The Hacker Community and Ethics: An Interview with Richard M. Stallman, 2002
by Richard Stallman
Published in Finnish in Tere Vadén & Richard
Koodi vapaaksi - Hakkerietiikan vaativuus, Tampere University
Press. 2002, sivut 62-80.
Tere Vadén (TV): One of the most striking features of your
approach to the issues of technology and software and so on is that
you consider ethical and social matters more important than possible
technological advantages. While that maybe should be the norm, it
unfortunately is not so. The main issues seems to be one of community;
what kinds of communities different ways of using technology promote.
Am I guessing right if I believe that you are thinking of ethical
issues in terms of communities?
Richard M. Stallman (RMS): Yes. The way I reached my
conclusions about which freedoms are essential for using software, and
which kinds of license requirements are acceptable, is by thinking
about whether they would interfere with the kinds of use of the
software that are necessary to have a functioning community.
TV: The idea of free software was born out of your
MIT, and how that community was infiltrated and in some sense
destroyed by commercial interests.
RMS: Yes, that is correct. The hackers really enjoyed the freedom to
share and change software; that was the basis for our free-wheeling
TV: What does the word ‘hacker’ mean to you,
RMS: It means someone who enjoys playful cleverness, especially
in programming but other media are also possible. In the 14th century,
Guillaume de Machaut wrote a palindromic three-part musical
composition. It sounded good, too—I think I played in it once,
because I still remember one of the parts. I think that was a good
hack. I heard somewhere that J. S. Bach did something similar.
One possible arena for playful cleverness is breaking
security. Hackers never had much respect for bureaucratic
restrictions. If the computer was sitting idle because the
administrators wouldn't let them use it, they would sometimes figure
out how to bypass the obstacles and use it anyway. If this required
cleverness, it would be fun in itself, as well as making it possible
to do other hacking (for instance, useful work) on the computer
instead of twiddling one's thumbs. But not all hackers did security
breaking. Many never were interested in that.
On the Incompatible Timesharing System, the operating system developed
by the AI lab's hackers, we made it unnecessary to break security: we
simply did not implement security in the system. The hackers realized
that security would be a mechanism for the administrators to dominate
us. So we never gave them the means.
TV: How about the concepts of freedom and community? There's
this idea that freedom to distribute ideas, thoughts, recipes and
software creates the best kinds of communities or at least better than
those based on commercial limitations on distribution and sharing.
RMS: I think it is a mistake to label these restrictions as
“commercial”, because that pertains to the motive for the
restrictions. The same restrictions, if imposed for a different
motive, would do the same harm. What matters is the restrictions, not
the motive. Commercial software can be free or nonfree, just as
noncommercial software can be free or nonfree. It only depends on the
TV: How would you delineate the distinction between the public
(communal, freedom-based) and the commercial spheres?
RMS: Comparing free with commercial is like comparing happiness with
purple. It doesn't make sense, because they are not answers to the same
question. They are not alternatives. The meaningful comparison is
between free and nonfree software.
TV: It seems that the distinction between “open
source” and “free software” is that the open source
movement ultimately justifies the idea on utilitarian grounds; open
source is the best way of producing functional software; while the
ultimate justification for free software is non-calculative,
non-utilitarian; freedom is unviolable. Is that a correct
RMS: More or less. I would say that freedom has value in
itself, just as powerful reliable software does.
TV: But isn't there a problem here; one of the utilitarian
calculations of “open source” is that it is more
profitable—in the sense of making more money or making better
software—to use an open source license than a copyleft
license. A company like Apple or Nokia will adapt open source up to
point, precisely the point where making it more free would turn the
RMS: I agree that it is wrong for these decisions (about
your freedom and mine) to be made by the software developer for the
sake of his profit, just as the decision about whether you and I have
freedom of speech should not be made by some third party for his own
I am not going to condemn someone who does the right thing for the
wrong reason, but it is true that relying on people to respect our
freedom because it is profitable for them to do so is not a reliable
system for protecting our freedom. This is the reason why we must
reduce the political power of business.
TV: The argument that a company would use, of course, is
that the profit it creates ultimately benefits the whole society. How
would you respond to that?
RMS: That is a claim with no basis. A nonfree program can
only benefit those who don't value their freedom, and thus serves as a
temptation for people to give up their freedom. That is harmful to
TV: There is also this question of individual/private vs
public/communal here. It is often in the interests of the individual to
do something that threatens the community, threatens freedom.
