Posts tagged with morality

Summary: skip to the pictures after the <big> text under heading 2.


Since 2009, pundits have concerned themselves with economic inequality. Robert Reich’s infographic about the US I’ll treat as a summary.

Let me dummyise the opinionscape into three camps:

  1. John Galt. The etymology of aristo-cracy is “rule by the best people”. The market rewards output fairly. Tax the best people and you will drive them out of France and into perfect stateless seasteads. Lose them and you’ll be sorry.
  2. Maximilien de Robespierre. F—k the rich. They inherited their way to the top. Connections, luck, brown-nosing, and false confidence determine incomes more than "merit". The middle manager is no better than his underling. The applicant who got the job is no better than another applicant who was ignored. Guillotine the superfluous gentleman, the role will still be filled; the new girl may even do it better.
  3. Vilfredo Pareto. Hey—if the rich aren’t actively making the poor worse off, what does it matter?

The third view is the one I want to challenge just now.


When I see a manual farmer being destroyed by Nature, I feel:

  • privileged
  • guilty
  • sorry for the farmer
  • the longer I spent thinking about their suffering, the sorrier I feel
  • Why doesn’t somebody do something? They don’t need much. They just need a little help.
  • This is so unfair.

And somehow, gut reactions are part of real morality and ethics.



So here’s my challenge to the Paretians. Which image galls you more:

  1. a farmer suffering from drought, with the whole community destroyed—families crying into each other in solidarity as they all lost pretty much everything
    , or…
  2. next to the damned farmers weeping on their knees, stands the Monopoly Man, laughing, swirling a flute of champagne and recounting the fable of the grasshopper and the ant.



To the extent that these gut reactions translate into legitimate morals, the Robespierreans win over the Galtists and over the Paretians.


Envy exists. From this one infers that when the rich get richer but the poor don’t, that their individual utilities can still drop. But let’s go beyond society-as-a-collection-of-independent-individuals.


The image of the Monopoly Man merrily dancing next to the poor (or even indifferently ignoring their plight) curdles the blood. Gucci little piggies go first against the wall for a reason.

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Fun coursera on virology.

  • Viruses are so numerous (10³⁰) and filling up everywhere. It gives this Boltzmann flavour of ‘enough stuff” to really do statistics on.

  • Viruses are just a bundle of {proteins, lipids, nucleic acids} with a shell. It’s totally value-free, no social Darwinism or “survival of the fittest” being imbued with a moral colour. Just a thing that happened that can replicate.
  • Maybe this is just because I was reading about nuclear spaces (⊂ topological vector spaceand white-noise processes that I think of this. Viruses have a qualitatively different error structure than Gaussian. Instead of white-noise it’s about if they can get past certain barriers, like:
    • survive out in the air/water/cyanide
    • bind to a DNA
    • spread across a population
    • adapt to the host’s defences
  • … it seems like a mathematician or probabilist could use the viral world of errors to set out different assumptions for a mathematical object that would capture the broad features of this world that’s full of really tiny things but very different to gas particles.
  • Did I mention that I love how viral evolution is totally value-neutral and logic-based?
  • Did I mention how I love that these things are everywhere all the time, filling up the great microspace my knowledge had left empty between man > animals > plants > > bacteria > > minerals?

Even if science is hellish on the scientists, isn’t it important for society?

Perhaps. But likely not. Science merely offers power — the use of that power for good or evil is out of the hands of scientists.

And as it stands, we have the power to … cure malaria or end world hunger. In a final sense, we simply choose not to. Becoming a scientist will not give you control over how your technology is used. [I]f anything, it is an abdication from [that] responsibility.

Just ask Oppenheimer.

Keith Yost

(Source: tech.mit.edu)

It’s not always possible to say A ≻ B or A ≺ B. Sometimes

  • neither A nor B is smaller.        A≹B
  • neither A nor B is more successful.   A≹B
  • neither A nor B is prettier.         A≹B
  • neither A nor B is smarter.        A≹B
  • you don’t love A any more or any less than you love B.   ℒ(A)≹ℒ(B)
  • neither A nor B is tastier.           A≹B
  • neither A nor B is closer.           |A−x| ≹ |B−x|
  • neither A nor B is more fair.        A≹B
  • neither A nor B is better.             A≹B

I’ve argued this before using posets. And I intend to argue it further later, when I claim that the concept of Pareto superiority was a major step forward in ethics.

