Afternoon Inquisition

4.22 Afternoon Inquisition

Courtesy of Durnett, last week’s Comment o’ the Week winner:


I went to high school with a genius. I don’t mean that he was the
smartest guy in the class. He was a real genius. He could take small
indications from different fields and see the obvious conclusion that
eluded the rest of us. He was the one that the teachers believed would
advance mankind in a great leap forward. He was the Einstein of our

This was high school. He was smart and not very athletic. He was not
treated well. Looking ahead to adulthood, he saw that he would never
be treated as well as a movie star or a basketball player. He decided
that, if society did not value him, he would not provide value. After
graduation, he taught himself to play guitar, delivered pizza, and
became a darned good gamer.

Query: If a person has the ability to help mankind, is she/he
ethically bound to use that ability? Does the answer change if the
person has invented something – a cure for cancer or a solution to
global warming – and decides not to make it available?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Query: If a person has the ability to help mankind, is she/he
    ethically bound to use that ability? Does the answer change if the
    person has invented something – a cure for cancer or a solution to
    global warming – and decides not to make it available?


    Does that matter so long as we live in a world that rejects the value of so many such things?

    For example, you mention global warming. Solar, wind, and to a lesser extent, nuclear, are effective solutions for global warming. All have been available for decades. All lack the particulate pollution of coal, which kills 30,000 Americans every year, and comparable portions of deaths in almost every other nation. Yet only tiny steps toward adoption of these solutions have been taken. Furthermore – in the US, and much of the rest of the world, most appliances and vehicles can be replaced with off-the-shelf equivalents which save money, and reduce power consumption by about 30% on average. That would help slow global warming a great deal as well. Buildings can be made more efficient. I could go on and on all day about solutions to global warming which have been available for many years, , but I would never come to one that had been widely used.

    As long as the idiots of the world continue to reject solutions, it doesn’t matter whether it’s ethical for the ‘geniuses’ of the world to keep them to themselves.

  2. Wow, that one hits close to home. I’m getting ready to graduate from college and, not to toot my own horn by calling myself a genius comparable to the friend you mentioned, I’ve been wrestling with this same dilemma for the entire semester. Why should I use my gifts to help the people who can treated me like crap for my entire life just because I’m different than them?

    The solution I came up with is that these people exist only to push me further; to make me prove that I’m better than them by so many orders of magnitude that they shouldn’t even begin to compete. And then somehow I forced myself to believe that. And if my progress manages to help them as a side effect, they should count themselves lucky (and I can just hope that some counterbalancing force of bad luck falls upon them at a later date).

  3. If every genius was forced to help humanity, we would have no supervillains.

    OTOH, if there was a moral imperative to help because you have a big brain, then not doing it is just the kind of thing your discerning supervillain would do, and would instead go back to working on his death ray. That would separate the true villains from the grumpy wanna-bes. So I’m torn.

    But seriously, I don’t think you can compel someone to dedicate his or her life to public service, and I’m not sure we should try. A discontented genius sitting in his holocube playing Minesweeper is no more help than an eager average-brained person.

    So I would vote against compelling anything of the kind from someone. If they want to help, great. But if they want to explore other careers that don’t directly lead to helping mankind, let them have their freedom. They may happily do something that’ll help mankind anyway, since we never know what quarter something like that will come from.

    And we can keep our supervillains.

  4. Given the question as asked I’d say no that’s a personal matter between the individual and his own conscious or personal ethic. Different matter than the person who has figured out a cure for a specific disease and keeps it to themselves because of a petulant immature notion of what the world owes them. And even if someone feels they need to help society they are only presuming that may happen based on potential.

    @phlebas: Glad to see you clicking and ticking!

  5. @James Fox:

    Clicking, anyway. By this time tomorrow, I should be a total biohazard :) I need to find a poker game full of people I hate…

  6. I don’t think you can force someone to necessarily help society. That being said, this was one of the reasons I went into genetics instead of art. I liked both equally, but eventually had to make a decision. Not to say that art isn’t important, but I felt I could personally impact more people in a good way in genetics.

  7. TheGreat George Carlin has a quote that I feel is applicable:

    “Show me some lazy prick lying around all day watching game shows and stroking his penis, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t causing any fucking trouble.”

  8. @James Fox:

    Given the question as asked I’d say no that’s a personal matter between the individual and his own conscious or personal ethic.

    Saved me some typing.

    On a personal note, I aint stingy. I always use my mind-blowing genius freely to help mankind.

  9. Honestly, I think anyone has the ability to help mankind, regardless of whether or not they’re a “genius”. Genius + social conscience + motivation + luck + skill + charisma, etc. would probably equal huge benefits to humanity, but I don’t think that the genius part would be the biggest factor. So much of humanity’s problems could be alleviated by people of reasonable intelligence and motivation doing non-extraordinary things like writing letters for Amnesty International or donating to RAWA. In that respect, the question is really: since we’re all able – are we all ethically obliged to help mankind?

    My personal ethics compel me to help, but I don’t know if I’d hold everyone else up to that…

    He decided that, if society did not value him, he would not provide value.

    That guy would clearly never would have been able to help humanity, because if he only valued what other people thought of him, and derived no value from the satisfaction of exploring the questions in his own mind, he’d never have the motivation to stick with a worthwhile project.

    Does the answer change if the person has invented something – a cure for cancer or a solution to global warming – and decides not to make it available?

    I think llewelly kinda covered that one – I don’t think there’s a big problem left on this earth that could be solved with one critical invention, except maybe an AIDS vaccine. Our problems are not about innovation, they’re about implementation.

