What I Believe

A week or two ago I wrote up a post on Tumblr, entitled “What I Believe”. It was my attempt at a work-in-progress accounting of my politics, philosophy, and worldview. I’m cross-posting it here. Hopefully I can cajole the other authors into writing similar posts, and we can compare and contrast our differences. That would be fun!

While I’m at it, worth mentioning: We have an irc channel! If you want to say hi, point your client to irc.upstandinghackers.com and hop into #status451.

I believe in objective truth and objective reality. There is a category of things for which we can definitively say they are true. Gravity is real, at 9.8 m/s^2. I believe that truth and reality have intrinsic value, and that it is important to always stay calibrated to them.

I believe in the value of data and information. I believe in driving decisions by data as much as possible. I believe there is intrinsic value in collecting information for its own sake, in order to have a better understanding of things and to make better decisions.

I believe in pragmatism, practicality, and usefulness. Things that do not have actionable consequences on the world usually do not matter. The perfect is the enemy of the good. An 80% solution that gets adopted is better than a 100% solution that never ships. A conclusion of this I hate to admit is that Javascript is the best programming language.

I believe in stewardship. I believe that taking this attitude is an important virtue. We should all strive to take care of ourselves, each other, our community, and our environment, in order to leave them better than when we found them.

I believe in individualism. I believe that at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is making a positive impact on individuals, not groups, not countries, not identities. The measure of success isn’t whether this group or that group wins whatever battle. It’s how many people go home happier at the end of the day.

I believe in agency and personal responsibility. I believe that people are happier and more prosperous when they take ownership over their lives and choices. I believe that greater things are accomplished when individual people are held responsible for their actions and outcomes.

I believe in accountability. Both holding people accountable to each other, and holding people accountable to reality. I believe that it is important to make sure that people keep their commitments and fulfill their responsibilities. I believe it is important to always make sure things are held accountable to reality, by ensuring they are practical, realistic, and sustainable.

A consequence of this is that I believe that often times we must make hard decisions, trading off different downsides. These are not arbitrary. These are not one human oppressing another. These reflect real-world hardships, constraints imposed by reality. I believe it is very important to recognize these for what they are, and work to resolve and improve them instead of passing blame around.

I believe that crediting people with agency is a sign of respect. I believe that infantilizing people is an insult. I believe that assuming other people are problems to work around does them a disservice, denying them of their humanity. I believe, for example, that the implicit assumption that minorities lack the ability to participate in various institutions, and must be carried through them, is an incredibly bigoted attitude. Paternalism is not good.

I believe in mentorship and apprenticeship. I think that life is the best education. I believe that hands on experience is usually better than book theory. I believe it is important for older, wiser, and more experienced people to mentor novices and help them grow as people.

I believe in meritocracy over credentialism. I believe that everybody should have the chance to demonstrate their ability, regardless of their background or history. I value strongly the fact that my own industry holds this in high regard, and am saddened by trends in the opposite direction.

I am aggressively anti-identity. I think the obsession with identity politics does everyone a disservice. By focusing on identity, you stop focusing on the people behind the identity. The identity takes on a life of its own, and when its interests diverge from the interests of its individuals, those individuals suffer. It is much better to approach people as a holistic synthesis of all that they are, than to stereotype them as members of identity groups.

I believe in the value of syncretism, of borrowing the best from everyone so that we are all better off. I believe in consciously building better cultures. There are good things and bad things about each cultural tradition. I believe in aggressively sharing and elevating the good things, and aggressively culling the bad things. Culture does not have to be a package deal. I do not believe it is a bad thing to reject one’s existing culture in favour of making a better one.

Along the same lines, I believe in the value of taking ownership over one’s personal identity. Just as we can cherrypick the best elements of culture to build a better one, we can cherrypick the best elements of personal culture to become better ourselves. I eat Asian food whenever I can, and prefer their tech and consumer goods to American ones. I listen to Northern European music. I value character virtues held important in British tradition. I appreciate Germanic family traditions. I like the cosmopolitan amenities and attitudes of blue state urbanism, but also believe in the importance of hospitality and self-sufficiency valued in red states. I do this all because, when combined, they make me a better person than the things I was raised with.

I am a committed political pacifist and non-interventionist. I believe that force should be used only in a last-ditch effort at self defense, when everything else has failed. I believe, at both the personal and political level, in the non-aggression principle. I believe that part of respecting other people is appreciating that they will do things differently from me, and that I have no right to tell them not to. I believe in the right to be neutral, and not to be conscripted into others’ battles.

I reject the idea of obligation to action. People are always allowed to opt out. I believe that it is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. I believe that most artificial social interventions for which we have data have not worked out, and that heuristically we should prefer to make fewer of them, per In Praise Of Passivity.

