Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #33

Forwarded this email? Subscribe here.

How should tech founders think about ethics?

Evan Osnos had a good and (very) long read in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago about about whether "Mark Zuckerberg can fix Facebook before it breaks democracy". Aside from the content itself, the framing raises an interesting question: in a world where tech entrepreneurs can accumulate enormous power and their actions have hard-to-predict consequences, how should they think about ethics?

The philosopher Shannon Vallor has a fascinating new book on this topic, Technology and the Virtues (excellent podcast interview with the author and summary here) that argues that the key is tech founders and executives return to "virtue ethics", often associated with Aristotle. This involves developing "practical wisdom" that allows you to be "wise in the moment".

Vallor's argument is that technology now moves too fast and its ramifications are too opaque and remote to rely on other ethical approaches like consequentialism, which judges whether an action is ethical by its consequences (Though if you're interested in this topic, it's really worth listening to Will MacAskill's podcast on moral uncertainty). We have coding bootcamps already; perhaps next up is Virtue Bootcamps? I can see it catching on...

Global catastrophic risk and the case for pessimism

I think of myself as an optimist and have written about the topic in previous TiBs. I'd usually rely on many of the arguments and datapoints that Steven Pinker has marshalled in Enlightenment Now (Bill Gates' favourite book, apparently). In short, on almost every metric - health, wealth, war, violence, absolute poverty, etc - things are getting better.

But what if that masks something very dangerous? New data suggests that in recent years a series of catastrophic weather events (perhaps linked to climate change) seem to be reversing progress in reducing severe hunger, particularly in Africa.

This reminded me of item number 4 in Luke Muehlhauser's list of "projects I wish I had time for", which he calls Everything is Awesome and We’re All Going to Die. The basic idea is that the progress Pinker sees is real, but so is the increase in the risk of truly existential disaster. He points to what he calls "Moore’s Law of Mad Science, inescapable asymmetry in the difficulty of creation vs. destruction and inadequate equilibria" as reasons (Nassim Taleb has made a similar point in his own inimitable style).

If you'd like to join me in worrying about it, this book provides a comprehensive starting point.

Does nationalism have virtues?

Nationalism seems like an obviously bad idea to me. But I'm always interested to find the most compelling arguments for ideas I disagree with, so I was very intrigued by this interview with Yoram Hazony, author of the new book The Virtue of Nationalism. Hazony argues that (non-racist) nationalism is the only stable foundation for many of the rights and institutions that liberals like me claim to prioritise.

In particular, he (like Theresa May, I suppose?) believes that theories of citizenship that see it as primarily a consensual or contractual relationship between the individual and the state are ahistorical and self-defeating.

I'm not convinced, but it's worth listening to or reading the whole thing. It raises a number of useful challenges for those of us with a more globalist outlook. It also reminded me of two interesting and challenging pieces I saw recently - one on the case for tradition over reason and one on the failure of liberals to take conservative history seriously.

As I argued last week, the threats to liberal democracy are real, and I'm a big advocate of engaging with its smartest critics, rather than those who are easiest to dismiss...

Quick links

The kids are alright. Young people don't drink much any more. Or have sex. (Related: Silicon Valley infertility)

Declassified jokes. The best Soviet one liners collected by the CIA.

Will these replicate? Apparently psychopaths worry more about AI safety? And guys with big muscles are more right wing?

What Putin does secretly... Chinese political advertising in the US media

Fog in the channel. What do EU citizens think about Brexit? (Spoiler: not good news for the UK)

Your feedback

Thanks for all the feedback on last week's slightly different edition. I'm glad you enjoyed it. If you like this, you should forward to a friend or share on social media. If you’ve got feedback, just hit reply.

Until next week,