Gelernter

The best scientists are often the ones who are plainest about their non-scientific interests. Feynman's intro physics books are the best of all physics intros in part because he talks freely about beauty: Here's a beautiful theorem. Here's a beautiful fact. My own small contributions to software were guided at every step by my search for beautiful design. More important, as I argue in my recent book on the spectrum of consciousness: who knows most about the human mind? Today it's John Coetzee, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick. That’s why the book turns to novelists and poets at least as often as to neurobiologists and psychologists. I've had far more sustained, intense reaction to my one novel (1939) than to anything else I've published.
 
The short stories I've published over the years in Commentary have been read by maybe six people each; but the reaction from readers of those stories, in seriousness, intelligence, and depth, swamps the reaction to any science, tech, or political piece I've published.
 

From 20 ideas from David Gelernter.

Beauty is objective.  
 
Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.
 

What replaces religion for teaching ethics?

It used to be that nearly all American children were reared as Christians or Jews. In the process they were given comprehensive ethical views, centering on the Ten Commandments and the “golden rule,” and God’s requirements as spelled out by the prophet Micah: “Only to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
 
As a result American were not paragons; but they had a place to start.  Today many or most children in the intellectual or left-wing part of the nation are no longer reared as Christians or Jews. What ethical laws are they taught? Many on the left say “none, and it doesn’t matter”—a recipe for one of the riskiest experiments in history.  
 
The left, and my colleagues in the intelligentsia, need to come to terms with this issue. Rear your children to be atheists or agnostics—fine. But turning them loose on the world with no concept of right and wrong is unacceptable. You might well say that Jewish and Christian ethical teaching managed to accomplish remarkably little; but if you believe that, and propose to teach your children even less than the bare bones that proved (you say) so inadequate, then your irresponsibility is obvious. Choose the ethical code you like, but choose something and make sure they know it.
 

I did a year of policy debate in high school. The topic we debated that year nationally was whether the United States should increase space travel. The entire format is too specifically niche, and winning relied too much on speaking at unreasonably high speeds, past the point of comprehension, flooding your opponent with too many points to counter. It was interesting to learn, throughout the season, of what cases the top teams in the state were building and to try to find vulnerabilities in those cases through research and logic, but in hindsight, teaching kids to defend a broader set of topics across philosophy, logic, and ethics would've been a more useful exercise.

I'd enjoy a site that posted one such debate each week, with two leading thinkers trading blows in written form, with judges, or perhaps the public, voting on a winner at the end. More interesting might be to let a coin flip determine who'd argue the pro or con side.

The case for opening borders

The overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants want little more than to make a better life for themselves and their families by moving to economic opportunity and participating in peaceful, voluntary trade. But lawmakers and heads of state quash these dreams with state-sanctioned violence—forced repatriation, involuntary detention, or worse—often while paying lip service to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
 
Wage differences are a revealing metric of border discrimination. When a worker from a poorer country moves to a richer one, her wages might double, triple, or rise even tenfold. These extreme wage differences reflect restrictions as stifling as the laws that separated white and black South Africans at the height of Apartheid. Geographical differences in wages also signal opportunity—for financially empowering the migrants, of course, but also for increasing total world output. On the other side of discrimination lies untapped potential. Economists have estimated that a world of open borders would double world GDP.
 
Even relatively small increases in immigration flows can have enormous benefits. If the developed world were to take in enough immigrants to enlarge its labor force by a mere one percent, it is estimated that the additional economic value created would be worth more to the migrants than all of the world’s official foreign aid combined. Immigration is the greatest anti-poverty program ever devised.
 

Alex Tabarrok makes the case for opening borders, and it's a strong one. The ultimate NIMBY-ism isn't at the city level, it's at a national level. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but just a few of them, the rest, the masses, they're on their own.

I would not be where I am today had my parents not come to the United States from Taiwan when my dad entered graduate school. Go back further, and my parents were lucky to be able to migrate to Taiwan during the turmoil in the 50's in China. I'm entirely the product of a long line of good fortune.

As noted in Good Luck Being Born Tomorrow, which I've linked to before:

97% of people born tomorrow will be in a country that is authoritarian, communist, doesn’t support same sex marriage, does not allow abortion, supports capital punishment or has seen over ten thousand deaths in recent armed conflicts. Good luck!
 

