We have a few cultural ideas that need to be reconciled:

  1. It is hard to get a man to understand something when his paycheck depends on not understanding it.
  2. Expertise requires deep engagement.
  3. Value drift.

Let’s say you’re an outsider interested in understanding the debt collection industry, maybe because you want to find a more ethical way to do it. How would you do that?

You could try and gather your own facts and make your own judgments. But you’ll quickly find that most of the important information is not available to you. Most corners of the world face little pressure to make their work legible to curious outsiders, and in fact have a “dark forest” set of incentives where any public attention can only be harmful. Even if you are able to find the facts, you won’t understand the system if you don’t deeply understand the mental models used by insiders.

You could try to engage deeply with the insiders, and learn from them. But this has a few risks. First, they may not be forthcoming with you, again for Dark Forest reasons. Or if they are, it will be hard for you to engage with their ideas meaningfully. They’ve been learning from experience for decades, and you are receiving the conclusions without the raw facts. You may accept their insights uncritically, or struggle with them, but ultimately you’ll have trouble knowing what to keep and what to throw out.

You could also try to gain the relevant experience yourself. This is where value drift comes into play. Several years of work will change you, you’ll come out a different person. If you think debt collection is fundamentally a harmful institutions, how will you maintain that righteous clarity over multiple years of doing your job? Much more likely that you’ll come to adopt the same rationalizations that you were fighting with to start.

People change over time, which is good. And your ethical judgment can change based on new information or new axioms. But you need to be careful that you don’t lose your moral compass along the way.

Edit: Robert Fogel worries about value drift in this interview, found via Marginal Revolution. Here’s a Wayback Machine version of the original.

When I graduated from college, I had two job offers. One was from my father, to join him in the meat-packing business. That would have been quite lucrative. The other was as an activist for a left-wing youth organization. I chose the latter and worked as an activist from 1948 to 1956. At the time I was making that decision, my father told me: “If you really believe in that cause, come work with me. You will make a much higher wage and you could give your extra income to hire several people instead of just yourself.” I thought, well, that makes some sense. But I was convinced that this was a way to get me to change my views or at least lessen my commitment to an ideological cause that I found very important. Yes, the first year, I might give all of my extra money to the movement, but every year I would probably give less, and finally reach the point when I was giving nothing at all. I feared I would be co-opted. I thought this was my father’s way of indoctrinating me.