Profit Optimisation

If you optimise purely for how much money you're making from something rather than having an attitude where you merely try and make a sufficient amount of money and otherwise take a holistic approach, then you're inherently willing to sacrifice anything else (otherwise you're not optimising for money, by definition).

My working hypothesis is that even if individual people don't do this (much), it's possible to distribute incremental optimisations towards that monetary ideal over many people so that none of them feel like they're selling out, and that companies that have a structure that enables this continuously are more likely to survive, grow, and have their ideas spread and get implemented etc.

Furthermore, businesses which exist in an external structure (i.e. what relationship they have with customers, investors, shareholders) where they can dispense with a holstic/aesthetic approach effectively are more likely to grow faster.

This is just one popular strategy though, not necessarily the best.[1: other strategies]

Most people probably wouldn't feel like they're doing something too unethical if they made an advert (so called "sponsored links") look 0.1% more like a google search result, given the high expected return value of that change when multiplied by the amount of people who use google and don't use an adblocker. This means that the business has an incentive to try and disconnect the people working for it, (in aggregate, not necessarily individuals), from the unethical sacrifices that are made in the name of optimising e.g. ad clicks, by having lots of people make incremental changes.

If you have 100 people comfortable with doing 1% of something that would be unethical... I'm sure you can see where that ends.

Another part of that is the wider cultural context. If you can spread the idea enough that businesses are there to make money and that "it's just business" is a good excuse, then it's no longer a bad idea for a legal firm to take the job of defending an incredibly unethical business, because it's no longer as damaging to their reputation to have done that.

From Cory Doctorow's "How lawyers became sadists", emphasis added:

Jones Day does defend the tobacco industry, and gets paid handsomely for it. Jones Day partners told Enrich, "The moral judgments I leave to God" and "At the end of the day, law firms are profit-maximizing institutions."

Specifically, I think that the average software developer underestimates how much they have the ability to refuse to do unethical things, and that part of the reason for that is the idea described above, that "this is a profit-maximising institution", which isn't strictly true because it's definitely the case that people at least sometimes do things deliberately, knowing that something else would maximise profit, but the idea that the institution is profit-maximising encourages (potentially unethical) profit maximising behaviour, since then, personal ethical objections are treated as secondary to what "it's about", and ethical objections feel discordant to the surrounding cultural atmosphere.

From https://www.propublica.org/article/yieldstar-rent-increase-realpage-rent, emphasis added:

Such agents sometimes hesitated to push rents higher. Roper said they were often peers of the people they were renting to. "We said there’s way too much empathy going on here," he said. "This is one of the reasons we wanted to get pricing off-site."

It doesn't have to be empathy that causes problems for profit maximisation, it can be the idea of responsibility that causes someone to take security seriously rather than just dealing with any issues more cheaply via PR. (This is a very hypothetical example, I'm just trying to come up with something which is obviously the correct thing to do that might not be "worth it". I have no idea if this is a viable strategy.)

So I think it's reasonable to conclude that when there's external incentives to create internal company structures that encourage unethical behaviour that makes money, there's also incentives to normalise the idea that businesses exist to make money and grow and that's what it's "about", and that you should try and make the next big thing rather than do something that is good that incidentally makes "enough" money.

For example, in http://paulgraham.com/growth.html, the author has an obvious incentive to encourage those kinds of businesses, "The only essential thing is growth." means being willing to sacrifice anything else for growth.

(I find the lines "anyone who has tried optimizing code knows how wonderfully effective that sort of narrow focus can be" and "anything that gets you the growth you need is ipso facto right" pretty sickening, the second one basically saying you have a moral duty to sacrifice ethics for growth)

Not to say that it's deliberate and calculated, and that there's a "unethical/non-holistic behaviour is good if it makes money" propaganda department, but just that this kind of stuff propogates itself because people can make money by incrementally propogating the ideas, even though in aggregate it's probably beyond most people's moral compass.

But I can't really say what goes on on an individual level since I don't know people who participate in these cultures.

  1. Tarsnap is a common example of a "tech" business which isn't optimised for growth. Tentatively, I also think that the future (the next decade) will not be kind to large social media (advertising) companies. Facebook announced that it had lost users for the first time in its history in 2022, for example. When the ad-tech bubble eventually becomes less of a thing, ideas about what kind of business models work will also change.[back]