The Value of Ethical Thinking

By Don Goodman-Wilson

I believe that the study of ethics can be a powerful lens for thinking about what we do as developer relations professionals. The connection is simple, but not very obvious. The reason is that I think many folks (very reasonably) misunderstand just what ethics is.

When I talk about ethics, I often encounter a resistance that surprises me. I am often asked what gives me the right to impose my morality on others, others who may not share my own moral assumptions. For many “morality” is nothing more than a set of rules and proscriptions, of things that are “right” and things that are “wrong”. But this is an impovershied, naïve view of ethics. There is a more nuanced view that is useful beyond merely judging the actions of others, that goes beyond arbitrary universal rules.

The study of ethics is, most fundamentally, asking this question: How are we to get along with our fellow humans? If the world consisted of you alone, there are no questions of morality. Everything is permitted, because there’s no action you can take that affects others. It’s only once we start bringing other people into the equation that ethics becomes interesting.

Of course we can answer this question of getting along with others with a set of aboslute judgments of right and wrong. But that’s not a very interesting response, and it’s far from the only response.

Because this framing of ethics is focused on getting on with others, we can see the study of ethics as the study of how to structure our communities. And this is a question every developer relations professional ought to be asking about their developer communities.

The other side of the coin from universal aboslutes is relativism. Many who tell me I shouldn’t be thinking about ethics take the position that because there can be no absolutes, there can be no moral judgments at all. This is a very thin position. While it is true that context matters, we can still judge a situation as better or worse within its context. Just because there is no universal best doesn’t imply that there is no local best.

Instead, because this conception of ethics is focused on communities, we can look at each community individually—not all are alike in size or or culture or goals, and not all require the exact same structure. But there is nevertheless better and worse structures for each community. And they likely won’t be too dissimilar.

So when I talk about ethics, I’m not talking about imposing my views of right and wrong on others. Nor am I willing to give up to the nihilistic tendancy of relativism. Nor am I willing to shy away from difficult and complicated conversations because they are too hard. (We’re engineers, we thrive on solving difficult, complicated problems.)

Rather, I’m inviting us to a discussion about how we define our communities—who gets included and who doesn’t, and why—, and what our communities need to thrive.

This kind of thinking is diametrically opposed to a libertarian, laissez-faire approach to community building, where we just let it grow organically, whoever can assert themselves gets power, and the rules of behavior are implicit and ever-changing. This view on community building abdicates responsibility in the name of apparent freedom, and allows invisible, oppressive structures to arise. The results are almost universally disastrous.

Instead, an ethical approach to community demand not that we jump to universal proscriptions (and nothing else), but simply that we be proactive in thinking about the community’s needs. We ought to be thoughtful about the structures, governance, and incentives to ensure behavior that is beneficial to everyone in the community. This does mean sometimes we need to make a detailed list of shit that will not be tolerated, but more importantly, it means that we have a public process for dealing with inappropriate or borderline behavior when it comes up, and a process for rewarding behavior we want to encourage. It means that we have a process for changing the processes, which most people call governance. Most importantly, taking an ethical approach is a recognition that communities require maintenance, they must be cared for daily in order to thrive.

This is the kind of thing I think about when I talk about ethics.