Author Archives: Pablo Stafforini

Nicolas Slonimsky

The criterion of selection here is the exact opposite to that of a press agent. Instead of picking a quotably flattering phrase out of context from an otherwise tepid review, the Lexicon of Musical Invective cites biased, unfair, ill- tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgments.

Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers since Beethoven’s Time, New York, 1953, p. 3

Jorge Luis Borges

En mi corta experiencia de narrador he comprobado que saber cómo habla un personaje es saber quién es, que descubrir una entonación, una voz, una sintaxis peculiar, es haber descubierto un destino.

Jorge Luis Borges, El ‘Martín Fierro’, Buenos Aires, 1953, p. 11

J. L. Mackie

A prescriptively universalizing (and therefore utilitarian) critical thinker would encourage the adoption and development of firm principles and dispositions of the ordinary moral sort, rather than the direct use of utilitarian calculation as a practical working morality. There are at least six reasons why this is so. Shortage of time and energy will in general preclude such calculations. Even if time and energy are available, the relevant information commonly is not. An agent’s judgment on particular issues is liable to be distorted by his own interests and special affections. Even if he were intellectually able to determine the right choice, weakness of will would be likely to impair his putting of it into effect. Even decisions that are right in themselves and actions based on them are liable to be misused as precedents, so that they will encourage and seem to legitimate wrong actions that are superficially similar to them. And, human nature being what it is, a practical working morality must not be too demanding: it is worse than useless to set standards so high that there is no real chance that actions will even approximate to them. Considerations of these sorts entail that a reasonable utilitarian critical thinker would recommend the adoption of fairly strict principles and the development of fairly firm dispositions in favor of honesty, veracity, agreement-keeping, justice, fairness, respect for various rights of individuals, gratitude to benefactors, special concern for some individuals connected in certain ways with the agent, and so on, as being more likely in general to produce behavior approximating to that which would be required by the utilitarian ideal than any other humanly viable working morality.

Mackie, J. L. (1984) ‘Rights, utility, and universalization’, in R. G. Frey (ed.) Utility and Rights, Minneapolis, pp. 91

Jorge Luis Borges

El más urgente de los problemas de nuestra época (ya denunciado con profética lucidez por el casi olvidado Spencer) es la gradual intromisión del Estado en los actos del individuo; en la lucha con ese mal, cuyos nombres son comunismo y nazismo, el individualismo argentino, acaso inútil o perjudicial hasta ahora, encontrará justificación y deberes.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Nuestro pobre individualismo’, in Otras inquisiciones, Buenos Aires, 1952

C. D. Broad

My impression is that there was for Wittgenstein little or no region intermediate between a state of high and-concentrated seriousness and rather simple and sometimes almost crudely ‘low-brow’ interludes. I suspect that this, rather than the alleged ‘artificiality’ of the conversation at the High Table of Trinity, made the latter so distasteful to Wittgenstein. That conversation is the talk of men, all fairly eminent in their respective subjects, relaxing after a fairly tiring day’s work. It presupposes common traditions, going back to undergraduate days, and habitual ‘family’ jokes and allusions, and it moves in a sphere equally remote from high seriousness and from horseplay. A major prophet may be an excellent fellow, but he will hardly make an excellent Fellow. And, to pass from the general to the particular, one for whom philosophy is a way of life will find it difficult to associate on easy terms with those (like myself) for whom it is primarily a means of livelihood.

C. D. Broad, Review of Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Universities Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 3 (May, 1959), p. 306

C. D. Broad

I will now say something of what happened to me from and including my 80th birthday up to the end of 1968. I will begin with my 80th birthday.

December 30th., 1967 naturally began with showers of congratulatory letters and telegrams, and with some gifts. Among these, I will single out for mention a telegram from Bertrand Russell, a card of good wishes from the Kitchen Staff, and the gift of a beautiful silver penknife from Dr Husband.

At 4.20 pm, Bradfield fetched me in his car to his home, where I had tea with him and his wife and his son (“The Nord’). There was a superb cake with 80 candles, all of which I managed to blow out with one breath. (The practice of emitting hot air, of which philosophy so largely consists, had no doubt been a good training for me.)