If you were reborn tomorrow, assigned randomly to be one of the babies born somewhere in the world, your odds of being as fortunate as you are now (I assume you are one of the lucky ones given you're reading this post) are worse than the odds of flipping a coin and drawing heads. A lot worse.

To believe that those not as fortunate deserve no chance to improve their lot, that takes a deep sense of privilege. As Tabarrok notes:

What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?
 
No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of “the Other, but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.
 
Freedom of movement is a basic human right. Thus the Universal Declaration of Human Rights belies its name when it proclaims this right only “within the borders of each state.” Human rights do not stop at the border.Today, we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let their people exit. I look forward to the day when we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let people enter.

Lesser-known trolley problem variations

Putting a stake in the popular philosophy thought exercise.

The Time Traveler
 
There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards a worker. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits a different worker. The different worker is actually the first worker ten minutes from now.
 
The Cancer Caper
 
There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. Three of them are cannibalistic serial killers. One of them is a brilliant cancer researcher. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one person. She is a brilliant cannibalistic serial killing cancer researcher who only kills lesser cancer researchers. 14% of these researchers are Nazi-sympathizers, and 25% don’t use turning signals when they drive. Speaking of which, in this world, Hitler is still alive, but he’s dying of cancer.
 
The Suicide Note
 
There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards a worker. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits a different worker. The first worker has an intended suicide note in his back pocket but it’s in the handwriting of the second worker. The second worker wears a T-shirt that says PLEASE HITME WITH A TROLLEY, but the shirt is borrowed from the first worker.
 

And so on. I'm not really sure what I can learn from the trolley problem, but I'm uncomfortable that the most common version always involves an fat guy. In fact, it's just referred to as The fat man problem!

Ethics of fighting Ebola

I can't think of too many people better qualified to break down the ethics of fighting Ebola than Peter Singer.

In this respect, Ebola is – or, rather, was – an example of what is sometimes referred to as the 90/10 rule: 90% of medical research is directed toward illnesses that comprise only 10% of the global burden of disease. The world has known about the deadly nature of the Ebola virus since 1976; but, because its victims were poor, pharmaceutical companies had no incentive to develop a vaccine. Indeed, pharmaceutical companies could expect to earn more from a cure for male baldness.

Government research funds in affluent countries are also disproportionately targeted toward the diseases that kill these countries’ citizens, rather than toward diseases like malaria and diarrhea that are responsible for much greater loss of life.

The most accurate way to judge the efficacy of a vaccine is through a double blind trial. One group of patients suffering from the malady are given the potential vaccine, the other set a placebo, and neither the doctors nor patients know who received what. When dealing with a shortage of vaccines and a disease as deadly as Ebola, the usual rules may not apply. That may be okay.

But, when facing a disease that kills up to 70% of those who are infected, and no accepted treatment yet exists, patients could reasonably refuse consent to a trial in which they might receive a placebo, rather than an experimental treatment that offers some hope of recovery. In such cases, it might be more ethical to monitor carefully the outcomes of different treatment centers now, before experimental treatments become available, and then compare these outcomes with those achieved by the same centers after experimental treatments are introduced. Unlike in a randomized trial, no one would receive a placebo, and it should still be possible to detect which treatments are effective.

The trolley problem and self-driving cars

The trolley problem is a famous thought experiment in philosophy.

You are walking near a trolley-car track when you notice five people tied to it in a row. The next instant, you see a trolley hurtling toward them, out of control. A signal lever is within your reach; if you pull it, you can divert the runaway trolley down a side track, saving the five — but killing another person, who is tied to that spur. What do you do? Most people say they would pull the lever: Better that one person should die instead of five.
 
Now, a different scenario. You are on a footbridge overlooking the track, where five people are tied down and the trolley is rushing toward them. There is no spur this time, but near you on the bridge is a chubby man. If you heave him over the side, he will fall on the track and his bulk will stop the trolley. He will die in the process. What do you do? (We presume your own body is too svelte to stop the trolley, should you be considering noble self-sacrifice.)

