The most important part of good writing is not being good at writing

When I did debating, I thought it was funny how most non-debating advice about public speaking focused on style over substance. How to speak, what tone to use, rhetorical tricks. How to say things instead of how to make sure what you’re saying is true and well-argued and understandable. Many books or blogs or pieces of advice on writing make the same mistake. They focus on the presentation, on how to write. This is important but it’s really not that important. Take a look at modern high literature and you’ll find shelves filled with books by people who know how to write very well, but can’t write anything other than neurotic, self-absorbed stories. It’s not how you write that matters, it’s what you have to say. Writing reflects the writer. The most important step to being a good writer is thus being a well-developed person.

Normalizing Dissent

One strange thing in the corporate world is how abnormal open dissent is. Almost never do I hear someone say "I disagree". Meetings, most meetings, are aimed at consensus. People won’t voice disagreement. People won’t clearly acknowledge that they do disagree and then drill down or double crux into why they hold the beliefs they do. Instead they’ll talk around the disagreement. They’ll both know they disagree but not how much or exactly where or why. It seems to be considered rude to go against the majority and hold up a meeting with disagreement. It’s rude to push too hard, to openly disagree instead of waffle around the topic.

It’s strange both how normal and inefficient this kind of epistemic culture is. It’s also strange how accustomed most people are to it. How few people generally are willing to openly go against a group of their peers. I think that being one of the few who is willing to disagree openly and honestly is valuable. Why?

  • You will likely bring up obvious problems that others didn’t.
  • Because you don’t have to engage in double think, you’ll be able to think more clearly.
  • You’ll contribute to creating a more open epistemic culture.

The first point is the most immediately impactful but it can be hard to understand if you don’t have experience of this kind of epistemic blindness. In short, most places ignore obvious truths, especially when those truths are not pleasant and hence no one wants to bring them up. A few examples to illustrate obvious problems I’ve brought up which no one else has in my less than 2 year career:

  • My firm has committed to getting b-corp certification, basically being an ethical company, yet still regularly works for gambling firms which build intentionally addictive products.
  • My previous employer employed a muslim girl on the grad scheme. Her managers kep trying to make her work with pork. She refused and eventually left. I only find out later and then talked to my manager but couldn’t do anything due to lack of evidence. No one else did shit, including her friends on the grad scheme who knew about it.
  • I spent 9 months with the graduate scheme taskforce. 6 of us designed, advertised and recruited for a graduate scheme. We hired 4 people. None were exceptional or particularly good from what I can tell. Dozens of meetings, hundreds of hours, thousands of pounds on career fairs. It was a failure yet no one else brought this up.
  • At my current employer, we bill clients on a time and materials basis. We were being told to lie on timesheets. To not put less than 4.5 hours per day even if we worked less. I spoke up about this. I was initially told it’s not lying as time we spend on other things like interviewing or [my company] meetings makes the firm better which indirectly helps our clients. I had to go to a whistleblowing charity and talk to our kinda head of compliance to get something done about it.

Groups like 80’000 hours write a great deal about maximizing impact. Most of their writing revolves around one-off choices rather than character. Which career to go into. What to study. The more I see of the working world the more I think that, for smart people who have followed the obvious advice, by far the largest way to make an impact is character. Choosing a fairly optimal career is good but once you’re in it’s unlikely you’ll be far smarter or better at the job than those around you. A competitive market means that you’ll probably end up roughly where your level of skill is normal. What you do have a shot at being better at is the things the market doesn’t optimize for. Having ethics is one of those things. Practicing good epistemic norms is another.

Against the social theory of disability

The social theory of disability says that disabled people are made disabled not be their impairments but by barriers in society. E.g: if a person in a wheelchair cannot enter a building because it has stairs, they’re disabled by the lack of a ramp, not by their inability to walk.

The social theory of disability is wrong.

For a person to be disabled in regards to X, they must both:

  • Have an impairment which can, in some circumstances, prevent them from doing X
  • Be in a physical world that stops people with that impairment from doing X.

There are two causes of their disability. The state of the world and the state of their mind/body. Both are necessary causes. The social model ignores one and looks only at the other.

