Doomsday Machine

My blog posts are mostly about rationality and careful thinking.

This is not one of them.

In a hypothetical world where everyone is rational, one would expect better outcomes with careful, calculated actions. In reality, we are far less rational than we would care to admit; and sometimes irrationality wins.

In the classic Kubrick film “Dr. Strangelove”, the Soviets create a Doomsday Machine, which will automatically and irrevocably set off nuclear bombs and destroy Earth if one of their key targets is hit. Obviously this Doomsday Machine provides immense deterrence value. Ironically, the Soviets kept it a secret, utterly defeating its purpose.

A Doomsday Machine is the ultimate manifestation of irrationality, a willingness and commitment to go all the way. It is greatly effective as a deterrent, as the outcome is certain, terrible, and irrevocable. The key, of course, is to make everyone aware of the consequences.

Another example: in a game of chicken, two cars speed towards each other and the one who swerves away first, loses. The best way to win is to break off your steering wheel and throw it out the window conspicuously, ensuring your opponent sees it. It is worth noting that, although imitation is a form of flattery, adopting the same strategy after you see your opponent do it, is suboptimal.

Curiously, by taking away one’s own freedom to choose, the opponent’s freedom to choose is taken away as well, assuming the opponent is rational. In this case, irrationality wins.

It comes in handy on the poker table. Going all-in takes away your opponent’s freedom to bluff. Similarly, by calling a large bet early on in the game with a less than premium hand, the other players will hesitate to bluff you later, knowing you might call the bluff.

However, what is most interesting to me is not how irrationality applies to game theory, but to human emotions such as revenge (and by extension, patriotism), love, and grief. My previous post on revenge focused on the revenger’s state of mind; the omission of publicity is atypical and likely pathological, but more effective and nuanced.

To me, the most surprising of all is how it applies to grief. It seems like such a strange thing to require an explanation; after all, grief happens when you lose someone or something you love dearly. The more you love, the deeper the grief. Yet it does not explain why grief is so debilitating and intense, to the point where one cannot eat, think, or function properly. Evolutionarily this makes little sense, as one would be more vulnerable to become food for predators. Some animals seem to grieve, but not to the extent of humans. Some propose that grief forces one to plan for life after the change; this is unsatisfying as it is too intense and lasting to be useful, not to mention that it impairs one’s ability to plan.

What parent has not worried sick that something bad might happen to his/her child? That is the byproduct of love, a reminder to protect and cherish what we have. Perhaps that’s what grief is: a deterrent, an emotional Doomsday Machine. Pointless once it goes off – certain, terrible, and irrevocable. An unusual explanation, but so far the best I’ve seen.

Credit: most of the observations are from How the Mind Works by Dr. Steven Pinker, one of my favorite authors.


This is a loose English version of my Facebook post.

This thought experiment is based on Daniel Dennett’s Library of Mendel (originally from Fechner), although he used it to illustrate something completely different.

Imagine a library that has all the possible books ever written. Suppose each book is 500 pages with 40 lines each, with 50 spaces for each line. Each page will then consist of 2000 characters per page (including spaces). Say there are 100 possible characters (including space and punctuation marks), which should cover upper and lower cases of English and European variations of the alphabet.

Somewhere in the library, there is a book consisting of nothing but blank pages, and another book consisting of nothing but obscenities. It is a large, but finite, library.

Within this library you can find every book ever published, and their translations in all languages, including long-lost ancient ones. If the book you are looking for is longer than 500 pages, it can be found in the library, properly split and numbered into different volumes.

Fascinatingly enough, here you can find your biography that is 100% accurate, not only for your past, but also perfectly predict everything in the future, to the day you die. In fact, you can find it written in regular English, ebonics, limericks, or with obscenities scattered throughout.

You can also find the correct value of pi (3.14159265358979…), up to infinite precision, volume after volume. You can find it spelled out as well, like three point one four one five nine two six five and so on. Paradoxically, pi itself is infinite, however you can find it in this large but finite library.

