ethical argument on communities so defined is an ethical choice, in
fact an ethical assumption.''  That is the ethical assumption with
which I disagree.  I could spend time talking about what I think are
valid bases for ethics, but that is getting pretty far afield.

       Ian> I only entered this conversation because you appeared to be
       Ian> arguing that it is possible to build an economic model which
       Ian> is ethically neutral.

       Ian> I don't believe that that is possible.

   Can mathematical analysis be ethically neutral?  I believe it can.  An
   economic model is nothing but a mathematical analysis.  The science
   comes in in tying the measurable variables to the real world.  An
   economic model can be correct analysis but terrible science.  (Most
   game theorists successfully avoid thinking about this.)  The ethics
   comes in in tying the objective functions to ethical values; an
   economic model can be good science, in a value-neutral sense, but
   ethically disastrous.  (Many economists successfully avoid thinking
   about this.)

I also believe mathematical analysis can be ethically neutral.
However, an economic model is not merely mathematical analysis.  An
economic model is an attempt to model an approximation of reality.
The particular way in which reality is approximated in order to model
it is not ethically neutral.

   For example, some historian once argued that because England's laws
   prohibiting theft became more and more strict, England was evidently
   becoming more law-abiding over time.  This is very bad economics, as
   science.  An accurate economic model of thief behavior would balance
   the thief's perceived gain from successful theft against the possible
   loss from getting caught.  Thus the point of more strict punishment is
   evidently more effective deterrent.  It would seem then, that
   according to economic analysis England was in greater and greater need
   of a deterrent, possibly because theft was becoming more common.  In
   fact economic history of the period showed that the bottom of the
   income distribution was becoming poorer and that further such laws
   were correlated with recession periods, making that possibility the
   more likely conclusion.

   I don't see where ethical content enters this model of theft, although
   I have heard people state without serious justification that doing
   economic analysis of theft is immoral (usually on a security-through-
   obscurity-like rationale).

Note that I'm not saying that economic analysis is immoral.

The ethical content enters in what the model chose to measure.

Why not try to measure the intensity of religous belief during that
period?  Perhaps you would discover that religious belief declined;
that would suggest that the loss of morality caused by the decline
standard religion forced the state into absorbing some of the burden
of setting rules.

You suggested considering the possible loss from getting caught, but
you did not suggest considering the attacks of guilt suffered by the
thief who did not get caught.  That was not an ethically neutral
choice: it implies that our material wealth is more relevant, more
worthy of measurement, than our spiritual wellbeing.

I think I need to stress that I'm not saying that people should not do
economic analysis.  My point is merely that economists are no more
able to step outside of society than the rest of us.  When economists
reflect back upon society, they are engaging in an inherently
political activity which requires ethical choices.  That is
unavoidable.  To attempt a godlike impartial view is laudable; to
think it has been attained is hubris.

   Now the question of what deterrent is appropriate would arise.  One
   way to compute this economically would be to determine the deterrent
   which has maximum capability to deter.  Evidently (there being no
   appeal-all-the-way-to-the-Supreme-Court costs at that time), capital
   punishment is maximal.  There still is no ethical content; nobody has
   advocated anything.  This is merely a possibly useful lemma.

I don't know how much you bothered you to think about this, but
capital punishment is hardly the maximal deterrent.  How about
chaining the thief up and gathering several of his or her relatives
and close friends and slowly starving them to death in plain view?
And that's just off the top of my head; I could get a lot worse, but
I'd like to get some sleep tonight.  Coming at this from another
direction, one aspect of deterrance is the likelihood of apprehension;
perhaps a milder but far more certain punishment would be a greater

Again: approximating reality requires making simplifying choices, and
those choices have ethical components.

       Ian> Since the reasons I work on free software have nothing to do
       Ian> with economics, an economic model will not tell me whether or
       Ian> not to work on free software.  I've already decided to do so
       Ian> in any case.

   You are misconceiving economics, then.  Do you work on free software
   because it helps to achieve your personal goals, more so than working
   on proprietary software would?  If so, you are ruled by economics; a
   scientifically accurate economic model of your behavior would predict
   that you will work on free software.  If you work on free software
   randomly, for reasons you do not understand, then no economic model
   would predict your behavior.  But I doubt you would claim that.

Fair enough, although I question the phrase ``ruled by economics.''
The fact that I am predictable based on my personal goals does not
imply that I am ruled by economics, unless economics can go further
and predict which personal goals I have.  And that I would dispute,
unless economics is going to become the science of everything.