A Lesson In The Dangers of Wise-assery, Hindsight Bias, And Moral Luck


Once upon a time, a fat, spectacled, pleasant amateur song parodist sold millions of records with what middle-aged college grads thought were witty musical critiques of Sixties life and culture. His name was Allan Sherman, and one of those witty songs was this:

Therein lies some useful lessons which we all should absorb:

1. What seems like a valid opinion today might well seem incredibly stupid to virtually everybody later.

2. Venturing outside your expertise is always risky.

3.  Everything seems obvious in hindsight. In most cases, it was anything but.

4. Yesterday’s wit is tomorrow’s ignorance.

5. Whether your opinion is going to make you look like a prophet or a fool is often nothing but moral luck.

6. Criticizing someone for views proven invalid by subsequent developments no one could have foreseen is consequentialism, and unfair.

7. People will do it anyway.

8. We are all Allan Sherman. We just don’t know how.

It’s hard to imagine now that John, Paul, George and Ringo are icons and deserving ones, but back in 1964 it was considered wise and clever to make fun of their hair, their fans and pronounce them untalented hacks. At the beginning of the British invasion, many sophisticates regarded the Beatles as indistinguishable from the legendary Dave Clark Five, and a passing fancy no more significant that the hula hoop.

Mock them now at your peril. Your time will come…in fact, it probably already has.


President Lincoln’s Misunderstood Ethics Crisis: The Great Sioux Uprising

Dakota hanging

As part my so-far futile efforts to leave Ferguson in the rear view mirror, let’s revisit one of the Abraham Lincoln’s great ethical dilemmas during the Civil War, in which today’s date, December 1, was pivotal.

Minnesota’s Great Sioux Uprising, now usually called the Dakota-U.S. Conflict, was among the bloodiest Indian wars in the West, with hundreds of Native Americans, settlers and military casualties. The Sioux were defeated soundly, and the U.S. Army tried 303 Native Americans by military commission, finding them guilty of war crimes and sentencing them to death by hanging. Federal law required Presidential approval of the death sentences, and this was a problem Abraham Lincoln, the President at the time, did not need.

For it was 1862, and the Civil War was raging. This was a year full of Union defeats, indeed, disasters, like Fredericksburg, and both the war and Lincoln’s ability to lead it were in peril. Lincoln was also calculating all the political angles before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. On top of the burdens of war and politics, he was coping with personal tragedy: his young son Willy had died nine months earlier, and Mary Todd Lincoln was teetering on emotional collapse from grief.
Now he had to decide whether to allow the execution of more than 300 Indians convicted in trials that were no better than kangaroo courts. Few Americans were concerned about the fate of the Native Americans, but Lincoln, with all of his other worries, took on the task of reviewing the trial records. What he found was manifest injustice.  Continue reading