I believe in the value of well-designed boundaries, interfaces, and encapsulations. I believe that it is important to create political structures and social institutions that facilitate this. I believe that in this world, people will have irreconcilable differences between each other. By encapsulating those differences behind robust interfaces, we can cooperate effectively despite our differences. My go-to example of this is the supermarket. Safeway, Sobeys, Pirate Joe’s, are encapsulation technologies that let me cooperate with farmers. Maybe they’re horrible racists. Maybe they belong to a religious faith that would have me executed. It doesn’t matter; all that matters is that we cooperate towards the shared goal of making me a sandwich.

I believe that this applies just as much to social and personal interactions as it does to group and institutional interactions. By hiding potentially controversial details about ourselves and focusing on commonalities and shared experiences, we can come together and build happier, supportive communities.

As an addendum to that, I believe that we can have healthy, constructive relationships at varying levels of intimacy. I can maintain valuable friendships with political partisans, for example; we simply avoid talking about politics. I still love my bigoted and homophobic family members, I just focus on our shared history. It is not always important for the people around me to fully accept every element of me, and often going-along-to-get-along is the better thing to do.

I believe in the value of evolutionary thinking. Things change, everything is always in flux, and stasis is death. Individuals as well as systems change in response to incentive pressures, and evolutionary dynamics are always in play. I believe that this is a good and healthy thing, as it ensures we are always on a quest for constant self improvement. I believe that this is a fundamental element of reality, and cannot and should not be denied. I believe that attitudes, behaviours, and policies designed to prevent this will always and inevitably have grave consequences, as we become bogged down by dead weight ideas we refuse to reject.

I believe, as a descriptive statement of truth about the world, that at the end of the day, might makes right. I believe that ultimately this is true, and attempts to conceal it or fool ourselves into denial are damaging. I believe that this is a very unfortunate fact about the world, and work to set a better example in my own life. But ultimately, because might makes right, any better system will ultimately depend on the mightiest person making the conscious choice to maintain the better system.

I believe in a sort of nomadism. I believe that in some sense everybody starts from scratch, and it is on them to set out in life and blaze their own trail. I believe that often times, physical relocation is a necessity and preventing or resisting that is postponing the inevitable. Physical stasis is death as much as memetic stasis is.

I believe that in virtually every circumstance, exit is preferable to voice. I believe that, when things are not going the way you want, it is usually more effective to leave and go your own way, rather than changing the existing way. I believe that this is best captured by a great hacker axiom: “Don’t fix a broken system; build its replacement”.

I believe that being explicit is always better than being implicit. Communication is hard, and subtle signals will be misread. It is always better to be honest, direct, and straightforward. It is always important to speak and act in good faith.

I believe that authenticity is very important, and that pomp and circumstance are wastes of time. I value being down to earth and appreciate others who are as well. I’d rather eat at a hole-in-the-wall than at a fancy restaurant. I’d rather wear jeans than a suit. I’d rather be raw and honest with people than putting on airs. Pretension is infuriating.

I believe that consent matters. I believe that, as individuals are the ultimate arbiters of what is good for them, disrespecting and violating their consent means imposing badness on them. I believe this on the personal level, not taking advantage of people or acting against their wishes. I believe this on the political level: policies imposed by force on unwilling political participants are violations of consent. This fairly straightforwardly leads me towards a libertarian mindset.

I believe that sometimes conflict is inevitable, and as long as you have acted honestly and honourably, and attempted as much compromise as possible, it is not immoral to prioritize your interests over the interests in conflict with them. It is ultimately your job to advocate for your interests, and if you don’t, nobody will.

My word is my bond. I believe it is important to take commitments seriously. A violation of a promise is a very bad thing, trivially avoided by not making the promise in the first place. In the economic world, I believe that mutually agreeable contracts are a very important and valuable technology for holding people accountable to their commitments.

I believe that ethics is nothing more than an attempt at a heuristic to maximize human flourishing. Formalisms are fine, but there is no perfect system. The best we can do is pursue norms and guidelines that will tend towards better outcomes. A corrolary of this is that abstractions only matter if they are good heuristics. I don’t care which political party wins, eg., I care that their actions have good outcomes.

I have little patience for incompetence and shoddy quality. I believe that things worth doing are worth doing well. I believe it is right and good to judge things based on their quality outcomes, and to insist on good ones.

I hold the merchant mindset. Nothing is set in stone. Everything is flexible and negotiable, and it is usually possible to find mutually beneficial agreements. It is always acceptable to assert and negotiate your needs.

I believe that taking care of the environment is important, but that environmentalism is dangerous. Common environmentalism acts like a religion, treating it as a sacred, inviolable thing. I believe that this causes us to make bad decisions, and focus on high-visibility-low-impact things. I believe that eliminating all pollution is an unrealistic goal, and that it is important to stay grounded in the world of reality when evaluating the merits of environmental policy. I believe that, for most environmental issues, market mechanisms are more effective than policy interventions or cultural changes.

