Ten Rather Strong Suggestions

I think it’s good to live by a code, so I decided to formalize one I’ve been trying to adhere to for many years now. Ten seemed like a good number of tenets for a code. However, to make sure my code would not be confused with another famous — and more authoritarian — set of 10 dicta, I tried to make clear right in the title that my code is comprised of “rather strong suggestions” rather than of commandments.

1. Generally try to do what will result in the greatest, longest net well-being.

For example, you could eat chocolate cake for every meal and get blackout drunk every day for the next year. That might be great for this year, but your health will suffer enormously in the long run.

Likewise, a group of revolutionaries in a given society might feel that their political leadership is totally out of touch. The revolutionaries decide to overthrow that oppressive government. This causes a serious conflict with great loss of life. The revolutionaries finally win, but, because of the conflict, no one was paying sufficient attention to agriculture. There is no food, and, without adequate food, the society collapses from famine. The revolutionaries were so focused on the short-term that they neglected the future.


2. Favor what is most likely true over what you wish were true.

An owner of a fossil fuel company might not want to believe that emissions created from the burning of fossil fuels poses a risk to human health. The exec might not want to believe that those emissions contribute to the recent rapid warming of earth’s atmosphere and to ocean acidification. However, not wanting to believe those things does not make them go away.


3. Apply the scientific method whenever possible.

We all know that making abortion illegal reduces the rate and number of abortions, right? Well, that is a reasonable hypothesis, but when we experiment by passing laws restricting abortion in some countries but not others, we find that fertility rate doesn’t change on a country level* and changes only slightly on a state level.* While legal abortions may go down where abortions are more restricted, women instead have unsafe abortions, increasing their likelihood of dying while attaining an unsafe abortion.*

Here’s a handy mnemonic for the scientific method:
On quest (for) hippos, exercise caution.

On – Observe
quest – Question
hippos – Hypothesize
exercise – Experiment
caution. – Conclude


4. Reduce your environmental impact to the greatest degree possible.

To quote the country band Alabama:

Let’s leave some blue up above us
Let’s leave some green on the ground
Let’s save some for tomorrow
Leave it and pass it on down


5. Support effective charities / Vote with your wallet.

  • An organization called GiveWell measures charities on their efficacy.
  • Organizations like your local legislative district are the unsung volunteers that help make our communities more like we want them to be.

6. Don’t hurt or kill any animal, directly or indirectly, unless in self defense.

Exceptions are medical research that passes the requirements of a given institutional review board, independent ethics committee ethical review board, or research ethics board.

I typically think of the work of Pasteur with vaccines and Banting and Best with insulin. In both cases, dogs were used as test subjects. That is not a pleasant thought to me, but I think the research can be justified in the lives of humans and dogs saved.

More on Pasteur
This anecdote comes from a 1902 biography of Pasteur regarding Pasteur’s collaboration with Dr. Pierre Paul Émile Roux. The two worked on avian cholera and anthrax together.

The trephining of that dog had much disturbed Pasteur. He, who was described in certain anti-vivisectionist quarters as a laboratory executioner, had a great horror of inflicting suffering on any animal.

“He could assist without too much effort,” writes M. Roux, “at a simple operation such as a subcutaneous inoculation, and even then, if the animal screamed at all, Pasteur was immediately filled with compassion, and tried to comfort and encourage the victim, in a way which would have seemed ludicrous if it had not been touching.

“The thought of having a dog’s cranium perforated was very disagreeable to him; he very much wished that the experiment should take place, and yet he feared to see it begun. I performed it one day when he was out. The next day, as I was telling him that the intercranial inoculation had presented no difficulty, he began pitying the dog. ‘Poor thing! His brain is no doubt injured, he must be paralysed!’ I did not answer, but went to fetch the dog, whom I brought into the laboratory.

“Pasteur was not fond of dogs, but when he saw this one, full of life, curiously investigating every part of the laboratory, he showed the keenest pleasure, and spoke to the dog in the most affectionate manner. Pasteur was infinitely grateful to this dog for having borne trephining so well, thus lessening his scruples for future trephining.”

 


7. Never steal or lie unless it’s a life or death situation.

You should lie to Nazis about whether you are hiding Anne Frank and her family if you are reasonably certain that you can keep them and your own family alive.

Mostly, though, there’s very seldom a good reason to lie.


8. Learn and contribute to new knowledge constantly.

If you are trying your best to adhere to number three, you could also make your findings public whenever possible.


9. Be conversant in the basics of logic and statistics.

A politician might say, “The 2015 murder of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant is evidence of how dangerous undocumented immigrants are.”

If a politician were to say this, the person would be committing the logical fallacy of hasty generalization. A single example of a crime does not imply epidemic.

Going further, the underlying claim is a statistical one: are undocumented immigrants more likely to commit crimes than the native-born population? The best available evidence suggests that the answer is “no.”


10. Be excellent to each other.

I stole this from the 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I like that it goes a step further than “do unto others….” Do not just be good to each other; be excellent to each other.

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