Moral Golems 3 Apr 2021

Rob Bensinger writes that the search for true moral systems is quixotic, that ethics is so complicated that we cannot hope to capture it in a neat, rule-based system and that our project ought instead to be to construct, starting from observations about what humans think, do and feel, a conglomerate of systems, or maybe an amalgam, that together capture these observations as well as possible, though necessarily imperfectly.

He writes this in a post about things he would like to change about contemporary philosophy, which seems a little off, in a way, because my impression is that philosophers have been mostly anti-realist during the past century. That is to say, they don’t think moral claims (e.g. “it is wrong to murder”) are things that can be true or false, or that moral claims don’t even pretend to be such things. Though I suppose it is possible to be both anti-realist and non-syncretic. Anyway, Rob would probably say that it doesn’t matter, because even if moral claims can be true, there is no way for us to find out which of them are true – morality is just too complicated. The point is that we should not get tunnel vision on seeking the one true moral system, because no moral system could possibly describe the complex nature of human morality.

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Code Purity & Principles 31 Mar 2021

Code, like rooms, can be dirty. Mary Douglas wrote that dirt – the real, physical sort – is “matter out of place”. You have an image of how you want your room to look, and all the stuff that doesn’t fit that image, everything that’s unwanted – that’s dirt. And when you have rid your room of dirt, when it conforms to your image of how it should look, then it is clean, or pure. In this sense, cleaning is a creative act.

When you program, and especially when you refactor, you also have an image (though maybe not a conscious one) of how you want your program or procedure to look, and all the lines of code that don’t fit that image are dirty. For instance, say you read about the single-responsibility principle – that each class or module or function should be responsible for one thing only. You read about it, it makes sense to you: it looks great. Now what? Every time you see a function that does two things, or a class that does a dozen things, it looks dirty to you. You want to change it so that it conforms to your image of clean code.

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The Sadness of Tom Cruise 27 Mar 2021

Tom Cruise, though he is a movie star, though he’s had every wish granted, though no barrier can stand in the way of his desire, is in his heart of hearts a sad and lonely man. His church, such as it is, at once worships him and treats him like a child. One needs only to remember the reports of how church leaders auditioned brides for him to see that Tom Cruise is the puppet emperor of Scientology, feebler than a child-king. Time and again, the church puts its little prince on parade in the most embarrassing fashion. People laugh at him behind his back. And he has to know this – on some level, though he seems so very sheltered, he must know this given the amount of ridicule he has been subjected to, after the Oprah couch jumping, after the leaked Scientology tapes, after interview after interview after interview.

To ordinary people, nearly everything can be joked about: few subjects are off limits. To Tom Cruise, everything is deadly serious, especially if it’s a laughing matter. He has cordoned off his whole life and much of the world – make light of this and you are his enemy. Instead, he focuses his laughter onto trivial things, onto other people. But he is not really laughing. He is simulating laughter, badly. Because he does not really find things funny.

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Building a Lightweight, Command-Line Newsletter Program 20 Mar 2021

There are of course hundreds of newsletter services out there, the lich queen of them being MailChimp, which owns over half of the market share. But maybe you don’t want to use proprietary software, or maybe you don’t want to depend on an organisation that can ban swathes of its users because of the (seemingly innocent) content they circulate. The alternative then is Mailtrain and other free and open source options. But these need to be self-hosted, have fairly involved installation procedures and are weighed down by far more features than people like myself ever need.

Me, I just wanted two things: for people to be able to subscribe to my newsletter and to be able to send emails to my subscribers. That’s it. So I thought it might be fun to implement a simple command-line utility that accomplishes those two things. The result is nwsl (pronounced “newsletter”).

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The AstraZeneca Vaccine Will Save Lives 16 Mar 2021

I don’t usually like to comment on current affairs as it makes me feel stressed to get my take out while it’s still newsworthy and before it has been swallowed by all the other takes out there, but I will make an exception today in order to register my discontent with recent decisions made by some leaders of European nations.

In the past couple of days, a large number of European nations have decided to suspend usage of the AstraZeneca vaccine after seeing cases of side effects such as blood clots. The reason is spelled out clearly. “The decision today is purely precautionary. It is a purely technical and not a political decision”, said Jens Spahn. “The decision is a precautionary measure”, said Anders Tegnell. This, of course, after months of delayed vaccination drives due to AstraZeneca’s own failure in delivering the expected quantities of doses. But in life you cannot manufacture a success by adding one failure to another.

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Can a Vegan Diet Be Healthy? A Literature Review 12 Mar 2021

The first question is: healthy compared to what? To a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet? or to a standard Western diet? or to the mean world diet, if that is even a coherent concept? The papers I will cover in this post don’t all answer the same question, so I’ll try to be clear in pointing out what they are comparing to. They also differ in which non-carnivorous diets they are looking at. There are many varieties of vegetarian and even vegan diets. Since there aren’t that many studies on vegan diets specifically, I’ll also be looking at studies of vegetarian diets. Why? Because I think it’s likely (though not guaranteed) that any positive or negative effects in vegetarian diets are also present in vegan diets (though there might be positive or negative effects from vegan diets that aren’t produced by vegetarian diets). I’ll make these distinctions, too, where relevant.

