Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Kantian reflections on making tools less useful

It has often struck me as perverse to be putting effort into making products one sells be less flexible and useful. There is a good Kantian reason against such efforts when the goals one is hampering are not immoral: by making products be less useful, one is hampering the autonomous pursuit of goals by customers and thus putting effort into treating the customers less as ends.

This is not, I think, an area for an exceptionless principle. But there is, I think, a strong moral presumption against putting effort into making products be less flexible and less useful to customers. The principle is grounded in the need to avoid of unnecessary restrictions on pursuits of permissible ends. Here are some examples of practices that violate this presumption:

  • Locking down operating systems on tools such as phones, tablets and cameras in such a way as makes it more difficult, and in some cases illegal, for users to add new functionality.
  • Including legal terms in end-user license agreements that have a blanket prohibition on modification of the software.
  • Removing customization options available in earlier versions of software.
Conversely, there is a moral presumption in favor of making products be more flexible and more useful to customers, especially when this can easily be done. For instance, if a software developer can with little effort add an option that allows a piece of software to be customized by the user in some respect, to add that option is a way of displaying respect for the user's autonomy to choose ways of using the software that do not fit with the developer's own ideas on how the software is best used.

Of course, these are all only presumptive moral principles and can be overridden. Nonetheless, the reasons to override these principles need to have significant moral weight. And the reasons need to be particularly weighty when the reasons themselves are in tension with respect for the customer, as for instance if one locks down the firmware of a device in order to protect customers from themselves. Such locking down is much easier to justify in a device like a car or a pacemaker where human lives are stake, than in a device like a camera, where the worst that might happen to a customer is destruction of the device. Phones are somewhere in between: life can depend on it (and not just in really rare freak cases), but typically do not.

And of course there need be nothing wrong with a pricing structure on which less locked-down devices are more expensive, as long as all the prices are fair (I am inclined to accept something like the medieval fair-price doctrine, but I have no idea how to formulate it).


James said...

Imagine that every producer produces only one good, the Omniwidget, which does everything and does it well--transportation, blender, dishwasher, etc. However, its price is astronomical; after all, demand is high, and it's difficult to make.

Isn't it obviously morally permissible for a producer to 'modify' their good in order to make, say, a normal dishwasher that costs much less than the Omniwidget?

In general, if reducing the flexibility of a good results in the good having a lower (real) price, mightn't the reduction in flexibility be justified by the marginal utility gained by consumers who can now afford to purchase the good?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Right. I was thinking of cases where there is little or no extra cost to the greater flexibility, or even less cost to the greater flexibility (it takes work to lock software down).

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

I would like to add that designing something to be less useful and designing in obsolescence equals job security.