Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

I consider myself pro-feminist. I was one of the first professional journalists to talk about sexism in free software, and I make a point of mentioning newsworthy women whenever possible. However, my position does not mean that I support every argument in its favor. I am particularly hesitant about the argument that free software is missing something if its developers are mostly male, and that having a more equitable proportion of women will automatically make free software better.

The idea is probably true in the sense that more women in free software means more developers. Perhaps, too, more testing with female users might affect usability to a degree.

But unless I’m mistaken, the people making this claim mean more than that. Without actually saying so, they seem to be hinting that there is a female sensibility or perspective that is currently missing in free software. That seems a valid argument in literature or other arts, but I can’t help suspecting that there are only so many use-cases in software development, and that few – if any – are related to gender.

The argument isn’t helped by the vagueness with which it always seems to be made. How, exactly, does a database become better because a larger percentage of woman wrote its code? How might more women improve the features of a word processor? I am ready to consider such arguments, but, aside from an issue with name changes in Git,  I have never heard any made except in the most general terms. The main exception, as Anita Sarkeesian continues to document, is video games – but games fall into the category of story-telling, in which gender issues are self-evident.

Anyway, the argument has been made at least a couple of times before. Some suffragettes claimed that giving women the vote would eliminate war and poverty – a claim that we now know to be untrue. Eco-feminists made similar claims about innate nurturing tendencies a couple of decades ago, but their arguments from alleged evolutionary fact are no more solid than the biological arguments that misogynists use to prove female inferiority.

As Cordelia Fine relates in the wonderfully titled Delusions of Gender, the differences between male and female intellectual capacity are simply too minimal for them to be taken seriously. Given a coding project to a group composed entirely of women, and statistically the result is as likely to be as satisfying – or as messed up – as what is produced by an all-male group.

However, my real objection to the argument is the fact it is utilitarian, which seems a dangerous way to argue what comes down to a matter or rights. The trouble with a utilitarian argument in such matters is that, at least in theory, it can work both ways.

For instance, when the question of women serving in combat is raised, most of the arguments against the idea claim to be firmly grounded in the practical. The claims are made, for instance, that women lack the necessary strength, or that male soldiers would be distracted by their wish to protect their female peers. Yet even if these claims were true – and I believe they are not – would that stop anyone insisting that women should have the chance to serve in combat? I know that it would not change my opinion.

In the same way, women’s greater participation in free software is a right, a possibility that should be open to any woman who proves her competence. It seems to me that to lose sight of that basic fact is to risk being distracted by arguments that can just as easily work against the cause as for it. Argue that everyone deserves a chance, that everyone should be able to fulfill their potential – but don’t argue that the result will be noticeably different in other ways, because the odds are that it won’t be.

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The mother of a friend of mine once said that he had raised himself to be a knight. She didn’t take any credit for the fact – she simply observed it, which it made it the best compliment of a child by a parent that I have ever heard. I knew instantly what she meant, because I had done much the same with Robin Hood, or at least Roger Lancelyn Greene’s version of him.

To this day, I happily devour any retelling of the stories. Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood, Parke Godwin’s Sherwood and Robin and the King, the Child Ballads, the Robin of Sherwood series that made him a mystical figure associated with Herne the Hunter, Robin and Marian featuring Sean Connery as the aging hero, the recent BBC series, the Errol Flynn version with Claude Raines as the Sheriff – all are part of my mental baggage, with what for me is an unusual lack of concern for quality. I’ll even watch Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, an admission that shows just how indiscriminate my obsession really is.

You see, for better or worse, a good part of my ethical standards was consciously modeled on Robin Hood, to say nothing of my politics as well. Only King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table came anywhere close to be as influential, and Robin Hood – despite being the Earl of Huntington – had the same ethics without the sense of class and privilege. He wasn’t even much of a sexist, loving a woman who shared his dangers, rather than languishing at home like Queen Guinevre.

So what did I learn as a child from Robin Hood? Far more than the manly virtue of courage. I learned that I was supposed to be polite to everyone. That I was supposed to be a good sport, even if I had just been thwacked on the head by Little John or dumped into the stream by Friar Tuck. That I was to value honesty and abhor hypocrisy. That I was supposed to help people, even at inconvenience to myself. That I was supposed to face danger cheerfully – and this, and a hundred other things besides.

