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Links Roundup: Morality, Moonshots, Corruption and More

+ Kari Kohn


I hear this all the time. Everyone has a reason why they can’t do moonshots. ... The little companies say: “We can’t do moonshots. That’s for the big companies to do, because you need lots of money to do moonshots.” Then you go to the big companies and talk to them about why they should be doing moonshots ... The big companies say: “We can’t take moonshots. That takes bravery, and you have to take big chances. We have to hit our quarterly numbers. That’s for the little companies to do; they’ve got nothing to lose. We’ll buy them after the moonshot works.” You go to government and say, “You’ve been the ones that have been taking the moonshots all along!” They say: “Well, we can’t take moonshots. That was 50 years ago. We are totally out of money. Come ask us in another 50 years.” You go to the academics and say, “Will you take the moonshots for us?” They say: “Well, I mean, we write about moonshots. We like to talk about moonshots. We’re not actually going to implement a moonshot. How am I going to publish a paper or get tenure implementing a moonshot? I’m not getting paid for that.”

Everybody’s got a reason.

Justice and Vengeance in Babies

“Babies are moral animals,” Bloom writes, “equipped by evolution with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and even some rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness.”

...The wrinkle here is that though babies can identify good from bad, sometimes what’s “right” is skewed.

Babies make distinctions based on what is familiar and what is foreign almost immediately. (Newborn babies, for example, already show a preference for their mother’s face over that of a stranger’s).

This “simple preference for the familiar” extends to gender, language and race. Babies raised by a primarily white family tend to prefer white faces; infants raised by women will prefer female faces. But they don’t just prefer the familiar; sometimes they are actively hostile to the unfamiliar.They are naturally fearful of strangers and generally prefer their “own kind” in all manners, whether its someone who looks the same, speaks the same language, or just likes the same cookies.

Technology Aiding Corruption (ht Marginal Revolution)

Recently, the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission found out such cases may have reduced, but warned that the level of corruption by traffic police officers remained high, thanks to advances in technology.

Detectives at the commission unearthed a new method by which corrupt officers receive bribes via mobile phone-based technology, like M-Pesa and Sokotele. Some of the cases under investigation show bribery is rampant among traffic police officers and those manning weighbridges.

Us Versus Them

The basic moral problem is the problem of cooperation, which is: How do you get a bunch of people to live together and to put the interests of other people — of “us” — ahead of “me.” Morality essentially evolved to solve that problem. But the problems that divide us [today] are not about selfishness versus the interest of others. There’s no public debate about whether stealing is a good thing. Our debates are about “us versus them” — our interests versus their interests, our values versus their values. This is a really very different problem.

Utilitarianism Versus Individual Rights

Yet Greene cannot seem to make up his mind as to whether utilitarianism trumps individual rights in some more objective sense. When he tries to describe the appropriate place of utilitarianism in our lives, this is what he says:

“It’s not reasonable to expect actual humans to put aside nearly everything they love for the sake of the greater good. Speaking for myself, I spend money on my children that would be better spent on distant starving children, and I have no intention of stopping. After all, I’m only human! But I’d rather be a human who knows that he’s a hypocrite, and who tries to be less so, than one who mistakes his species-typical moral limitations for ideal values.”

The word “hypocrite” is misused here. A hypocrite is someone who professes beliefs that he does not hold—but so far as I can tell Greene is accusing himself of failing to live in accordance with beliefs that he accepts, beliefs about ideal values.

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