    But, going with the AIDS vaccine idea, I think if one invented a cure for AIDS, one would be ethically obliged to make it available – unless someone makes the unfortunate discovery that they can cure AIDS by hurling their first born into a volcano or something, and then it’s a little more complicated…

  10. First, High School is not “society”. It’s a warehouse of barely controlled teenage angst, existing in its own world. Making decisions about the future direction of your life based on your experience there is… not smart.

    As for the actual questions: No, you are not ethically bound to exert yourself for the greater good. However, not doing so, at least some of the time, makes you more than a bit of a jerk. Not that there’s anything wrong with being an jerk on occasion.

    If you’ve already invented something that benefits society, and you keep it to yourself… you’re entitled to do so. But you’re a much bigger jerk, especially if you’re withholding it because you have some vague idea that society owes you bags of hugs and kisses.

    Personally, I feel morally bound to help other people. It generally costs nothing to me, and reaps rewards in unexpected places.

  11. No, you’re not obligated but, if you can make a difference, you should at least consider doing so.

    Durnett’s friend may have sold society short. High school is not a good model for the real world. I’d hazard that a lot of the people here were not treated well in high school. Most of us got past that and did something productive with whatever talents we had.

    No, none of us is likely to score multimillion-dollar movie deals or sneaker endorsement contracts but the same is true of most actors and athletes. Only a handful get any sort of recognition for their efforts.

    Sure, you’re almost certain not to get rich and famous working in science and technology. On the other hand, you might come up with on a cure for cancer or a solution to global warming, and that would be pretty cool too.

  12. I dunno, I think he’s a bit of a whiner. Oh poor him, boo hoo, people don’t like him.

    Is he really that smart or is he just bsing?

  13. No more than the rest of are obligated to treat these people decently in high school. Everyone has the right to be a jerk.

    But if the guys’ goal is to screw everyone and live just for himself a real genius would create personal wealth and invite the girlfriend of every jock from his high school to the wild parties in his mansion. He just sounds lazy if you ask me.

  14. While I would like to say I was one of those, I was just smart. Smart enough to recognize one of those geniuses in my class. Still is 20 years later.

    To answer the question though, I would agree that there is some responsibility and yet, if passions drive one to work on Wall Street with that genius, hopefully one would use it ethically.

  15. I’d have to say no, there is no obligation to do so. I see in some of the businesses that they feel they have a “responsiblity to the community”. No, they don’t. Their only responsibility is to make money. And not screw things up!

  16. All people have an ethical obligation to be decent to one another.

    If all the non-geniuses had met their ethical obligation to this young man, we wouldn’t be discussing his ethical obligation to the world.

  17. @marilove: I love the fact that people upthread are claiming that real life isn’t like high school, and then you show up to prove them wrong.

  18. Let’s run through the flawed assumptions.

    First, you might get rich and/or famous working in science and technology. Your odds there are at least as good as they are in acting, music, or sports.

    In terms of money and respect, “society” treats scientists at least as well as it does football players. Scientists in have rewarding, life long careers. A working scientist who manages their money well can easily become quite rich. One who rights books can be become both rich and famous. For example, Richard Dawkins, while not as wealthy as, say, Tiger Woods, is certainly better known and better paid than most professional golfers.

    Second, the idea that you sacrifice your own best interests in order to spite society (what the friend actually did) is different than the question of whether you are morally obligated to use your super powers to “help mankind”. The fact is, we don’t know whether the friend would have ever helped mankind in any significant sense, but we do know that he could served his own interests more effectively without actually doing any harm.

    Third, somehow the idea implicit in this question is that moral issues are different for people with super powers than they are for people without them. I call bullshit on that. Some people have super powers. Heck, most people have at least one. That doesn’t make them ethically separate from other people. Everyone who acts interacts with society, and your actions either make the world a better place or not, regardless of whether you are pizza delivery guy or a cancer researcher.

    So the question there would be, are we ethically obligated to act ethically in respect to society, and of course that’s just a frackin’ tautology.

    So the real question is this: are you morally obligated not to be a burnout loser? And I guess you aren’t. But pretending that your decision to be a burnout loser was secretly the sacrifice of an unappreciated genius who refused to share his gifts with society is just asinine. Sounds like someone was just afraid to find out whether they could–to borrow a metaphor–play in the big leagues (scientifically).

    The friend needed a kick in the ass.

  19. @Howard:
    High school is an institutional facility in which young people are put regardless of their wishes, divided into age and social castes by the institution itself, and locked together for 8 hours a day.

    Marilove made a single comment in which she called someone on their bullshit.

    Hope that helps.

  20. If the reason he decided to turn his back on science and academia was because “He decided
    that, if society did not value him, he would not provide value.” then he made the wrong decision for himself and for others. I don’t think anyone is morally obligated to help anyone else, but I do think that often it is better for them and for others if they do. Just a case of adding up what gives them the bigger plus.

    If he dropped out and decided that kind of life was what he’d be happy with, good for him having enough bottle to reject people’s expectations for what he wanted. As someone who’s seriously burned out because of following what he was told he wanted instead of what he wanted, I respect that more than doing well at something you don’t want to do. ($40k in debt for the wrong degree at the wrong university and failing that after burning out on Physics, Maths and Programming… all in one nice package…)

    Summing up, if he was being lazy or spiteful, then it was wrong, if he was just doing what would make him happy, he did right, same should apply to everyone.

  21. Edison described genius as 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. This kid only has the first part. That’s his problem, not ours. He is supporting himself, and, as long as he is treating the people around him ethically, he is meeting his obligation to society.

    If his apparant dismotivation is a consequence of bullying, why do people blame him? Why would more bullying be the solution?

