Category: Philosophy

Some doubts about medical ethics, and maybe that Russian vaccine is underrated

Most major questions in ethics are unsettled, though of course I have my own views, as do many other people.  I take that unsettledness as a fairly fundamental truth, I have been studying these matters for decades, and I even have several published articles in the top-ranked journal Ethics.

Now, if you take a whole group of people, give them medical licenses, teach them all more or less the same thing in graduate school, but not much other philosophy, and call it “medical ethics“…you have not actually gone much further.  Arguably you have retrogressed.

So when I hear people appeal to “medical ethics,” my intellectual warning bells go off.  To be sure, often I agree with those people, if only because I think contemporary American institutions often are not very flexible or able to execute effectively on innovations.  For instance, I didn’t think America could make a go at Robin Hanson’s variolation proposal, and so I opposed it.  “Medical ethics” seems to give the same instruction, though with less of a concrete institutional argument.

Still, the Lieutenant Colombo in me is bothered.  What about other nations?  Should we ever wish that they serve themselves up as medical ethics-violating guinea pigs, for the greater global good?

Medical ethics usually says no, or tries to avoid grappling with that question too directly.  But I wonder.

How about that Russian vaccine they will be trying in October?

To be clear, I won’t personally try it, and I don’t want the FDA to approve it for use in the United States.  But am I rooting for the Russians to try it this fall?  You betcha.  (Am I sure that is the correct ethical view?  No!  But I know the critics should not be sure either.)  I am happy to revise my views as further information comes in, but I see a good chance that  the attempt improves expected global welfare, and I think that is very often (but not always) a standard with strong and indeed decisive relevance.  And all the new results on cross-immunities imply that some pretty simple vaccines can have at least partial effectiveness.

Why exactly is “medical ethics” so sure this Russian vaccine is wrong other than that it violates “medical ethics”?  All relevant scenarios involve risk to millions of innocents, and I have not heard that Russians will be forced to take the vaccine.  The global benefits could be considerable, and I do note that the Russian vaccine scenario is the one that potentially spends down the reputational capital of various medical establishments.

Trying a not yet fully tested vaccine still seems wrong to many medical ethicists, even if the volunteers are compensated so they are better off in ex ante terms, as in some versions of Human Challenge Trials, an idea that (seemingly) has been elevated from “violating medical ethics” to a mere “problematic.”  Medical ethics claims priority over the ex ante Pareto principle, but I say we are back to the unsettled ethics questions on that one, but if anything with the truth leaning against medical ethics.

I find it especially strange when “medical ethics” is cited — often without further argumentation or explanation — on Twitter and other forms of social media as a kind of moral authority.  It then seems especially glaringly obvious that the moral consensus was never there in the first place, and that there is a gross and indeed now embarrassing unawareness of that underlying social fact.  It feels like citing Kant to the raccoon trying to claw through your roof.

I think medical ethics would not like this critique of medical ethics.  Yet I will be watching the Russian vaccine experiment closely.

Addendum: There is also biomedical ethics, but that would require a blog post of its own.  It is much more closely integrated with standard ethical philosophy, though it does not resolve any of the fundamental philosophical uncertainties.

My podcast with David Perell on “the Tyler Cowen production function”

Here goes, it is not for me to judge the quality of the result, but I can say that David is a very good interviewer.  Here are his summary notes:

Tyler ends every episode of his podcast asking about other people’s production function. How do you get so much done? What’s the secret sauce of all that you’ve accomplished? This episode is entirely devoted to that question. But this time, I’m asking Tyler. We started by talking about why there aren’t more Tyler Cowens in the world. Then, we moved to Tyler’s process for writing, such as choosing article topics and editing his work. Later in the podcast, we discussed Tyler’s process for choosing friends, why he would travel across the world to visit a new country for just ten hours, and what he’s learned from high-powered people like Peter Thiel and Patrick Collison.

I also tried to give a few deliberately “low status boasting answers,” as I call them (rather than high status airy detachment — e.g., “it is not for me to judge the quality of the result”), label it countersignaling if you wish.

Here is David on Twitter, and you can take his on-line writing classes here.

What should I ask Matt Yglesias?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, based in part on his new forthcoming book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  While I have not yet read it, I strongly expect it will be excellent.

And to be clear, this will be the conversation with Matt I want to have, not the one that you might think you wish to hear.

