Two interesting ethical quandaries

Over the past few days, I’ve encountered two quirky but, to my mind, intriguing ethical questions.

The first involves They’re a site that enables anybody–many users are political candidates–to easily create a campaign site. They can use the site to organize volunteers, raise money and connect with supporters. There are a bunch of tools in this category out there, but when they launched, I was impressed by their presentation and apparent ease of use. I wasn’t alone.

To the chagrin of many progressive Americans, NationBuilder recently signed “the largest deal ever struck in political technology” (an unprovable media release claim if there ever was one) with the Republican State Leadership Committee. The RSLC works to get Republican candidates elected at the state level.

Not surprisingly, this has raised the ire of a lot of left-of-centre colleagues. Here’s a quote from Jason Rosenbaum, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s senior online campaign director, that exemplifies this anger:

As it stands now, progressives should think carefully about who they’re helping when they use NationBuilder — every dollar you spend directly aids your opponents,” he told techPresident in an email. “The [RSLC] are the folks who helped pass Scott Walker’s agenda, who want to give transvaginal ultrasounds to women, who want to disenfranchise the minorities, who want to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. Helping them win elections is pretty evil,

And here’s another, from Rory McCarron, who says he previously encouraged clients to use NationBuilder:

I won’t work with, or support a company that develops tools that further the Republican agenda. Full stop. So, I have made the decision to not recommend, or use Nationbuilder on any of the campaigns I work on.

There’s a feisty response from NationBuilder’s CEO Jim Gillian on Rory’s post.

It’s times like this that, as a Canadian, I observe our polarized neighbours to the south with a mix of awe and bemusement. That two-party system is a bummer, eh?

If I was the CEO of NationBuilder, would I sign a contract with the RSLC? At my day job, we don’t take work that’s in opposition to our values–no work with the military, oil and gas industry and so forth. We have had clients who have built non-weapons technology and happened to sell it to  Western militaries, but we can’t really control for that. For some reason, though, I feel like a consultancy like ours is different than a product offering. When we work with a client, we’re almost always teaching them how to be better at their work.

In truth, though, if I ran NationBuilder, I wouldn’t have a problem selling it to any of the major Canadian political parties. They’re all legitimate organizations that represent the values of millions of people. I’d have a greater problem selling to an NGO or political lobbyist whose sole purpose was to advocate a position that I strongly opposed. For example, I’d think twice about selling software licenses to pro-life or anti-gay marriage groups.

What’s the difference there? Well, the Conservative party is a legitimate, significant democratic force in Canadian politics, and while I’ve never voted for them, I may occasionally agree with their policies. On the other hand, there are plenty of advocacy groups whose world view is entirely abhorrent to me.

My logic feels pretty shoddy here. I guess that’s why it’s an interesting ethical quandary.

Print a new gun on your 3-D printer

In an entirely different vein, I recently read (via Andy’s excellent link blog) about a man who used a 3-D printer to produce a significant portion of a functional pistol. It’s easy to imagine a not-far-off future where somebody could produce an entire functional gun (and, who knows, ammunition?) in their own home using a 3-D printer.

What do authorities do in that future? Do they build security measures into all commercially-available 3-D printers, so that end users can’t manufacture assault rifles and, I don’t know, hand grenades?

UPDATE: As Wired reports, we’re apparently getting closer to a complete printable gun.


  1. To be clear, it’s not a significant portion of a pistol – it’s a significant portion of an AR-15 assault rifle.

    If we think that’s bad, wait until you can “print” molecular materials. Who wants to make some pharmaceutical cocaine? Or explosives?

    This is known as the Mike Moment amongst the nanotech crowd (see Erik Drexler’s book “Engines of Creation”) – the moment when you suddenly realize how suddenly and completely a technology with remake society.

    Think of all the fights we’ve had over the past ten years about online piracy in the music and entertainment industry. All of those will be repeated, except the industries will be those that make…well, anything. And what about realworld “malware”? Imagine plans being floated online for goods that intentionally don’t work – an AR-15 receiver that misfires or worse.

    1. Now I’m imagining a terrorist plot in which a virus sends instructions to 3-D printers to build working killer robots to murder people in their sleep.

  2. Chris Rock has a semi-famous skit where he says gun control isn’t the problem, but rather bullet control. So maybe in that scenario you have to start limiting bullets/ammo.

  3. The U.S. National Rifle Association will now start a national campaign amongst its members, using Nationbuilder social tools, not to own guns, but to own printers that allow them all to become a small army of small-arms manufacturers. 🙂

    (In all seriousness to your latter point, I do suspect we’ll be having a lot of new debates as the future of micro-manufacturing becomes real. And I suspect sometime in the not-too-distant future, our bemusing country will have a painfully red vs blue debate on whether the right to “bear” arms also includes the right to “produce” arms – in which case, I think the SCOTUS will uphold some version of a Congressional bill that limits a household’s “production” of arms)

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