How I think about morality (having the benefit of my undergraduate degree in psychology and philosophy)

A friend on Facebook asked:

  • In what circumstances is censorship the right answer, or is it /ever/ the right answer?
  • Are there specific types of content that ought to be limited/ censored?
  • Do the morals (or other qualities) of the director/producer/writer/actor/artist etc. warrant censorship?

I responded:

I spent many years thinking about philosophical topics like this and my conclusion was that there are certain areas in life where people tend to ask subtly malformed questions. For example, it seems to me that censorship isn’t a matter of “right” and “wrong”, it’s simply a matter of a power struggle between different groups. It’s like asking “in what circumstances is a lion catching a zebra the right answer?”. I think “what is the meaning of life?” is another example of a malformed question. A math example would be something like “what color is the number five?”.

She responded:

is this the same as moral relativism? For societies to function, there must be some moral ‘absolutes’ though, right? Otherwise there is no law… But how does one agree on those, and to what extent should deviations from those laws be screened from the public eye? As mentioned in the response above, I’m -in general- opposed to censorship, but am trying to find instances where censorship is the only recourse, let’s say for society to adequately function.

I responded:

“For societies to function, there must be some moral ‘absolutes’ though, right?”

I’m not totally sure I understand what you mean by “absolutes”, but: after a lot of classes and a lot of thinking about it, my understanding is that there’s a part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) that is inclined to make consequentialist judgements, and another part of our brain (I forget which) that is inclined to make deontological judgements. The trolley problem is a great example of when these two parts of our brain are in conflict: the utilitarian part wants to pull the switch so that the trolley kills fewer people, while the deontological part doesn’t want to pull the switch because it would mean that you’re “responsible” for the death of the person the trolley ends up killing.

So, people do have these parts of our brain that tend to think in these ways, but beyond those broad strokes, the details seem to be determined by the environment that a person is raised in. So those could function as the “moral absolutes” you’re talking about: the shared brain structure and the shared environment / learned rules of behavior.

But there can be a lot of disagreement because people don’t all have the same environment growing up (“My parents taught me to do X in this situation!” “Well, my parents taught me to Y!”), and beyond that, a lot of people’s behavior is just determined by “what’s good for me?” or by whatever pressures they’re subject to. So you can end up in situations where, for example, people vote for some policy (like censorship) not because they’ve made some judgement about the morality of it but instead because they were paid to vote that way, or they were urged to vote that way by their pastor, or whatever.

So when I think of these kinds of questions (like the censorship one), I think not so much in terms of “What ought to happen?” and more in terms of “What will happen?”, like if it was a physics problem. I actually imagine billiard balls bouncing around, where the question is trying to predict the future state of things.

Another way of putting it: when you’re asking an “ought” question, you need to be very precise and explicit about what you’re trying to optimize for / what the “ought” is trying to optimize for. Are you trying to maximize your own average daily reported wellbeing over the course of your life? Are you trying to maximize the duration for which a nation known as the “United States” continues to exist? And it’s probably not possible to optimize for everything that you’d like to optimize for. But if you don’t have a precise goal you could end up feeling lost, like you can’t figure out a satisfying answer and you can’t understand why.

I highly recommend checking out Joshua Greene (psych professor at Harvard) and his dissertation:

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality and What to Do About It

To answer the last part of your question:

“As mentioned in the response above, I’m -in general- opposed to censorship, but am trying to find instances where censorship is the only recourse, let’s say for society to adequately function.”

Censorship is very common during times of war / life-or-death struggle, when the very survival of (you/your family/your nation) is at stake. Censorship was widespread during WW2. IMO that’s a good example of how these moral judgements (“censorship is wrong!”) can be subordinate to a judgement of “What’s good for (me/my family/the nation)?” They’re just a set of rules that people agree to abide by as a compromise with each other, but when things get crazy, the rules go out the window. There’s nothing objective about them.

Some thinking I’ve done on how to do hiring

Below is an email I sent out to everyone at Infer in August of 2016. I’ve made some changes to clarify terms that the general public might not understand. Read only the bold sentences if you want a summary.

A little over a year ago Yang [one of the cofounders at Infer] asked me my opinion on the hiring process for the Data Analyst position, and I didn’t have a thorough answer at the time, but I said I would think about it. I have a tendency to take a long time to think something through, but when I’m done I usually feel like I have a crystal-­clear answer. And I think that is what has happened in this case: I feel like I have a crystal­-clear answer on how to think about hiring.

Continue reading “Some thinking I’ve done on how to do hiring”

Advice for those interested in learning more about mathematics

A few months ago an acquaintance of mine (Cornell / Harvard Law School, so a smart guy) emailed me and asked if I had any advice for how to explore mathematics further:

Wanted to see if you’d recommend any online math courses (available free) lots of MIT stuff available and the like but wasn’t sure which one was good.

