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Posts Tagged ‘morality’

One question that  is pertinent to politics as well as psychology is the nature of moral progress. When I say moral progress, I mean the process by which individuals end up updating or modifying their basic moral beliefs (or priors). This process usually is a slow one, and at the micro level involves one’s reaction to evidences or thought processes.

This typically happens when Person A comes across some data/evidence that is in tension with his moral system. For example, A may value a certain principle and then realize one day that some regular action of his violates this principle. Or maybe A values several principles, and new data (or just new reasoning) seems to suggest that in at least some instance these principles are in conflict.

To give a couple of examples:

Time: 1790. Place: America. A values both individual liberty and a harmonious, prosperous society. The issue at hand is slave ownership. A reluctantly accepts slave ownership for the time being because he believes that Blacks are intellectually inferior and would not be able to live in the same land as the Whites. Perhaps A supports emancipation in principle but thinks an actual implementation would result in tremendous disorder, huge decrease in prosperity and would also require eventual deportation of all the Blacks back to Africa in a painful, costly and disrupting process. But one day his scientist friend shows him evidence that seems to strongly suggest that the inferiority of Blacks is a myth, and given proper education they would be as likely as Whites to succeed in intellectual endeavors.

Or to give a second example, A is a young European, living currently, who has a strong moral opposition to hunting for pleasure. He thinks it is wrong and rights-violating. Yet he eats meat. He justifies this by saying that killing for food or to achieve some other basic necessity is ok, but killing for pleasure is morally wrong. But one day, after a conversation with a friend he starts to wonder if his position is morally sound. He realizes  that he can get by  without eating animals (gaining the needed protein from other sources, such as lentils, milk and soy, as many Asians do) so the main reason behind eating meat is the pleasure he gains from it. So how is eating meat different form hunting then?

And so on…

The interesting question to me, is what A does in such a situation.  He has several choices:

1. Simple minded denial: He can just deny that the evidence exists. For instance the 18th century American could refuse to believe his scientist friend. He could claim that the facts and the research are false and move on. We seem to see something similar with some (not all) global warming sceptics today.

2. Tweaking:  He can decide that despite the new evidence/argument, he can resolve the tension with minor tweaks. For instance, he comes up with other evidence or arguments to counter the tension. Or he  makes minor changes to his priors that make this tension go away or at least become less pronounced. There are many ways to tweak one’s beliefs, some simple, some highly complex; some honest, some not, some based on reason, some based on emotion.

3. Biting the bullet: He can decide that his values are truly in conflict and modify them significantly. The 18th century American could either give up his belief  in liberty, or abandon his support for slave-ownership. The 2oth century European could decide that animals don’t have rights (and end his moral opposition to hunting) or decide to become a vegetarian. Any of these outcomes are what I’d call significant moral progress. At the individual level, they can be life-changing.

It seems to me that personality plays a complex role in deciding which of the above outcomes occur. As a rule, people have a strong emotional resistance to any sort of change in their moral priors. For that would mean acknowledging to themselves, and perhaps to others, that they have engaged in beliefs/actions that are false/evil. Some make a conscious attempt to avoid letting emotions take precedence over reason in deciding how one deals with such conflicts, while others go with the flow.

Age probably plays an important role in all this; younger people are more likely to change their belief systems. As Fitzgerald once wrote, “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

In any case, I don’t have any deep insights to offer, but I think these are interesting questions, and being able to deal with moral dilemmas in an efficient, unbiased and rational manner would certainly improve political outcomes.

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Adam Kirsch’s NY Times oped on Ayn Rand is a perfect example of a commentator having absolutely no idea about the person he is writing about. In particular, it contains the following gem:

When Bennett Cerf, a head of Random House, begged her to cut Galt’s speech, Rand replied with what Heller calls “a comment that became publishing legend”: “Would you cut the Bible?” […] Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done.

A genuine capitalist, as Rand used the term, is one who believes that two consenting adults have the right to enter into any transaction they want to.

I cannot make up my mind whether Kirsch does not understand  this or whether he is just that completely lacking in reasoning ability.

