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A Moral Operating System: Software for Living

Damon Horowitz begins his recent TED presentation with the following question: What’s better, iPhone or Android? Nearly everyone in the audience immediately raised a hand in favor of one or the other. Then Horowitz asked which moral framework is better: that of John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant? Few hands were raised for either.

The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that while most people can immediately endorse their favorite smartphone, far fewer can identify the moral principles that underlie their daily decisions. Horowitz argues that with so many important questions facing us, hasty, unprincipled decisions are bound to produce poor or unexpected results, and that we need instead to be thinking about and making choices based on a consistent moral framework.

Horowitz is right: while most people have views about right and wrong, few ever think much about the underlying moral theories that would explain their views. Indeed, some would ask whether we need such theories. Common sense seems to provide plenty of guidance in most situations in daily life: in more specialized areas like software development or exercise, there are relevant, accepted practices that we can follow. To many people, comprehensive theories about right, wrong, values, and obligations seem superfluous.

Indeed, such undertakings as software programs or fitness regimens can be easily evaluated: either they work, or they don’t. They either do the right thing (play a video or build muscle) or the wrong thing (crash or cause injury). In such cases, there is no obvious need to consider broader principles like ethical standards; the relevant, narrower standards seem to provide sufficient guidance.

Yet while writing a few lines of code doesn’t seem to require ethical analysis, there are always broader ethical questions involved. Consider file sharing software such as Napster or BitTorrent, which allows users to download potentially pirated music, movies, and other content. Is their availability a good thing? The software itself does what it is intended to do; it works. But is the intended purpose a good one? What are the merits of making copies of somebody else’s intellectual property against their wishes? What share of responsibility do the creators of such software have with respect to how it is used? And where do such determinations come from?

To answer the latter questions, a higher kind of standard is necessary: a moral standard. Morality offers guidance not for any particular sphere of action, but for action in general. Rather than prescribing specific means to achieve a given end, morality provides a way to choose the ends.

Why is such guidance needed? Consider the alternative: to approach such questions in an improvised fashion, taking each on a case-by-case basis. When software or exercise is approached this way, the results suffer (poorly designed and error-prone code, minimal fitness gains). The same is true of life in general in an even more important sense: if sound principles and consistency are necessary to produce effective software and healthy bodies, those things are even more important to produce successful and happy people.

In the case of file sharing, for example, an often overlooked moral principle is that of justice: that we should grant to others what they have earned, both in our words and deeds. Most people recognize the virtue of thanking friends for gifts or family for supportive advice. Most also recognize that material goods are properly bought and paid for, not stolen. Yet when it comes to artists who create music and entertainment, file sharers are content to acquire their content without granting them the proper recognition or material payment in exchange. Even if one doesn’t recognize and feel remorse about the injustice involved, there is no escaping the practical harm: the creators of the things we value are deprived of the incentive to produce more.

Of course, moral principles are only important if the moral theory we follow leads to life-enhancing outcomes. What those outcomes should be is itself an important philosophical question, and there are many answers according to the moral philosopher you ask. Horowitz‘s examples of moral theories place importance on vague duties to sacrifice oneself to satisfy the well-being of others , standards that defy clear definition and therefore usefulness as guidance.

There is however a moral theory based on clear facts and achievable standards: the Objectivist ethics, which holds the individual’s life and happiness as the standard against which his choices are measured. By placing reason and evidence as the basis of morality, it is possible to avoid the ambiguity and contradictory advice for which the subject is historically notorious. For those interested in moral principles that identify what “works” to promote a rational life, Ayn Rand’s unique philosophy is an indispensible tool.

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