So what should I ask?

Another attempt to address the Fermi paradox — aestivation

According to a research paper accepted for publication in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, extraterrestrials are sleeping while they wait. In the paper, authors from Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong, and Milan Cirkovic argue that the universe is too hot right now for advanced, digital civilizations to make the most efficient use of their resources. The solution: Sleep and wait for the universe to cool down, a process known as aestivating (like hibernation but sleeping until it’s colder).


The universe appears to be cooling down on its own. Over the next trillions of years, as it continues to expand and the formation of new stars slows, the background radiation will reduce to practically zero. Under those conditions, Sandberg and Cirkovic explain, this kind of artificial life would get “tremendously more done.” Tremendous isn’t an understatement, either. The researchers calculate that by employing such a strategy, they could achieve up to 1030 times more than if done today. That’s a 1 with 30 zeroes after it.

Here is the full article, via the excellent Samir Varma.

What is the future of the intellectual right?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  I suggest it will take three major forms, namely anti-China, pro-internet as a communications medium (as an offset to left-wing media), and dislike of the Left, most of all the latter.  Note these are predictions rather than normative claims about what should happen.  Here is one excerpt:

Last and perhaps most significant, the intellectual right will dislike the left. It pretty much does already, but the antagonism will grow. Opposition to political correctness and cancel culture, at least in their left-wing versions, will become the most important defining view. As my colleague Bryan Caplan succinctly put it four years ago: “Leftists are anti-market. … Rightists are anti-leftist.”

The intensity of this dislike will mean that, within right-wing circles, free speech will prosper. As long as you take care to signal your dislike of the left, you will be allowed to hold many other heterodox views without being purged or penalized.

If you are on the Left, note that it does not suffice to dislike the Right, you have to dislike most parts of the Left as well (why is that? Can you model this?).

I also consider social conservatism, libertarianism, communitarianism, and Sam’s Club Republicanism as possible alternative directions for the intellectual Right.  The entire column repays careful study.

Philosopher J. emails me about free speech and Straussianism

I won’t add extra formatting, here goes (and here is my original post):

“Nice point about a Straussian reading of the free speech letter, and the general constraints of working in groups…But I have this worry about your post. I am not myself a Straussian, but I will express the point as a way of taking further the Straussianism already in your post. Maybe this is what you intend, so that a post making a Straussian point explicit should have a kind of meta-Straussian point. But, here goes: Taking your point about working in groups, I’m worried about you saying:

  • we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic

I would think the Straussian position (in the fuller sense, not just the sense of covert or hidden) would be that working in a group, in a city (or state, country, etc.), always requires constraints — some way of encoding and reproducing enough of a common morality to make living together and coordination possible. From the position of “the philosophers” (as Straussians would say, but in this case I’m thinking of you) these may always be humorless, obnoxious, and maybe neurotic too. So why not think that the old speech regulators were equally so, just enforcing different rules? Why not think we’ve moved from rules of propriety (e.g. more censorship of sexual content, for example), to rules forbidding racism, etc.? You might then think that recent changes have broadened the openness for some kinds of speech. People I know who are interested in police violence, and remedies, report experiencing such a broadening.

An optional addition to this thought would be the idea that different sets of codes, equally and unfortunately all-too humorless, can still do better and worse judged with respect to the good, as Platonist-Straussians would say. In that sense, I would think the new humorless codes an improvement.

Granted, there is a strong strand in Straussianism that would think it just most important that there is some way for “the philosophers” to be able to have some space free of such codes to do the actually important stuff (as they see it) in ways that are not humorless, etc. But even that strand in no way holds the standard is that “the philosophers” should be freely expressing their views *publicly*! I would think that this is a pretty essential part of the point of Straussianism in the first place.

thanks as always for your work and the inspiration to think less about raising and lowering statuses, less from the perspective of Platonic thumos, as the Straussians would put it…”

TC again: More anonymity!  Hmm…

Rereading Ayn Rand on the New Left

It used to be called The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, but the later title was Return of the Primitive.  It was published in 1971, but sometimes drawn from slightly earlier essays.  I wondered if a revisit might shed light on the current day, and here is what I learned:

1. “The New Left is the product of cultural disintegration; it is bred not in the slums, but in the universities; it is not the vanguard of the future, but the terminal stage of the past.”