However, none of this would have impressed me by itself. I could learn the same values from Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys – never mind that I later learned that Baden-Powell was a traitor to his own standards, having starved the local Africans to keep his British troops alive during the siege of Mafeking during the Boer Wars.

What really impressed me was that, unlike the propaganda of the Scouts, or even the followers of King Arthur, Robin Hood decided for himself. Rather than acquiesce to things that were legal but immoral, he became an outlaw, and he enforced his own sense of right and wrong while he was in Sherwood no matter how anyone else condemned him. Greene never used the phrase, but his Robin Hood lived by a higher morality, deciding for himself where right and wrong lay.

Of course, the anarchy of Sherwood cannot last, and Robin Hood ends by being pardoned by King Richard. But even as a boy I understood that end as more symbolic than anything else: King Richard is the source of the law, and his approval amounts to a public acknowledgment that Robin Hood’s code of behavior was correct, no matter how eccentric it happened to be. The idea that he was substantially changed by his reintegration into society is quashed by his last moments, when he forgives the Prioress for poisoning her and tells his followers not to avenge themselves upon her.

Part of me wants to laugh at this set of ethics, but I can never manage to be quite so flippant. Robin Hood’s example helped me through the worst stage of my life, when only a handful of people believed in me.

At other times, his example is difficult. For example, while I believe in acknowledging when an opponent has done something ethical, I often suspect that belief only serves as a handicap. Certainly few of my enemies have ever reciprocated in kind.

However, at his best, Greene’s Robin Hood embodies a generosity of spirit that I can’t help but admire. I have often fallen short of imitating this generosity, but the idea that I should try to is lodged too firmly into me to ever root out. No matter how cynical or disillusioned I might become, the lessons I learned from reading Greene’s book into oblivion are likely to remain with me for the rest of my life, even if spend my last few years senile.

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Should you – or can you – appreciate works by an artist whose morals or actions you find objectionable?  Today, the question returned to haunt me when a colleague rightly pointed out that a public statement I made about a writer minimized his cruelty and immorality by equating it with shortcomings well within the human norm. That wasn’t the first time the issue or art and morality had come up, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last.

If you consider yourself a person of conscience, the question has no easy answer. In many cases, evoking the cultural relativism of past times just doesn’t provide an excuse. By the standards of any time, Samuel Pepys was a sexual predator. In all likelihood, Byron was, too, although the removal of evidence by his friends allows some people to believe otherwise. Mozart was a brutal egomaniac, Dali a sadist, and Ezra Pound a Fascist sympathizer. Even as seemingly an amiable eccentric as William Blake subjected his wife to poverty and kept her subjugated to his art,insisting that she color in his prints and waking her in the middle of the night to keep him company. The truth is, artists are so far outside the social norms in general that, once you start reading their biographies, many will be found morally lacking.

At times, the exceptions stand out all the more because of their rarity. For example, William Morris was true enough to his ideals of equality that he never divorced his wife, although knowing she was carrying on an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. John Keats also appears to have been a thoroughly decent man, although cynics might question how much poverty and illness simply deprived him of opportunities to offend.

I suspect that how you answer such questions depends on your priorities. If you are only concerned with artistic achievement, then everything else that an artist does is irrelevant. What matters is the art, and the fact that Leni Riefenstahl’s films were propaganda for the Third Reich is irrelevant compared to her cinematic technique.

The trouble with this position is that, if you admire someone for one reason, you often want to admire them in other ways. Unless you are very careful, sooner or later you find yourself making excuses for their behavior, simply because you like their art.

Yet holding artists to the strictest ethics and morality is no easier. For one thing, the artists of which you approve will make a very short list. For another, the question seems a slippery slope. Do you reject Charles Dickens because of his utter inability to portray women as human? Raymond Chandler or Brendan Behan for their alcoholism?  Where do you draw the line for the minor offenders against morality?:When, if any time, do you make an exception?

Just as importantly, there is something crass and insensitive about insisting that art meet other standards as well, perhaps because that is a common practice of totalitarianism. The problem is not so much that at least some arts – especially writing – can have a moral content, as the difficulty of imposing morality upon art without reducing it to the triteness of modern Catholic Holy Cards.