In this library, you can find anything you want to know about the universe, from Mozart to your innermost thoughts.

Everything I have written so far is technically true. It is also completely misleading and deceptive.

  1. Choice of words. The use of “library” and “books” primes you to think of them as what you commonly encounter. In fact, the vast majority of “books” contain nothing but gibberish. The chance of you finding a volume that contains English words is astronomically small. Among these volumes, the chance of you finding a volume that contains grammatically correct sentences is also astronomically small. Among these volumes, the chances of you finding a volume that makes sense is again, astronomically small. Among these volumes, the chances of you finding a volume that is correct, is again, astronomically small. This is very different from the concept of “book” or “library” that you are used to, where every volume is meaningful and deliberately written to convey a thought. An analogy would be me pointing to a bunch of numbers and proclaiming, “within these numbers you can find the winning combination of the next 100 lottos”. The difference being that the odds are better finding the lotto numbers.
  2. The example of pi is also completely misleading. You need to know pi to the precision you want in order to find the volumes, not the other way around. Yes, pi is infinite, and the volumes are technically finite, so how does that work? It works because sooner or later, you will reuse the volumes. Specifically, a volume will be reused when a 1,000,000 digit sequence repeats and aligns. Sounds crazy, but it is a mathematical certainty.
  3. Using “your biography” induces you to be emotionally invested. It uses your narcissism against yourself. After all, who doesn’t want to know their own future? The problem is, even though such a biography exists, you wouldn’t know which one is correct, even if you could find it.

To break away from this nonsense, we need to adjust the parameters and see what happens. In Dennett’s terms, it is “turn the knobs on the intuition pump”. What happens when we reduce the number of pages from 500 to just one page? Well, the library becomes much smaller, and you are simply retrieving pages instead of volumes. What happens when we reduce it further, to just one line of 50 spaces? What happens when we reduce it to just one character?

One character? That’s easy. It’s just the original 100 character set. Everything is simply built from this character set.

In fact, we can further reduce it to 0 and 1, if we encode into ASCII or Unicode.

This thought experiment shows how framing can mislead one into thinking a certain way, how cherry picking special cases can paint a rosy picture, how the brain is not equipped to deal with large numbers (scope insensitivity), how easy it is to see meaning in randomness, and how getting emotionally involved can cloud one’s judgment. Politicians use these dirty tricks, as do weight loss commercials.

Sharpening one’s thinking tools, along with some understanding of psychology, can come in super handy.  Especially when you need to deceive others effectively.

How Long Would You Want to Live?

At birthdays, I’ve heard people wish others they live to 120. It’s a nice thing to say, since everyone wants to live a long life, no? Well, let’s see.

Other than the possible but statistically unlikely age of 120, let’s not make any unfounded assumptions about the rest of the world. That means, no anti-ageing miracle breakthrough, no cyborg-like mechanical integration, no brain-in-a-jar virtual reality, no special pleading.

Imagine Longoria, a 30 year old female born in a developed country, married with 2 kids, ages 1 and 4. According to the United Nations World Population Prospects, 2012 Revision, her life expectancy is around 80, and her children’s life expectancy is around 85 or so.

Cognitive Impact

Some say age-related cognitive decline starts in the 50s, while a more recent study shows that it starts in the 20s-30s. They all agree that cognitive decline accelerates towards the end. By 60 there usually is some objectively noticeable effects despite the self-delusion, and it is hard to imagine what an additional 60 years of decline will do after that. At 110 there is unlikely to be much of a mentally functioning “self” left, nor a veridical memory of it. And then come 10 long years to deteriorate. If Alzheimer’s/dementia sets in, which will for 1 in 5 reaching 80, the remaining decades would be more of a burden.  Unfortunately even if one does not have it by then, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every 5 years after 65 simply due to age.  It is hard to extrapolate to 120 due to low sample size, but the odds are not in one’s favor.  There is little joy in living to 120 if one cannot reasonably make sound decisions.