Why is a theory that is so obviously untrue so popular? Many reasons. Understanding how and why ideas spread is hard. One reasons is the social dynamics/incentives surrounding it. Blaming disabled people for their disability is socially costly and unacceptable. Saying that that it is societies fault is not. Hence people will tend to say the latter and avoid saying the former. Another is that it’s favoured by disability rights activists because "Stop hurting these people" is an easier sell than "reallocate money to this group so they can have better lives".

One interesting thing about the theory is its wording. Society *disables people. It’s an assignment of blame. Societies actions harm these people. The implication is that society is doing something unjust, that we have an obligation to not do so. In reality that’s not the case. There is a difference between disabling someone and not taking steps to enable them just as there is a difference between destroying someone’s car and refusing to buy them a car. Taking action to harm another person is far more morally repulsive from not taking an action to help them. If you go up to a person with sight and gouge their eyes out, you blind them. If you build a building but do not spend the $5 million it would take to make it accessible to blind people, you are not morally equivalent to they eye gouger.

I still remember when I talked to people about this at work. Many refused to accept the notion of trade-off’s. That for some accommodations, the cost outweighed the benefit. Strange. Maybe an easy way to prevent dissent is to make it synonymous with evil/hatred. Maybe many people are just too stupid to engage in basic moral reasoning. Still, I don’t think it’s stupidity. It felt like something else.

Against Marx

Marx’s argument goes like this:

  • The value of a good is defined by the amount of labour that goes into it.
  • Workers provide most of the labour, yet only get a tiny fraction of the profits compared to the capitalist.
  • Hence capitalism is unjust

It’s wrong because the value of a good isn’t defined by the amount of labour that goes into it. E.g: If I spend 10’000 hours making 1kg of Basmati rice and another farmer spends 1 hour, my sack of rice is not 10’000 times more valuable than theirs. The labour theory of value is wrong and without it marx’s ethical arguments collapse.

Racial differences do not justify racism

When I read far-right or far-left websites, a justification for racism I often hear is that race X is worse in way Y and hence deserves to be treated worse. E.g:

  • Black people commit more crime, use more state handouts, contribute less to science etc… Hence we should reduce the benefits given to unemployed blacks/have harsher punishments for black criminals/other racist policy etc…
  • White people are more racist/sexist, more privileged, more hateful etc… Hence we should make whites pay reparations/make it harder for white children to get into university/racist policy Y etc…

Both make the same mistake. Even if you accept that

  • the races or ethnicity’s they talk about are real or somehow meaningful
  • their narrative that race A is worse than race B
  • their narrative that race A is worse due to internal as opposed to external reasons

they’re still wrong. Why? Because even if a group is on average bad and deserves to be punished, that does not mean that every member of that group is bad. Groups don’t exist. They’re aggregations. What racists want you to do is stop thinking about individuals and instead see each person as an extension of a collective. That’s wrong. A black person who obeys the law should not be held morally liable for the actions of a criminal who happens to have the same skin color as them. A white immigrant who lives in a trailer park should not be punished because slaveholders descendent have wealth built on blood.

Why condemn Trump but not MBS

When Trump visited the UK a while ago, many politicians spoke out against the UK welcoming him and large numbers of people protested his visit.

When other world leaders with far worse human rights records visit the UK, e.g: MBS the crown prince of saudi arabia. those same politicians and people are largely silent.

Why?

Potential explanations:

  • People are more likely to know about trump’s badness than that of other world leaders
  • Trump is from a nation we see, culturally, as part of our tribe. Hence trump is part of our culture war in a way the dictator of forignstan isn’t.
  • For politicians, their voters/the media dislike trump more than other world leaders, hence they play to that.

Why do populists succeed?

Question: How is it that populist politician often beat established political parties. How can small newcomers without established patronage networks, fundraising operations, media support or experience beat politicians who have all of these things?

Potential Answers:

  1. They don’t. Populists usually lose. It’s just that we tend to remember the ones who succeed.
  2. Populists are optimized for persuading the average person. Politicians are optimized for getting their party to like them (e.g: winning primaries in the USA or getting assigned to a safe seat in the UK)
  3. Politicians are part of parties. Parties have institutional inertia and lag behind public opinion. Hence sometimes parties lines are hugely suboptimal and hence an outsider with a different line has a decent shot.
  4. The public in some circumstances heavily punishes establishment figures.