Aaron Swartz at the Creative Commons 2008 event. Harvard research fellow, co-creator of Reddit, helped develop web feed for RSS, helped with web.py. Creator, software developer, writer, and Internet activist. (via Wiki)
The rights of human citizens are as alienable as they ever have been in this country. Often, private companies and their interests are seen as top priority by our government and the responsibility, which humans have towards progressing and setting the foundation for future generations is often overshadowed by the desire to become lucrative. Indeed, our country can be a grim place when individuals with authority, throughout all facets of government, act to protect financial values and ignore the great injustices that make people in our country suffer; wall street fraud, unjust bankruptcies, banks laundering money for drug lords, money in politics, poverty, the list goes on and on. There seems to be no one with authority that cares very much at all.
Among this myriad of injustices is academic research performed using taxpayer or public money, which services like JSTOR use for private profit. Neither the public nor the authors are compensated (only publishers) and all of that invaluable information is stored behind a paywall, inaccessible to anyone that is motivated to learn, but lacks dollars.
“Aaron did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way” – Peter Eckersly, Electronic Frontier Foundation
“He redefined advocacy for the progressive and open-information movement” – David Moon, Program Director for Demand Progress
Since he was in his pre-teen years, Aaron Swartz excelled in computer programming, co-developing some of the first RSS feeds when he was just 14 years old. This knowledge led him to become an intellectual who recognized the great injustice happening in our world. He was a political organizer, Internet activist and a writer. His work in computer programming was socially conscious, advocated for open source practices. He co-founded Demand Progress, and Reddit, a platform for uncensored free expression, free of advertisements and made up almost entirely of user-generated content.
Beginning September 24, 2010, Swartz began to download JSTOR academic files from a database found on MIT’s campus. After being blocked from accessing the database via MIT’s wireless network, Swartz found access to the closet containing the JSTOR servers. He left his laptop there to download massive amounts of files.
MIT faculty found the laptop and contacted federal police to investigate. This investigation even involved the secret service. They fingerprinted Swartz’s laptop and installed a camera to identify him. On January 6, 2011, Aaron Swartz was arrested and charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony and his passport was seized.
Surprisingly, JSTOR decided to not press charges but federal prosecutors, lead by U.S. district attorney, Carmen Ortiz and assistant attorney Stephen Heymann, relentlessly pushed to make an example of Swartz. They were stern in negotiations and would not settle for anything less than 6 months in jail and a guilty plea of 13 felonies (potential 35 years in prison), even though Swartz returned all the digital files and vowed not to distribute them. But, to Ortiz, “stealing is stealing,” and along with Heymann, they would not stop their righteous efforts to convict Swartz. Finally, on January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz (26) could no longer bear the twisted priorities of this unjust system, he hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment.
I used to think I was a pretty good person. I certainly didn’t kill people, for example. But then Peter Singer pointed out that animals were conscious and that eating them led them to be killed and that wasn’t all that morally different from killing people after all. So I became a vegetarian.
Again I thought I was a pretty good person. But then Arianna Huffington told me that by driving in a car I was pouring toxic fumes into the air and sending money to foreign dictatorships. So I got a bike instead.
But then I realized that my bike seat was sewn by children in foreign sweatshops while its tubing was made by mining metals through ripping up the earth. Indeed, any money I spent was likely to go to oppressing people or destroying the planet in one way or another. And if I happen to make money some of it goes to the government which spends it blowing people up in Afghanistan or Iraq.
I thought about just living off of stuff I found in dumpsters, like some friends. That way I wouldn’t be responsible for encouraging its production. But then I realized that some people buy the things they can’t find in dumpsters; if I got to the dumpster and took something before they did, they might buy it instead.
The solution seemed clear: I’d have to go off-the-grid and live in a cave, gathering nuts and berries. I’d still probably be exhaling CO2 and using some of the products in the Earth, but probably only in levels that were sustainable.
Perhaps you disagree with me that it’s morally wrong to kill animals or blow up people in Afghanistan. But surely you can imagine that it might be, or at least that someone could think it is. And I think it’s similarly clear that eating a hamburger or paying taxes contributes — in a very small way; perhaps only has the possibility of contributing — to those things.
Even if you don’t, everyday life has a million ways that are more direct. Personally, I think it’s wrong that I get to sit at a table and gaily devour while someone else delivers more food to my table and a third person slaves over a stove. Every time I order food, I make them do more carrying and slaving. (Perhaps they get some money in return, but surely they’d prefer it if I just gave them the money.) Again, you may not think this wrong but I hope you can admit the possibility. And it’s obviously my fault.
Off in the cave, I thought I was safe. But then I read Peter Singer’s latest book. He points out that for as little as a quarter, you can save a child’s life. (E.g. for 27 cents you can buy the oral rehydration salts that will save a child from fatal diarrhea.) Perhaps I was killing people after all.
I couldn’t morally make money, for the reasons described above. (Although maybe it’s worth helping fund the bombing of children in Afghanistan in order to help save children in Mozambique.) But instead of living in a cave, I could go to Africa and volunteer my time.
Of course, if I do that there are a thousand other things I’m not doing. How can I decide which action I take will save the most lives? Even if I take the time to figuring out, that’s time I’m spending on myself instead of saving lives.
It seems impossible to be moral. Not only does everything I do cause great harm, but so does everything I don’t do. Standard accounts of morality assume that it’s difficult, but attainable: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. But it seems like living a moral life isn’t even possible.
But if morality is unattainable, surely I should simply do the best I can. (Ought implies can, after all.) Peter Singer is a good utilitarian, so perhaps I should try to maximize the good I do for the world. But even this seems like an incredibly onerous standard. I should not just stop eating meat, but animal products altogether. I shouldn’t just stop buying factory-farmed food, I should stop buying altogether. I should take things out of dumpsters other people are unlikely to be searching. I should live someplace where others won’t be disturbed.
Of course all this worrying and stress is preventing me from doing any good in the world. I can hardly take a step without thinking about who it hurts. So I decide not to worry about the bad I might be doing and just focus on doing good — screw the rules.
But this doesn’t just apply to the rules inspired by Peter Singer. Waiting in line at the checkout counter is keeping me from my life-saving work (and paying will cost me life-saving money) — better just to shoplift. Lying, cheating, any crime can be similarly justified.
It seems paradoxical: in my quest to do good I’ve justified doing all sorts of bad. Nobody questioned me when I went out and ordered a juicy steak, but when I shoplift soda everyone recoils. Is there sense in following their rules or are they just another example of the world’s pervasive immorality? Have any philosophers considered this question?
- Life in a World of Pervasive Immorality: The Ethics of Being Alive, by Aaron Swartz, August 2009
Since his death, over 25,000 digital signatures have filled a petition to have Carmen Ortiz removed, hackers defiled the MIT website, many are questioning over-reaching prosecutors and many more are furious that Swartz was pushed to suicide for attempting to release educational information, while not a single HSBC banker or Wall Street executive suffer any consequences for their destructive, corrupt and unlawful actions.
Ortiz said news of Swartz’s death rattled her emotionally. This is the second time Heymann was involved in a prosecution of a programmer who later committed suicide. Someone in power who uses their position to hound an individual with no defense, is an oppressor (by definition, to keep down by severe and unjust use of force or authority). Most of history’s tyrants were removed from power, many tried in court for their actions. It is the only justice fitting.
Swartz’s death should be a start to a conversation about our government’s true values. Not what they say they value, but how they act upon them.