I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. - Oliver Cromwell
A lot of current politics is a dialogue between Kant and Nietzsche.
Kant attempted to put Christian ethics on a rational basis: do unto others as you would have them do unto you; act in a way that you could wish it to be a universal law.
But it is open to critiques. For one thing, how should we respond to defection from the other party? Well, Jesus says, by turning the other cheek. But is this always ideal given the existence of bad people? If you always cooperate in prisoner’s dilemma, because that’s what you think should be the universal law, then you expose yourself to exploitation by defectors. Maybe you even maximally incentivize defection. So maybe the universal law really should be tit-for-tat? Or some mixed strategy that leads to maximum cooperation if most people are boundedly strategic and boundedly altruistic? 1
Another critique of Kant’s categorical imperative is that it’s not sufficient by itself to solve personal choices, or policy / coordination problems, without a complete, valid world model. Should people wear masks and be vaccinated? That depends on what you think the facts on the ground are. If some people think COVID is just a cold, and vaccines are a Bill Gates mind-control plot, it’s going to be hard to get everyone to agree to cooperate. You see other people defect and ask why you should inconvenience yourself with a mask that mostly helps other people, and it all goes to hell.
Then, universal law also depends on what you value. If you’re a fundamentalist Christian and the purpose of life is to embody God’s will, then a universal law might involve a dash of authoritarianism to make people follow it. If you’re a musician, a hippie, a swinger, what you value, and hence universal law, might be different.
And even if people agree on facts, and values, finding the universal law that maximizes the objective is… computationally intractable. For every action I might consider, I have to compute a global equilibrium to determine if everyone is best off in the long run under that sort of action? Does universal law favor big government or small government? Maybe there are multiple equilibria? Maybe there can be pretty good libertarian, small-government societies, like the old Hong Kong, and also pretty good welfare-state, big-government societies, like Sweden and France? Maybe it depends on historical and cultural endowments, education and socialization, which are maybe endogenous in the long run?
When you do multi-agent reinforcement learning to make robots play soccer or hide-and-seek, sometimes they evolve really weird but effective strategies. In the infinitely complex game of life, how can anyone even say a particular strategy is optimal? And maybe the perfect strategy for one state of affairs is brittle and doesn’t adapt well if technology or climate changes, and you need to back off from a local maximum to get to a long-term maximum?
Nietzsche’s main challenge to Kant is, man wants to achieve and create, not be poor and turn the other cheek. Man may indeed be crooked timber, but also Kant and Jesus may be cutting against the grain. Maybe building rockets is what I like to do for self-realization. Maybe that’s because extending the light of humanity, avoiding human extinction, is something that I think should be a universal law. Or maybe I just like rockets shaped like penises. If I have to pay a lot of taxes, give to charity, or occupy my mind keeping track of everyone’s pronouns, and this prevents humans from going to Mars, and humanity goes extinct, then that’s bad.
Ayn Rand and John Galt may be the apotheosis of this sort of thinking. Their critique of Kant is really, what about the value of human freedom and self-realization? If I have to view every action through the lens of what universal law will provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people, how can we progress? Aren’t great artists and engineers shackling themselves? What if I just want to go to Mars and those are my values? Why do I even have to justify it as long-termism or effective altruism for the greater good?
Nietzsche and Ayn Rand risk a slippery slope to no moral compass at all. Individuals can do whatever they want, and assume spontaneous order will emerge, or whatever can-opener or spherical cow makes it globally optimal.
Maybe a synthesis lies in the exploration/exploitation tradeoff. If you want to improve humanity as quickly as possible, every action does not have to conform to universal law as you currently know it, you must also sometimes boldly go where no one has gone before. But there needs to be a balance between a majority of individuals who follow norms, and a few supermen who transcend good and evil. If they succeed, and scale new peaks of cultural, artistic, scientific, technological innovation, then our heroes win glory. If they don’t, then they earn a certain degree of ridicule, poverty. And maybe the right balance of risk and reward keeps asshole-ism at an acceptable level.