C. D. Broad, ‘Autobiographical Notes’, in Joel Walmsley (ed.) Broad’s Unpublished Writings, London, 2022, pp. 82–83

Andrej Karpathy

For thousands of years man’s capacity to destroy was limited to spears, arrows and fire. 120 years ago we learned to release chemical energy (e.g. TNT), and 70 years ago we learned to be 100 million times+ more efficient by harnessing the nuclear strong force energy with atomic weapons, first through fission and then fusion. We’ve also miniaturized these brilliant inventions and learned to mount them on ICBMs traveling at Mach 20. Unfortunately, we live in a universe where the laws of physics feature a strong asymmetry in how difficult it is to create and to destroy. This observation is also not reserved to nuclear weapons—more generally, technology monotonically increases the possible destructive damage per person per dollar. This is my favorite resolution to the Fermi paradox.

Andrej Karpathy, Review of Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Goodreads, December 13, 2016

C. D. Broad

[D]id Bacon provide any logical justification for the principles and methods which he elicited and which scientists assume and use? He did not, and he never saw that it was necessary to do so. There is a skeleton in the cupboard of Inductive Logic, which Bacon never suspected and Hume first exposed to view. Kant conducted the most elaborate funeral in history, and called Heaven and Earth and the Noumena under the Earth to witness that the skeleton was finally disposed of. But, when the dust of the funeral procession had subsided and the last strains of the Transcendental Organ had died away, the coffin was found to be empty and the skeleton in its old place. Mill discretely closed the door of the cupboard, and with infinite tact turned the conversation into mote cheerful channels. Mr Johnson and Mr Keynes may fairly be said to have reduced the skeleton to the dimensions of a mere skull. But that obstinate caput mortuum still awaits the undertaker who will give it Christian burial. May we venture to hope that when Bacon’s next centenary is celebrated the great work which he set going will be completed; and that Inductive Reasoning, which has long been the glory of Science, will have ceased to be the scandal of Philosophy?

C. D. Broad, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, an address delivered at Cambridge on the occasion of the Bacon Tercentenary, 5 October 1926, Cambridge, 1926, pp. 66–67

Stephen Budiansky

Months before his citizenship test Gödel had commenced upon an exhaustive study of American history, government, current events, laws, and statistics, filling pages of notes in Gabelsberger script about American Indian tribes, the names of British generals in the Revolutionary War, the National Bankruptcy Act of 1863, the office of the Postmaster General, and checking out from the Princeton University Library the New Jersey Revised Statutes, the 1901 Sanitary Code, and the Act of Incorporation of the Town of Princeton. Every few days he would call Morgenstern to ask for more books, and to pepper him with questions about what he had so far discovered. “Gödel reads the World’s Almanac & calls me many times, amazed at the facts he finds & those that he expects to find & are not in it he attributes to evil intent to hide them. Harmless-funny. It amuses me very much,” Morgenstern wrote.

As the date approached he began obsessively interrogating Morgen- stern about the organization of local government. Morgenstern recalled,

He wanted to know from me in particular where the borderline was between the borough and the township. I tried to explain that all this was totally unnecessary, of course, but with no avail….Then he wanted to know how the Borough Council was elected, the Township Council, and who the Mayor was, and how the Township Council functioned. He thought he might be asked about such matters. If he were to show that he did not know the town in which he lived, it would make a bad impression.

I tried to convince him that such questions were never asked, that most questions were truly formal and that he would easily answer them; that at most they might ask what sort of government we have in this country or what the highest court is called, and questions of this kind.

At any rate, he continued with the study of the Constitution. He rather excitedly told me that in looking at the Constitution, to his distress he had found some inner contradictions and that he could show how in a perfectly legal manner it would be possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime, never intended by those who drew up the Constitution. I told him that it was most unlikely that such events would ever occur, even assum- ing he was right, which of course I doubted. But he was persistent and so we had many talks about this particular point. I tried to persuade that he should avoid bringing up such matters at the examination before the court in Trenton, and I also told Einstein about it: he was horrified that such an idea had occurred to Gödel, and also told him he should not worry about these things nor discuss that matter.

On the day of the examination, Morgenstern picked Gödel up in his car, then drove to Einstein’s home and the three of them set off to Trenton. Einstein, with his usual love of mischief, turned around to Gödel in the back seat and asked sternly, “Now, Gödel, are you really well prepared for this examination?”—which to Einstein’s glee had exactly the effect intended, sending Gödel into a momentary panic. Entering the courtroom, Judge Forman was delighted to see Einstein and chatted with his famous visitor briefly before turning to Gödel.

“Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?”

“Where I come from? Austria.”

“What kind of government did you have in Austria?”

“It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship,” Gödel replied.

“That is very bad,” the judge said.“Of course that could not happen in this country.”

“Oh, yes,” Gödel exclaimed. “I can prove it!”

Forman, Einstein, and Morgenstern immediately joined in shutting Gödel up before he could say anything further about his pet idea, and the rest of the ceremony went off without incident.

Stephen Budiansky, Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel, New York, 2021, pp. 242–244

C. D. Broad

Readers who have derived their ideas of Victorian Nonconformity and the middle-class Victorian home mainly from the novels and plays of left-wing writers of some fifty years ago, will be apt to jump to the conclusion that life in my grand-parents’ house was a drab and stuffy existence, punctuated by religious exercises, to which resentful and hypocritical children were driven by fanatical and gloomy parents. They had better dismiss that romantic rubbish from their minds at once.

C. D. Broad, ‘Autobiography’, in Paul A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of C. D. Broad, New York,1959, p. 10

James Mill

The end of Education is to render the individual, as much as possible, an instrument of happiness, first to himself, and next to other beings.

James Mill, ‘Education’, in Supplement to the Encyclopædia Britannica, London, 1825

Peter Suber

The Budapest Open Access Initiative said in February 2002: “An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment. . . . The new technology is the internet.” To see what this willingness looks like without the medium to give it effect, look at scholarship in the age of print. Author gifts turned into publisher commodities, and access gaps for readers were harmfully large and widespread. (Access gaps are still harmfully large and widespread, but only because OA is not yet the default for new research.) To see what the medium looks like without the willingness, look at music and movies in the age of the internet. The need for royalties keeps creators from reaching everyone who would enjoy their work.

A beautiful opportunity exists where the willingness and the medium overlap. A scholarly custom that evolved in the seventeenth century frees scholars to take advantage of the access revolution in the twentieth and twenty- first. Because scholars are nearly unique in following this custom, they are nearly unique in their freedom to take advantage of this revolution without financial risk. In this sense, the planets have aligned for scholars. Most other authors are constrained to fear rather than seize the opportunities created by the internet.

Peter Suber, Open Access, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2012, pp. 19–20

Martin Rees

It may not be absurd hyperbole—indeed, it may not even be an overstatement—to assert that the most crucial location in space and time (apart from the big bang itself) could be here and now.

Martin Rees, Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in this Century—On Earth and Beyond, New York, 2003, pp. 7–8

David Leonhardt

[Amos Tversky’s] confidence and brilliance combined to make for a cutting sense of humor. After he had given a talk, an English statistician approached him and said, “I don’t usually like Jews, but I like you.” Tversky responded, “I usually like Englishmen, but I don’t like you.”

David Leonhardt, ‘From Michael Lewis, the story of two friends who changed how we think about the way we think’, The New York Times, December 6, 2016

S. H. Steinberg

When an encyclopaedia is published in instalments, the later volumes will always contain items which were certainly not included in the original schedule. An example which reflects high credit on the editor’s ingenuity is to be found in the first volume of the Schweizer Lexikon, which came out in the autumn of 1945. Look up ‘Atom bomb’ and you will see that the leads have been deleted from the column so as to gain an additional line for ‘Atom bomb, see Nuclear Physics’!

S. H. Steinberg, ‘Encyclopaedias’, Signature, vol. 12 (1951), p. 20

Steven Pinker

[T]he psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper.

The deepest is a bias that has been summarized in the slogan “Bad is stronger than good.” The idea can be captured in a set of thought experiments suggested by Tversky. How much better can you imagine yourself feeling than you are feeling right now? How much worse can you imagine yourself feeling? In answering the first hypothetical, most of us can imagine a bit more of a spring in our step or a twinkle in our eye, but the answer to the second one is: it’s bottomless. This asymmetry in mood can be explained by an asymmetry in life (a corollary of the Law of Entropy). How many things could happen to you today that would leave you much better off? How many things could happen that would leave you much worse off? Once again, to answer the first question, we can all come up with the odd windfall or stroke of good luck, but the answer to the second one is: it’s endless. But we needn’t rely on our imaginations. The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise. (As a psycholinguist I am compelled to add that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones.)