  22. Query: If a person has the ability to help mankind, is she/he
    ethically bound to use that ability?

    No. It is not a moral imperative for every person to achieve their full potential. People should be allowed to choose how to use their talents.

    Does the answer change if the
    person has invented something – a cure for cancer or a solution to
    global warming – and decides not to make it available?

    This is a completely different question, and the answer depends on the situation. If you have something that can greatly benefit mankind, and there is no personal cost to you, then yes, I think it would be immoral not to make it available to others. Sort of like standing by and watching while someone dies in the street instead of calling an ambulance. On the other hand, if sharing the benefit means you have to make some sort of sacrifice… well, it still might be the right thing to do, but morally it’s a gray area. It becomes a question of how big the benefit vs how high the cost. And that’s subjective.

  23. Query: If a person has the ability to help mankind, is she/he
    ethically bound to use that ability? Does the answer change if the
    person has invented something – a cure for cancer or a solution to
    global warming – and decides not to make it available?

    In my opinion, there are as always, many different questions to answer before u can come up with a rational answer for this particular one.
    I believe in an axiomatic system in which there are certain premises in ethics that we just agree on with no rational justification, and that based on those, we can build a rational structure that is stable and based in good logic.
    If we just CHOOSE to accept that sentient beings such as ourselves feel in a way simmilar to ours, and that pain is a bad thing that sentient beings try to avoid, and pleasure is a good thing that sentient beings try to experience, and we choose to afirm: the ethical thing is to do good.
    If we then add that there are certain modulators to the way that utilitarian point of view calculates the utility of each action in terms of how many of those beings are affected, and to what extent, and what the characteristics of those beings are, I believe we’ve come to the point where we can start building.
    It’s probably easy to argue that no one is BOUND to do good by using their skills. It’s probably even easier to argue that you shouldn’t do bad things to others, and then you could argue that taken no action when you could do good, is a form of bad behaviour.
    We could go on and on discussing this, and mostly come to value judgement, where only personal preference is expressed, and no logical conclussion can be reached without a premise that is in itself a value judgement.
    I don’t mean to say then, that my answer is a fully rational one, but only the rational answer coming out of the axiomatic system I choose to make my own. The reasons to pick it among others are very rational when compared to those offered by say, religion, magical thinking, fascism, or others that go against the evidence and reason that we have available. The reasons to pick it for it’s own shake, instead of picking none instead, for instance, I think ARE a matter of personal choice as well as a psicological need put into most humans by evolution to have a set of rules to decide course of action.
    So, my answer would be there’s no obligation to do so, but there is an ethical urge that says it would be a better course of action. As naive as it may sound, I think most of us would agree that there is pleasure to be had in doing “good” thing, in being considered “good” by those in our close circle (even if one is making great achievements only known to those few interested in his fields but enjoyed by millions), and in being “successful”, in overcoming difficulties or confronting problems and finding a solution to them. You can observe this even at a very young age: it’s very easy to make a kid smile by putting him in front a problem that he can solve: just wait until he finds the solution and see their joy!
    And we all feel the pleasure of sports most when we do something that’s hard. The perfect shot, the ball on the line, are small moments of happiness that make us want to play again.
    So if it is pleasurable to use your skills and do things with them that are not available to all, then you should do it, because your own pleasure is good.
    In this particular case, it seems that this person has chosen not to “follow the path” not because he found no reasons to do so, but because he thought he wasn’t being rewarded enough. It’s very human (and happens to chimps too, as we learned on the Skeptic’s guide about mananas and peanuts, remember that?), but it’s not rational. He’ll probably be better payed (as he himself says money is one of the reasons he had to make a choice) and happier if he does become a scientist, for instance, if that’s what he likes, than if he becomes the delivery guy.
    In “short”, my answer to the first question would be, by any means, yes, it’s the ethical thing to do to use your skills, and enjoy them!
    On the second question comes another value judgement: those absolutes we talked about. Those Kantian imperatives that even when you may not consider “categorical” (sorry if the terms are not exactly right in english, I’m obviously not a native speaker) should be taken into account: if two different courses of action have no effect on you, and one of them derives in a greater good for other sentient beings than the other, it’s the one you should take. If instead, you find a secret pleasure in knowing that you’re keeping something from others, in perhaps harming them in your own way or having some kind of revenge for what you consider wasn’t given to you, you can take that course of action: you’ll be preferring your own personal pleasure in doing so, the “good” thing, even when by other standards it’s the bad one. You can only not deny that that is the case, and you must either “confess” to the fact that your ethics are based in you yourself being so much more important than the others (nothing “wrong” with that in principle, but boy, is it hard to recognize.. why would that be?), or that your ethics are not rational.
    In my opinion, based on what I said, you can’t take that course of action without saying either one of these: 1.- In my worldview, my personal preference comes before others well-being. or 2.- I don’t follow logic and reason when making ethical decisions.

    Sorry, boy that was long. I just like the topics and am an avid filosofy and ethics reader myself.. Any thoughts on that, folks? :)

    Cheers to all from Spain!

  24. Of course, that’s not to say that he should make the greater possible effort to achieve his full potential. It only means that a decision based on resent is going to a extreme when you think you can’t reach the other. There’s no imperative to make all possible efforts to achieve all possible goals in only one field and ignore others. He’s probably having fun and pleasure too as a pizza guy, but by that first thought, he’s denying himself other sorts of joy. A personal balance should be found, but refusing to use one’s skills because they’re not rewarded enough, is not a rational course of action.