There are a lot of problems with ‘long-termism’ or ‘effective altruism’. Prediction is hard, especially about the future. And more or less impossible about the ‘long term’ future. Who knows what will be most effective or what might happen in the long term? You can come up with any model you want to describe what will happen in the long term, or what will be ‘effective’. You can possibly justify almost anything. Maybe commingling client funds is good, because if you get away with it you can commit more resources to climate change, or mosquito nets. Or maybe unless ‘wokeism’ is defeated then progress is shackled, so defeating ‘wokeism’ is so important that nothing else matters.
By Elon logic, telling people they can’t use certain language, or what pronouns to use, is ‘woke’ and therefore must be defeated at any cost. Free speech for me is good. I cannot be shackled in extending the light of humanity. So I can freely call anyone a groomer or pedo guy. Free speech for you is another matter, if you want to be woke, or talk about where my private jet is, or apparently report on anything I don’t like. Then your speech is making supermen feel unsafe, and SpaceX Man needs his safe space to extend the light of humanity!
SBF was apparently not a big believer in the Kelly Criterion, which says how much risk you should take to maximize long-term gain, assuming you have a given edge. It’s as close to Kant’s universal law as there is in finance.
But given his assumptions, maybe his math checks out? If you think you have an infinite number of bets (or a sufficiently large number), the Kelly Criterion is optimal, and you don’t bet all your marbles on a single throw of the dice. On the other hand, according to legend, Fred Smith couldn’t meet the FedEx payroll in the early days, went to Vegas and bet it all and won, and FedEx survived to live another day. If the alternative is death, if you have seconds left on the clock, the Hail Mary is the rational play, the only play you have left.
If you have a finite number of bets and you need to save the world from climate catastrophe, then maybe the highest EV move, the most effective and moral, is to cut corners, commingle client funds, and go all-in.
Humans are individuals, and also part of larger groups, and humanity at large. If you’re like most civilized people, you think about yourself, and your family, and maybe other groups you are part of, and maybe a little about the global problems of humanity like climate change, nuclear winter and whatnot. There is a continuum: some people care mostly about their own experience and are hedonists, or psychopaths. And some care greatly about a collective good, about being part of a narrative larger than themselves. Maybe they become Marines, or Communists. Horseshoe theory is real. But humans exist as individuals and as part of larger social structures, contra Margaret Thatcher. ‘Wokeness’ is essentially just acceptance of this fundamental human condition. And of varying frames of reference, and of Kant’s categorical imperative to think universally and act locally.
Also, ethics is NP-hard. It’s simpler and more appealing to many people to just say, do what’s on these stone tablets that came from God and be done with it. Just don’t question why the tablets, and God’s desires, always seem to coincide with the desire of the guy who found the tablets.
Also, the real hero of rationalism maybe wasn’t Immanuel Kant but Thomas Bayes. When you ask, what does the evidence tell us, you have to solve for the process that created the evidence. In other words, use critical thinking. Of course, you should have an open mind and assume a little as possible. Like a maximum entropy prior.
In the (fundamentally Bayesian) words of David Hume, “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.”
You can choose a prior belief that the Bible is infallible, or just another book with some plot holes and contradictions. But whatever you choose, you have made a choice. And everyone has a point of view, and there is no privileged frame of reference. Humans can never have “God’s eye view”.
If you’re not a Bayesian, maybe you’re somehow offended at having to state any explicit prior, even the most open-minded maximum entropy prior. Because where does that come from? Nevertheless, if you make a prediction based on some data or evidence, and it’s based on a model and has an error estimate, you can back out an implicit prior belief. L2 regularization implies a Gaussian prior on parameters, L1 a Laplacian prior, no regularization a uniform prior. And there ain’t no such thing as not having a prior belief. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
I think maybe some of the non-Bayesians are closet authoritarians. They want to choose their prior beliefs without making them explicit. Like Pascal saying, there’s a finite probability that his particular Catholic doctrine is true, and God infinitely rewards believers, and therefore Bayes says you should be Catholic. To me, all he did was prove his prior belief infinitely improbable by contradiction.