With the ability to learn, think, and remember diminished, it is likely that Longoria will spend decades behind the technology curve. Imagine an average 90 year old today in the digital, wireless, always connected world, marveling at how much the world has changed in a few short years, and how detached that must feel. Longoria will have 30 years of continued mental decline on top of 30 years of rapid technological advance, after she hits 90. Of course the premise is that keeping up with society in general is desirable. An alternative is to keep up with her peers rather than the larger general society; however this option is no longer available as all of Longoria’s peers would be dead for decades.

Physical Impact

The ageing process is brutal and unrelenting. Few if any machines can run for 100 years without major overhaul; similarly, virtually every piece of original equipment in the body will experience wear and tear, breakage and replacement. From vision, hearing, mobility, strength, endurance, to any other objective measure of health, Longoria will be on a steady decline.

Most seniors end up losing mobility and consequently their independence. For many, that happens around 85-90. Let’s give it the benefit of a doubt and say that happens to Longoria at 100. She will spend 20 long years using a walker, wheelchair, or in bed, needing assistance for even the most basic daily needs.

Social Impact

Undoubtedly, Longoria will outlive her spouse, her children, and her friends by decades. There is a very real possibility that she will outlive most of her grandchildren as well, and those grandchildren that have not died will likely be quite old and not in a position to be caregivers themselves.

All of Longoria’s old friends will have long died, and any new friends that still survive will be decades younger than her, and probably have a few generation gaps. It is unlikely that real, meaningful companionship will be attainable, especially with the cognitive decline. It is lonely at the top.

Financial Impact 

Most people plan for retirement and build their nest egg for 20-30 years at most. When the savings run dry, and obviously unlikely to generate new income, the situation becomes rather dire. Medical costs generally increase as people age, and senior care is not cheap. Most likely Longoria will run out of retirement savings, and become a significant financial burden on the children and grandchildren. On the bright side, she will have received more than her fair share of whatever social benefits exist at the time. If any.


Sometimes death is not the worst thing. I’ve heard of the victim’s family asking the judge to spare the killer’s life; they wanted life in prison without parole instead for him, preferably with big black dudes with testosterone squirting out their pores as roommates, and they wished him a long, eventful life. Seems a lot more vicious than death.

Intentions aside, I consider living to 120 a curse.

Faulty Sayings

It is always fun to dissect news reports and play the game of “name that logical fallacy”. In fact, it’s the only way to feel less depressed about the quality of news nowadays.

Recently I heard someone on the news saying “if this can happen, anything can happen”, which is of course a common saying and often repeated without thought. Really? Does the occurrence of an unlikely event increase the likelihood that another unlikely event will occur? Seems to be a case of Reductio ad absurdum, which is also a Non-Sequitur.

A more accurate way of conveying the concept would be “this shows that unlikely events do in fact occur”.

Of course they occur. Otherwise it wouldn’t be news.

Hardest Logic Puzzle

I have come across “the hardest logic puzzle” and been fascinated with it and its variants. It stems from the classic Knights and Knaves puzzle:

There are two boxes to choose from, one of which you must open. One contains a treasure, and one contains a bomb which will lead to certain death. There are two people who both know the contents of the box, a Knight (who always tells the truth) and a Knave (who always lies). You do not know which is which. You can only ask one person one question, and must determine which box to open based on his answer.

The classic solution, is to point to the other guy and ask the question “would he say this box contains the treasure?” and open the other box if he says “yes”.

Using an embedded question, you can get a consistent and meaningful answer.

Let’s try a difficult version of the hardest logic puzzle.

There are three gods (A, B, C). One will always speak the truth (T), one will always lie (L), and one is completely random (R). Completely random does not mean that sometimes he answers truthfully and sometimes lies; it means the answer itself is random. They all understand English, however each god must reply in his own language, either “ja” or “da”, which means “yes” and “no”, in no particular order. The three gods each speak a different language, and unfortunately “ja” or “da” could mean “yes” or “no” differently in each language.