*[The concept of Pareto dominance allows you to make, at least in theory, a valid, fully general comparison between two states of the world. A≻B in full generality iff   a ≻ b   a ∈ A and ∀ b ∈ B, by the individual standards of ∀ .]


For now, though, I’ll draw some examples of functionals that don’t beat one another. That is, ƒ≹g nor g≹ƒ. (You might assume  has to be 2-symmetric but I’m just stating it for clarity.)

In this drawing, green wins sometimes and purple wins other times. Is it more important to win the “righthand” cases or the “lefthand” cases? How much better for each scenario? (see integrating kernel) Is it better for the L₂ norm to be higher? Or just for the mass to be greater?

In this drawing, orange wins sometimes and blue wins other times. Is it more important to win the “interior” cases or the “extremal” cases? How much better for each scenario? (see kernel of integration)


How about a function that measures the desirability of a particular boyfriend / girlfriend in various scenarios. How about the function g measures boyfriend B in the various scenarios (domain) and the function ƒ measures boyfriend A in the various scenarios. By measures, I mean the function’s codomain is some kind of totally ordered set where it does make sense to talk about better ≻ and worse ≺.

  • ƒ(at dinner) ≻ g(at dinner)
  • ƒ(career) ≺ g(career)
  • ƒ(in bed) ≫ g(in bed)
  • ƒ(with your family) ≺ g(with your family)
  • ƒ(at the beach) ≺ g(at the beach)
  • …and so on…

So how do you decide whether A≺B or B≺A? Perhaps you have your own priorities sorted so well that you can apply a kernel. Or perhaps AB in the final analysis.

I could make a comparable list for

  • comparing two houses or apartments (well, this one’s closer to the park, but that one has that cozy breakfast nook),
  • comparing two societies (one where the top marginal tax rate is 41% and one where the top marginal tax rate is 40%),
  • and on and on.

Sometimes it’s hard to compare. Sometimes — like which of your kids do you love the best — it’s impossible to compare.

The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way…. Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin.

murderer Ted Kaczynski, in The Unabomber Manifesto

Reminiscent of E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature where he says that performance of one’s roles in society is like a hypertrophic outgrowth of "our" early social heritage.

Perhaps the internal logic of someone who performs many roles must be inconsistent. Whether the pressure is felt as a multiplicity of selves or an inconsistency of morals—maybe they’re instantiations of the same thing.

Dr. Kaczynski’s mathematics papers (collected here) mostly deal with boundary functions.

(Source: en.wikisource.org)

[E]veryone pretend[s] as if they were just giving one another gifts and then they fervently denied they expected anything back. But in actual fact everyone [understands] there [are] implicit rules and recipients would feel compelled to make some sort of return.

…. If I take a free-market economist out to dinner he’ll feel like he should return the favor and take me out to dinner later. He might even think that he is something of chump if he doesn’t and this even if his theory tells him he just got something for nothing and should be happy about it. Why is that?

This … shows there is always a certain morality underlying what we call economic life. …

[Marcel] Mauss didn’t really think of everything in terms of exchange; this becomes clear if you read his other writings besides ‘The Gift’….
For example, take hierarchy. Gifts given to inferiors or superiors don’t have to be repaid at all. If another professor takes our economist out to dinner, sure, he’ll feel that he should reciprocate; but if an eager grad student does, he’ll probably figure just accepting the invitation is favor enough; and if George Soros buys him dinner, then great, he did get something for nothing after all. In explicitly unequal relations, if you give somebody something, far from doing you a favor back, they’re more likely to expect you to do it again.
David Graeber

(Source: )

They say unto him, Rabbi, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, … they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

Define ||x|| to be

In other words, unless completely perfect, one is imperfect. This is a different sort of measure than is used in assigning blame in a car crash, or in torts.

Those would take the total sum of damage and fractionally assign responsibility to each party. Allow me the licence to define the “Jesus norm” as above.

It would say that one is either responsible or not responsible.

So if I hurt you at all, I’m equally as responsible as everybody else who hurt you for making you whole again.