Posts tagged with morality

Science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife. If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently.

Werner von Braun, the greatest rocket scientist ever

cf, this

  • WP on WvB:

…von Braun was the central figure in the Nazis’ rocket development program, responsible for the design and realization of the V-2 combat rocket…. After the war, … taken to the United States…. Von Braun worked on the ... intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) program… … direct[ed] the …Marshall Space Flight Center … chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.


UPDATE: I guess my own (ironic) interpretation of this statement is not as obvious as I’d hoped. Subtlety is maybe not the best for quick-glance-react-reblog medium such as tumblr. My reactions are:

  1. Of course someone who used science for evil would say that science has no moral dimension. Rockets are a great example of science with primarily military applications, although perhaps (argues the casuist) someday Amazon will deliver goods to our houses with rocket-based technology!
  2. Pretending you aren’t responsible for how your research is used is immature.

    We can of course differentiate {a} people who couldn’t have known their research would be used for violent purposes, {b} people whose research is “for” peaceful purposes (such as communications) but can be used by military, {c} only when combined with other research, can the products of your work be put to violent ends, and {d} somehow there’s no way military could possibly do violence with this (such as social-psychology research perhaps).

    I wouldn’t suggest either that researching something completely useless, so useless it can’t help the military or civilians, is blameless either. In fact as adults we can critically assess and debate the culpability of various individuals. I would argue that everyone is covered in sin insofar as no-one continually does the most ethical thing at all times through all points of their life (nor do we know what that is).
  3. There are plenty of historical examples of mathematics and science being funded by war. Cryptonomicon, trigonometry in catapults, the canard of Archimedes and the parabolic mirrors, and of course the Manhattan Project. (Famously among mathematicians, Grothendieck saw physics as evil because it had produced the Atom Bomb.) Look at rich zip codes in the eastern USA you’ll notice Skaneatles Lake in upstate New York.
    This is the country with by far the largest military spending in the world and one of their biggest defence contractors—Lockheed-Martin—has a big facility in, you guessed it, Skaneatles Lake. If I take the time later I’ll fish some photos showing how nice it probably is and how not-nice is Gary Indiana
    , birthplace of world-class entertainer Michael Jackson whose hometown does not produce missiles.
  4. I’m not suggesting you need to be a limp dovey peacenik. If you are the appropriate sort of engineer with the appropriate permits and you hate the Iraqis, the Japanese, the Afghanis, the North Koreans, whoever—then design that bomb and don’t lie about what it’s going to be used for. However it’s disingenuous in the extreme to sell dynamite to a terrorist and deny you had any clue what he was going to do with it.

Here are the tweets of a scientist confronting the real dilemma he faces:

Anyway: no, sticking your head in the sand does not constitute an ethical position.  Maybe you’re doing wrong. Maybe you’re not doing very wrong. Maybe you’re doing something that is both good and evil. Maybe you’re doing something that’s evil only under some perspectives. At least consider it, from time to time. Don’t pretend “Science is always neutral”—that’s a wishful dream. Invent the Atom Bomb in wartime and pretend you’re not part of the war effort? Please. I don’t think scientists owe the world both their work and a fully fleshed out, consistent ethical system. But, no, science does not get to be “neutral” by fiat.

(((Nor do I get to be “neutral” simply by never having studied to be a weapons engineer. Since I don’t actively spend time working to right the wrongs of the world I’m also culpable, not just on the issue of violence or war but on many things. I don’t even spend enough time doing good that I could say I’m too busy solving one problem to work on the others. I’m simply a bad person. One can derive from economics 101 —from the ideas behind opportunity cost—that culpability extends far and wide—and I intend to write a separate article about that.)))


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.

Read More

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


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.


[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.