2. The moderates who tolerate the New Left and its anti-reality bent can be worse than the New Left itself.

3. Ayn Rand wishes to cancel the New Left, albeit peacefully.

4. “Like every other form of collectivism, racism is a quest for the unearned.”  Ouch, it would be good to resuscitate this entire essay (on racism).

5. She fears the collapse of Europe into tribalism, racism, and balkanization.  I am not sure if I should feel better or worse about the ongoing persistence of this trope.

6. It is easy to forget that English was not her first language: “Logical Positivism carried it further and, in the name of reason, elevated the immemorial psycho-epistemology of shyster lawyers to the status of a scientific epistemological system — by proclaiming that knowledge consists of linguistic manipulations.”

6b. Kant was the first hippie.

7. The majority of people do not hate the good, although they are disgusted by…all sorts of things.

8. Like many Russian women, she is skeptical of the American brand of feminism: “As a group, American women are the most privileged females on earth: they control the wealth of the United States — through inheritance from fathers and husbands who work themselves into an early grave, struggling to provide every comfort and luxury for the bridge-playing, cocktail-party-chasing cohorts, who give them very little in return.  Women’s Lib proclaims that they should give still less, and exhorts its members to refuse to cook their husbands’ meals — with its placards commanding “Starve a rat today!””  Feminism for me, but not for thee, you could call it.

Overall I would describe this as a bracing reread.  But what struck me most of all was how much the “Old New Left” — whatever you think of it — had more metaphysical and ethical and aesthetic imagination — than the New New Left variants running around today.  As Rand takes pains to point out (to her dismay), the Old New Left did indeed have Woodstock, which in reality was not as far from the Apollo achievement as she was suggesting at the time.

The Harpers free speech letter and controversy

Many of you have been asking for a more detailed account of what I think.  Here is an NYT summary of the debate, in case you have been living under a rock.  Of course I side with those who signed the letter, but I would add a few points.

First, I don’t think the letter itself quite pinpoints what has gone wrong, nor do I think that such a collective project is likely to do so.  Most of us would agree there is nothing wrong per se with voluntary standards of affiliation, or voluntary speech regulations in private institutions, nor should the NYT feel obliged to turn its platforms over to tyrants such as…say…Vladimir Putin.

The actual problem is that we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic — in the personality psychology sense of that word.  I say let’s complain about the real problem, namely the moral fiber, emotional temperaments, and factual worldviews of the individuals who have arrogated the new speech censorship functions to themselves.  I am free to raise that charge, a collective letter signed by 153 diverse intellectuals and artists really is not, and is strongly constrained toward the more “positive” and “constructive” approaches to the problem, or at least what might appear to be such.

The letter is descriptively accurate in blaming lack of “toleration” and increased “censoriousness” for our problems, but those words only make sense if you have a much deeper mental model of what is actually going on.  There is ultimately something question-begging about words that do not pin down the proper margin of objection, or what might be a correct worldview, or what might be a worldview we should in fact not tolerate in our affiliations.  In other words, a non-question-begging answer has to take sides to some extent, and that is especially hard for a collective or grand coalition to do.

That is fine!  No complaint from these quarters, and I am very glad they took the trouble to move forward with this project.  I know many of the signers, and those individuals I like, admire, and respect, to a person.  But in reality, the letter itself, de facto, decided to elevate consensus and reputational oomph over actual free speech about the real truths in our world.

So in the Straussian sense it is actually a letter about the limits and impotence of true free speech, and the need to be constrained by social consensus.

How about the signers and non-signers?  Here is from the NYT piece:

“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”

Only a very small number of individuals in the world even had the option of signing, and it seems the particular individuals chosen were selected with an eye toward their public and intellectual palatability.  Do you really think they would have invited [fill in the blank with name of “evil” person of your choice] to sign?  Or how about such a letter signed only by white males?  More prosaically, how about a few vocal Trump supporters or members of the IDW?

You can’t expect readers to scroll through thousands of names, but of course with internet technology you could have a linked pdf with a second tier of signers, more numerous and also more truly intellectually diverse.  The de facto message seems to be: “free speech is too important a cause to let just anybody sign onto.”

Again, what they did is fine!  I work with voluntary institutions all the time, and am quite familiar with “how things have to go.”

