Valuing "Naughtiness"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Paul Graham once again shares his insights about human nature and the requirements for success in an essay. "What We Look for in Founders," is a longer version of a piece he wrote for Forbes about what his investment group looks for when they decide whether to fund tech startups. The whole thing is worth a read, but I found what he said about a quality he calls "naughtiness" most interesting:

Though the most successful founders are usually good people, they tend to have a piratical gleam in their eye. They're not Goody Two-Shoes type good. Morally, they care about getting the big questions right, but not about observing proprieties. That's why I'd use the word naughty rather than evil. They delight in breaking rules, but not rules that matter. This quality may be redundant though; it may be implied by imagination.

Sam Altman of Loopt is one of the most successful alumni, so we asked him what question we could put on the Y Combinator application that would help us discover more people like him. He said to ask about a time when they'd hacked something to their advantage -- hacked in the sense of beating the system, not breaking into computers. It has become one of the questions we pay most attention to when judging applications.
It is the view about "rules" I find intriguing here because of a couple of common confusions about the rules we adopt for human interaction that slow many people down for various reasons.

The first confusion is evident in Graham's clarification of what he means by "good." Obviously, he's not going to be interested in helping thugs or pickpockets get ahead, but I suspect that Graham might find the choirboy who meekly does everything he is told to do a less-than-ideal funding candidate.

Since the idea of an objective morality is alien to most people (but morality as a laundry list of arbitrary commandments isn't), the need to make such a distinction clear is understandable, but if morality were commonly understood to have an objective basis, this would be unnecessary.

Interestingly, on "big questions," like violence and theft, almost everyone can see practical reasons for not doing such things, so the common notion of the moral-practical dichotomy is not such a big impediment to people having, in effect, an objective moral code on such "big questions" most of the time.

But on some, less-clear issues, the practical reasons for pursuing one course of action or another are not so clear, and people are more likely to end up defaulting into what everyone else does -- or "rebelling" by doing whatever they feel like doing. These "small questions" include not just what most people regard as moral questions, like whether to give to a charity, but also to things like rules of etiquette and common ways of doing business or solving problems.

Thus, what Graham is looking for seems to me to really be someone who more closely approaches having an objective approach to moral (and practical) questions. Actually having such a code would require one to understand morality in a principled way, so the best one will usually see is someone who gets "big questions" right and is open to exploring anything else. Such an openness requires a high degree of independence of mind from what others say. Indeed, such a refusal to simply "observe [arbitrary] proprieties" reflects at least some rudimentary grasp of a distinction Ayn Rand calls, "the metaphysical versus the man-made."
Man's faculty of volition as such is not a contradiction of nature, but it opens the way for a host of contradictions -- when and if men do not grasp the crucial difference between the metaphysically given and any object, institution, procedure, or rule of conduct made by man.

It is the metaphysically given that must be accepted: it cannot be changed. It is the man-made that must never be accepted uncritically: it must be judged, then accepted or rejected and changed when necessary. Man is not omniscient or infallible: he can make innocent errors through lack of knowledge, or he can lie, cheat and fake. The manmade may be a product of genius, perceptiveness, ingenuity -- or it may be a product of stupidity, deception, malice, evil. One man may be right and everyone else wrong, or vice versa (or any numerical division in between). Nature does not give man any automatic guarantee of the truth of his judgments (and this is a metaphysically given fact, which must be accepted). Who, then, is to judge? Each man, to the best of his ability and honesty. What is his standard of judgment? The metaphysically given.

The metaphysically given cannot be true or false, it simply is -- and man determines the truth or falsehood of his judgments by whether they correspond to or contradict the facts of reality. The metaphysically given cannot be right or wrong -- it is the standard of right or wrong, by which a (rational) man judges his goals, his values, his choices. The metaphysically given is, was, will be, and had to be. Nothing made by man had to be: it was made by choice. ("The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made," in Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 27.)
If morality (or any other field) can be approached in an objective manner, and it is a practical science, one must see this distinction at least on some implicit level to blaze trails.

This is not to say that, if the view that the rules of morality were of practical import and could be discovered by reason were more common, everyone would be an innovator, however. There remains the fact that every individual can know only so much, and will simply find some issues much more interesting to think about than others. Back in grad school, for example, I was frustrated at how useless my Windows computer and crippleware at home were, but there was no way I could have (or would have wanted to) come up with the Linux and other software I used to solve that problem. It wasn't that my imagination was limited or that I didn't question -- in the form of rolling my eyes or cursing -- why my computer couldn't do anything: It was that I wasn't interested enough in computing to solve the problem on my own. (Of course, that sets aside the whole matter of whether I would have been a very effective programmer.)

I bring this up because Graham wonders whether "naughtiness" and imagination are redundant items in his list. Even without our common, deficient moral vocabulary getting in the way of understanding what this naughtiness is, I don't think so. As my own stab at this, I think that perhaps naughtiness is an increased drive to apply imagination to certain types of problems that is absent in most other people. Indeed, the drive is increased because it provides such people with enjoyment.

At this point, naughtiness might seem redundant to another list item, determination, but I'm not so sure about that either. How many ace computer programmers (or innovators in other fields) have what it takes to succeed in business? If both of these things are species of determination, I think they are different enough to warrant different metrics.

-- CAV

PS: Don't miss the essay Graham links within the one I discuss above. "How Not to Die" has some useful insights on maintaining focus on major projects that can probably apply beyond starting a business.


Inspector said...

The "bad boy" appeal is a factor of the difference between conventionally-accepted altruistic "goodness" and actual, objective goodness. Since the former is actually impracticable, people search for what they can only describe as some kind of rebel against what they call the "good guy."