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York, 2018, ch. 4

Steven Pinker

According to a story, the logician Sidney Morgenbesser and his girlfriend underwent couples counseling during which the bickering pair endlessly aired their grievances about each other. The exasperated counselor finally said to them, “Look, someone’s got to change.” Morgenbesser replied, “Well, I’m not going to change. And she’s not going to change. So you’re going to change.”

Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, New York, 2021, p. 81

Ananyo Bhattacharya

What had become the longest trial in the history of the federal court system concluded with the ruling that the most valuable invention of the twentieth century could not be patented. The open source movement, born a decade or so later, would soon shun corporate secrecy, lauding the benefits of freely sharing information to drive forward innovation. Thanks to von Neumann those principles were baked into computing from the very beginning.

Ananyo Bhattacharya, The Man from the Future: the visionary life Of John von Neumann, London, 2021, ch. 5

Kathryn Paige Harden

Disappointingly, rather than addressing this problem, many scientists in the fields of education, psychology, and sociology simply pretend it doesn’t apply to them. The sociologist Jeremy Freese summarized the situation as follows:

Currently, many quarters of social science still practice a kind of epistemological tacit collusion, in which genetic confounding potentially poses significant problems for inference but investigators do not address it in their own work or raise it in evaluating the work of others. Such practice involves wishful assumptions if our world is one in which “everything is heritable.”

Freese was writing in 2008, but the situation now is no different. Open almost any issue of a scientific journal in education or developmental psychology or sociology, and you will find paper after paper announcing correlations between parental characteristics and child development outcomes. Parental income and child brain structure. Maternal depression and child intelligence. Each of these papers represents a massive amount of investigator time and public investment in the research process, and each of these papers has, in Freese’s words, an “incisive, significant, and easily explained flaw”—that differences in children’s environments are entangled with the genetic differences between them, but no serious effort is being expended toward disentangling them.

The tacit collusion among many social scientists to ignore genetics is motivated, I believe, by well-intentioned but ultimately misguided fears—the fear that even considering the possibility of genetic influence implies a biodeterminism or genetic reductionism they would find abhorrent, the fear that genetic data will inexorably be misused to classify people in ways that strip them of rights and opportunities. Certainly, there are misuses of genetic data that need to be guarded against […]. But while researchers might have good intentions, the widespread practice of ignoring genetics in social science research has significant costs.

In the past few years, the field of psychology has been rocked by a “replication crisis,” in which it has become clear that many of the field’s splashy findings, published in the top journals, could not be reproduced and are likely to be false. Writing about the methodological practices that led to the mass production of illusory findings (practices known as “p-hacking”), the psychologist Joseph Simmons and his colleagues wrote that “everyone knew [p-hacking] was wrong, but they thought it was wrong the way it is wrong to jaywalk.” Really, however, “it was wrong the way it is wrong to rob a bank.”

Like p-hacking, the tacit collusion in some areas of the social science to ignore genetic differences between people is not wrong in the way that jaywalking is wrong. Researchers are not taking a victimless shortcut by ignoring something (genetics) that is only marginally relevant to their work. It’s wrong in the way that robbing banks is wrong. It’s stealing. It’s stealing people’s time when researchers work to churn out critically flawed scientific papers, and other researchers chase false leads that will go nowhere. It’s stealing people’s money when taxpayers and private foundations support policies premised on the shakiest of causal foundations. Failing to take genetics seriously is a scientific practice that pervasively undermines our stated goal of understanding society so that we can improve it.

Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, Princeton, 2021, pp. 185–186

Francis Galton

It often occurs to persons familiar with some scientific subject to hear men and women of mediocre gifts relate to one another what they have picked up about it from some lecture—say at the Royal Institution, where they have sat for an hour listening with delighted attention to an admirably lucid account, illustrated by experiments of the most perfect and beautiful character, in all of which they expressed themselves intensely gratified and highly instructed. It is positively painful to hear what they say. Their recollections seem to be a mere chaos of mist and misapprehension, to which some sort of shape and organization has been given by the action of their own pure fancy, altogether alien to what the lecturer intended to convey.

Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences, London, 1869, p. 18

Steven Pinker

There are studies showing that violence is more common when people are confined to one pecking order, and all of their social worth depends on where they are in that hierarchy, whereas if they belong to multiple overlapping groups, they can always seek affirmations of worth elsewhere. For example, if I do something stupid when I’m driving, and someone gives me the finger and calls me an asshole, it’s not the end of the world: I think to myself, I’m a tenured professor at Harvard. On the other hand, if status among men in the street was my only source of worth in life, I might have road rage and pull out a gun.