The other thing I’ll note before we get underway is that vegans and vegetarians are strongly self-selected groups that differ significantly from the general population. That means there are a lot of possible confounds here. If we find that vegans are on average healthier than non-vegans, we can’t infer that it is the vegan diet that makes them healthier, because correlation is not causation. It could just be that vegans exercise more or smoke less, for example, and that it is the exercise or the lack of smoking, not the diet, that makes them healthier. What that means is that we must look at observational studies with a critical eye. Instead, wherever possible, I will be citing randomised controlled trials (RCTs), where the variable being studied (in this case, a particular diet) is isolated so that causality can be inferred.

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Paying a Corporation 6 Mar 2021

In the first post in this series, I discussed a case where a creative agency paid 13 homeless people 20 dollars a day to carry Wi-Fi hotspots around Austin, offering them to South by Southwest festival attendees. I said that I thought the creative agency had wronged the homeless people because they treated them as mere means to further their own ends (namely to generate promotional buzz). But the creative agency is a company, not a person. Does it really make sense to say that a company has “wronged” someone? and what should we think about those festival attendees who took advantage of the free hotspots?

Another way to approach this problem is by introducing the corporation as an intermediary in a moral interaction. Take for example two comfortably paid programmers, Dante and Serena. Dante is employed by a software consultancy, but Serena is a freelancer. If you offer to pay Serena for her services, she is free to take your offer or not: there is no coercion. But if you negotiate a deal with the software consultancy for Dante’s services, he has no say in the matter, because he is contractually obliged to do whatever work the consultancy asks him to do. On the surface, it looks as if you are coercing Dante, but of course no right-thinking person would say that you were. That is because he has previously chosen to sign away part of his freedom to the consultancy. This may look like a silly example. But now consider a situation where Dante had unwillingly signed away his freedom. In this situation, it does seem wrong to make a deal for his services, though, as we shall see, under some circumstances it is not so clear-cut.

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Paying for Sex 2 Mar 2021

In the previous post I argued that paying a person to provide you a service is wrong iff they see no alternative way of subsisting. I also wrote that I thought the badness (or goodness) of the act depended on how bad (or good) the nature of the work is generally for a person who is compelled to do it. Now I will argue that there is one case where the wrong is especially egregious, where the stakes are higher, so to say. That case is prostitution.

Of course there are many different varieties of prostitution and sex work, from upscale escorts who can choose their own prices, services, clients and work hours on one end to trafficked street prostitutes who are at the mercy of a pimp on the other. I leave open the possibility that there exist wealthy prostitutes who choose that occupation in spite of the many alternatives available to them and who therefore are able to meaningfully consent. Having said that, there aren’t a lot things that abolitionists and sex worker advocates agree on, but they do seem to agree that the situation of many prostitutes and other sex workers today is, excuse my literary language, not good. Prostitution and sex work is correlated with increased risk of violence and murder, increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, worse mental health, police violence and harassment and so on. Often those who become prostitutes have grown up in difficult circumstances: there’s the poverty of course and also evidence that many prostituted men and women have experienced childhood sexual abuse. In Germany, where I live, the majority are migrants coming from poorer countries, mainly from Eastern Europe. The list goes on and on. And the plague is making everything worse.

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Paying for a Service 26 Feb 2021

Is it wrong to hire a housekeeper to clean your house? How about paying an Uber driver to get you home after a dinner? Or engaging a master chef to cook at your wedding? In other words, is it wrong to pay somebody to provide you a service? I think that, under certain conditions, it is wrong to do so. Specifically, I think it’s wrong when the person you are paying does not see any alternative way of subsisting.

Paraphrasing Kajsa Ekis Ekman, if a person wants to clean your house, they clean your house; the only reason for there to be money involved is that they don’t really want to do it. That’s true in a way but it’s too strict to keep as a moral rule. It implies that there can be no bargaining, that any exchange of money for goods or labour is coercion. I don’t think that’s quite right. I think a person can consent to such an exchange iff they see alternative ways of subsisting, such that they don’t feel forced to accept the kind of offer you are making. If they don’t see these alternative ways, they can’t turn down the offer without risking destitution. It is the payment that renders them unable to refuse it; if you had offered them the chance to clean your house without payment, they could very easily have refused.

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Recent Recordings of Sibelius's Symphony No. 1 20 Feb 2021

I’ve previously lamented the fact that, because most of the composers we listen to now are dead, and because contemporary composers have no desire to write in the style of their predecessors, we get tens or hundreds of recordings of the same works, most of which are forgettable, few of which stand out. This swift-running stream of releases reminds us of the fact that it is easier to avoid stupidity than it is to achieve brilliance. The safer bet will always be to record somebody who’s already famous and listened to, though orchestras and record labels today are no more responding to market forces than were publishers of sheet music in the 18th and 19th centuries, the only difference being that the latter had the disadvantage of a product rooted in composing, not performance, and Beethoven worked on his Symphony No. 5 for four years on and off, whereas today an album takes no longer than a day or two to record.

A record is released, and then another, until suddenly there is an overwhelming number of them. In this kaleidoscopic procession the fortunes of composers and their works wax and wane as the years go by. There must be some sorts of dynamic processes at work. Maybe there are expansion-saturation cycles in the market for each work or composer. Maybe release schedules follow the roaming zeitgeist. Maybe I am just looking at Poisson clumps. For whatever reason, it seems that, in our present time, we hear reverberating the Symphony No. 1 in E Minor of Jean Sibelius. A bunch of recordings of this symphony have been released in just the last couple of years; what follows is a survey of five of them.

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