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I love reading Paul Krugman’s NY Times columns and especially the comments that follow because they offer a fascinating glimpse of certain moral principles that are completely alien to my personal philosophy. It is like going into a country where they seem to speak the same language; yet their words mean completely different things than what you are used to.

For instance, in today’s article, PK rages against the practice of high speed trading and certain kinds of financial speculation on the ground that they are socially worthless. But at least he merely suggests higher income taxes to deal with such practices. His commenters go several levels further. They are so — oh so — outraged that some rich people are merely following Capitalism 101 rather than contributing to some “social good” that they want the guys arrested; some go further and demand a popular revolution to fundamentally steer the nation towards social democracy.

Not so long ago, Soviet Russia and countries under its influence measured not just economic activity but everything from art to films according to their social utility in furthering the principles of communism; those that did not pass the test were banned or worse. So the NY Times readers are continuing a worthy tradition.

What can I say? In my universe, freedom — freedom to invest or speculate, to be foolish or smart, to give back to society or be a rich miser — is of far, far greater importance than judging whether the exercise of freedom actually contributes to some social good. So the morality of the NY times commenters with their particular sense of justice and fairness is alien to me. Once upon a time, when faced with such morality, I would rage and scream silently inside at the grotesque sense of entitlement displayed. These days, I am merely amused; it is a bit like going to an alternate universe full of strange creatures.

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To make up for my lack of posting, let me link to a discussion over at Aristotle’s blog. It started off with Rawls but has evolved into topics like the nature of morality and the objectivity (or lack thereof) of values.

To a casual reader of the thread linked above, I might come across as rather critical of Ayn Rand and what I consider to be a flawed attempt by her to build an objective theory of morality. So to give a more balanced picture of what I really think of Rand and her works, let me quote myself from a different thread on the same blog.

I won’t say Rand is for everyone; I really do think you need to have certain personality traits in order for Rand’s fiction to really speak to you. This is especially true of the way she depicts the sexual and emotional aspects of her characters.

[…] So, I can see why The Fountainhead does not appeal to a lot of people, including many who really value individualism. As for me, I read it in my late teens and have re-read it since. I love it, and that’s an understatement.

Actually Ayn Rand is *not* my favourite moral philosopher; she does not even come close. There are several fundamental logical flaws in the way she treats the topics of rationality and first principles. But The Fountainhead is a different matter; it distills just the right aspects of her philosophy, perhaps by accident, but nevertheless.

There are a lot of things I dream of doing with my life and none of them have much to do with Rand or objectivism.

But if you ask me the name of just one book, *any* book from *any era*, that I wish *I* had written…. it would be the Fountainhead.

Reading Rand was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. For that I will be eternally grateful.

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Will Wikinson says:

Yet I hear again and again that, since the state should not be in the business of marriage, one should not, as a libertarian, have an opinion about how this business is to be carried out. Increasingly, I find this an obnoxious and shameful form of moral recusal. One cannot use an ideological image of perfect justice to excuse or ignore an obvious injustice within the actual imperfect system. That these injustices could not arise within one’s vision of the best society does not mean that they have not in fact arisen. That a debate would not occur in an ideal world does not mean that it is not occuring or that nothing morally hangs on its conclusion. To decide to sit out the debate, with an eye on utopia, is not a way to keep one’s hands clean.

I agree.

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I found this on the internet while searching for related stuff. It was written ten years ago by someone called Brian Wilson.

This is the important year. The beginning of the end. “The Shift” is happening.

[…] “The Shift” is what I call the mass hysteria, the mass group thinking that takes over suddenly, when 95 percent of the population suddenly and ferociously agrees on something that they never cared deeply about before. And what comes next is legislation to force the last 5 percent to bend to their will. To the population caught up in “The Shift”, this sudden new conviction is as strong as religion, and anyone in the last 5 percent who even SUGGESTS a calm debate or alternative is treated like a heretic who should be burned at the stake. If you are getting angry or self righteous at this rant because you suspect where it is going, then you have fallen prey to the mass thinking already.