You may ask three yes/no questions to accurately determine the identities of each god. Each question must be placed to one god only at a time, and the same god may be asked multiple questions, consecutively or not, meaning that some god may not be asked any question at all. You may not ask questions that potentially cannot be answered (e.g., Truth would not be able to answer “would you say ‘ja’ if it means ‘no’ in your language?”)

The way the unanswerable question was phrased gives a hint to how the puzzle can be solved. For this very elegant solution, go to Wikipedia.

Thoughts on Scalia’s Rant on DOMA

DOMA is defeated, and Justice Scalia is not happy about it.  It is splattered over the media (huffpo , politico, etc.) about how he is throwing a tantrum like a child.  I found it rather strange that a Supreme Court Justice, who should be arguably one of the best logical thinkers and one of the brightest minds, would be portrayed so negatively in public media, so I decided to look into it a bit more in depth.

I looked up the original source on the SCOTUS website and read his dissent, which turned out to be more nuanced than what the media are reporting.

The first part about actual jurisdiction actually does make sense, and he seems to make a relatively convincing argument.  However, not being a lawyer, nor well versed in the nuances of domain of jurisdiction, I cannot judge the validity intelligently.

His portrayal about the majority demonizing the minority (…the majority has declared open season on any law that…can be characterized as mean-spirited……To question its high-handed invalidation of a presumptively valid statute is to act … with the purpose to “disparage,” ”injure,” “degrade,” ”demean,” and “humiliate” our fellow human beings, our fellow citizens, who are homo­sexual.  All that, simply for supporting an Act that did no more than codify an aspect of marriage that had been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence…) is worth looking at.  Scalia points out that the lawmakers did not necessarily act in malice by supporting DOMA.  It seems true based upon the language of the majority decision, and I would speculate that the court majority came to that conclusion in hindsight.  After all, slavery, also sanctioned by the Bible, seemed like a good idea back in the days.  However, the reality is that this act was enacted in 1996, not 1896.  I believe that a lawmaker owes it to their constituents to think everything through and understand exactly what they are voting on, and what that legislation implies BEFORE they act.  Sadly, that is probably the last thing on their minds, with DOMA being one example but the PATRIOT act being a more egregious violation by far.  Outright malice?  Probably a stretch.  In my opinion, it is a lot more likely to be the result of blind recklessness.  However this is simply an observation on the language of the judgment, and not an argument why DOMA should stand.  I agree with Scalia about the post-hoc reasoning and tribal-like false dichotomy; however it is off-topic.

His other rant about court sanctioned homosexual sodomy leading to a slippery slope (…when the Court declared a constitu­tional right to homosexual sodomy, we were assured that the case had nothing, nothing at all to do with “whether the government must give formal
recognition to any rela­tionship that homosexual persons seek to enter.”…), is what I have the biggest issue with.  This, I contend, is the main issue most conservatives find difficult to deal with.  The actual act of homosexual sex.  It disgusts or at least pretends to disgust them, and instead of risk exposing their bigotry and openly condemning the people that practice consensual homosexual acts, they employ different tactics such as deferring to a deity of choice or state legislation.

There are two main objections I have to this issue.  The first is that it is not the state’s business, or indeed anyone’s business aside from the participants, to be concerned with consensual sex, whether it is between members of the same sex or not.  A consensual act with no victim should not be a crime (and according to Lawrence vs. Texas, is not a crime).

The second objection I have is that this alleged disgust-turn-hatred obsession focuses on such a small part that it trivializes marriage to the physical contact of various body parts.  I would like to think that marriage is about commitment, partnership, companionship, intimacy, and above all, love.  Yes, physical sex is part of it, but I would argue that few get married with that as the primary motivation.  If the slippery slope argument is the best reasoning (non-technical argument) that can be put forward against gay marriage, then the strength of their argument is sad indeed, and Scalia should know that.