Steven Pinker, A history of violence: Edge master class 2011,

John Backus

Pianists have used the term touch for a long time and over the years it has acquired an almost mystical connotation; a pianist is praised or condemned depending on the adjective modifier used. He may have a “singing,” “beautiful,” “pearly,” or “velvet” touch—the list is endless, depending only on the imagination of the favorably inclined critic. Conversely, if the critic is in a bad humor, the pianist’s touch may be “harsh,” “percussive,” or whatever. The worth of a pianist is measured by the quality of his touch.

Implied in all this is the belief that the pianist can in some manner control the quality of the tone he produces from the piano string by the way he strikes the key. Books have been written asserting this as fact. It has been stated categorically that if the piano key is put in motion suddenly by striking the key with the finger, the tone will be harsh and strident; conversely, if the key is gradually put in motion by being gently pressed, the tone will be smooth and mellow. If this is true, it follows that much practice would be necessary to acquire the proper manner of depressing the piano keys.

To put it bluntly, this is nonsense. In our earlier discussion of the action of the piano, we saw that at the instant the hammer strikes the string, it is completely separate from the impelling mechanism attached to the key. The speed of the hammer on striking the string depends on how the key is pressed, and determines the loudness of the resulting tone. It also determines to a certain extent the quality of the tone; a loud tone will have a greater number of higher partials than a soft tone, and so will be “brighter,” or perhaps “harsher.” A given hammer speed will thus produce a certain loudness of tone and with it a certain quality of tone, and the two are not independent; if the loudness is the same, the quality is the same. It does not matter how the hammer attained its speed, whether via a sudden acceleration by striking the key or a slower acceleration by pressing the key; a given final speed will always produce the same tone. It follows that the pianist cannot independently control the quality of the tone of a single note on the piano by the manner in which he strikes the key; a given loudness will always result in a tone of quality corresponding to that loudness.

A detailed investigation of this matter has been made in the laboratory. A mechanical striker was constructed that could depress a key of a piano and impart to it accelerations that could be varied to correspond to different ways of depressing the key with the finger. The speed of the hammer at the instant of striking the string could also be measured. The tone produced could be evaluated by recording its wave form on photographic film by means of an oscillograph. It was found that the waveform varied with the speed of the hammer; however, if the speed were kept the same, then in all cases the waveform was the same, regardless of the kind of acceleration used in striking the key. Furthermore, the waveform produced by a concert pianist striking the key could be duplicated precisely by adjusting the mechanical striker to produce the same hammer speed.

We must conclude that as far as single tones on the piano are concerned, the player does not have the ability to control quality in the manner that has been commonly assumed. The pianist himself may be subjectively convinced that he is doing so, and the adjectives applied by equally subjective critics may convince others that he is doing so. However, the objective listener will be unable to detect these supposed differences in quality by listening to individual piano tones.

Pianists as a group seem remarkably resistant to this fact, which has been pointed out to them for almost half a century.

John Backus, The Acoustical Foundations of Music, New York, 1969, pp. 246–248

Thomas Schelling

There was a time, shortly after the first atomic bomb was exploded, when there was some journalistic speculation about whether the earth’s atmosphere had a limited tolerance to nuclear fission; the idea was bruited about that a mighty chain reaction might destroy the earth’s atmosphere when some critical number of bombs had already been exploded. Someone proposed that, if this were true and if we could calculate with accuracy that critical level of tolerance, we might neutralize atomic weapons for all time by a deliberate program of openly and dramatically exploding n – 1 bombs.

Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1960, p. 138

Leopoldo Lugones

[H]asta ahora el asunto se ha debatido entre los elogios de los adictos y las diatribas de los adversos—unos y otras sin mesura—pues para esos y éstos la verdad era una consecuencia de sus entusiasmos, no el objetivo principal.

Tan escolásticos los clericales como los jacobinos, ambos adoptaron una posición absoluta y una inflexible lógica para resolver el problema, empequeñeciendo su propio criterio al encastillarse en tan rígidos principios; pero es justo convenir en que el jacobinismo sufrió la más cabal derrota, infligida por sus propias armas, vale decir el humanitarismo y la libertad.