  25. Is it a fallacy to assume he would have helped mankind? What does your IQ have to do with this question? everyone can help, just in different ways. He could have decided to become a particle physicist and then got hit by a bus on his way to class.
    Who says he isn’t helping mankind now? delivering that pizza to a hungry student who in turn deduced that the shape needed to contain buck balls to absorb light* is like a pizza with pepperoni’s on it?

    It seems to em the real questions is:
    Is everyone bound ethically to do what they believe is helping mankind?

    or even better
    Is everyone bound ethically to do what they can to help mankind, assuming what they do is scientifically valid?

    If that is the question, then I say ‘Yes’.

    *or whatever.

  26. It’s like voting. We are all responsible for being informed citizens. I think we’re all responsible for the well being of humanity, and if a person doesn’t work towards that goal they’re in dereliction of duty. But it’s their choice. If someone has, say, the cure to cancer and won’t publish it, they shouldn’t be punished, but they should be ostracized. If you don’t want to participate in Humanity (or, in Pullman’s words, the Republic of Heaven), then don’t, but you shouldn’t gain the rewards of such a community either.

    To be clear, I’m not saying everyone should devote their lives to increasing crop yield for farms or solving the energy crisis, I’m saying everyone should live their lives with compassion, and work to become more wise. This doesn’t imply one profession over another; it’s ubiquitous.

  27. “is she/he ethically bound to use that ability?”

    To be ethically bound to do something, then you have to voluntarily take on that responsibility. I’m not “ethically bound” to stop and help people who are victims of a traffic accident, but if I’m a doctor, not only am I ethically bound to stop and help, but I could face sanction if I don’t.

    I always considered ethics to be a function of your vocation, and morals to be personal. For instance, if I’m puttering around in my garage and discover a limitless form of clean energy, I’m not ethically bound to release the formula to the world, but personally, I would feel it’s my moral obligation to do so. If I were a scientist working in a laboratory and did the same thing, I would be ethically bound to share the discovery with my employer at least, and if not bound by contract to keep it secret, as a scientist, I am ethically bound to publish my results and share it with the rest of the world.

    I think what you’re asking is: Should we all be required by our conscience to “be all we can be” If I find I have a knack for science, for instance, should I consider it my duty/responsibility to become a scientist instead of a football player? It gets stickier when you think about someone who has the natural instincts to be a great soldier, or maybe a sniper, but is morally against killing. Should they go against their own personal morals because society would be better if they used their natural talent to fight?

    My simple answer is emphatic: No.

  28. Interesting question. I have no great respect for mankind in general. With a few notable exceptions, I think ‘mankind’ consists of a bunch of ignorant assholes. I still think this planet would be a much better place if there were about 4 billion less people living on it. Would I be ethically bound to freely share if I invented a miraculous device which produced limitless power from air or something? Hell No! I dont owe the world a damn thing and the world doesn’t owe me anything. As you can tell, I am far from altruistic. If I were smart enough to invent something the world just ‘had’ to have, I would squeeze every cent the traffic would bear. Then I would buy an island in the south pacific and anyone who trespassed would have to deal with my trio of face-eating bears.
    I would take care of myself and my family. That’s as far as my ethical obligation extends. Oh, and I would probably also invite Natalie Portman to live on my island :)
    Or maybe Helena Bonham Carter. I totally dig her! Oh OH! No, it would have to be Pink. She would be incredible but maybe a bit tough to train her to be properly subserviant; as of course all women should be.

    (I’m poking you guys with a stick to get a reaction here…I have a weird sense of humor today)

  29. It also runs into the abortion “debate” I’ve heard people actually use the argument “That child may be a great leader or scientist. Who are we to say it’s okay to have an abortion and potentially destroy someone like that before they are even born?”

    and before you dismiss that argument; what if you somehow KNEW that the fetus someone was carrying had… say a 80% chance of growing up to be someone who saves the world? Would you make an exception to the currently voluntary abortion rule and force this woman to carry the baby or would you try to convince her but leave the ultimate choice up to her? What about if the chance was 90%…. 95%?

    You can get into a world of sticky moral landmines if you start even thinking we are somehow less than we should be if we don’t share the same morality.

  30. This one seems simple to me – his life, his choice.

    Doesn’t matter what your IQ is – if it’s your life, then it’s your choice what you’re going to do with it.

  31. Ah, but it’s a two-way street– does the world WANT to be helped? There are countless numbers of near-great prophets who couldn’t make the final cut– e.g. Gurdjieff, or any number of swamis. The same with car manufacturers. Scientists– Mendel in his lifetime, Velikovsky, and so forth. Just because a person is a genius doesn’t mean his contribution will be understood, much less accepted, just as if he’s a fraud with a smooth line, he’ll have a lifetime of glory and leave gobs of followers to spread his leavings– e.g., L. Ron Hubbard.

  32. I have the same question when someone says it’s a good idea to accept Jesus “just in case”

    Would you rather someone doing good things because he’s either afraid of punishment or expects some equitable reward for his services or would you want someone who does good things because he chose to without expecting rewards or fearing punishment?

    I would rather someone decides on his own that it is a good thing to contribute to society. Someone who is compelled to by some independent authority, will be more likely to resent it and the quality of his work will suffer, or be looking for a loophole and therefore will be unreliable and he doesn’t have a vested interest in the results of his work except as they apply to him.

    Like a soldier, I want someone on the job who WANTS to be there, not someone who was told to be there.

  33. @sethmanapio: “Third, somehow the idea implicit in this question is that moral issues are different for people with super powers than they are for people without them. I call bullshit on that.”

    Sorry! Looks like I made a poor choice of backstory for the question. I did not mean to imply that the genius had a different ethical burden than the rest of us. He’s just the only guy I know who made a choice like this.

