I have been reading Paul Graham for the past four years. Paul Graham is one of the rare writers I have read who genuinely care for fairness and morality. Virtually every writer claims that he cares for fairness and morality. But only a vanishingly small minority really does. So, how do I know whether the writer I read genuinely care for morality or not? Bryan Caplan thinks that you will know them by their unpopular views. This is a good rule of thumb, but it is more easy to fake it. I believe you will know them by observing how nuanced their observations about morality are. Read this passage in Graham’s essay about cities and ambition:
“I’d always considered ambition a good thing, but I realize now that was because I’d always implicitly understood it to mean ambition in the areas I cared about. When you list everything ambitious people are ambitious about, it’s not so pretty.”
There is nothing really wrong with ambition as such. But, because for most people, ambition means things that are not really nice, they decided that ambition as such is a bad thing. They have always been ambitious about all the wrong things. It never occurred to them that ambitiousness can be the great driving force behind everything that is good in the word. If you have never been ambitious in the sense normal human beings are ambitious, you will never understand how ambition can be a bad thing unless people point it out to you. You understand what they mean when they say “ambition” using your intelligence and not your intuition. Why? You never shared the twisted moral intuitions of people in the first place. A normal human being would not notice, but this would be the first thing that occurs to you when you hear people condemning ambition.
An insightful passage from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead:
“You bet they are. Francon–he’s the greatest designer in New York, in the whole country, in the world maybe. He’s put up seventeen skyscrapers, eight cathedrals, six railroad terminals and God knows what else. Of course, you know, he’s an old fool and a pompous fraud who oils his way into everything and…” He stopped, his mouth open, staring at her. He had not intended to say that. He had never allowed himself to think that before.
She was looking at him serenely. “Yes?” she asked. “And…?”
“Well…and…” he stammered, and he knew that he could not speak differently, not to her, “and that’s what I really think of him. And I have no respect for him at all. And I’m delighted to be working for him. See?”
“Sure,” she said quietly. “You’re ambitious, Peter.”
When you read such prose, you know that you are reading a truly great writer.