Episcopal Theological Support for the Free Software Movement

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This paper was written May 3, 2004 for a course in Anglican Moral Theology.

"To study the Free Software Foundation’s principles is to uncover principles that the Christian social tradition upholds, notably in Richard Hooker’s understanding of participation and in William Temple’s social theories. Free software follows out of Christian doctrine and ought to be incorporated into Christian praxis."


By Lab16 [1]:

What is it about this issue that has people using ethical and moral language such as “conscience,” “principles,” and “golden rule?” Exploring Stallman’s other writings yields a social theory that resembles William Temple’s Christian social theory and contains elements of Richard Hooker’s theology.

The first similarity between the Free Software Foundation’s (FSF) principles and Anglican moral theology is the emphasis upon participation in community.

The foundation of free software is the formation of community. Similarly, Temple defines freedom as "self-control, self-determination, self-direction. To train citizens in the capacity for freedom and to give them scope for free action is the supreme end of all true politics" (68). So, the principles of the FSF seem to increase one’s "self-control, self-determination, self-direction" by allowing one to share what one has with peers and to take software in new directions. In this kind of interchange, the computer user and programmer "may feel that he [or she] has a real share and for which he [or she] may take some genuine responsibility" (89). Possessing the source code of a program and also having the right to modify and distribute it, one could, say, fix a crashing word processor and share one’s improved word processor with one’s friends. Rather, in the style of Jacques Maritain, the responsibility is kept at the grassroots level, that which is of closest responsibility.

With Free Software, one is able to take this responsibility that is simply not permitted with conventional software licenses. So, the computer user is not left in a state of despondency, unable to fix broken programs or unable to extended them to new purposes. In one example, Stallman tells the story of a woman working for a bank. The bank needed their software to take on some new functionality. However, their software had been purchased as object code from a company that would not share the source code. In order to get the new functionality, this woman was hired to re-write the source code, from scratch, and then to add the new feature. Such time and effort had to be wasted to protect secrets. Most good programmers, Stallman notes, "have experienced this frustration. The bank could afford to solve the problem by writing a new program from scratch, but a typical user, no matter how skilled, can only give up" (Why Software Should Be Free).

Surprisingly, Stallman, an avowed atheistic computer programmer, points out the spiritual harm in this practice. He points to despondency: "Giving up causes psychosocial harm" to the spirit of self-reliance. It is demoralizing to live in a house that you cannot rearrange to suit your needs. It leads to resignation and discouragement, which can spread to affect other aspects of one’s life." Temple finds similar problems with long-term unemployment. For the unemployed as well as this bank programmer, they were not "happy in their idleness; most of them were conscious of futility and frustration…. They were degraded into a condition of universal dissatisfaction" (35). With closed, secret software, users arrive, as the long-term unemployed do, at "a sense that they have fallen out of the common life" (34). If, alternatively, one could contribute to the community of computer users (Free Software is a prerequisite for this), then one of Temple’s objectives would be met: “Every citizen should have a voice in the conduct of the business or industry which is carried on by means of his labor, and the satisfaction of knowing that his labor is directed to the well-being of the community” (97).

For Temple and for Stallman, working for the well being of community is a precious jewel. They both recognize the definite quality of people to be social creatures.

Temple draws on Jacques Maritain to demonstrate this:

- Personality is social, and only in his social relationships can a man be a person. Indeed, for the completeness of personality, there is needed the relationship to both God and neighbors. … These relationships exist in the whole network of communities, associations, and fellowships. It is in these that the real wealth of human life consists. (71)

Both Stallman and Temple seem to take Aristotle’s understanding of the person as zoon logikon. That is to say, a person is by definition a talking animal. Speech and socialization are emergent properties of humans not unlike spinning webs is an activity of spiders. Something that does not spin webs is difficult to classify as a spider. Likewise, something that does not socialize is difficult to classify as human. “The isolated citizen cannot effectively be free” (70). As a result, Temple recognizes that long-term unemployment pulls one out of society resulting in the loss of participation in community, the loss of self-identity and freedom, and the degrading from what God has created one to be. So also for Stallman, if one cannot freely share programs and ideas, one has lost the possibility to participate in the global community of computer users. He frames this participation as an act of service toward the neighbor, cast in the golden rule. So, “Freedom, Fellowship, and Service,” and characteristics of social order pointed out by both Temple and Stallman. Although Stallman is not explicitly Christian in his formulation, Temple’s thought is in the shadows. They would both likely agree that “these are the three principles of a Christian social order, derived from the still more fundamental Christian postulates that Man is a child of God and is destined for a life of eternal fellowship with Him.”

Above, the definition of participation has been taken for granted. From its context, participation has something to do with sharing with one’s equals and peers, a certain giving and taking, but its exact nature has not been explored. If one turns to Richard Hooker, then one finds his definition: “Participation is that mutual inward hold which Christ hath of us and we of him, in such sort that each possesseth each other by way of special interest, property, and inherent copulation” (Lawes 5.56.1). This definition carries great weight for Hooker, as he rejects how “some men expound our being in Christ to import nothing else, but only that the selfsame nature which maketh us to be men, is in him, and maketh him man as we are” (5.56.7). No, something much greater is here! He turns back to Cyprian and recognizes “the highest and truest society that can be between man and him which is both God and man in one” (5.56.8). This society indeed is found in the believer, where Creator and creature are united. But one, as a creature, only follows after the union of God and Humanity in the Incarnation. So, human participation (society) is only raised up to so fine a level as it is patterned after the participation of Christ and Christian that in turn only has its pattern in the participation of divine life economically and immanently.