But again, let’s be honest.  To produce a paean to free speech, acceptable to Harper’s and worthy of receiving a non-condemnatory article in The New York Times, the organizers had to “restrict free speech” in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.

Fortunately, most people will read the Harper’s letter straight up rather than in Straussian terms.  The Straussian reading is far more depressing than the pleasure you might feel at seeing this missive take center stage, if only for a day.

My Conversation with Annie Duke

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the opening summary:

Annie joined Tyler to explore how payoffs aren’t always monetary, the benefits and costs of probabilistic thinking, the “magical thinking” behind why people buy fire insurance but usually don’t get prenups, the psychology behind betting on shark migrations, how her most famous linguistics paper took on Steven Pinker, how public policy would change if only the top 500 poker players voted, why she wasn’t surprised to lose Celebrity Apprentice to Joan Rivers, whether Trump has a tell, the number one trait of top poker players, and more.

Here is one bit from Annie:

DUKE: So when I went on my first date with my husband, my brother and brother-in-law immediately decided to make a market, and it was whether we were going to get married. Now to be fair, my husband and I — before we went on our first date, we’d been friends. Both my brother and my brother-in-law knew my eventual husband, but this is when we’re going on our first date. They make a market. I think that my brother-in-law ended up bidding 23.

My brother then called me up, cracking up, that my brother-in-law had bid 23 when we hadn’t been on a first date yet. And I then started laughing at my brother, said, “Well, that means you had to bid 22. Why are you laughing at him? You somehow bid 22. It’s our first date.” Now, that’s because we’re all people who sort of think this way. And so this sort of becomes the fun of the friendship, but there are other people . . .

And this from Annie:

DUKE: My suspicion is that if only the top 500 poker players voted, people would be thinking a lot more about edge cases — where things could go wrong, for sure, because poker players just are obsessed with that. I think that there would be more long-termism as opposed to short-termism, again, because you have to be obsessed with that as a concept. I think that people would be thinking about “What are the unintended consequences? How does this look?”

Another thing that’s really important that poker players think about is, “If I put this policy in that looks like it’s awesome, how can someone come in and find the cracks in it so that it can turn into something bad?” I feel like the top 500 players would definitely be thinking in that way more.

You will have to read or hear the dialogue to take in my many good questions.

Why I like Nate Silver

There are standard reasons to like Nate Silver, which I do not wish to deny.  But here is what I find striking: whenever he considers political or normative questions, he continues to use his full range of intellect and emotional maturity.

Many other commentators, once they run into normative or philosophical issues, or perhaps issues of political theory, or even political science, pull out arbitrary unsupported dogmatisms and partisan mood affiliation.  Or perhaps they will use correct but shallow truisms they heard on the radio or read in a magazine or newspaper, without realizing that deeper levels of analysis are possible.  Or they may use incorrect but shallow truisms from MSM.  Either way, at some point the analysis simply falls apart, even if many of its constituent parts are well-informed or perhaps even expert.

It seems to me that Nate avoids this.  I now consider this an increasingly important quality in commentators, especially if those commentators are active on social media.

And it is not that I agree with Nate all of the time on politics.  I’m not saying this “because he ends up where I am.”

I will try to think about who else is very good in this regard, and how we might nourish this quality in ourselves.

Why Americans Are Having an Emotional Reaction to Masks

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, easier read through than excerpted, but here is one bit:

When no one can see our countenances, we may behave differently. One study found that children wearing Halloween masks were more likely to break the rules and take more candy. The anonymity conferred by masks may be making it easier for protestors to knock down so many statues.

And indeed, people have long used masks to achieve a kind of plausible deniability. At Carnival festivities around the world people wear masks, and this seems to encourage greater revelry, drunkenness, and lewd behavior, traits also associated with masked balls. The mask creates another persona. You can act a little more outrageously, knowing that your town or village, a few days later, will regard that as “a different you.”

If we look to popular culture, mask-wearing is again associated with a kind of transgression. Batman, Robin and the Lone Ranger wear masks, not just to keep their true identities a secret, but to enable their “ordinary selves” to step into these larger-than-life roles.


The tension of current mask policy is that it reflects a desire for a more obedient, ordered society, for public health purposes above all, but at the same time it creates incentives and inclinations for non-conformity. That is true at least within the context of American culture, admittedly an outlier, both for its paranoia and for its infatuation with popular culture. As a society, our public mask-wearing is thus at war with its own emotional leanings, because it is packaging together a message based on both discipline and deviance.

