20 November 2007

Free Software and the Categorical Imperative

The Web could have been invented for butterfly minds like mine. For example, in one of Stephen O'Grady's hallmark Q&As (this one on Red Hat's cloud computing announcement) I came across a link that took me to the Wikipedia page about Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative.

I first encountered Kant when I was in my late teens - the perfect age for grappling with those big questions that look too big and daunting when we are older and more sensible. I thought then, and still think now, that his Critique of Pure Reason represents the acme of modern philosophical thought - the Choral Symphony of metaphysics.

I was therefore already familiar with the categorical imperative, not least in Auden's rather fine clerihew:

When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must,
But only just.

But reading the excellent Wikipedia entry, with its formulation:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

brought home to me something that - stupidly - I hadn't really grasped before about Kant's idea: its essential symmetry. Of course, it's there implicitly in the other version, which I knew:

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means"

but the second form lacks the extra precision of the first.

What struck me is that this is the driving force behind free software - Stallman's belief that we must share software that we find interesting or useful. And more generally, it lies at the heart of all the kinds of openness that are starting to blossom: they are all predicated on this symmetry, on the giving back as well as the taking.

So there we have it: Immanuel Kant - philosopher and proto-hacker.


Anonymous said...

Mrs Bedoneby as you would by others.

Tom and the Water Babies.p

Glyn Moody said...