    I was just interested in what, if any, obligation you thought we had to use our gifts or the fruits of our gifts. The basic question is the same for particle physicists and for mid-level executive like me.

  34. @marilove: Exactly what I thought. The guy was a genius but it seems he couldn’t find the answer to the public relations’ incompleteness theorem :-D

    I think there’s no dilemma. In the present situation, we would have presupposed somebody is a genius ***before*** he proved it, in which case it’s our fault (he may indeed turn out not to be up to the task); if thinking in a principled way, we should only conclude someone is a genius ***after*** having seen proof of it, which eliminates the problem: either the person fulfills his fate and saves humanity, or, for us to know we’re indeed in front of a genius without his actions as proof, we would have to be able to read his mind, in which case the debate is different (i.e. can we brain-scan people to find geniuses and, if we find one, pretend WE came up with their ideas? After all, if they don’t see any value to their own ideas, they won’t complain of our using them…)

    So, the only problem here is our failed guess based on incomplete knowledge: we tried to infer what the guy ***would have done*** had he had a strong personality and followed ***our*** expectations, but if a genius never ends up doing what he’s supposed to do as such, then we miss the relevant evidence for calling him a genius, so why are we talking about a “failed genius” instead of simply “our failed expectation as to somebody’s genialness”?

    The mistake was not his, but of those who thought he would deliver and, possibly, put too much pressure on him as a result. The outcome clearly indicates he couldn’t handle the expectations, which must also mean that, as a genius, he wasn’t aimed at the goals others set for him, but only those he was able indeed to achieve.

    So, after applying Occam’s hairclipper :-D , my hypothesis is that people saw the child doing cool things and exaggerated a bit when reporting.

  35. If your are a genius and you hate people for whatever reason, you can still exercise your smarts and direct your abilities elsewhere. I mean, you could study wild plants. That way you can direct and apply your genius for the betterment of mat-forming quillworts everywhere.

  36. Is he a deliverator for Uncle Enzo?

    He may have already done or still do something to the benefit of peoplekind e.g. when delivering a pizza, save the life of a kid choking on a higgs-boson by rapid application of the Freundlich maneuver, who then grows up and discovers a way for both women and men to turn their fertility on and off at will.

    So many things have to go right before a single invention/discovery can deliver benefits to mankind – who’s to say that how he chooses to spend his time won’t result in maximum benefit to peoplekind? Even if unintended.

  37. “Query: If a person has the ability to help mankind, is she/he ethically bound to use that ability? Does the answer change if the person has invented something – a cure for cancer or a solution to global warming – and decides not to make it available?”

    First there is a false assumption in the setup – That assumption is that only those with ‘GREAT’ ability in some area of their lives have, “…ability to help mankind…”.

    Second, there is the presumption that these people of ‘GREAT’ ability must therefore be held accountable against a different standard than the one that applies to everyone else.

    I disagree with both of these assumptions. I posit that anyone has the ability to impact the world around them in a variety of ways, and that all people should be held to the same standards of accountability and action.

    In that case, the questions actually become?

    – Is there an ethical case to say that people should act for the greater good to the determent of themselves or their own desires?

    – Is there an ethical case to insist that a person who has made some world changing breakthrough, (cure for aids, cure for cancer, etc…), make that breakthrough available to the world at large? If ‘yes’, then what are the minimum conditions to meet that case?

    My answers to these questions are then: “Yes”, “Yes”, and “Such that it is not to the determent of Him/Her”.

    I won’t show my work because it would take quite a bit of space, (position on value of the individual vs. the greater society; How those two fit together; A reference to Game theory; yadda, yadda…. like I said, it would take a while).

  38. Sorry, I mistyped my answers. The answers are actually: “No”*, “Yes”, and “Such that it is not to the determent of Him/Her”

    Sorry about the double post.

    * – This does not mean that he/she shouldn’t act for the greater good. Just not to the point of ones own determent or against ones own needs.

  39. @femmebieninformee: who’s to say that how he chooses to spend his time won’t result in maximum benefit to peoplekind?



    And I’ll say it using a concept from sabermetrics, VORP. VORP stands for “Value Over Replacement Player”, and its a metric that is used in baseball statistics.

    The way it works is this: you take the run production that a player has, and you compare it to the production of a typical replacement player. The difference is a players VORP.

    All of us have a VORP. That is, we all bring value to our lives and our jobs that is different then value that would be brought by some typical replacement worker. Different jobs have different potentials in VORP. Pizza delivery, for example, has incredibly low VORP potential. All pizza jocks are essentially the same.

    Research scientists have very high VORP. Most fields with skill sets that are extensive and difficult to master do have very high VORP potential.

    The point being that as a pizza jock, it is unlikely that he would run into any situation that requires HIM, and not just some random pizza jock. His VORP is incredibly low. But as a research scientist, if he’s a genuine Einstein level talent, his life is spent in situations where it really matters that he is doing the job, and he has very high VORP.

    So the question becomes, do you have an obligation as a human being to apply your talents in a way that maximizes your VORP? And I would say that yes, you do, but that obligation is not to “mankind” but to yourself.

  40. No one is “ethically” bound to do anything. Since each of us decide our own ethics, you’d never be able to reach a consensus either way. So it’s a moot point.

  41. @sethmanapio: “And I’ll say it using a concept from sabermetrics, VORP. VORP stands for “Value Over Replacement Player”, and its a metric that is used in baseball statistics.”

    Brilliant example, and well stated.

  42. I went to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology (in the early years, when it was actually more than the UVA acceptance generator it’s seemingly become).

    So many of us were told that we were destined to change the future and make the world a better place. We were told this a lot. By parents, by teachers, by peers, by people who visited the school.