[…] Now, you might be part of the 1 percent of the population that is like me. If that is the case, I apologize for lumping you in with the rest of the mindless masses. I seem to be immune to “The Shift” in most cases. This isn’t a blessing: I’m continually lamenting the loss of yet another freedom to “The Shift”. Those caught up in the various crusades (anti-smoking, pro-seat belts, pro-motorcycle helmets, etc) joyously give away their freedoms, and seem happy to do it.

This year we are still early enough in “The Shift” that some helmet wearers had some very thoughtful insights. One 50 year old couple who were wearing helmets suggested that the highly publicized deaths of Sonny Bono and Kennedy last year, both by colliding with trees, contributed to the large rise in helmet use. But we are far enough along in “The Shift” that the truly mindless were coming out of the woodwork also. I rode up a lift in Winter Park Colorado with a woman and her 4 year daughter. The daughter was wearing a helmet, and the woman was not. The woman actually told me that she wished the government would pass a skier helmet law, so that she would be forced to wear a helmet just like she forced her daughter to wear one.

For a moment I lost the will to live, and I almost jumped off the lift.

I cannot STAND people who have this kind of attitude. It is not the government’s job to force us to be “safer children”. It is not the government’s job to decide what is an acceptable risk for us personally, and what is not. If you want to wear a helmet while skiing, please do! It is a very good idea. I might choose to wear one also, depending on the conditions and where I plan to ski that day. But you and I need to accept the decision of the informed skier who chooses to feel the wind in their hair, and take the well known risk of going sans-helmet.

That applies today, it will apply tomorrow, and it will apply 50 years from now. Don’t succumb to “The Shift”, in which you suddenly change your opinion at the same time as the rest of the population does, and you hold your new opinion with religious fervor.

I realize this rant is hopeless; I am tilting at windmills. I predict that within 5 years there will be a skier helmet law for anyone under 18. Within 10 years, there will be a skier helmet law for everyone. And 20 years from now, on a ski slope, on a perfect day with a blue sky and perfect snow, I will irritate my friends by playing the heretic. While wearing my government mandated ski helmet, I will wish out loud that just for one run I could feel the wind in my hair.

Do read the whole thing.

Brian’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass. No  country yet has a universal ski-helmet rule that covers everyone. However many places already mandate  helmets for children and it seems likely that some Canadian provinces will soon pass a a law forcing all skiers to wear helmets. And maybe it will then be California, or some European country, and pretty soon the rest of the world will follow. Or maybe not.

But his thoughts about “The shift” are true, not just in the paternalistic context but about anything really. And if you are thinking that shifts are merely rational reactions to updated human knowledge, I’d prefer you mull over it some more.

***

And now a more personal note. I don’t know what Brian thinks today of his rant from ten years ago. He probably believes his rant made no difference to anyone’s lives. And to an extent he is right. No law has been influenced by his opinion and most people don’t care about freedom anyway. But if he ever reads this, I’d like him to know that it did make a small difference to someone’s life about fifteen minutes ago. His rant made me happy. It made me smile, even if that smile were tempered by sadness and a tinge of hopelessness.

For to believe in individual liberty is to see your strongest moral convictions treated like dirt by ninety-five percent of the population. It is a bit like living in some country in the past where everyone else possesses slaves. When you believe something to be utterly wrong it does not help if the overwhelming majority thinks it is good.

Why did his post make me happy?

I am not happy to be part of a minority that rails against the stupid majority. Such happiness is an enemy of rational thinking. On the contrary, I’d like most other people to think similarly on this core moral issue– my dream world is one where liberty is taken for granted by everyone so that it is not even an issue; where there is no need for me to blog about it or do random internet searches.

His post made me happy because, quite simply, it gave me some kind of support. In a small way, it told me I am not alone. I can not justify this happiness except to say I am human. So thanks Brian, and all those other advocates for liberty who I have read but never met.