Producto de la misma tendencia á la cual combatía por metafísica y fanática, el instrumento escolástico falló en su poder, tanto como triunfaba en el del adversario para quien era habitual, puesto que durante siglos había constituído su órgano de relación por excelencia, cuando no su más perfecta arma defensiva.

Uno y otro descuidaron, sin embargo, el antecedente principal—la filiación de la orden discutida y de la empresa que realizó. Dando por establecido que los jesuitas son absolutamente buenos ó absolutamente malos, el estudio de su obra no era ya una investigación, sino un alegato; resultando así que para unos, las Misiones representan un dechado de perfección social y de sabiduría política, mientras equivalen para los otros al más negro despotismo y á la más dura explotación del esfuerzo humano.

No pretendo colocarme en el alabado justo medio, que los metafísicos de la historia consideran garante de imparcialidad, suponiendo á las dos exageraciones igual dosis de certeza, pues esto constituiría una nueva forma de escolástica, siendo también posición absoluta; algo más de verdad ha de haber en una ú otra, sin que pertenezca totalmente á ninguna[.]

Leopoldo Lugones, El imperio jesuítico: ensayo histórico, Buenos Aires, 1904, pp. 9–11

Frederic Morton

The caption under his picture identified him as Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, Director of the Intelligence Bureau of the Serbian General Staff. But at Belgrade’s political cafes one knew much more than that about him. There, whispers referred to him as Apis—the sacred bull of ancient Egypt.

Like his namesake he was a myth to his adherents. No ordinary earthly concerns tethered him: no wife, no lover, no family, no children, neither hobby nor recreation. He was not the liver of a life but the demon of an idea. At night he slept a few hours at his brother-in-law’s. The rest of his time he spent in the Belgrade Ministry of War, in an office whirring with telephone wires, telegraph keys, decoding devices, couriers and departing. Restaurants and theaters did not exist him. He was beyond normal frivolities. All his waking arriving for hours served one unmerciful passion: to carve Greater Serbia out of the rotting body of the Habsburg Empire.

Frederic Morton, Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914, New York, 1989, pp. 190–191

Aaron Clauset

To illustrate the counter-intuitive nature of power-law distributions, consider a world where the heights of Americans are power-law distributed, but with the same average as reality (about 1.7 m), and I line them up in a random order. In this world, nearly 60,000 Americans would be as tall as the tallest adult male on record (2.72 m), 10,000 individuals would be as tall as an adult male giraffe, one would be as tall as the Empire State Building (381 m), and 180 million diminutive individuals would stand only 17 cm tall. As we run down the line of people, we would repeatedly observe long runs of relatively short heights, one after another, and then, rarely, we would encounter a person so astoundingly tall that their singular presence would dramatically shift our estimate of the average or variance of all heights. This is the kind of pattern that we see in the sizes of wars.

Aaron Clauset, “On the Frequency and Severity of Interstate Wars”, in Nils Petter Gleditsch (ed.) Lewis Fry Richardson: His Intellectual Legacy and Influence in the Social Sciences, Cham, 2018, p. 116

Antonio Escohotado

En 1988—siendo ya titular de Sociología—la Audiencia de Palma me condenó a dos años y un día de reclusión, al considerarme culpable de narcotráfico. La pena pedida por el fiscal—seis años—se redujo a un tercio, pues a juicio de la Sala el delito se hallaba «en grado de tentativa imposible». Efectivamente, quienes ofrecían vender y quienes ofrecían comprar—por medio de tres usuarios interpuestos (uno de ellos yo mismo)—eran funcionarios de policía o peones suyos. Apenas una semana después de este fallo, la Audiencia de Córdoba apreciaba en el mismo supuesto un caso de delito provocado, donde procede anular cualesquiera cargos, con una interpretación que andando el tiempo llegó a convertirse en jurisprudencia de nuestro país.

Receloso de lo que pudiera acabar sucediendo con el recurso al Supremo—en un litigio donde cierto ciudadano alegaba haber sido chantajeado por la autoridad en estupefacientes, mientras ella le acusaba de ser un opulento narco, que oculta su imperio criminal tras la pantalla del estudioso—preferí cumplir la condena sin demora. Como aclaró entonces un magistrado del propio Supremo, el asunto lo envenenaba el hecho de ser yo un portavoz del reformismo en la materia, notorio ya desde 1983. Dado el caso, absolver sin condiciones incriminaba de alguna manera al incriminador, y abría camino para exigir una escandalosa reparación.