    Held up to different standards, even our best efforts weren’t deemed good enough. Because we were special. We were game changers. We were simply *better* than the slightly-less-than-perfect-results we had produced. And while for some, their egos purred under all the stroking, for many others, all it did was to provoke massive irritation.

    Most of our parents and many of our teachers (but not all – some could whip our intellectual butts) couldn’t do what we were doing – who were they to tell us we could do it better? (At least that’s what it sounded like to youthful indignation.)

    We ranged in age from 12 to 17 (some kids did start a bit earlier). And even at the upper ends of that range, who the hell is ready to hear that? That is a HUGE amount of stress to put on someone in their formative years.

    So, some of “broke” over the years – lots of nervous breakdowns. Others willfully decided that we didn’t WANT to be the change or the future. Or some of us got into grad school and had stupendously crappy advisors that sucked our souls and either stole our work or just made our lives hell for not letting them steal our work.

    Even now, in my little Midwestern town where I’m just an anonymous, independent Internet consultant these days, someone will turn to me and go “Oh my GOD you’re so smart – why aren’t you curing cancer or something?”

    Because I don’t want to. I – and many of the friends I’m still in touch with – just want to live our lives on our terms. Perhaps it’s all the Ayn Rand some of us read, I don’t know.

    For some with the huge ambitions and egos, that takes you to the world-changing place. For some, that just means being the best parent or IT guy or whatever you *want* to be.

    We are human beings, just like everyone else. We want to have sex, eat great food, travel cool places, get married and have kids, and just be allowed to follow our minds where they take us.

    Telling someone who they have to be – especially someone smart enough to look ahead and see their future as others are dictating it – is a sure fire way to ensure that’s who they *won’t* be.

  43. @sethmanapio: While I get the pizza guy analogy. I was a supervisor in the manufacturing industry for a while on Long Island. Without defense contracts we were flooded with engineers trying to get work. I have met some highly intelligent people who could not screw a board onto a chassis. I don’t know the particulars of being a pizza delivery guy/girl. However I would not be surprised to find it has a much higher VORP then you might think. Ihave learned over the years that no job is without its talented and not so talented.

    As for the question, no, you are only bound to live your life as you see fit. Enjoy it you only get one. Questions like this always lead to another question for me. Is it possible to have this great “fix”? Sometimes I think that is the biggest problem in the world, everyone is waiting around for some person to come along and poof. Here it is this will solve everything.

  44. I am currently reading “Scientists Greater than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the Twentieth Century.” It is a great book. Out of the ten – 5 are still alive today. I recognized the names of only 4 of them (and most people I have read the list to recognized 1 or zero). Shows you what we prioritize.

    Akiro Endo – 5+ million lives saved – Creator of statin drugs – never received a single cent from sales of his drug.

    Al Sommer – 6+ million – use of vitamin A to save third world children from blindness and death.

    Frederick Banting – 16+ million – insulin

    Paul Muller – 21 million – DDT/ malaria prevention.

    David Nalin – 50 million – ORT (diarrhea therapy)

    Howard Florey – 80 million – antibiotic penicillin

    John Enders – 114 million – modern vaccines

    Bill Foege – 122 million – eradication of smallpox

    Norman Borlaug – 245 million – green revolution

    Karl Landsteiner – 1038 million – discoverer of blood groups.

    On the other hand, everyone has heard of Jenny McCarthy. Lives saved: -160 and counting.

  45. Gunna say, HUGE no. If you are bound to do something, then that binding is either self policed with a culture of guilt, or there is some bureaucrat deciding if you are helping to best of your ability.

    No thanks.

  46. As Charles Schulz once pointed out,”There is no heavier burden than ‘Great Potential.”

  47. Our only obligation to fellow humans is to not hurt them. Everything else is, should be, MUST be our personal choice.

    If Norman Borlog had decided he’d rather spend his life writing folk songs and following the Grateful Dead around the world would be a much nastier place, but he wouldn’t have done anything wrong.

  48. @sethmanapio:

    Good point, however, if applying my talent in a way that maximises my VORP means spending years being miserable in a job I hate and not enjoying the life I want to lead, then I think I have an obligation to myself to do something else that may not be of as much benefit to mankind but makes me a hell of a lot nicer to hang out with both during and at the end of the day.

    False assumption: applying talent to maximise VORP = happiness + fulfillment

  49. @wayward son:

    Thanks for sharing these numbers. Wouldn’t it be great if they were ticking over on a board in Times Square/Piccadilly Circus encouraging kids to study science and work hard so they could get their names up there one day too?

  50. “I disagree, I feel that all people have an ethical obligation to not be indecent to each other.”

    Of course, but each person has a slightly different idea of what falls under the heading “indecent” I’m sure most of those things we here can agree on, but I’m just as sure some things (possibly important things) we will disagree on.

  51. If a person has the ability to help mankind, is she/he
    ethically bound to use that ability?

    Realistically, no. No one can truly say what someone’s going to do in the future, so expecting anything from them on perceived “potential” is a “hope” at best, and a “gamble” at worst.

    Does the answer change if the
    person has invented something – a cure for cancer or a solution to
    global warming – and decides not to make it available?

    When this happens, please let me know.

    I’m not trying to be snarky about this, just realistic. Yes, individuals get ideas, but they don’t generally work in a vacuum. It’s the nature of humans to seek attention, and work together.

    Going around saying that you have the solution to the X, but aren’t going to release it because of Y, is generally in the realm of the lone nut case, not the lone scientist.

  52. @jabell2r: I have delivered pizza. This is a job with almost zero VORP potential.

