Ethics in an unethical world: Ethics Offsets

The recent hubbub regarding the (admirably public) debate within Mozilla about codec support has set me thinking about how to deal with untenable situations. After rightly railing against H.264 on the web for several years, and pushing free codecs with the full thrust of the organization, Mozilla may now be approaching consensus that they cannot win, and that continued refusal to capitulate to the cartel is tantamount to organizational suicide.

So what can you do, when you find yourself compelled to do something that goes against your ethics? To make a choice that you feel is wrong on its own because it benefits you in other ways, a choice you would like to make only when really necessary and never otherwise? Any thinking person will have this problem, to greater and lesser degrees, throughout their lives. We are not martyrs, so we do what we have to do to survive and try to keep in mind our need to escape from the trap.

Organizations cannot simply keep something in mind, but they can adopt structures that remind their members of their values even when those values are compromised. A common structure of this type is the sin tax, a tax designed (in a democracy) by members of a state to help them break or prevent their own bad habits. Sin taxes work by countering the locally perceived benefit of some action that’s harmful in a larger way, by reminding us of less visible but still important negative considerations. Some of their effect is straightforwardly economic, but some is psychological, to help us remember the bigger picture.

Sin taxes are more or less involuntary, but when the government does not impose these reminders, we often choose to remind ourselves. One currently popular implementation of this concept is the Carbon offset, a payment typically made when burning fuel to counter the effect of global warming. Organizations that buy carbon offsets for their fuel consumption do so to send a message, both internally and externally, that they place real value on minimizing carbon emissions. They may send this message both explicitly (by publicizing the purchase) and implicitly (by its effect on internal and external economic incentives).

Carbon offsets may be in fashion this decade, but there are many older forms of this concept. Maybe the most quotidian is the Curse Jar*, traditionally a place in a home or small office where individuals may make a small payment when using discouraged vocabulary. The Curse Jar provides a disincentive to coarse language despite being strictly voluntary, and despite not purchasing any effect on the linguistic environment (although the coffee fund may help for some). The Curse Jar works simply by reminding group members which behaviors are accepted and which are not.

For Mozilla, the difficulty is not emissions, verbal or vaporous, but ethical behavior. How can Mozilla publicly commit to a standard of behavior while violating it? I humbly submit that the answer is to balance its karmic books, by introducing an Ethics Offset**. When Mozilla finds itself cornered, it may take the necessary unfortunate action … and introduce a proportionate positive action as a reminder about its real values.

In the case at hand, a reasonable Ethics Offset might look like an internal “tax” on all uses of patented codecs. For example, for every Boot2Gecko device that is sold, Mozilla could commit to an offset equal to double the amount spent on patent licenses for the device. The offset could be donated to relevant worthy causes, like organizations that oppose software patents or contribute to the development of patent-free multimedia … but the actual recipient matters much less than the commitment. By accumulating and periodically (and publicly) “losing” this money, Mozilla would remind us all about its commitment to freedom in the multimedia realm. A similar scheme may be appropriate for Firefox Mobile if it is also configured for H.264 support.

Without a reminder of this kind, Mozilla risks becoming dangerously complacent and complicit to the cartel-controlled multimedia monopolies. As long as H.264 support appears to serve Mozilla’s other goals, Mozilla’s commitment to multimedia freedom will remain uncomfortable, inconvenient, and tempting to forget. Greater organizations have slid down off their ethical peaks, on paths paved all along with good intentions.

Most companies would not even consider a public and persistent admission of compromise, but Mozilla is not most companies. Neither are the companies that produce free operating systems, and many other components of the free software ecosystem. None of them should be ashamed to admit when they are forced to compromise their values and support enterprises that, on ethical grounds, they despise … but they should make their position clear, by committing to an Ethics Offset until they can escape from the compromise entirely.

*: Why is there no Wikipedia entry for “Curse Jar”!?
**: Let’s not call it an indulgence.

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