My response (edited for clarity):

Continue reading “Advice for those interested in learning more about mathematics”

Problems that prevent routine white-collar tasks from being automated as a service

Recently I had a serial-entrepreneur acquaintance send me a form email for a new company he’d started with six others that aims to automate all routine tasks that white-collar workers have:

I have a quick question: When you hear the phrase: “Annoying business processes”, what comes to mind for you?

My company automates these processes. We can handle anything (anything!) that can be turned into a set of instructions. Even if the instructions contain complex logic — we’re totally custom. Even if the labor required would normally take hundreds of hours — it’s the same price.

I responded:

Continue reading “Problems that prevent routine white-collar tasks from being automated as a service”

How to create a new Python project using PythonAnywhere, Bitbucket, SourceTree, and PyCharm

  1. I often find it difficult to start new projects on PythonAnywhere because setting them up properly requires a lot of steps.
    • (By “properly” I mean “using tools that will help you avoid headaches down the road”.)
  2. To help my future self get past that initial roadblock, I recently documented the steps involved when I start a new project.
  3. You can find it at the link below.

An email to a friend with some ideas for creating a repeatable sales/growth process

Here’s an email I recently sent to a Stanford/HLS-grad friend of mine who started a delivery company that sells to individuals and businesses. He’s currently trying to figure out a repeatable sales/growth process. Because his product involves physical delivery, he’s aiming to target groups of businesses that are within close proximity of each other (eg in a strip mall / office park). As with Box/Dropbox, he can sign up one person at a company and then try to get that person to sign up others. I’ve made some clarifying edits and removed some identifying information.

Continue reading “An email to a friend with some ideas for creating a repeatable sales/growth process”

I have made a bet that Trump will win the Republican nomination for President

Update 2017.08.15: I’ve added an image of the webpage where I placed the bet, which obviously doesn’t perfectly reflect the way it looked when I wrote this post.

In 2012 I wrote a post in which I suggested betting against people who believed that the world was coming to an end. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to find such people.

I recently discovered that you can currently go onto betting sites and get ~3:1 odds on a bet that Trump will be the Republican nominee (so if he’s the nominee, you get $3; if he isn’t, you lose $1). I bet some money on on December 16 (about a week ago) at 3:1 odds that he’d do it, not because I’m totally convinced that he will, but because: Continue reading “I have made a bet that Trump will win the Republican nomination for President”

Alcohol may reduce anxiety while programming

On Sunday I had my first-ever alcoholic drink on my own initiative, without being prompted by someone to drink (it was a Stella Artois in the fridge at work).

I decided to try it as an experiment to see if it would take away this anxious feeling I’ve been getting for years when I’m trying to program and I’m running into one error after another; the feeling ends up making me procrastinate really heavily, to the point where I’ll go an entire day without getting anything done.

I got the idea from reading Mark Zuckerberg’s blog posts from when he was creating Face Mash, in which he seems to describe drinking to take away the anxiety of not having your code working: “It’s taking a few tries to compile the script…another Beck’s is in order.“.

Well, it seemed to work. I’m not sure if it was just the placebo effect or not. I didn’t finish the beer. I’ll probably keep experimenting with it. Obviously it’s something to be careful with.

How to Read Business Biographies

Here’s an email I recently sent to someone who is interested in starting a business within the next few years; he had asked me if I had any advice from having read a bunch of business (auto)biographies:

I’ve attached a list of some of the books I’ve read since graduating college. Note: I haven’t read all of those books cover-to-cover, but I only included books on that list where I read the “meat” of the book. I’ll explain:

I recommend you think about reading books like eating steaks at a restaurant or in your home. Sometimes you’ll get a steak served to you that has a little fat around the edges, and what I do is cut that part out and not eat it. Sometimes you’ll have a lot of fat, and you only end up eating half of what was given to you by weight. Books work the same way.

I recommend that if you decide to read business biographies, you focus on the first few chapters, where it is explained how the person went from being like anybody else to being more successful than other people. If those chapters make up only 1/10 of the book, I think it’s smarter to read those chapters 10 times than to read the entire book once.

Another analogy I use to explain how to read is Ikea furniture: when I’m assembling Ikea furniture, I don’t read the instruction manual cover-to-cover before I start. I just read the first step and do that step, and then I read the next step. Business biographies work the same way: most biographies spend the bulk of their pages talking about the subject once he/she was already successful, but that isn’t as useful to people like us because we haven’t yet gotten to the same level of success.

So instead of reading these books cover-to-cover, you’d be better off focusing on the beginning, which is more relevant to your current situation. If you follow that strategy you’ll also be able to get through more books, and you’ll develop a better sense of what other successful people have done early in their careers.

Wailes, Nathan – Continued Study