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Damon Horowitz

In-House Philosopher, Google

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LIVE CHAT With Damon Horowitz: When have you realized that you were wrong about what you once thought was right? June 8, 2011, 5-6PM EDT

Join us for a LIVE conversation with serial entrepreneur, philosophy professor, and Google Director of Engineering, Damon Horowitz.

This conversation will open at 5:00PM EDT, June 8th, 2011.

"I am curious to hear what prompts people to moral reflection and reconsideration: When have you realized that you were wrong about what you once thought was right?"

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Closing Statement from Damon Horowitz

I’d like to thank everyone for sharing their thoughts and experiences here. My TEDxSV talk was intended as a provocation for the technology industry in particular to reflect further upon our ethical decision making – but I am delighted to see that it has encouraged much broader discussion.

The prominent themes I hear in this conversation reinforce the value of education, experience, and humility in our moral development. So long as we continually challenge ourselves to question our beliefs, there is some small possibility that we will not always be wrong about what is right.

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  • Jun 8 2011: I've changed my mind about a large number of things in my life, however, most of those things were ideas that I came to from the basis of study, from a position of ignorance moving into my understanding through analysis, questioning, science and study. I have a feeling that these aren't the sorts of change of heart you are interested in.

    Well, there is a great saying that you can't argue someone out of an idea they didn't argue themselves into.

    We establish a relationship with our ideas that becomes increasingly emotional and attached to our identity. It is these types of ideas, the foundation, that are so hard to change because we don't view them as inherently changeable. We meet contrary data with hostility because we treat them as challenges to the validity of our identity.

    I've found that my ability to change my mind about the big things is directly correlated to my conception of myself. When I identify myself with an idea, a moral stance, a political party, or a fundamental principle instead of enabling me to have a more nuance perspective that process of identification actually hinders real thought on the subject.

    It has been those moments when my sense of self detaches from outside labels and identifications that I found myself most able to change my mind about the things that really mattered: to realize that I might be fundamentally wrong was no longer a crisis of identity but a chance to explore and grow.
    • Jun 8 2011: I can 'identify' with this, Bill. I wonder why you think that your mind-changing process is not the kind this conversation is supposed to be about, though. In my own experience, moving "from a position of ignorance... into my understanding" has been a wonderfully successful guide for making decisions and supporting one side of an issue over another. Analysis, questioning and study are all things I am in school specifically training myself to do better, with the goal of becoming a teacher in another year. There is a particular method of study in traditional Jewish education called 'hevruta' study that hones these skills -- 2 students together reading and translating a text, who support and challenge each other to probe the text deeper in an effort to both understand the 'voice' of the text and the voice of their partner. The similarities between the scientific method and this form of partnered text study continue to assure me that something more substantial than opinions are being discussed.

      I find I am least hostile to new ideas about issues that are not related to how I fundamentally understand and identify myself -- those issues that I am most ignorant of the details. I am a very opinionated person, but I try my best to not verbalize that opinion until I have listened to many other opinions on the subject. While there is no way to learn about something bias-free and without emotion, I do my best to filter myself out before I jump in to make conclusions. It has been helpful to me to listen first, ask clarifying questions if I can, listen some more, summarize both the supporting and challenging points of what I have heard, and THEN make some judgment about the issue using the compass of my own values, experience and hope. This process helps me detach my self, as you mentioned, and gives me the opportunity to develop a more nuanced understanding of the situation that won't put me into an existential crisis.

      Thank you for your thoughts!
      • Jun 8 2011: well, I think there are many different ways people can change their minds, however I think the most interesting changes are the ones that are about the fundamental ideas of what is right or wrong, not something like photosynthesis. Say i were to come into contact with information that shows me that my understanding of photosynthesis was completely incorrect. I would approach that information from a completely different perspective than if I were to come across data that showed me that human beings were inherently evil (I don't believe this, and I haven't come across any such info, this is just for arguments sake). One is some piece of knowledge that I learned (in essence, I argued my way into my beliefs about how photosynthesis works) The other is a challenge to my beliefs about humanity, myself included.

        I think the more interesting type of change of perspective is the more fundamental change, and I think it is made possible when our sense of self isn't at stake. It's sort of paradoxical: the more you consider yourself a Democrat or a Republican then less able you are to think critically about political questions.
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      Jun 8 2011: Thank you for that comment Bill.
      If we are doing ethics, yet we are not considering anything to be deeply at stake for ourselves -- and thus for our identities -- we are perhaps not having the richest conversation. We define ourselves by the ideas we form and the actions we take, and it is our inescapable responsibility to do so.

      Of course, that doesn't mean that we should only consider our own self-interest when deliberating over an issue; quite the opposite. Rawls' "original position" is perhaps the best-known contemporary articulation of a methodology for avoiding that mistake.

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