Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

The Man Who Values Money

This was inspired by an IM conversation with a friend, who I'll call Bob as I don't want to quote something my friend didn't really say. I initially argued that a rational agent whose only self-interest (value) is money would rather that everyone else be irrational so that he could exploit them more easily and thus gain more money.

Bob, having recently read Atlas Shrugged--which I would also recommend reading--is studying Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism which, briefly stated, includes pursuing rational selfishness, with selfishness being defined by Rand as "concern with one's own interests." He thinks that the hypothetical rational agent following his self-interests (values) would limit himself to only "making" "earned" money. That is, not stealing it.

The reasoning behind that is a man who steals from his fellow men isn't really being rationally selfish, because then those other men might come after him and do bad things like killing. Stealing is wrong, according to Objectivism, because it's irrational and unwise. If you're stealing, you're relying on other people's productivity to keep you alive, and when the other people wake up and realize it, you're out on the street. Also it's kind of hypocritical to advocate rights of property and so forth without the stipulation that you have to respect other people's rights to the same things.

But really, the rational man would not want to bring the burden of the adjective "earned" to his real value of "money." Adjectives only limit, by definition of probability theory which states P(A) >= P(A&B). In English, the probability of event A occurring must be greater than or equal to the probability of A and B occurring.

And think about that for a moment (it's important). If you took a random person from the population, would you assign higher probability that they were a teacher, or higher probability that they were a vegan teacher? From experience, I don't think the majority of teachers are vegan, so out of all possible teachers I'd suspect very few to also be a vegan. But what if the majority of teachers are in fact vegan? That still doesn't make the proposition "this person is a teacher and also a vegan" any more probable than "this person is a teacher." Rather, it would increase P(vegan|teacher), the probability that teacher-ness implies vegan-ness. The original propositions would only be equal if all teachers are vegans; otherwise, "this person is a teacher" will win out each and every time against "this person is a teacher and a vegan" because it's taking the entire population of teachers into account, regardless of whether or not a teacher is vegan.

Now back to the man. The man, being rational, would agree with the Objectivists in that solely relying on others will lead to doom. But this man, having also studied probability theory to make himself more rational, realizes that there's a killing to be made in getting money by whatever means necessary instead of just the "honest" way.

Here's the error Bob made. Imagine Man A, who has $20, and Man B, who also has $20 dollars. The difference between these two men is that Man A earned his at his job, whereas Man B stole his. The original rational agent picking between these two men to model his goals after would pick the first one, as producing wealth is a stabler means of generating more wealth compared to just stealing wealth all the time. The error is that phrase "all the time". We're assuming that Man B's only method of generating money is by stealing.

So let me introduce Man C, who like Man A and Man B values money, but unlike either of them doesn't care how he gets it, so long as he has more. This is the most rational thing to be because it allows for both earning honestly, and stealing, which together make far more than either alone.

"No," Bob initially said, "it's not. Because if he stole money people would come after him to take it back or kill him."

I agree, if you limit your definition of stealing to something like robbing a bank. But there are more clever ways to exploit a system and your fellow men which aren't so blatant. Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, did not honestly make all of his money. He's a Man C, a man who values money and will use whatever means is rationally available to him to get it. This doesn't mean he robs banks, as that would wind him up in prison or sentenced to death, and then he couldn't make more money. No, he makes underhanded deals, does vendor lock-in, and other "unfriendly" and "dishonest" techniques to both limit the amount of money he has to spend and the amount of money he can gain. Steve Ballmer is another Man C. If Microsoft again makes an offer to buy Yahoo, I would be it would be less than the original offer. Microsoft has devalued Yahoo because Yahoo refused to sell, and so when finally they do succumb, Microsoft gets a deal.

What separates many humans from those like Bill Gates is that they have conflicting values with their value for more money. They value "making" it, they value putting more time into learning than earning, they value never taking risks, whatever. They're rationally following their self-interests, and there's enough adjectives involved with the pure money value that they can't rationalize them away, as people like Bill Gates do when they rationalize away the adjective "honestly earned" as defined by, say, an Objectivist.

(It's worth noting that I can't put much probability that Bill Gates or Ballmer actually operate like Man C; values are complicated and usually have adjectives attached. But I can put high probability that a person only concerned with getting more money, is being more rational by not caring where that money comes from.)

Posted on 2009-06-26 by Jach

Tags: morality, philosophy, rationality, statistics


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The Radioactive Tenor December 11, 2009 12:22:38 AM Dude, you're repugnant.
Jach December 13, 2009 06:18:59 PM Please go on. There are a few meanings to that word, each of which may or may not apply in various contexts. Though if you want to actually make an argument against my post, you'd be hard-pressed to argue against probability theory. :)
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