RMS: I know. This is why we need to think about right and wrong in
making our decisions, and also the reason why societies have a notion
of punishing actions that hurt the community.
TV: Now, somebody like Torvalds—and we don't
necessarily have to use any names here—would probably share
your enthusiasm about hackerism in the sense of playful cleverness,
and would take that playful cleverness also to the area of being
clever in making money and enjoying the good life. Actually that is
what he hints at in a recent book called “The Hacker
RMS: That is true. Just because someone enjoys hacking does
not mean he has an ethical commitment to treating other people
properly. Some hackers care about ethics—I do, for
instance—but that is not part of being a hacker, it is a
separate trait. Some stamp collectors care a lot about ethics, while
other stamp collectors don't. It is the same for hackers.
I agree with the person who said that there is no hacker ethic, but
rather a hacker aesthetic.
TV: Now, if one wants to avoid the negative consequences of the
profit-oriented business, it feels that one has to give the individual a
good reason for not looking after only his or her own best. And that
something, that reason, might be something in the public sphere.
RMS: Of course—but why are you treating this as if it
were a new idea that can only be hinted at. This idea is thousands of
years old. This is the basic idea of ethics.
TV: The question about hacker aesthetics—as you
explained, there is no special hacker ethics, because a hacker can act
ethically or unethically and nothing in hackerism itself necessitates
RMS: Hacking is not primarily about an ethical issue. It is an idea of
what makes life meaningful. But he may be right that hacking tends to
lead a significant number of hackers to think about ethical questions
in a certain way. I would not want to completely deny all connection
between hacking and views on ethics.
Although someone said that there was a hacker aesthetic rather than a
hacker ethic, I think “aesthetic” is not quite the right
word either. An aesthetic is an idea of what is beautiful. This is an
idea of what is exciting and meaningful. Is there a word for that? I
can think of “the hacker way”, but that sounds rather
pompous and new-age.
TV: Now that brings to mind several questions. For the
first, one could maybe inquire after an ideal society or do forth, but
let's leave that for the moment.
RMS: I approach these issues incrementally. I don't think I
could try to design an ideal society and have any confidence in the
conclusion. Attempts to propose a society quite different from the
ones we know often tend to be disastrously flawed. So instead I
propose local changes which I have some reason to believe are
good. Note that I didn't imagine the free software community on my
own—if I had, I would not be so confident it is a good idea. I
knew that from having tried it.
TV: Is there something that digitalization offers for
community-building, something that other media (like printed books)
could not offer, or does digitalization mean ‘just’ and
effectivization of existing means?
RMS: Computers and the web make it much easier to work
collaboratively and continuing to improve publications. I think that
this will become even more true in the future, as people develop
better ways to do it. The proprietary mindset might as well be
precisely calculated to deprive us of this benefit of the
TV: Now, from a historical and philosophical perspective it
seems that many a good invention or technological advance has resulted
in the intensification of colonialization
RMS: In general, technology is a good thing, and we
shouldn't turn it down. Technology tends to cause cultural
change. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and we should not condemn
it in a blanket fashion. There are just certain specific kinds of
cultural change that we need to oppose.
TV: I do not necessarily want to get stuck on this
public/commercial issue, but if we say that we need communal
agreements, values and systems that tone down the selfishness of the
individual, and we say that the commercial world systematically has a
tendency to promote selfishness, then I guess we have to conclude that
there is a crucial distinction between the communal and the
RMS: I would agree. One person can belong to a community and
work in a business at the same time. Nevertheless, there is a
fundamental conflict between the communitarian attitude and the
commercial attitude. I would not say that the communitarian attitude
is good and the commercial attitude is bad. It makes no sense to aim
to eliminate the commercial attitude, because that is simply
selfishness, and selfishness is vital. People must be selfish to a
certain extent, just as they ought to be altruistic to a certain
extent. To abolish selfishness would not make sense, even if it were
TV: I mean, in many ways one could say that the communities
in the post-industrial countries these days are based on
commercialism, i.e., people get together, work, communicate
etc. mostly because of commercial reasons.
RMS: This is a rather weak and ineffective kind of
community, hardly worthy of the name.
TV: And, furthermore, like you know, the research and university
community is also very tightly bound to the economical interests of the
nations, states and of the companies.