In numerical terms, the two situations are identical. A strict utilitarian, concerned only with the greatest happiness of the greatest number, would see no difference: In each case, one person dies to save five. Yet people seem to feel differently about the “Fat Man” case. The thought of seizing a random bystander, ignoring his screams, wrestling him to the railing and tumbling him over is too much. Surveys suggest that up to 90 percent of us would throw the lever in “Spur,” while a similar percentage think the Fat Man should not be thrown off the bridge. Yet, if asked, people find it hard to give logical reasons for this choice. Assaulting the Fat Man just feels wrong; our instincts cry out against it.

Nothing intrigues philosophers more than a phenomenon that seems simultaneously self-evident and inexplicable. Thus, ever since the moral philosopher Philippa Foot set out Spur as a thought experiment in 1967, a whole enterprise of “trolley­ology” has unfolded, with trolleyologists generating ever more fiendish variants.
 

There are entire books devoted entirely to the subject, including the humorously titled The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge: A Philosophical Conundrum or the similarly named Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong. If the obese don't have enough problems, they also stumble into philosophical quandaries merely by walking across bridges at inopportune moments.

In the abstract, the trolley problem can seem frivolous. In the real world, however, such dilemmas can prove very real and complex. Just around the corner lurks a technological breakthrough which will force us to confront the trolley problem once again: the self-driving car.

Say you're sitting by yourself in your self-driving car, just playing aimlessly on your phone while your car handles the driving duties, when suddenly a mother and child step out in front of the car from between two parked cars on the side of the road. The self-driving car doesn't have enough time to brake, and if it swerves to avoid the mother and child, the car will fly off a bridge and throw you to certain death. What should the car's driving software be programmed to do in that situation?

That problem is the subject of an article in Aeon on automated ethics.

A similar computer program to the one driving our first tram would have no problem resolving this. Indeed, it would see no distinction between the cases. Where there are no alternatives, one life should be sacrificed to save five; two lives to save three; and so on. The fat man should always die – a form of ethical reasoning called consequentialism, meaning conduct should be judged in terms of its consequences.

When presented with Thomson’s trolley problem, however, many people feel that it would be wrong to push the fat man to his death. Premeditated murder is inherently wrong, they argue, no matter what its results – a form of ethical reasoning called deontology, meaning conduct should be judged by the nature of an action rather than by its consequences.

The friction between deontology and consequentialism is at the heart of every version of the trolley problem. Yet perhaps the problem’s most unsettling implication is not the existence of this friction, but the fact that – depending on how the story is told – people tend to hold wildly different opinions about what is right and wrong.

Pushing someone to their death with your bare hands is deeply problematic psychologically, even if you accept that it’s theoretically no better or worse than killing them from 10 miles away. Meanwhile, allowing someone at a distance – a starving child in another country for example – to die through one’s inaction seems barely to register a qualm. As philosophers such as Peter Singer have persuasively argued, it’s hard to see why we should accept this.
 

If a robot programmed with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics were confronted with the trolley problem, what would the robot do? There are long threads dedicated to just this question.

Lots of people have already foreseen this core ethical problem with self-driving cars. I haven't seen any consensus on a solution, though. Not an easy problem, but one that we now have to wrestle with as a society.

Or, at least, some people will have to wrestle with the problem. Frankly, I'm happy today when my Roomba doesn't get itself stuck during one of its cleaning sessions.

The Act of Killing: a snuff film?

So let me be as upfront as I can. I dislike the aesthetic or moral premise of The Act of Killing. I find myself deeply opposed to the film. Getting killers to script and restage their murders for the benefit of a cinema or television audience seems a bad idea for a number of reasons. I find the scenes where the killers are encouraged to retell their exploits, often with lip-smacking expressions of satisfaction, upsetting not because they reveal so much, as many allege, but because they tell us so little of importance. Of course murderers, flattered in their impunity, will behave vilely. Of course they will reliably supply enlightened folk with a degraded vision of humanity. But, sorry, I don't feel we want to be doing this. It feels wrong and it certainly looks wrong to me. Something has gone missing here. How badly do we want to hear from these people, after all? Wouldn't it be better if we were told something about the individuals whose lives they took?

I'd feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled "We Love Killing Jews". Think of other half-covered-up atrocities – in Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa, Israel, any place you like with secrets – and imagine similar films had been made. Consider your response – and now consider whether such goings-on in Indonesia are not acceptable merely because the place is so far away, and so little known or talked about that the cruelty of such an act can pass uncriticised.