    The reason is that a pizza place designs the job to be that way. They want people to be easily replaceable. It isn’t the pizza guys that have low VORP, exactly, it is that the pizza job has a low potential for VORP.


    I don’t actually know anybody who is happiest when their life consists only of task sets where they are easily replaceable. I suspect that such a person is easily replaceable in general, so they are probably maximizing their potential at, say, McDonalds.

    Maximizing your value over a replacement means that you are working in a field or a job where you, yourself, are making a genuine contribution and bring a lot of value.

    And if you think about it, a job that makes you miserable is not, by definition, maximizing your potential value over a replacement worker. A person with lesser talent but a better attitude would be more valuable in that job.

  53. @Chasmosaur: Perhaps it’s all the Ayn Rand some of us read, I don’t know.


    “Apes don’t read philosophy!”
    “Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.”
    (A Fish Called Wanda)

    It so sad when people romanticize their “choice” not to move up to another level of achievement. And it’s sad and ironic when they use Ayn Rand as a justification for doing so.

    Read “Atlas Shrugged” again. John Galt maximized his VORP… and more than that, his entire battle was for VORP recognition as a societal standard.


  54. As far as “maximizing your potential” goes, it is indeed a personal choice.
    You can choose to be a scientist and make great discoveries. Heck, talking just from my own situation/perspective, I could move to the sales department and possibly make twice or three times what I’m making now by hitting all my targets and raking in one bonus after another.
    Or I could quit my current cushy sysadmin job and become an outsourced programmer with a company car and again three times the pay I get now.

    But it comes at a cost. A cost that’s just too damn high for my taste, and that’s my private life. I like the fact that I can stay in bed until 7:30 or 8 AM and go home at 5PM and be done with it. My job is something I do to pay the bills, my spare time what I do to enjoy myself.
    If I wanted to make three times as much, I’d either not get home until 10PM, or get home and finish up pending work-stuff until midnight or beyond. Plus weekends. No effing way …

    I like my spare time. So I’m taking the pay-cut that comes with it and only make 1/3 of what I could potentially make.
    The fact I’m not irreplacable means that when a job urgently needs to be done, they can call someone else or stuff it while I’m living it up in Vegas during TAM7. And they can’t blame me for not getting it done while I’m on vacation, because that’s what my contract says.

    As for doing good for mankind, well, again it depends on the personal price you pay.
    On the one extreme end, there’s Bruce Willis in Armagedon. You could choose not to sacrifice yourself and most of humanity dies, the world will become a fucked up place you possibly wouldn’t want to or couldn’t even live in anyway, so perhaps it’s not that much of a choice after all. Or you could die and everyone else gets to live, and you can take comfort in the idea they’ll probably at least be thankful for what you did.

    I can’t think of a movie-example for the other extreme because most movies don’t do that subject. In the end, people always sacrifice themselves for the greater good because “that’s the right thing to do“. The person who doesn’t usually has karma bite them in the ass threefold or worse, because people want to (need to?) believe that if the only thing that stands between the total annihalation of mankind is your life, you’ll give your life.


    I suppose the best example would be Dr. Gaius Baltar in BSG. He’s personally responsible for the near extermination of not just one planet but the entire human race. He didn’t know this at the time, but now he has to live with the consequences. I think he’s the most interesting character in the entire show, and it’s pretty clear the writers have a tough time portraying him in such a way that he doesn’t look like evil incarnated.

    Of course, I’ve only seen a little over half of the first season so far, so don’t spoil it for me …

  55. It sounds like the guy bottled it to me. If you’ve coasted through school academically, but had a tough time “Socially”, every success in the real world is all the more sweeter.

    And, frankly it’s not like academically successful people have a reputation for being “lookers”, so why would he feel he wouldn’t belong in the successful world.

    Of course, if delievering pizzas pays the bills and gives you loads of free time then I can understand that. Einstein worked a bum job as a patent clerk, Larkin was a librarian etc etc etc. Once your basic needs have been met (I’d say £20k p.a in the UK), the rest is just about keeping score.

    It all seems a bit odd to me…

    @sethmanapio: People who like Ayn Rand do so because they, falsely, believe themselves to be talented, unique, special, genius-like individuals. It’s pure vanity-porn

  56. @exarch: Or I could quit my current cushy sysadmin job and become an outsourced programmer with a company car and again three times the pay I get now.


    Hypothesis: If you believed that, you wouldn’t say it. You clearly feel like you’re underachieving, and that’s sad.

    But I don’ think I’m communicating my basic idea here… let’s take and example: What is Rebecca Watson’s VORP, on a scale from practically non-existent to Feynman?

    I’d say fairly high. Her work on SGTU and here is interesting and important to her, and she brings a lot of personal skill and perspective to it. In a network theory view of skepticism, Watson is a heavy node. All the skepchicks are, they have value, people aggregate around them.

    That isn’t measured in money, because money isn’t the transactional medium for the network she’s in.

    Einstein worked as a patent clerk. But he didn’t stop doing science. He kept working. His value was not as a clerk, it was in the other areas of his life. What he was doing in his spare time was something that only he could do.

    If what you do in the spare time you buy with your low pressure job is play video games and attend TAM, you may feel you need to justify yourself. If what you do with your spare time is rewrite our understanding of the universe, you probably don’t.

    My argument is that you owe it to yourself to live a life that you don’t feel like you have to justify to me.

  57. @sethmanapio:

    Um, I was being sarcastic about the Ayn Rand.

    But honestly, people achieve at their own level, based on what they love and where they are most comfortable. There is an emotional/psychological level involved.

    No one I knew willfully decided to be a pizza delivery guy. We just decided that – despite what people told us we wanted and what we were going to do with our lives – that we’d make that decision ourselves thank you.