The best you can say about metaphysics which are by definition unfalsifiable is, reason tells me I can never know and therefore must be agnostic, but the world would be better if everyone believed like me. And I am a happier and better person for these beliefs, even if they can never be free of arbitrariness and acceptance of authority without evidence. And telling everyone what they need to believe is always a bit problematic.
If you are saying everyone has to believe X, everything is at stake, there is no long-term unless you win in the short term… or the ends are so important, they justify any means… or you have to crash the cockpit door, and defeat the enemy because otherwise nothing matters… or any risk is justifiable, then you have fallen victim to extremism.
The political problem is, how to create governance systems and social structures that durably support human values like freedom, fairness and progress.
If you think the only value that matters is fairness, you might be a socialist. If you think all that matters is progress and national greatness or exalting some great leader or cause, you might be a fascist. If you think all that matters is freedom, you might be a libertarian. They are all based on legitimate human values (liberty, equality, progress, respect for legitimate authority) that can be taken too far. Most of the time, you actually do need to trade a little of one for another.
When I was a kid, I could make sense of the French and Russian revolutions in terms of class conflict over material wealth, oppression of workers and peasants, etc. I couldn’t make sense of massacres during the Reformation over arcane religious squabbles.
But after seeing modern extremism, I kind of get it. Of course, there was mindblowing corruption in selling indulgences, and then saying, these indulgences I just sold are now invalid, you have to buy this new even better indulgence, like a latter-day SaaS license after a PE buyout, or Musk just renegging on all his contracts. Then Luther comes along and says, everyone should read the Bible and figure out what to believe on their own. Heresy! If people don’t believe the Pope is infallible and the Church is the sole interpreter of God’s will, then the whole foundation of pre-modern society is built on sand and everything is liable to fall apart. Next people will be believing absolute monarchs aren’t sitting on thrones by divine right.
And sure enough, everything did fall apart, from the perspective of the ancien régime. They didn’t massacre Protestants over indulgences and Masses. They already understood Orwell before he wrote, whoever controls the narrative controls the future.
Every feel-good story on morning TV about is about orphans earning enough money from their lemonade stand to escape being crushed in an orphan-crushing machine. Maybe you’re woke if, instead of saying ‘awww’, you ask, why there is an orphan-crushing machine, whose idea was that, who runs it and who benefits? And the folks who benefit don’t like it when people start asking those questions.
The 1619 project is a thought experiment, what would US history look like if Black people wrote it and centered themselves the way White people do with the Thanksgiving myths and manifest destiny and whatnot.
To Elon Musk, it’s absolutely triggering that anyone would privilege the point of view of anyone but Elon Musk and his techbro tribe. Something like 1619 is a ‘woke mind virus’, BLM are the real racists, the ‘woke left’ are the real fascists. In Musk’s eyes, you know who isn’t fascist? People who call the press ‘enemies of the people’, or people who organize death-threat brigading against doctors helping people with vaccines and hard health care decisions, or Americas pre-eminent white supremacist. Musk is triggered like Pope Leo hearing Luther say the Church was full of shit.
The techbros made a printing press, a communications medium that is changing the world, and it’s absolutely imperative that they are the ones to control it. That’s a blueprint for undertanding Elon Musk and a lot of what goes on today. Musk bought Twitter to control the narrative.
We are going to make it, but not if we let the new information landscape divide us and fan extremism like it did in the 1500s. These are weird times, but everyone needs to step back and take a deep breath.
Anyway, the Onion said it better.
Why stop there, maybe all of Jesus’s teachings should be intepreted asymptotically? Like, don’t literally turn the other cheek in repeated prisoner’s dilemma, but follow a mixed strategy that leads to maximal long-term cooperation. Similarly, don’t literally give everything to the poor, halting all the moonshots and spending on science and art, but follow policies that maximally improve the lives of the least advantaged over the long run, including incentives for the most productive to work hard, contribute to society, create excellent schools and other public goods, and do the science and art that enriches everyone’s lives? ↩