I believe that it is important, when criticizing something, to understand why it is the way it is. Very little is arbitrary, and if you wish to improve something it is important to understand what the something is you are trying to improve. Chesterton’s Fence should not be torn down.

I believe that belonging to a community is important for human well being. I believe that religious traditions are humans’ evolved solution to this problem. While I myself am not religious, I appreciate the value that churches bring to peoples’ lives. I believe that the increasing secularization of society, and the shift away from churches, will be bad if we do not come up with better communities.

I believe that people, all people, are deserving of respect-by-default. However, I believe that I am not obligated to respect people who have betrayed me, acted dishonourably, or have otherwise taken actions not worthy of respect.

I believe that people are not equal. Individuals are individuals and have unique strengths and weaknesses. Some people are good at one thing, others good at some other thing. I believe that the dream of a society of strict equality is a fantasy, will never be achieved, and that the pursuit of it is highly damaging. I believe instead that it is more important for everyone to find the position in society that works for them.

I believe that things are ethical problems only when they are not solvable in principle. Once they are solvable in principle, they cease to be ethical problems and start to be engineering problems. I believe this is good, as engineering problems are much easier to solve. For example, I do not believe access to water is a justice issue, unless someone’s access is being intentionally blocked. Provision of water is a purely engineering challenge.

I believe in the right to free association. It is reasonable for people to wish to curate those who they interact with, including or excluding people for arbitrary reasons. I believe that ensuring everyone has access to a space that works for them is more important than ensuring they have access to every space.

I believe in the value of free speech. Ideas should never be suppressed. Suppression of ideas loses valuable information. How can you tell if an idea is good or bad if you are not able to communicate it?

I reject the notion of blasphemy, be it secular or religious. Words are symbols, they cannot in themselves harm us. People have the right to say what they like, in whichever words they choose. Nothing is off limits for humour.

I believe in the right to self defense, up to and including lethal force. However I would prefer at all times to resolve conflicts by other means, if possible.

I believe in the right to take informed risks. I think it is a gross ethical violation for society to attempt to protect people from themselves. Any such protections should be provided in an advisory capacity only.

I believe in the power of drugs to improve the human experience. Drugs are powerful and potentially dangerous, but that they have dramatic benefits for those willing to accept the tradeoffs. For example, I consume daily the performance-enhancing drugs caffeine and nicotine. These improve my performance on my job, and we all benefit as a result.

I believe in letting people eat the consequences of their own actions. If we bail people out whenever they fail, they will never learn not to fail. I believe it is more important to facilitate the process of bouncing back than it is to prevent failure in the first place. Crash early, crash often.

I believe that social and economic mobility is more important than social and economic equality. As long as people are empowered to make their own success, I am not concerned if they choose not to do so.

I believe in the right to bear arms. Not because of any wider political reason, but purely because rifles are fun.

I believe in the power of human innovation. I believe that the march of technology eventually solves most problems that we deem intractable. I believe the future will be better than the past.

I believe in transhumanism. I look forward to the days when cyborgs walk among us. I believe that we can use technology to improve human capabilities and the human experience, and I believe that this is a very very good thing. I believe in using medical technology to become the person you wish to be.

I believe in the power of feedback loops and self-regulating systems. With the right system of feedback loops in place, a single action can solve a problem permanently. Without it, constant effort is required.

I believe in getting things done more than in doing things. Most people wish to measure their progress in terms of effort expended. I believe that wasted effort is zero value. Work smarter, not harder. Progress is measured by proximity to one’s goal, not by how long one runs.

I believe in effective altruism. When doing charity, it is very important that we do not waste our scarce resources. Often times peoples’ most effective contributions are not the obvious, visible ones. For most people, donating an hour of their salary is more effective than volunteering an hour of their time at a charitable organization. I believe that things like this are the most important ways to be charitable.

I believe that traditional-ish gender roles are mostly right for most
people most of the time. I believe that the proliferation of gender politics and unconventional genders and sexualities are a net negative for most people. I believe most people would be happier if they embraced traditions. That said, I believe that for some people these traditions and norms are very, very wrong (such as myself), and I wholeheartedly believe that it is important for alternatives to be available for them. Further, I believe it is nobody’s business how one chooses to live their life, and that we should respect everyone and treat them with kindness, regardless of what roles they choose to take.

I believe that money is a useful tool for keeping people accountable. I
believe that most of the complaints people have about money and wealth are actually complaints about people abusing their power. I believe that power derived from money, even though it ends up poorly, is fairer than power derived from other mechanisms, which would end up worse.


About Simon Penner

Injecting compassion and humanity into political discussion. Disagreements welcome, but you must be kind and charitable.
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3 Responses to What I Believe

  1. Kevin says:

    Your paragraph about Transhumanism is making me rethink my mostly negative opinion about cosmetic surgery. Thanks


  2. Salty Pickles says:

    I believe I can fly
    I believe in Season 2 of Firefly
    451 is the best blog around
    Burn the fucking system to the ground


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