In theory, as George Orwell suggests, it should be possible to hold two separate beliefs — first, that someone is a skilled artist, and, second, that they were reprehensible human beings – but the practice is more difficult. It seems to involve endlessly jumping back and forth between the two extremes, and therefore is likely to satisfy no one. Instead of offering clarity, Orwell’s solution actually invites us to practice double-think – that is, thinking two contradictory thoughts at the same time, a habit that Orwell pointed out is a handicap to clear thinking.

I suspect, however, that is exactly what the majority of us do. We get swept away by the perspective or the choreography, only to start guiltily at enjoying the efforts of someone we disapprove. At other times, we start out disapproving and find ourselves tapping our fingers to the music despite ourselves, or having a memorable phrase lodge in our minds against our sternest judgments. For most of us, the answers don’t come easily or offer much satisfaction when we face the complexity of the situations in which we try to apply them.

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One of my pet peeves about business is the constant consternation among executives about employees doing personal business on company time. Even if the transgression is just a few minutes browsing on the Internet, it’s viewed with the greatest concern. Business experts talk earnestly about what such loss of productivity might mean to the nation, and devise ways to spy on employees, or to block web sites that employees might like to view. Doing business on company time, they gravely explain, is the worst sin of our secular age – stealing from your employer. What annoys me is that such concerns are a grotesque hypocrisy.

I’m not talking, you understand, about the extreme cases, where a middle manager spends five or six hours a day on a gambling site, or a system administrator watches porn all day. Such behavior is obviously unacceptable to anyone. I’m talking instead of people who take five or ten minutes a couple of times a day to read a news or hobby site, or to dash out on a family errand.

Of course, even this behavior was unacceptable thirty years ago, when people worked regular hours and rarely deviated from them. After all, the lost time quickly adds up.

But the workplace is different today. Instead of receiving an hourly wage, the average office worker is on salary – a ploy that forces them to work hours of unpaid overtime. Especially in high-tech, the norm is to take advantage of this situation, putting heavy pressure on those who leave after eight hours and implying that anyone who doesn’t devote evenings and weekends to the company are not being good team players and letting everyone down. More than once, I’ve encountered supervisors who had a habit of starting meetings ten minutes before the end of the day and forcing people to work overtime, knowing very well that the social pressure would keep most people from objecting.

And only rarely does anyone get a day off to compensate for their extra hours. Rather, unpaid work has become the norm.

Under these circumstances, how dare employers complain about the loss of half an hour or an hour a day when they are averaging twice that in unpaid overtime from their employees? If anything, they ought to be glad that employees are taking short breaks. Otherwise, productivity would decline steadily after about nine hours. By taking those breaks, employees are actually making better use of the time actually spent working, because they are more refreshed than they would otherwise be.

An employer with any knowledge of human nature should be glad that employees know how to pace themselves. Otherwise, employees risk falling into the unproductive habit of a resident doctor I once knew. When I asked how she handled the thirty-six hour shifts that are part of the hazing ritual for new doctors, she explained, “I try to make all my decisions in the first twelve hours. After that, I just try not to make any mistakes.”

Anyway, what choice do employees have except to conduct personal business on company time? When employees are working long days, often the middle of the day is the only time they have for errands or personal business. Very few stores are open at 10PM – assuming that someone staggering home after a fourteen hour day even has the energy to stop to shop.

At any rate, employees are doing nothing that many executives haven’t done for years. Despite all the pep talks about the importance of leadership, the average manager works far less strenuously that the average employee. The exceptions are those who have a hands-on approach, and lend a hand in anything that needs doing, and they are usually in a startup. The average manager thinks nothing of doing exactly the sort of thing that annoys them when employees do them.

And perhaps that’s the problem, Maybe the executives who worry about productivity are simply irked that average employees are claiming perqs that used to be reserved for them alone.

When companies pay overtime or don’t cajole and threaten free work out of their employees, and managers set an example of dedication, then they will have a right to complain about what is done on company time. Until then, so long as employees put in the number of productive hours listed in their contract, they have every right to reclaim some of their free time.

So far as I’m concerned, the employees aren’t the ones who are stealing.

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