    We are all successes in our own right, but we work in spaces that permit that success. So we’re not curing cancer or AIDS or coming up with the next revolution in alternative energy or environmental remediation (well, okay, some are), but we contribute to society in far more productive ways than food delivery, I assure you. Many are researchers, a lot of us are subject matter experts, but we also have lives and we’re not stressed out by being someone we aren’t. And as a result, are the best professionals we can be….so we can order pizza from the idiot who will probably wake up one day and do something with his life.

    The point is that you can’t force someone who is smart into an ambition they don’t have. Doing so will not necessarily end in a positive result. True game-changers do their shit because they *want* to.

  58. @sethmanapio:
    My argument is that you owe it to yourself to live a life that you don’t feel like you have to justify to me.

    I’m not justifying anything. The question was about achieving potential, and I merely stated I can see the guy’s point, because I can see some parallels with my own life.

    Perhaps I am underachieving professionally, but I don’t care, because it’s a cushy job that pays the bills and allows me to go home at 5 pm. It also allows me to slack off a little and post to skepchick for example, and they probably still won’t fire me, because I get the things done that I’m asked. And then some. And on those rare occasions the pressure is on, I can shift it into a higher gear without getting all stressed out. It means I will still like doing my job when I’ve had a busy day.

    But I get my fullfilment from my hobbies. No, they don’t include computergaming. But what if they did? Why would enjoying yourself playing computergames be a bad thing? There’s people who seem to spend all their time shopping, or watching TV. But who am I to judge their enjoyment?

  59. This question is of special importance to me because I have already discovered the solution to global warming and cures for autism, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, Parkinson’s, obesity, diabetes type 2, and so on. It isn’t a cure for cancer, but would act as a pretty good preventative by blocking the chronic inflammation of the metabolic syndrome. I am trying to develop them, but with no support from anyone else it is very difficult and slow.

  60. @exarch: I’m not justifying anything.


    Actually, you are. Repeatedly.

    And I’m not judging enjoyment. I’m not even judging VORP. What I’m saying is very simple: if you engage exclusively in activities where you are easily replaceable, you have little or no value to anyone, including yourself. And a human being owes themselves more than a worthless existence.

  61. The VORP concept works but only for those that buy into a system that it works in. I have a friend that that only works to fund his traveling. Working 6 months at a time doesn’t allow for much headway in the VORP model but he’s only earning what he can to spend the next 6 months in a canoe. So his VORP is low but to claim he has little or no value to himself doesn’t equate. He’s doing exactly what he wants and putting up with the hardship required to live that life.

    Sure his employers might not think much of his life but he certainly does and he lives a life that many others, including myself, envy. Just because I’ve chosen to have a family, and the means to support one, doesn’t make me intrinsically more valuable than he is.

    I like the idea of VORP, and I’m going to use the idea myself but to use it as a means of judging everyone shows a lack of understanding of the values of many people. Using it to judge them is like using a yardstick to check the temperature of the water.

  62. Using it to judge them is like using a yardstick to check the temperature of the water.


    And I think that it is very sad that you don’t seem able to value your friend over a replacement friend by any yardstick other than the money he does or does not make. I mean, I would think that his stories alone would make him damn near irreplaceable, but I really value good conversation.

    But your personal inability to see that value is a word with many meanings doesn’t actually have anything to do with the appropriateness of using VORP in any particular case.

  63. I think the biggest problem with the VORP scenario is the fact it’s all pretty much guess-work and assumption.

    Your value over a replacement isn’t merely about how hard you work versus how hard the new guy would work. It isn’t simply how much money would be spent training the new kid vs. kicking your ass to the curb to hire someone at a lower salary. It’s also about how long it takes to train a replacement until he’s reached your level of competence doing your job. Or rather, how much money you lose while the replacement screws shit up.

    As such, even though I don’t work my fingers to the bone, I have a pretty high VORP for the simple reason that the fact my job is so easy to me is because I optimized a lot of stuff to my own preference for the simple reason that it gave me more time to post to skepchick and other non-work-related stuff.

    Now I don’t have to spend two minutes copy-pasting shit from an e-mail to an excel file, let the excel file calculate it, then print out the results, etc… I click a button that does it all for me in a matter of seconds, and it’s already coming out of the printer before I’ve even lifted my ass out of the chair. Not to mention the enjoyment and education I got trying to figure out how to get my script to do that.

    That doesn’t mean a possible replacement wouldn’t be able to click a button in under two seconds. But that’s assuming (s)he even knows about said button or what it’s meant for, or knows how to fix it when it suddenly gives a “type mismatch on line 23” or some such after making what seemed like an insignificant change to the excel file.

    So you are incorrectly assuming a low VORP for the simple reason that I have found ways to slack off. I simply found a way to do my job in less time than it took me when I first started, allowing me to take on a few additional tasks as well.

    Oh, and THIS was me justifying myself. Because this time I felt like I had to …

  64. @sethmanapio: ??????

    I think you completely missed the point of my post. I’ve read it again to make sure I wasn’t ambiguous (I’ve done that before) but I really don’t see how you came to your conclusion especially considering the quote you took from me.

    If instead you’re suggesting the VORP model should be applied to friendship, I disagree. I don’t replace my friends I get new freinds all the time and I’ve lost a few (sometimes tragic, sometimes they turned out to be racist fucks, sometimes we just drift apart) but I don’t grade them against each other. They are not my “companion employees”, I don’t put up with them because they get the job done or because I’ve invested too much. I love them for who they are and I cherish the time we spend together.

    They each have value but not in comparison to each other.

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