Richard Stallman On Avoiding Ruinous Compromises

Sep 27th, 2008 | By | Category: Commentary, General

Twenty-five years ago, Richard Stallman announced his plan to create a free operating system called GNU. Since then, Stallman’s work has had a massive influence on the world of free and open source software, software that powers much of the Internet. 

In honor of the 25th anniversary of GNU, Stallman has penned an essay on Avoiding Ruinous Compromises

In it, Stallman looks at some of the compromises he’s had to make to move GNU forward, and how to judge which compromises are acceptable:

The free software movement aims for a social change: to make all software free so that all software users are free and can be part of a community of cooperation. Every non-free program gives its developer unjust power over the users. Our goal is to put an end to that injustice.

The road to freedom is a long road. It will take many steps and many years to reach a world in which it is normal for software users to have freedom. Some of these steps are hard, and require sacrifice. Some steps become easier if we make compromises with people that have different goals.

He pays special attention to what he calls ruinous compromises:

A ruinous compromise is not just a bad influence on others. It can change your own values, too, through cognitive dissonance. If you believe in certain values, but your actions imply other conflicting values, you are likely to change one or the other so as to resolve the contradiction. Thus, projects that argue only from practical advantages, or direct people towards some non-free software, nearly always shy away from even suggesting that non-free software is unethical. For their participants, as well as for the public, they reinforce consumer values. We must reject these compromises even to keep our values straight.

Sometimes Stallman comes across as an extreme fundamentalist – but this essay does a great job of exploring why he thinks it’s so vital to have high goals and to be uncompromising when you need to be.

It’s a great essay – and may leave you asking where you should be less compromising.

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