The film does not in any recognisable sense enhance our knowledge of the 1960s Indonesian killings, and its real merits – the curiosity when it comes to uncovering the Indonesian cult of anticommunism capable of masking atrocity, and the good and shocking scenes with characters from the Indonesian elite, still whitewashing the past – are obscured by tasteless devices. At the risk of being labelled a contemporary prude or dismissed as a stuffy upholder of middle-class taste, I feel that no one should be asked to sit through repeated demonstrations of the art of garrotting. Instead of an investigation, or indeed a genuine recreation, we've ended somewhere else – in a high-minded snuff movie.
 

So writes Nick Fraser in The Guardian.

I saw The Act of Killing at the Toronto Film Festival two years ago, and it was one of the most unique documentaries I've ever seen, especially given an environment in which the genre largely adheres to the same formula: some archival footage intercut with clips of talking heads serving as narration.

A key point in Fraser's essay is this:

In his bizarrely eulogistic piece defending The Act of Killing (of which he is an executive producer), Errol Morris, the documentary maker, compares the film to Hamlet's inspired use of theatre to reveal dirty deeds at the court of Denmark. But Hamlet doesn't really believe that theatrical gestures can stand in for reality. Nor, we must assume, did his creator.
 

This is the crux of this debate. What to make of this methodology of having these killers re-enact their deeds? It's worthwhile to me if it allows us to understand the mental mechanisms (defects, if you are an optimist and believe them to be missing in most people) that allow a person to so easily murder millions of people. I believe director Joshua Oppenheimer does succeed in revealing the danger at the intersection of power and narrative.

A key weakness in the human condition is our need for narrative, our ability to justify almost anything if we can frame it with the proper narrative. The choice of the killers in this documentary to frame their re-enactments in the popular genres like gangster movies reveals much of the narrative structure they themselves erected in their minds when they were carrying out the genocide.

Fraser argues he'd rather hear from the victims, but I suspect it's very difficult to find victims to interview when the killers are, as the movie makes clear, still walking about with impunity in Indonesia. As I recall, Oppenheimer, in his Q&A at TIFF, noted that he began with the aim of building the documentary around victims, but most were terrified to speak on the record. The result was a shift to focus on the killers, and what came out of that is one of the unique and terrifying documents of an example of the worst case scenarios in the social sciences.

As one of the killers profiled in the documentary says, “We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed—there’s nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it. Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better, but it works. I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”

Earning to give

From "Join Wall Street. Save the World.

Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn.

The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer.

Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan.

Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.

He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

Fascinating article.

Among other tidbits of note: GiveWell, which analyzes charities for actual effectiveness in changing lives with each of your donated dollars, rates Against Malaria Foundation as the single most worthy charity. Their second ranked charity is GiveDirectly, which essentially just transfers your donation to a poor household in Kenya. They have only 2 employees and 8% overhead.

As for Peter Singer, he is fully supportive of earning to give. 

And [Singer] embraces earning-to-give as among the most ethical career choices one can make, more moral than his own, even. “There is a relatively small group of philosophers who actually have a big influence,” he says from his home in Australia. “But otherwise, the marginal difference that you’re going to make as a professor of philosophy compared to somebody else is not all that great.”

Some further discussion of this article here

Ethical nudging

The survey data captures what people think — but not how they act. From research that I've done, the same tendency exists in other facets of our lives. When confronted with the opportunity to cheat, most people engage in behavior that violates their own ethical goals.

Fortunately, simple interventions can help. For instance, consider a study that my colleagues and I conducted a few years ago [PDF] in collaboration with a major U.S. car insurance company. As part of the study, we sent 13,488 of the company's customers a form that asked them to report the number of miles they had driven the prior year, as indicated on their cars' odometers. Cheating by under-reporting mileage would come with the financial benefit of lower insurance premiums.

On about half of the forms sent out, customers were supposed to sign to indicate their truthfulness at the bottom of the form. The other half of the forms asked the customers to sign at the top of the form. The average mileage reported by customers who signed the form at the top was more than 2,400 miles higher than that reported by customers who signed at the bottom of the form.

From Francesca Gino. Mental context is very powerful, and messages transmit more easily when people are in the right mode to receive  them.