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[Post edited] I discovered this video today. It is a recording of a speech Obama made more than an year ago. The familiar themes of collectivist altruism (this is Obama after all!) have their place but the speech is mainly about religion in a political context. Having heard many good and not so good Obama speeches, I think the one ranks among his best. It is extremely substantive and gives a lot of insight into Obama’s thinking on these matters. As an atheist, I find 26:50 to 31:30 particularly relevant.

Another very significant section is 21:50 to 22:39 where Obama talks of personal morality and its effect on political philosophy. This should be heard in conjunction with 28:25 to 29:44. Of course, Obama is talking in a religious context here but I think it is interesting to reinterpret these passages as applied to ideologies, particularly those with a moral  component. I hope to expand on this theme in one of my long planned essays.

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Of the Browne resolutions, I find this one particularly important:

I resolve to cleanse myself of hate, resentment, and bitterness. Such things steal time and attention from the work that must be done.

Related to which I’d like to resolve:

I will not let myself be poisoned with negative emotions by things I view as evil but have no power to eradicate.

For God knows, there are so many of them!

Of course, a simpler (though not easier) solution is to stop viewing them as evil. I confess that I have thought of that possibility in the past.

Which reminds of this story. Would you trade your knowledge and moral principles for a simpler, more ignorant existence where you would be happier? I wouldn’t. After all, even if I did, that happy person wouldn’t be me. And there are parts of me that I value higher than an optimum level of serotonin and dopamine.

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What’s so special about Carmen?

For one, the truly great music. Carmen is magical melody after magical melody. As for the orchestration, this is what Richard Strauss had to say:

“If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen. What wonderful economy, and how every note and every rest is in its proper place!”

Carmen also has a great story that is wonderfully presented. As the Wikipedia article points out, Carmen is extremely innovative in its drama: it alternates comic or sentimental scenes found traditionally in opera-comique with stark realism.

Yet, there is something beyond music or drama that lies at the heart of Carmen’s appeal to me. It is easy to distinguish good art; beyond that, things get very personal. The truly special works of art are those with qualities that talk to you, touch you, in ways that separate them fundamentally from others. Obviously, this aspect is highly subjective; this is why  people usually disagree on their favourite movie or piece of music even when they mostly agree on which movie or music is good.

The opera Carmen epitomizes liberty. The character Carmen is relentless in her passion for freedom. She is strong, extremely sexy and gives everything in her relationships with her lovers. However, she can never be possessed or exorcised of her passionate love for self-determination. For Carmen, all true interactions are voluntary and devoid of any notion of ownership of another person or duty to any institution.

Carmen is willing to live life only on her own terms.  As this book correctly points out, Carmen is “brash, vicious and callous”, yet the quality that defines her over and above all this is “her willingness to be Carmen, a determination to be free and follow her own bliss.” Carmen never gives up her “tireless obsession to control her own destiny.” And this extends beyond mere action, it is a fundamental part of her morality. In the final scene, even when Carmen knows that she will die she refuses to compromise on her principles, instead she courageously faces her fate. Her death is not a dessert for her sins but a consequence of her essential nobility in an ignoble world; her refusal to give up her self-ownership to another person.

(Of course, early audiences and critics did not view it the same way. Carmen was universally denounced as a vile, immoral, shockingly offensive creation.  Times have changed — modern audiences would undoubtedly be more sympathetic to my vision of Carmen as a flawed but heroic character murdered by a jealous man who is her moral and emotional inferior. That’s another aspect of all great art, like life they have many contradictory interpretations.)

It is these thematic elements of Carmen that, for me, lift it from a great opera to something far more special. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology, Carmen talks to me in that special way that is both infinitely subtle and passionately stirring. It will forever be a part of my heart.

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Britain, where prostitution is now legal, wants to turn back the clock and criminalize it again. And like the Swedish, they have taken a bizarre but politically correct position — it will now be illegal to pay for sex but legal to sell it.

As Home Secretary Jacqui Smith put it:

Basically, if it means fewer people are able to go out and pay for sex I think that would be a good thing.

