Sam Harris Is Wrong—Weekly Wisdom

Also, how politics distorts the self, the evil of Eddie Bernays, how to scale ideas, what we lost in the pandemic and the role of the hardware store.

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Posting this on the morning of what might be a repeat of 1939 seems surreal. History is not over. We are living through it. Hug your loved ones and take care for yourself.

💡Something I learned

Harm-Benefit Asymmetry; or the limits of Utilitarianism

Harm-Benefit Asymmetry is a moral philosophy concept. It posits that harm done to someone by an action that benefits someone else in an equal manner are asymmetric. The harm will always outweigh the benefit. You can tell this is a utilitarian concept because of the assumptions inherent in it. Such as:

  • Harm and benefit are always quantifiable,
  • Given a correlated origin, harm and benefit become mutually inclusive, and
  • Absolution can only come from inaction.

All of these assumptions are incorrect.

This is a clear drawback of utilitarianism. You just can’t run your morality in a spreadsheet. No matter what Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins say.

📕🎧Somethings to Read/Listen

  • Community Plumbing: A great read on the history of the role of the local hardware store in American community life.
  • How to scale Ideas: Scaling ideas is hard. This podcast provides a short hand for how to go about it.

The five signs are:

  • Look out for selection bias; your sample should not be predisposed to a certain result.
  • Look out for false positive; Try to replicate your results for multiple samples and multiple controls.
  • Look for unintended consequences; Like when Uber raised earnings for drivers. After a small bump, it increase the supply of drivers, which normalized the pay back to pre-raise levels.
  • Look through the Business reality; Most importantly, Marginal Costs. Would scaling from 1 to 100 make your costs unfeasible?
  • Look for constraints; Are the constraints same at scale? For Example, If your idea requires top tier talent, would there even be enough talent to build your idea to scale?

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🗣Some Quotes and Notes

Broken Clock

I’d this essay in the ‘infuriates me’ pile. It is of the now tired ‘Woe is my Western Liberal Order! What hath they wrought on thee’ genre. It is as uninspired as the rest of the entries in this canon. However, like a broken clock, it does have some useful observations.

you may suffer some consequences if you make wrong religious, artistic, or athletic distinctions, but if you fail to distinguish between friends who will help you and foes who will hurt you, then your social, emotional, and physical wellbeing are in immediate jeopardy. Consequently, any sphere which becomes political stops operating on its original distinction and becomes a way to signal political allegiance as friend or foe. The political overrides other spheres simply because more is at stake.

— Johnathan Bi, Where are the Thought Police?

Puppet Capitalism

In this essay on the Universal Basic Income as a capitalist solution to capitalist problems, Oshan Jarrow discussed Edward Bernays. Bernays originated what we should now refer to as Commercial Psy-Ops. I do not agree with the premise that somehow advertisements can rewrite the brain. But Bernays created an environment where the prospect of mass-manipulation is considered a legitimate tactic to sell you doodads.

Like a puppeteer who discovered hidden strings controlling the human mind, [Edward] Bernays used Freud’s discovery of the unconscious to manipulate conscious behavior. From the 1920’s on, he taught companies how to market and appeal directly to the unconscious, turning consumption into a psychological activity. This created a two-way bridge connecting economic growth with the psychology of citizens.

In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays writes:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.”

This was a perversion of psychoanalysis, employing it for profit by capitalizing on repression rather than wrestling shadows to light. Identifying repressions became the stimulus behind consumerist culture.

— Oshan Jarow, Universal Basic Income and the Capitalist Production of Consciousness

What we lost

As the pandemic wind downs, I would like to share a sample of what we lost over the past 2 years.

Thank you for joining me this week. If you know some who might enjoy this, please forward this email to them. See you next week.

Mudassir Chapra

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