To complete the chain, Stallman asserts that people (especially programmers) must be ultimately free to share computer software with one another. In his past experience as a programmer for MIT, Stallman watched his department crumble as talented workers left for higher-paying jobs. As he stayed in contact with those developers, he learned that the companies that they joined made “them to feel in conflict with other programmers in general rather than feel as comrades. The fundamental act of friendship among programmers is the sharing of programs; marketing arrangements now typically used essentially forbid programmers to treat each other as friends” (Manifesto). The end is division and not communion. Recalling Maritain, one would be caught “programming alone.”

So, he proposes an alternative:

- By working on and using [Free Software] rather than proprietary programs, we can be hospitable to everyone and obey the law. In addition, [Free Software] serves as an example to inspire and a banner to rally others to join us in sharing. This can give us a feeling of harmony which is impossible if we use software that is not free. For about half the programmers I talk to, this is an important happiness that money cannot replace. (Manifesto)

To Stallman, Free Software has a characteristic that is not unlike Hooker’s view of Sacraments. While sacraments are more than didactic (5.57.1), they are still “moral instruments of salvation, duties of service and worship” (5.57.4). For Stallman, there is a great act of hospitality and communion in this act of sharing; here participation is happening, as there is such an “interest, property, and inherent copulation.” This participation gains meaning from and gives meaning to human participation in Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Computer programming informs and is informed by participation from Hooker’s sacramental theology in another way. He goes on to describe two parts of human participation in Christ:

- Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are imputed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are one earth, and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies make like unto his in glory. (5.56.11)

The sacraments affect the Church step by step and make one gradually more a participant in the divine life. Computer programming models this process. When a programmer turns an idea into source code, the code is not immediately acceptable to the computer. The programmer must translate the source into object code, which the computer can run. The steps are traditionally this: the programmer enters the source code into the computer and edits it, the compiler refines the source code into assembly code, then the assembler assembles that into object code, then the linker connects multiple pieces of object code into an executable, finally the computer can run the executable and return results to the user. Each step refines the program a little more. Step by step, it becomes something that the computer can accept. At the end of the process, the execution of the program, the distinction between computer and program is blurred as they each participate in one another.

The process is dumb. Computer programs act slavishly to transform inputs to outputs. The conversion of source code into executable is a predictable process, without variation. But as mundane as it may be, it is also one of the most basic processes of computation. In Stallman’s initial announcement of his Free Software project, he announced that he will be making "a kernel plus all the utilities needed to write and run C programs: editor, shell, C compiler, linker, assembler, and a few other things" (“new UNIX implementation”). These basics are the sacraments of computing, effecting a sanctifying change in human ideas.

So, when one takes the process as a means to understand sanctification, one enriches the processes. In parallel, the Christian receives the grace of the Sacraments throughout life. Step by step and phase by phase, the Christian is transformed and made more acceptable to God. Then, at the last, one participates in God so fully that distinction between the two is difficult to make. Perhaps the strength of participation has lead historically to Christological and Trinitarian doctrinal battles (5.54.10).

In this way, computer programming points to something higher. There is an iconic relationship whereby the programming process becomes a window to the sanctification process. The words of George Herbert’s “The Elixir” become relevant here: “A servant with this clause makes drudgery divine: Who sweeps a room, as for they laws, makes that and th’ action fine.” So, the mundane and dumb process is lifted up to a new meaning and significance: iconographic representation of the sacramental process. Even further, the use of the software also has iconographic importance. The type of participation that Stallman encourages itself is a window onto the type of participation that humans have in society as zoon logikon, the type of participation that the persons of the Trinity share, and the type of participation that still awaits perfection in human relationships with God.

William Temple suggests “all things should be done in the Christian spirit and in accordance with Christian principles” (59). So, in the case of construction, “if a bridge is to be built, the Church may remind the engineer that it is his obligation to provide a really safe bridge; but it is not entitled to tell him whether, in fact, his design meets this requirement…. In just the same way the Church may tell the politician what ends the social order should promote; but it must leave to the politician the devising of the precise means to those ends.”

As a result, the Church needs today to speak on the issues of computer programs, their development and distribution. Richard Stallman has already begun this work with the Free Software Foundation by establishing the need for participation in community. Since it is here recognized that the principles of the FSF are in accordance with Christian social principles in Temple and Hooker, the Church can encourage people to develop and share Free Software. The principles embodied point to Temple’s understand of actual freedom, which “is realized in fellowships of such a kind and size that the individual can take a living share in their activities.” (104). Computer programming and usage are areas of great and growing importance today and the Church ought not remain silent on the proper use of these technologies." (http://lab16.wordpress.com/2007/11/30/ad-fontes-episcopal-theological-support-for-the-free-software-movement/?)

More Information

  1. Stop Software Patents: An Anglican Perspective