The FOSS honor culture

In the real world, anthropologists often make a distinction between Honor cultures and Law cultures:

  • Honor cultures emphasize the idea of “honor”–whose modern analogue might be “reputation”–to encourage pro-social behavior and fulfillment of contracts. You gain or lose honor/reputation based on the above, but you can also lose it when challenged by others, which necessitates often brutal and violent action to regain it. Historically, Honor cultures have often arisen in areas with little law enforcement or central authority; order is thus personally enforced.
  • Law cultures by contrast ensure order by having a broad and well-defined set of rules with a central authority that punishes rulebreaking. Everybody knows the rules, and knows that they will be punished for breaking them, often severely. In Law cultures, order is centrally enforced; people are free to trust one another and act pro-socially as much as possible because their safety is backstopped by the promise and threat of centralized consequences when rules are broken.

Honor cultures today are often considered primitive and backwards, while Law cultures are considered civilized and advanced. There’s a pretty logical reason for this: real-world Honor cultures have tended to evolve brutal and violent methods of regaining lost honor, including dueling, kidnapping, forced marriage, “honor killings”, and family blood feuds. The ordinariness of brutality in Honor cultures tends to push away the gentle and intellectual when migration opportunities exist, so they are weak and poor in a world where power and wealth come from knowledge. Thus Law cultures are ascendant today, and Honor cultures are on the wane… except in one notable area: the internet.

On the internet, there is no real central authority to punish rule-breakers, and there isn’t even a codified set of rules! Each website is basically someone’s private property, and personal behavior on that virtual property requires adherence to the owner’s rules. It’s up to the owners to police their domains, ensure standards of conduct, personally punish violators, maintain their own community reputation, and so on. Is this sounding familiar yet? The internet has evolved a pseudo Honor culture to maintain a semblance of order!

And FOSS communities, being largely digital in nature, follow suit. Though we do occasionally meet up in person, within the physical boundaries of Law cultures (or at least we will again once the global pandemic is over), most FOSS interactions happen online, where the tenets of Honor culture are more applicable.

Now, there’s one major difference between internet Honor culture and physical Honor culture: you can’t kidnap or murder someone over the internet, so regaining your lost honor or repairing an impugned reputation has to be non-violent! It doesn’t have to be pleasant–a jerk may deploy an invective-filled rant, a troll campaign, or a denial-of-service attack–but it can’t physically harm or kill anyone. This removes the most objectionable aspect of traditional, real-world Honor cultures.

It’s worth noting that in the FOSS world, our competitors are closed-source software corporations, which generally operate physically and according to the rules of Law culture: “perform this task or get punished”; “obey the hierarchy to ensure your career path”; “here is your financial bonus for good performance”; and so on. And like real-world Honor vs Law cultures, the FOSS world tends unfortunately to be weaker and poorer than the closed-source one. Earning a living doing FOSS development is a common struggle. And our market share is much lower even though our output is generally better, and always more trustworthy over the long term. Overall, our internet Honor culture causes us to fit less well into the rest of the Law-culture world of rules, laws, financial instruments and hierarchies: corporations effortlessly partner, merge, hire, fire, invest, divest, buy, and sell using legal instruments, while in the FOSS world, these activities generally take place in the realm of the personal, and therefore happen much more slowly, if at all.

However the most successful FOSS projects are supported by Law-culture institutions to help bridge the gap: Firefox has the Mozilla corporation; KDE has the KDE e.V., Blender has the Blender Foundation, and so on. In the same way that a corporation existing in a democracy can be internally a dictatorship, a FOSS community in a Law culture can be internally an Honor culture. Thus internet-based FOSS Honor cultures may avoid being destroyed and retain our cultural distinctiveness and effectiveness in the face of real-world Law cultures.

I wonder if over time we will be pushed into becoming more of a Law culture to maintain and expand our competitiveness with the closed-source world, or whether our Law-culture institutions will prove a sufficient interface and allow us to remain internally an Honor culture. Food for thought, at least.

If you were hoping for a tidy conclusion, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you: this blog post is mostly a random idle musing. 🙂

(Header image taken from

4 thoughts on “The FOSS honor culture

  1. Great stuff. This reminded me of something a friend said to me about the rapid change on the web from counter-culture to corporate-culture. What you are saying is just another example of how the counter-culture is still there, still different, etc. FOSS will never be mainstream because of those distinctions. I think that is good as well because there will always be people out there keeping it going. It might just be fewer people than it is even today.

    Liked by 1 person

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