But since people haven't really figured out the nature of the problem, sometimes they get a rebel against altruism and sometimes they just get a jerk... or a villain.

By the way, as far as I can tell, you and I just answered the question of the 10/11/10 Dr. Peikoff podcast as this principle applies equally to romance as it does to business, heroes and villains in modern media, etc.

Gus Van Horn said...

It's interesting that you mentioned the Peikoff question. Peikoff's answer (confusion of "badness" with independence) is much like one a friend gave me years ago.

Having not gotten to that podcast yet and having been out of the dating game for over a decade, the connection you see hadn't occurred to me at all. Thanks for mentioning that.

madmax said...

The "Bad Boy" appeal is also one of the driving forces behind the cultural phenomenon of "Game" which is the modern Pick-Up Artists scene. The whole idea there is not to act like a "beta male" and act like an "alpha male." The latter usually means acting like an aloof, devil-may-care charismatic wise-ass with just a little bit of the heart of gold (not too much).

The Game gurus blame this on feminism and modern "liberalism", largely for destroying masculinity and I think that there is much truth to that. But the deeper reason is ethical. Altruism has destroyed (or is destroying) any shred of egoism left in the culture. Masculinity and genuine confidence, the things that women are attracted to, have become casualties. Just look at the action movies of today compared with the 80s. As corny as they were, the Stallone and Shwartzeneger films at least glorified strong men. Today we have nothing but meterosexual wimps for the most parts. Or vampires...

Gus Van Horn said...

"meterosexual wimps ... Or vampires"

Other than the vampires sucking blood, is there really a difference?

On a more serious note, the attack on masculinity and genuine self-confidence often takes the form of an error on the opposite side of the false wimp/bad boy dichotomy. Namely, those things are equated with racism/sexism/whatever smear is currently in fashion among leftists.

madmax said...

Namely, those things are equated with racism/sexism/whatever smear is currently in fashion among leftists.

Yes, this is so true. But I can't exactly pin down why other than as an outgrowth of egalitarianism and its out of context equality worship. The Left has an intense hatred for straight, white non-Leftist males of genuine confidence. Its that aspect of Left-Liberal pathology that I cant really explain. The best explanation I have seen is Dismuke's "The Man" theory, which has a lot going for it.

Gus Van Horn said...

I'm guessing that, by "Dismuke's 'The Man' Theory" (as in here?), you mean that such people see individuals with self-esteem as emblematic of whatever aspects of reality they happen not to like. If so, then I agree.

I'd say that's an important component of the phenomenon we're talking about, but I think there's also a package-dealing of such men (on a perceptual level) and some elements of such a healthy psychology -- with past actual oppression of women and the attitudes that made it possible. (Don't forget that women once could not vote, and even further back, could not even own property, for example.)

This package-dealing resembles that done by the left with the civil rights movement: capitalism (and even mere European descent) are lumped together with Jim Crow (or at least racism).

The fact remains that a man of genuine self-esteem will treat women well (and not be a metrosexual), and a true capitalist will oppose Jim Crow laws. What does that say about the kind of "equality" egalitarians actually want?

madmax said...

but I think there's also a package-dealing of such men (on a perceptual level) and some elements of such a healthy psychology -- with past actual oppression of women and the attitudes that made it possible.

The Left is so repulsive that it is easy to forget that there were actual past injustices that were horrible. But it seems to me that the Left is no longer interested in freedom of any sort so their packaging of past racial and sexist injustice with capitalism or maleness or whiteness reveals something dark and black about their souls. I know many of these people and while some are honestly mistaken, serious Leftists are often real bastards (or bitches); ie not likable at all.

Which leads me to a question I have not been able to answer; while I know that a person's philosophic premises will determine their ideas, I wonder how much a person's psychology will at least influence what that person will be willing to accept for his philosophic premises. I just don't know.

Gus Van Horn said...

There is no doubt that psychological factors can make someone more likely to accept bad premises or less likely to challenge them. Why? In some ways bad ideas provide convenient excuses. ("See! I'm poor because our racist society keeps me down.") In other ways, they both provide an excuse and perpetuate non-psychological problems that reinforce the bad ideas. ("Suits both symbolize repression and are a means of enforcing conformity. I refuse to wear one. People should judge others based on what's inside.") Ignoring that clothes provide a form of non-verbal communication about "what's inside," such people attribute their low social status to their half-imagined, half-projected caricature of what "the man" wants. When the fantasies you use to damn society (and help yourself feel morally superior) also explain away your misfortune, why examine them?

Inspector said...

Re: "badness"

Yes, it works both ways, really - the drive that people have to seek a "goodness" apart from altruism is a very real and valid thing, but the objects of their search - the "bad" behaviors (or "bad" guys) are mixed. Sometimes they are genuinely decent, if mostly by accident - and sometimes, they are just actually bad.

The same factor is in play when hollywood makes its villains - they're often more compelling than the heroes, because altruists are boring, pathetic wusses. I think that this, more than a hatred of the good, is primarily responsible for the anti-hero. People genuinely want real heroes and altruists aren't it, so the anti-hero is, rather than an assault on the hero, actually their best attempt to revive them!

Re: leftist psychology

Not only that, but as Dismuke will tell you, Leftist premises make it nearly psychologically impossible to accept good premises, at least if you're crazy enough to believe them seriously.

Gus Van Horn said...

The emphasis should be on "nearly."

People do have free will, no matter how low they sink.

Andrew Dalton said...

On the subject of attractive "badness," I'm reminded of this tweet from Shea Levy a couple of months ago:

Only altruism could make evil sound sexy. "She's a demon in the sack" will never become "Man, she's such a Toohey in bed!"

Gus Van Horn said...

Priceless humor, and it pretty much sums up the whole problem, too!