RMS: Universities ought to resist being turned to commercial
purposes, for the sake of their integrity. They have failed to resist.
People will always be partly selfish; to keep selfishness from
engulfing society, we need unselfish institutions such as universities
and democratic governments to balance the selfishness and put a check
on it. The problem today is that organized selfishness is taking over
society, crushing the other institutions that were designed to put a
check on it.
TV: But, the counter argument goes, a free market economy
that seeks to maximize profit, is the only way of producing wealth and
functioning democratic communities.
RMS: The free software community shows, as cooperatives in
Sweden showed, that this is not true. There are other ways of
producing wealth. But beyond that, producing wealth is not the be-all
and end-all of a good society. There is no need to bend every aspect
of life to maximizing the total wealth. The idea of sacrificing
everything else to the production of wealth—regardless of who
gets to share in it!—is exactly what's wrong with the WTO. As
for producing functioning democratic communities, allowing commerce to
dominate not only fails to do that, it is directly antagonistic to
TV: If ethics applies to everyone, and ethics is based on
community, does this mean that there is an ideal community to which
everyone should belong?
RMS: I don't think that follows.
TV: The concept of copyleft is a brilliant tool for the
communal purposes. Could you tell a little on how you arrived at the
RMS: I had seen simple notices of the form “verbatim
copying permitted provided this notice is preserved”, and
investigated extending this to handle modification as well.
TV: Let's take a case here. I can see that a free software
developer might be able to make a living by doing free software,
because people would pay for the software, pay for the manuals, pay
for the joy of being a part of the community, and so on. I don't think
that is impossible. The same might go for certain musicians, even
scientists and so on. But how about a writer, a poet, even a musician
that works in a very limited language area—say,
Finnish. Making free software or free music or free poetry will not be
a viable option, because the community is too small to support that
kind of activity.
RMS: The current system does rather a bad job of supporting
these activities. To replace it with nothing at all would not make
things much worse for these people. However, I think that voluntary
methods of support could do just as good a job as the present
TV: This seems to lead to some kind of
“americanization” or “anglization”.
RMS: You can't be serious, can you? Don't you realize that the
media-copyright complex is fueling the americanization of culture
around the world? Disconnecting that complex would do a lot to improve
TV: I was just thinking of the fact that in a small language
area something like copyrights actually do some good for creative
RMS: Not much good, though. How many Finnish writers make a
living from copyright today? Note that I don't advocate the simple and
total abolition of copyright for all kinds of works. See my
TV: You have touched on some issues of globalization is some
recent interviews. One of the problems is that copyright laws put many
third world countries in an unfavourable position. Do you think that
those countries should not follow the copyright laws?
RMS: The US when it was a developing country did not
recognize foreign copyrights. So why should anyone else? Of course, we
know the reason why: it is part of a system of economic domination
that the wealthiest business owners have imposed on the rest of the
TV: And, furthermore, could one see this issue also in terms
of communities? If I remember correctly, you have said that
globalization in the economic sense does not seem to be a good way of
promoting or distributing well-being.
RMS: There is nothing wrong with globalization in the
abstract. What makes today's form of globalization so bad is not
really the global aspect of it. It is that the WTO/IMF system
subordinates all other interests to the interests of business. Laws to
protect the environment, public health, workers' rights, and the
general standard of living, are regularly swept aside. The result is a
major transfer of wealth from most people to business
owners. Paradoxically, it seems to be accompanied by reduced growth as
The best way to understand today's “globalization”
is as a system to transfer power from democratic governments to
business, which only incidentally happens to be global. Elimination of
trade barriers could be a good thing if accompanied by global labor
standards, global environmental standards, global health care, a
global minimum wage (even if not uniform), and global income taxes. If
these were enforced world-wide with the same energy that the US
pressures countries to use for copyright enforcement, we could have
global trade, clean factories, and high wages. The world-wide free
software community is an example of beneficial globalization: people
share knowledge with the whole world.
TV: How is ethical “work” best done? It seems
that you often invoke teachers like Buddha or Jesus as examples of a
ethical way of life.
RMS: I never invoke Jesus. I am not a Christian and I don't
especially admire Jesus. I admire Buddha somewhat more, but I don't
invoke any teacher or hero as an authority, only perhaps as an
TV: It is also clear that one of the fascinating and
influential features of your work is that you live as you teach. Is
that a conscious decision in the sense that you think that ethics is
something that can be taught best through example?