Never mind the fact that you are preventing consenting adults from engaging in an activity that should be no one else’s business.

Smith’s statement also implicitly accepts the proposition that if something is ‘good’, the government ought to force it by law. This assumption is sadly, rather widespread, and goes to the heart of my post from yesterday. The basic premise of libertarianism is that while there may be various levels of ‘badness’, most of them do not qualify for state censorship. The personal is not the political. The moral is not the legal.

It’s funny how governments worldwide share a common disregard for individual liberty and a collective disrespect for reason in their glorious lumping together of the illegal, the immoral, the bad, the unpopular, the merely unpleasant and the illogical. Or maybe it is not so funny.

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1.

And the moral is not the legal.

It is a distinction that often seems to be lost. Admittedly, most people, when faced with the distasteful, the unpleasant or the unfair have a natural impulse to ‘ban it’. That is an emotional response. As we grow up, we learn to separate the emotional from the rational. Libertarianism simply takes this ability to make distinctions to its logical conclusion.

Of course social and personal issues are important and they need to be addressed. It is a worthy goal to oppose hateful, discriminatory, bigoted or irrational conduct. The right way to do that however is by social means, such as ostracization or education. It is wrong to pretend that no harm is done by letting the political into the personal. Moreover, even when one is using purely social means to stop a harmful practice, it is important to keep the political-personal distinction in mind.

As Todd Seavey puts it in this excellent post:

Libertarianism’s chief strength, then, has always been in recognizing the vast gulf between, on one hand, myriad, never-ending social complaints (along with the conflicting social philosophies built around them) and, on the other hand, the minuscule and tightly constrained range of things that rise (or, if you prefer, fall) to the level of political/legal complaints.

The more causes for political complaint people believe themselves to have, the more likely a total state becomes. If selling trans fats — or simply calling a woman fat — is deemed an assault on social justice, a Kafkaesque web of petty laws becomes more likely.

[…] Maybe it’s high time we formulated a more-explicitly tiered language for talking about such distinctions, though: wrong vs. illegal vs. ought-to-be-illegal — grey area, merely unpleasant, bad idea but not really morally-loaded, etc. — since these things so often get lumped together. Libertarianism, though, like no other philosophy, hinges on recognizing these distinctions rather than treating That Which Is Bad as necessarily deserving of simultaneous avoidance, moral condemnation, outlawing, punishment by God, etc., etc., etc.

Most of my posts have been concerned with laws that arise from this failure to distinguish between the moral and the legal. There is the obscenity law, laws against prostitution, laws forbidding discrimination and hate speech, laws that regulate freedom of association, blackmail law and so on. Do these laws improve the ability of some people (the alleged victims) to make more out of their lives? Doubtful, but let us assume that they do. However, even then, any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that such laws are immoral.

2.

That is not to say that all laws in this complex world can be straitjacketed into a strict property-rights system. First of all, property rights can be tricky to define in the borders. Secondly, we need to make sure that whatever political system we are proposing is sustainable. The real world is full of political ambiguities. A dogmatically libertarian state just isn’t in the cards, the poor aren’t going to magically go away, deregulation will hurt some people. Finally liberty may be the basic moral good but it is not the only good one needs to survive. And people on the edge will always choose survival first.

In short, we do need to worry about the consequences of everything, even libertarian prescriptions. I believe that it does make sense to have a certain level of mandatory taxation, even if some of that money will necessarily go into projects you do not support. It does make sense to have a certain minimum degree of redistribution and welfare to ensure equilibrium and also to help develop the basic capacities to exercise freedom in children. It makes sense to have compulsory security checks in certain places and it most certainly makes sense to prevent private citizens from acquiring nuclear weapons. It may even make sense to mandate certain consumer protection laws — such as those that deal with information disclosure — though I am less convinced about this. And so on.

What does not make sense, is to pretend that laws like the above —  all of which restrict some basic individual rights — are morally neutral/superior or liberty enhancing. They may be necessary and they may increase the happiness of many people and depending on my rational and empirical analysis of the particular issue I might even support them — but to claim that those laws are anything other than a necessary evil is unlibertarian.

