Don Goodman-Wilson

Engineer, teacher, philosopher. Time travel paradox resolution consultant. Developer advocacy evangelist. he/him

The Value of Ethical Thinking

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” just is a definition of right and wrong. But I think that there is a more nuanced view that is useful beyond merely judging others.

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.

Judgments of absolute right and wrong can fit into potential answers to the question of getting along, of course. But that’s far from the only way forward. Because 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.

Moreover, this view of ethics gives us some flexibility in how we think about the structure of the community, because not all communities are alike in size or culture or goals, and not all require the exact same structure.

So when I talk about ethics, I’m not talking about imposing my views of right and wrong on others. 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 build 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.

Ethical thinking can improve your developer programs. can help you build communities with ethical thinking at the forefront. Ethics is a tool for building thriving communities: It can help us understand why we need and how to achieve diversity and belonging, purpose and structure, and incentives to create positive impact. We offer a human-centered, values-driven approach to building open source and developer advocacy programs. To find out more, and contact us to set up an initial consultation, visit our website:

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