RMS: Not at all. I do write about my ethical ideas, and I
would like to do it more and better if I could. Of course, it is
necessary to live in conformity with one's principles, or one is a
hypocrite and people can see that.
TV: If we say that the reason for ethical behavior must be
given in the public sphere, let's say through a social contract or
something similar, and if we at the same time notice that the
economical/commercial sphere is driven by “maximum
profit”-type of principles, then we have to have some sort of
separation between the public and the commercial world.
RMS: I don't follow this reasoning—I see no
separation. Ethics applies to everyone, and the whole point of ethics
is that some things you might selfishly wish to do are wrong, so you
may not do them. This applies to group selfishness just as as to
TV: … and then the commercial world would be
something that almost by necessity corrupts the idea of freedom.
RMS: Business does have that tendency. Corporations provide
a mechanism to distill the selfishness out of people who, as
individuals, are partly selfish but also have ethics to limit their
selfishness. The result is selfishness that can often be unchecked by
any ethics. To change this will require taking away the power of
global business over governments.
TV: Reading Steven Levy's Hackers once again, I was struck
by one issue: the hackers as displayed in the book are mostly
concerned with the hacker ethic in so far as it concerns “tools
to make tools”.
RMS: I don't think so. A number of our programs were tools
for making programs, but very few were specifically “tools to
make tools”. Why were many of them tools? Because hackers
writing programs get ideas for better ways to do that. What computer
hackers do is program. So they get excited about anything that makes
If a hacker does square dancing, he would get excited about anything
on the computer that is helpful for square dancing. He might write a
program to help people learn square dancing. This indeed has
happened. A few computer hackers do square dancing, but all computer
hackers program. So a few are interested in writing programs for
square dancing, but many are interested in programs they can use while
TV: Levy is not too hard on the point, but the
unscrupulousness with which the early MIT hackers
accepted the Department of Defence funding is a case in point.
RMS: Some of the hackers were uncomfortable with DoD funding
at the time, but they did not go so far as to rebel against it (by
quitting, say). I disagreed with them I don't think it was wrong to
accept that funding, and I did not think it wrong at the
time. Corporate funding is far more dangerous.
So I would not call them unscrupulous for having accepted this funding.
TV: This reminds of the “instrumental
rationality” that the Frankfurt school of critical theorists
talked about; rationality that pertains to tools, but not goals.
RMS: Engineers of all kinds are famous for this; I am not
sure it is more true of hackers than others.
TV: So, this brings me to the question, if ethics is about
goals and about content, what exactly is the society or community that
Free Software promotes?
RMS: My goal is that we help each other to live better together.
Advancing human knowledge is a part of this; making sure it is
available to everyone is a part of this; encouraging the spirit of
cooperation is a part of this. Those goals apply to various parts of
life, but in the area of software they direct one towards free software.
TV: When and how did you notice that the Tools to Make
Tools-attitude is not enough?
RMS: That just tools without thinking of what to do with
them is one I picked up this idea in my teens, I think. It was well
known in the 60s; one did not have to be especially searching to
happen across it then. I think of the Tom Lehrer song, “Werner
I send rockets up, but where they come down
is not my department, says Werner von Braun.
Lots of people heard this song.
TV: And, maybe most interestingly, how do you combine the
two, the hacking that is intense and interesting and the ethical
real-world work, that is often tenuous and boring?
RMS: Here you seem to assume that hacking is neither ethical nor
real-world. I disagree with both assumptions. By the way, some parts of
developing and releasing a working program are tedious; they are not
merely boring, they are frustrating. But hackers by the thousands in
the free software community do these tasks in order to release working
and reliable free software.
TV: I think this is even quite common in fields like
computer science, physics, mathematics, philosophy, where the
austerity and purity of the formalism give an intense pleasure of a
‘non-earthly’ kind. Is there a link? Should there be? And
how do you bridge the two?
RMS: Is there a link between the pleasure of pure math and
the rest of life? No, I see very little connection, and why should
there be one?
I enjoy folk dancing, as well as pure math. There is very little
link between either of those pleasures and the rest of what I do. Why
should there be? They are both harmless. Is there a “gap”
that I need to “bridge”?