Tras algunas averiguaciones, descubrí que en el penal de Cuenca—gracias a su comprensivo director—me concedían las tres cosas necesarias para aprovechar una estancia semejante: interruptor de luz dentro de la celda, un arcaico PC y aislamiento. Durante aquellas vacaciones humildes, aunque pagadas, se redactaron cuatro quintas partes de esta obra.

Antonio Escohotado, Historia general de las drogas, Madrid, 1998, pp. 9–10

Amartya Sen

I taught a class with Ken Arrow and John Rawls in ’68-’69. I was visiting here at Harvard. Arrow was then on the faculty of Harvard for some years, and Rawls was very established at Harvard. So the three of us together, we did a class on justice and social choice, which was quite fun. I remember, while flying to a meeting in Washington, my neighbor on the plane asked me what did I do? I said, “I teach in Delhi, but at the moment I’m visiting Harvard.” I told him that I’m concerned with justice and social choice involving aggregation of individuals’ disparate views. And he said, “Oh, let me tell you: There is a very interesting class taught by Kenneth Arrow, John Rawls, and some unknown guy on this very subject. You should check it out!”

Amartya Sen, ‘I’ve never done work that I was not interested in. That is a very good reason to go on’, The Harvard Gazette, June 3, 2021

Barbara Fried

I would like to acknowledge a significant intellectual debt to Joe Bankman and our sons, Sam and Gabe. When Sam was about fourteen, he emerged from his bedroom one evening and said to me, seemingly out of the blue, “What kind of person dismisses an argument they disagree with by labelling it ‘the Repugnant Conclusion’?” Clearly, things were not as I, in my impoverished imagination, had assumed them to be in our household. Restless minds were at work making sense of the world around them without any help from me. In the years since, both Sam and Gabe have become take-no-prisoners utilitarians, joining their father in that hardy band. I am not (yet?) a card-carrying member myself, but in countless discussions around the kitchen table, literally and figuratively, about the subject of this book, they have taught me at least as much as I have taught them. More importantly, they have shown me by example the nobility of the ethical principle at the heart of utilitarianism: a commitment to the wellbeing of all people, and to counting each person—alive now or in the future, halfway around the world or next door, known or unknown to us—as one.

Barbara Fried, Facing Up to Scarcity: The Logic and Limits of Nonconsequentialist Thought, Oxford, 2020, p. xv

Robert Kennedy

The possibility of the destruction of mankind was always in his mind. Someone once said that World War Three would be fought with atomic weapons and the next war with sticks and stones.

As mentioned before, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August had made a great impression on the President. “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, The Missiles of October,” he said to me that Saturday night, October 26. “If anybody is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move. I am not going to push the Russians an inch beyond what is necessary.”

After it was finished, he made no statement attempting to take credit for himself or for the Administration for what had occurred. He instructed all members of the Ex Comm and government that no interview should be given, no statement made, which would claim any kind of victory. He respected Khrushchev for properly determining what was in his own country’s interest and what was in the interest of mankind. If it was a triumph, it was a triumph for the next generation and not for any particular government or people.

At the outbreak of the First World War the ex-Chancellor of Germany, Prince von Bülow, said to his successor, “How did it all happen?” “Ah, if only we knew,” was the reply.

Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, New York, 1969, 127–128

Shelly Kagan

Although I will be defending a hierarchical approach to animal ethics, I do so with considerable misgivings, for I am afraid that some may come away thinking that my aim is to defend an approach that would justify much or all of our current treatment of animals. […] [N]othing like this is remotely the case. Our treatment of animals is a moral horror of unspeakable proportions, staggering the imagination. Absolutely nothing that I say here is intended to offer any sort of justification for the myriad appalling and utterly unacceptable ways in which we mistreat, abuse, and torture animals. […] [I]t seems to me to be true both that animals count for less than people and yet, for all that, that they still count sufficiently that there is simply no justification whatsoever for anything close to current practices.

Shelly Kagan, How to Count Animals, More or Less, Oxford, 2019, pp. 4–5

Jeff McMahan

The main reason for thinking that nuclear war would be worse than Soviet domination where future generations are concerned is that nuclear war could lead to the extinction of the human race, and it is considerably more important to ensure that future generations will exist than to ensure that, if they exist, they will not exist under Soviet domination.

