All Minus One


Heterodox Academy has released an edited version of John Stuart Mill‘s arguments for tolerating unpopular speech (from chapter 2 of On Liberty) in a recently released book called All Minus One. I think it’s great.

I read On Liberty in college, and it was one of the few books that I was required to read that really influenced me. But, I remember that much of it was a bit difficult to get through, so I really appreciate the editing that was done to make this more accessible to a modern audience. And, this edition seems as relevant today as it was when On Liberty was written.

I’m not one for making books mandatory, but if any books were to be made mandatory for incoming college students, this should be one of them. I don’t really know how many of the current students are in favor of obstructing unpopular or controversial speech (I’ve heard very different reports on this) but enough of them do favor such obstruction that it seems to happen far too often. And, the trend doesn’t seem good.

Mill’s main arguments for tolerating unpopular speech boil down to:

  • Unpopular theories might be true. We are all fallible and could be wrong, no matter how confident we are that we’re right. Criticism is how we improve our theories.
  • Even if the unpopular theories are false, it helps us to understand the better theories by having to defend them against their strongest criticisms. Without this, as time goes by, we won’t really know the truth very deeply, and our knowledge and progress will suffer for it.
  • Even if they’re mostly false, they might have true aspects that we can learn from.

These seem like very strong arguments to me, especially as fleshed out by Mill, and they deserve to be considered by those would obstruct unpopular speech.

But, they’re only persuasive to the extent that people value the truth.

People who care more about group cohesion, or shielding people from uncomfortable facts, won’t find them very convincing. Those of us who care more about learning better theories and getting closer to the truth seem to be losing ground lately (in the court of popular opinion). Hopefully I’m wrong about this, or the trend will reverse itself.

Of course, it’s not always wise or kind to gratuitously argue against cherished beliefs. People should exercise discretion and we should criticize them when they fail to do so. But, that’s not the kind of thing that should be enforced by coercion. Nobody is wise enough to make these decisions for everyone else (and, the ability to win elections certainly doesn’t demonstrate that someone has such wisdom). It’s much better to leave it to social pressure (which can change over time when better arguments are made) to peacefully persuade people to improve than to give anyone the power to do it coercively.

As long as there are people who wish to dissent from orthodoxy, and others who wish to hear them, we should allow that to happen, peacefully.

Sometimes this will be painful; but, the alternatives are worse.

Why Does Anybody Need…Liberty?

One thing that depresses me whenever the gun control debate re-emerges after some horrific incident is that many people will inevitably start saying/writing “Why does anybody need X?” (where X is often, but not always, some aspect of the weapon used in the latest incident, e.g., a(n) “assault” weapon, automatic weapon, semi-automatic weapon, hand gun, bump stock, high capacity magazine, AR-15, etc.), and then they will pause with an air of self-satisfaction, as if they had just given a knock-down argument in support of legislation to ban X.

This point is not just about gun control. It’s not only gun control advocates who use this formulation to support their policies, but they’re the ones I notice doing it most frequently.

When I hear somebody use this expression (Why does anybody need X?), my impression is that this is a person whose political philosophy default is set much closer to tyranny than to liberty.  They assume that if a group has the will and power to prevent another group from legally doing or using something peacefully, and people in that second group don’t “need” that thing, then it should be perfectly fine to deny it to them.

People don’t “need” very much to survive or, let’s be generous, to make their lives worth living.  So, it seems to me that “need” is a very low threshold to justify coercing people to refrain from owning or doing something (as long as they’re not coercing others, or imminently threatening to, at the time).  If that’s the standard, then nearly all of our liberties are in jeopardy of being abrogated, as different interest groups gain power over time.

I understand that it’s natural to want to control as much as you can, and to respond to human-caused tragedies by implementing a regulation of humans.  But, that doesn’t mean that converting those wishes into violently (and each law or regulation is ultimately backed up by the threat or use of violence) enforced regulations is a policy that will lead to human flourishing.  Often, we’re better off resisting our natural impulses.

It seems to me that life will be much better if we take the political position of always trying to leave people the maximum amount of liberty to peacefully do or own whatever they want to.  Their choices shouldn’t have to be necessary, or popular, or even correct in order to make this a better policy than alternatives. Other people don’t have to agree with or understand their reasons, and they don’t have to withhold peaceful criticism; they should just refrain from coercion.  We all benefit, and sometimes suffer, from other people being free to try out ideas that we don’t share.  It’s clear to me that the net result of tolerating this experimentation is a huge benefit to humanity.  Not always, but I think we’re much better off, overall, honoring the liberties of others than indulging our tyrannical impulses.

People don’t “need” liberty (or guns, or (usually) abortions, or masturbation, or pornography, or tattoos, or musical instruments, or books, or privacy, or the public expression of their own ideas…) in order to survive or even to make life worth living.

But they do need liberty to flourish as human beings, and that’s my standard of value.


