See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Tag Archives: liberalism

Mozilla, Mob Rule, and the Veil of Ignorance

On Thursday, Mozilla released a corporate-speak laden statement announcing that Brendan Eich resigned under pressure as the CEO of Mozilla Corporation.

Brendan Eich has chosen to step down from his role as CEO. He’s made this decision for Mozilla and our community.

Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.
Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.

We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.

While painful, the events of the last week show exactly why we need the web. So all of us can engage freely in the tough conversations we need to make the world better.

In other words, our consumer base became angry about something that matters, but needs a remedial lesson in civics. Eich has been removed and we really wish we had avoided this whole thing by knowing how big of a deal you were going to make of it, and we’re hoping that throwing his corpse to the mob will forestall calls for a full on employment purge of anyone who is insufficiently egalitarian.1

So, some background. Mozilla is a loosely constituted community of users and developers of free software the best known of which is Firefox. The community is backed by a non-profit, the Mozilla Foundations, which has a for-profit subsidiary, Mozilla Corporation. At any given time, assume that a media piece you read on Mozilla will conflate the last two and vaguely understand that the first is involved somehow. I’ll refer to “Mozilla” as the gestalt entity made up by all three of these elements. Mozilla was founded by, among others, Brendan Eich, who helped shepherd the community from its origin as website, then as a Lead Technologist and director of the Mozilla Foundation, and then as the first CTO of Mozilla Corporation, and then he was appointed CEO in 2014. Oh, and he is largely responsible for the creation of JavaScript.

Two weeks later, he was fired. Sorry, he resigned, as a result of reporting done in March 2012 about Eich’s donation of 1,000 dollars to a political campaign in 2008. That campaign was California Proposition 8, which passed, amending the California Constitution to restrict marriage to “one man and one woman” before being ultimately struck down through complicated legal maneuvers not on point here.

It is important you note what I didn’t say in my recap. I did not say that Eich steered Mozilla funds or community members to engage in political advocacy. I did not say that Eich planned on changing Mozilla employment policies. I did not say anything in the story about Eich, about Mozilla at all, despite his close and lengthy association with Mozilla including helping bring it into being. No, this is a story about what Eich did with 1,000 dollars of his own money and how it cost him a job because the mob wanted a scalp.2

Brendan Eich may well have some sins to answer for, and for some of those perhaps he should pay his price publicly.3 It is quite another thing to say that the price for those sins is his job, and that Mozilla is responsible for making him pay it. For those of us who are worried about, say, for-profit companies claiming special protection because of their owner-officer’s religion one might hesitate before too quickly melding personal actions and the company.

The problems with Eich’s firing are well covered elsewhere on the web, Leah Libresco’s piece for The American Conservative, written before the firing, covers the society-wide problems well, so I want to take a turn towards the theoretical.

Jonathan Rawls is a giant of a moral philosopher, behind the curiously modest sounding idea of “justice as fairness”. I can’t begin to cover the full extent of his contributions to political and moral thought, but know that his reach is vast and is lurking in the background of many discussions you’ll have day-to-day, whether you know it or not. One of his famed contributions is that of veil of ignorance, a thought experiment used to organize a fair society.4 The central conceit of the veil of ignorance is to imagine that before we are born, we know nothing about the life we will be born into. We don’t know what mental or physical abilities, social standing, even psychological propensities and moral qualities. Not knowing anything about who you might become once born into the world – how would you organize a fair society? And that, Rawls argued, is what a fair society looks like.

Where Rawls used the veil of ignorance as a device to organize a just society on the large-scale, I’d like to use it to describe a difference between two camps within the American left coalition. While typical number-line thinking suggests that there are left-liberals and center-left moderates, I find it far more useful to divide the camps into their intellectual predispositions – you might say their moral instincts – rather than ideological temperament. To wit, you have progressives – those who believe in forging a better, more equal society, and liberals, those who believe in forging a better, more free society.5

Progressivism and liberalism are intertwined and often act in concert, but in issues like Eich’s firing the moral instincts behind the two ideas diverge dramatically. For progressives, from behind the veil of ignorance they determine that a fair society is one where the weak or not preyed upon by the strong, because you don’t know whether you will be one of the strong or one of the weak. Eich preyed upon the weak, so the weak push back, and that, more or less, is that.

For the liberal, from behind the veil of ignorance, there are always more problems, because while the liberal also believes that it is wrong for Eich to give money to bad causes, they take seriously that they don’t know if they will be like Eich at any given moment. The weak version of this proposition is that from behind the veil of ignorance you don’t know when it is your ideas that will be unpopular, so a fair society is one where people are maximally free to express their ideas without regard to what is popular, but I want to take it a step further. The strong proposition is that from behind the veil of ignorance, you don’t know when it is that your ideas will actually be wrong, so it is best that we are maximally free to actually be wrong.

This is of course a dangerous idea – but I think ultimately it is a healthy one for thoughtful people to play with. Humility is often touted as a virtue derived from emotional disposition, but I think it is better to think of it as an active commitment that must be carefully crafted and well maintained. It is much easier to remember to withhold judgment when it is your friends and family you would end up judging – maintaining ideologically diverse friendships is the hairshirt I wear to counteract the high of self-righteousness.6 Rawls said that the veil of ignorance was a thought experiment to be used from the original position – that is, before one exists. I tell you now that the veil of ignorance is a grand metaphor for how your life is actually going – the future is closed to you, and the past has slipped out of reach. Justice comes from embracing that ignorance as your teacher.