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Sometimes I am tempted to modify my moral premises so that I can be more at peace with the world.

I am always saved by the realization that I cannot do such a thing deliberately and retain my self-respect.

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“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality”

Dante Alighieri

[Edit: A reader points out that this quote is actually due to JFK, who (incorrectly) attributed it to Dante]

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Milton Friedman, Nobel prize winning economist  — and one of my personal idols — was among the most influential libertarian thinkers of the last century. Friedman was primarily a consequentialist, meaning he advocated libertarian policies based on the fact that they work better. Such an approach has the great advantage of political effectiveness. If you can demonstrate that greater freedom also leads to better economic results — better solutions to the Roti, Kapra aur Makaan issues — you will have a much easier time swaying the public to your point of view.

However there were some issues were Friedman advocated for liberty on purely moral grounds. The video below — one of Friedman’s last interviews — is a wonderful example:

This is not to say that there is no consequentialist argument for drug legalization — on the contrary, it is perhaps the finest candidate for such analysis. Hell, even Barack Obama accepts that the war on drugs has been an utter failure. The reason, I think, that Friedman took the moral path here is that some things are just too fundamental to leave to utilitarian analysis. They are worth fighting for their own sake, discounting everything else, for they go to the heart of human existence.

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Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

One of the major surprises I received when I moved out of childhood into the real world, was the degree to which the world is stratified by genuine competence.

Now, yes, Steve Jurvetson is not just a randomly selected big-name venture capitalist.  He is a big-name VC who often shows up at transhumanist conferences.  But I am not drawing a line through just one data point.

I was invited once to a gathering of the mid-level power elite, where around half the attendees were “CEO of something” – mostly technology companies, but occasionally “something” was a public company or a sizable hedge fund.  I was expecting to be the youngest person there, but it turned out that my age wasn’t unusual – there were several accomplished individuals who were younger.  This was the point at which I realized that my child prodigy license had officially completely expired.

Now, admittedly, this was a closed conference run by people clueful enough to think “Let’s invite Eliezer Yudkowsky” even though I’m not a CEO.  So this was an incredibly cherry-picked sample.  Even so…

Even so, these people of the Power Elite were visibly much smarter than average mortals. In conversation they spoke quickly, sensibly, and by and large intelligently. When talk turned to deep and difficult topics, they understood faster, made fewer mistakes, were readier to adopt others’ suggestions.

No, even worse than that, much worse than that: these CEOs and CTOs and hedge-fund traders, these folk of the mid-level power elite, seemed happier and more alive.

This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can’t talk about it in public.  This is something that reporters must not write about, when they visit gatherings of the power elite.

Because the last news your readers want to hear, is that this person who is wealthier than you, is also smarter, happier, and not a bad person morally.  Your reader would much rather read about how these folks are overworked to the bone or suffering from existential ennui.  Failing that, your readers want to hear how the upper echelons got there by cheating, or at least smarming their way to the top.  If you said anything as hideous as, “They seem more alive,” you’d get lynched.

Worth quoting, I think, especially in an era where much redistributionist logic stems from an assumption that money and ability have little relation.

We all have different goals in life, and some, like I, choose to do something out of love or reverence and perhaps a shot at greatness. In doing so, we often renounce the opportunity of doing something else that might have led to more money. However, it is important that we do not confuse this voluntary decision with some sort of moral superiority. There is nothing wrong with the fact that people with more money have better healthcare, better food, better recreation and better opportunities in life. Money may not be a perfect denomination, but it is the best that exists. And there is nothing more important, in these troubled days, to reaffirm the morality of a world that deals in it and rewards some more than others.

Let me end this post with an excerpt from a glorious passage by Ayn Rand, who expresses this idea more eloquently than I ever can.

To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a COUNTRY OF MONEY—and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man’s mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being—the self-made man—the American industrialist.

If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose—because it contains all the others—the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to MAKE money.’ No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity—to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted, or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality.

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