We have a new addition to our family.


We call her Ruby, because it’s a Ruby Flare Pearl colored Camry LE.

We hadn’t bought a new car in a very long time. I had been driving a 1997 Corolla that was going to need repairs that exceeded the value of the car itself.  It seemed to be the time to replace it.

We could have bought another used car, but we thought that, given the trends in vehicles, it might be the last car we own, so we may as well try to get the best build quality, safety features, and convenience features available now.

I expect that sometime in the not-too-distant future, the vast majority of people will no longer own their own cars, and will rely on services to get the transportation they want when they want it. But, until that time comes for us, it’s nice to have a pleasant car to use whenever we want.

I’m still pretty excited about the upgrade for me, and enjoying setting up and playing with the techy features. I know that the excitement will wear off, but I expect to have a reliable and pleasant vehicle for years to come.

Great Vacation

I just returned from the longest vacation I’ve taken in my adult life.  Our family went to Sydney, Australia for a few days, followed by a 13-day cruise of Australia/New Zealand.

It was fantastic.  If you ever have the opportunity to do something like that yourself, I highly recommend it.  We’re Lord of the Rings fans, so it was great fun to visit Weta Workshop, some sites on Mount Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand, where they filmed key scenes, and Hobbiton Movie Set.  (I’ll add some photos to this post, later.)

One interesting (to me) thing that happened is that one day while eating in the buffet area, I noticed a couple with their heads bowed down in prayer before eating their food.  Instinctively, my estimation of humanity went down (Yes, I know that there are many smart, wonderful, people who pray as a matter of cultural ritual and don’t reject science or practice intolerance…).  Then, I looked a bit closer and noticed that they were both actually reading their Kindles; and my estimation of humanity went back up even more (again, yes, I realize that they could have been reading the Bible, or worse).  This says more about my values and prejudices than anything else.

Here are some pictures:

From Weta Workshop:


Here is our great Wellington tour guide.  He was actually a stand-in for Bombur in the film:

TourGuide_Bombur (2)

Here’s where Frodo and friends were hiding from the wraith under the road (the tree wasn’t really there):


Here’s Bag End from Hobbiton Movie Set:


Here’s some carpet from the hallway on the cruise ship.  Most of the fish are swimming towards to front of the ship (to make it easier to navigate).  I, of course, identify with the red one swimming against the crowd:


My Emergenetics Profile

My employer recently had many employees take the Emergenetics Profile assessment and attend a workshop discussing the ways to use knowledge of our own and each other’s thinking and behavioral preferences to improve collaboration.

I’m not sure how much I buy the accuracy, durability, and importance of these measures, but it does seem to provide some information (at least about how the people thought about themselves when they answered the profile questions).  I have some quibbles with my results, but it seems to capture something.

In the interest of full transparency, I’m pasting my profile results here:



The Google Memo

I thought I’d wait a while to comment on the, now infamous, memo “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” until I had a chance to read the actual document (which is here) and to find out a bit more of the background and see Damore himself discuss it.

Here are just a few random thoughts:

I think Google should have a legal right to fire him for this, or almost anything, but I think less of them for having done so.  I understand that there are legal and public relations reasons for firing him, but it shows that Google doesn’t actually support open discussion and criticism as much as it would like us to think.  Ironically, its actions demonstrate that the criticism of it as an “ideological echo chamber” was largely correct.

I doubt that whether or not Google takes the memo’s criticisms seriously will have much of an effect on the quality of their employees or products (in the near-term, at least).  Google has enough money, and enough qualified applicants, that they can afford to be a little inefficient and irrational in their hiring practices and cultural intolerance.  But, I suspect, that they could also afford to be a bit more loyal to their open-society ideals and weather the storm of criticism.  That would have been much better for the world; but I don’t really expect much idealism and moral courage from an institution of Google’s size. Even if the memo was wrong in all of its particulars (and I don’t think that’s true) it wasn’t out of the bounds of reasonable criticism.  And, reasonable criticism is something that it would be good for Google to support and defend.

I think the memo was largely mischaracterized as misogynistic and sexist.  While it could have been more delicate, I don’t think most of the critics (including Sundar Pichai) tried to give a fair reading of the memo (if they read it at all).  It was far easier and more convenient to just label it as sexist and harmful and beyond the pale, and dismiss it without taking its arguments seriously.

After hearing Damore speak about it in some interviews, I got the sense that he was genuinely trying to improve the company that he loves by steering it towards what he understood to be the scientific consensus to explain some of the gender disparities in tech employment, and also to call out the environment of ideological intolerance that makes people who disagree with the “progressive” consensus feel that they need to pretend to agree or withhold their actual judgements.  He meant well, and was punished for it.  He knew that others were afraid to voice these criticisms and was brave enough to try it himself.  He trusted in the character of Google executives to defend his well-intentioned attempts to improve the company.  But, his trust wasn’t justified.

That’s a shame.