What can we do to convince people that a mask-laden society, while it will feel weird and indeed be weird, can be made stable and beneficial through our own self-awareness?


Simplicity itself

3. Academics almost never say things so offensive that they deserve to be fired.

I don’t ever recall hearing an academic saying things as offensive as the garbage Trump spews out. And yet 42% of Americans support Trump. I’m not comfortable with speech codes that say 42% of Americans cannot hold certain jobs unless they keep their mouths shut.

That is from Scott Sumner.  And here are further thoughts by Scott.

What should I ask Annie Duke?

I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Anne LaBarr Duke (née Lederer; September 13, 1965) is an American professional poker player and author. She holds a World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet from 2004 and used to be the leading money winner among women in WSOP history (a title now held by Vanessa Selbst). Duke won the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions and the National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2010. She has written a number of instructional books for poker players, including Decide to Play Great Poker and The Middle Zone, and she published her autobiography, How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, in 2005.

Duke co-founded the non-profit Ante Up for Africa with actor Don Cheadle in 2007 to benefit charities working in African nations, and has raised money for other charities and non-profits through playing in and hosting charitable poker tournaments. She has been involved in advocacy on a number of poker-related issues including advocating for the legality of online gambling and for players’ rights to control their own image.

She also has a new book coming out this fall, How to Decide: Simpler Tools for Making Better Choices.  So what should I ask her?

Richard Davis requests

Here are some answers, I put his questions — from Request for Requests – in bold:

Melancholy among academics.

We’re a pretty sorry bunch, and many of us don’t have so much professionally to live for, at least not at the relevant margin — it is easy to lose forward momentum and never recover it, given the constraints and incentives in the profession and broader pressures toward conformity.  Rates of depression in academia, and especially in graduate school, are fairly high.  Many of the core processes are demoralizing rather than inspiring.  It is remarkable to me how much other people simply have accepted that is how things ought to be and perhaps they believe matters cannot be that different.  I view the high rates of depression in academic life as a “canary in the coal mine” that doesn’t get enough attention as an indicator of bigger, more systemic problems in the entire enterprise.  What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?

Your favorite things Soviet.

Shostakovich.  And the Romantic pianists, most of all Richter and Gilels.  Constructivist art and ballet up through the late 1920s.  The early chess games of Tal.  Magnitogorsk.  War memorials, most of all in Leningrad.  Tarkovsky.  I admire the “great” Soviet novels, but I don’t love them, except for Solzhenitsyn, whom I would rather read then Dostoyevsky.  Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it.

The optimal number of math PhDs worldwide.

I would think fairly few.  I am happy having lots of mathematicians, with independent tests of quality.  But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality?  Did Euclid have one?  Euler?  Does it show you will be a great teacher?  Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math.

What historical works of art were anticipated to be great prior to creation, were immediately declared to be great at creation and have continued to be judged great ever since?

Overall it is striking how popular how many of the great revolutionaries have been.  Michelangelo was a major figure of renown.  Mozart was quite popular, though not fully appreciated.  Beethoven was a legend in his time, and every Wagner opera was an event.  Goethe ruled his time as a titan.  A significant percentage of the very best writers were well known and loved during their careers, though of course there was uncertainty how well they would stand up to the test of time.

The future of Northern New Jersey.

Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations and over time the Indian food may get worse, due to acculturation.  The Sopranos will fade into distant memory, I am sorry to say, as will Bruce Springsteen.  So many young people already don’t know them or care.  I feel lucky to have grown up during the region’s cultural peak.

Who are the greats that still walk among us (other than McCartney)?

The major tech founders and CEOs, Stephan Wolfram, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Richard Serra and Gerhardt Richter and Robert Gober, a number of other classic rock stars (Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jagger, Eno, etc.), Philip Glass, Richard D. James, and note most of the greatest classical musicians who have ever lived are alive and playing today (Uchida anyone?), at least once Covid goes away.  Many of the major architects.  Ferrante and Knausgaard and Alice Munro.  Many of the figures who built up East Asia and Singapore.  Perelman.  Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Magnus Carlsen and all sorts of figures in sports.  A bunch of other people whom Eric Weinstein would list.


Why not?