Jeff McMahan, Nuclear deterrence and future generations, in Avner Cohen & Steven Lee (eds.) Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity: The Fundamental Questions, Totowa, New Jersey, 1986, p. 331

Richard Steele

It is an inexpressible pleasure to know a little of the world, and be of no character or significancy in it.

To be ever unconcerned, and ever looking on new objects with an endless curiosity, is a delight known only to those who are turned for speculation.

Richard Steele, ‘The Hours of London’, The Spectator, vol. 4, no. 454 (August 11, 1712)

David Hume

Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv’d of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

David Hume, An Enquiry into Human Nature, London, 1739, book 1, part 4, sect. 7

Richard Chappell

[S]cientists have no expertise in evaluating trade-offs. They aren’t experts in ethical or rational decision-making. [T]heir expertise merely concerns the descriptive facts, providing the essential inputs to rational decision-making, but not what to do with those inputs.

If you blindly defer to doctors and scientists, the resulting policies will be distorted by whatever implicit normative bridging principles they happen to unreflectively hold. These are likely to be unduly conservative (since most people suffer from a wide range of conservative biases). They may oppose challenge trials and other utilitarian policies as “too risky” for the participants, not because they have a more accurate conception of what the risks actually are, but because they lack moral understanding of when risks of that magnitude can be justified.

Richard Chappell, There’s No Such Thing as “Following the Science”, Philosophy, et cetera, January 29, 2021

Robert Burton

I am not poor, I am not rich; nihil est, nihil deest, I have little, I want nothing: all my treasure is in Minerva’s tower. Greater preferment as I could never get, so am I not in debt for it, I have a competence (laus Deo) from my noble and munificent patrons, though I live still a collegiate student, as Democritus in his garden, and lead a monastic life, ipse mihi theatrum, sequestered from those tumults and troubles of the world, Et tanquam in specula positus, (as he said) in some high place above you all, like Stoicus Sapiens, omnia saecula, praeterita presentiaque videns, uno velut intuitu, I hear and see what is done abroad, how others run, ride, turmoil, and macerate themselves in court and country, far from those wrangling lawsuits, aulia vanitatem, fori ambitionem, ridere mecum soleo: I laugh at all, only secure, lest my suit go amiss, my ships perish, corn and cattle miscarry, trade decay, I have no wife nor children good or bad to provide for. A mere spectator of other men’s fortunes and adventures, and how they act their parts, which methinks are diversely presented unto me, as from a common theatre or scene.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1651

Paul Graham

When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at open-mindedness, they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite. Remember, it’s the nature of fashion to be invisible. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Fashion doesn’t seem like fashion to someone in the grip of it. It just seems like the right thing to do. It’s only by looking from a distance that we see oscillations in people’s idea of the right thing to do, and can identify them as fashions.

Time gives us such distance for free. Indeed, the arrival of new fashions makes old fashions easy to see, because they seem so ridiculous by contrast. From one end of a pendulum’s swing, the other end seems especially far away.

To see fashion in your own time, though, requires a conscious effort. Without time to give you distance, you have to create distance yourself. Instead of being part of the mob, stand as far away from it as you can and watch what it’s doing. And pay especially close attention whenever an idea is being suppressed. Web filters for children and employees often ban sites containing pornography, violence, and hate speech. What counts as pornography and violence? And what, exactly, is “hate speech?” This sounds like a phrase out of 1984.

Labels like that are probably the biggest external clue. If a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. You don’t need to say that it’s heretical. And if it isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed. So when you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic (substitute your current values of x and y), whether in 1630 or 2030, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong. When you hear such labels being used, ask why.

Especially if you hear yourself using them. It’s not just the mob you need to learn to watch from a distance. You need to be able to watch your own thoughts from a distance. That’s not a radical idea, by the way; it’s the main difference between children and adults. When a child gets angry because he’s tired, he doesn’t know what’s happening. An adult can distance himself enough from the situation to say “never mind, I’m just tired.” I don’t see why one couldn’t, by a similar process, learn to recognize and discount the effects of moral fashions.

You have to take that extra step if you want to think clearly. But it’s harder, because now you’re working against social customs instead of with them. Everyone encourages you to grow up to the point where you can discount your own bad moods. Few encourage you to continue to the point where you can discount society’s bad moods.

How can you see the wave, when you’re the water? Always be questioning. That’s the only defence. What can’t you say? And why?

Paul Graham, Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, Sebastopol, California, 2004, pp. 48–49