This is obviously a dividing issue that evokes strong emotional feelings.  A personal knee-jerk, visceral aversion towards a certain behavior (such as Pat Robertson’s here) should not be the basis for a law.  Rather, it is careful, solid reasoning that should prevail.  Paraphrasing Johnathan Haidt, pointing out reasoning flaws in a moral issue and expecting others to change their stance, is like wagging a dog’s tail with your hand and expecting it to feel genuinely happy.

What also bothers me is that Scalia, being a Supreme Court Justice, entrusted with immense power, can not only let emotion contaminate his thinking, but also issue it as an official dissenting opinion.  Humans do not get it right all the time, and neither do groups of people like SCOTUS (case in point: Japanese internment during WWII).  However as a Supreme Court Justice, he owes it to the people to at least think clearly, carefully, and impartially on every issue that comes before him.  That is what the job entails.

I am also somewhat disappointed at the wording of the majority decision. It implies that participants in the legislation and enactment of DOMA acted in bad faith, with the express purposes of demeaning, discriminating, and influence on state legislation, largely ignoring the many legitimate federal issues DOMA addressed.  Although I am glad that DOMA is defeated, it does not quite leave a good taste.

Thoughts on Revenge

Unlike reparation, most moral philosophers regard revenge as morally unacceptable, in the sense that harm is inflicted but achieves little to nothing for the revenging party, aside from satisfaction.  Revenge can be destabilizing because the harm inflicted is very often perceived by the receiving party as not proportional to the original encroachment, and can easily descend into a vicious circle such as a blood feud.

Our evolved, primitive sense of justice is the main driver for revenge, since it seems to be consistent across different cultures, and not limited to humans.  The primary motive for humans is to seek pleasure or satisfaction by inflicting harm to the perceived offending party, and perhaps as a secondary motive, to potentially deter future offenses.  Revenge is not necessarily justice, however that is not in the scope here.

What the revenging party gains is mainly emotional.  Namely, pleasure or satisfaction from knowing that the offending party has suffered as a result of his party’s action.

An operational definition of revenge according to Wikipedia is “a harmful action against a person or group in response to a real or perceived grievance”.  I think that this definition lacks some of the key psychological requirements central to revenge.

Let’s see what makes up revenge.  For simplicity, let’s call the party seeking revenge A, and the recipient party of the revenge B.

First requirement, a perceived grievance against A, with B being the perceived offender.  Or is it?  Say B tortures a puppy unaffiliated to A, and A decided to whack B with a sledgehammer on behalf of the aforementioned puppy.  Is that considered revenge?  I would argue that it is, since A is taking pleasure in punishing B for actions that offended A, albeit  indirectly.  It would be considered as exacting revenge on a third party’s behalf.  Therefore, I would revise to be, “a direct or indirect harm or injustice perceived by A, with B being the perceived offender”.

Second requirement, intention of harm by A to B in direct response to said perceived offense.  If there is no intention, it cannot be considered revenge.  Say A accidentally runs over B with a truck unknowingly.  A can certainly take pleasure in this development, however it cannot be considered revenge, since there had not been an intention to do so FOR the original grievance.  At best it can be considered “karma”.  But not revenge.

Third requirement, formulation of a plan by A to inflict harm upon B.  Or is it?  Say B happened to walk under a piano and A saw the opportunity and decided to cut the rope holding the piano, flattening B in the process.  That would certainly be considered revenge.   There is no advance planning, only a snap decision in face of a fleeting opportunity.  So scratch that requirement.

New third requirement, actual infliction of harm upon B through conscious action or inaction by A.  Say B is drowning and A declines to act to save B.  That would certainly be considered revenge.  What about the conscious part?  Say B is drowning with 9 other people.  If A consciously decides to save others and not B, that is certainly revenge.  However if A simply clams up and does not save anyone, then it would be hard pressed to call it revenge.

Fourth requirement, derivation of satisfaction or pleasure for A from the infliction of harm to B.  Or is it?  Say B drowned as a result of A declining to act.  However after doing so,  A did not derive any pleasure, contrary to what he had thought he would.  Is that still considered revenge?  I believe most would say yes.  So what was wrong with the requirement?  I argue it is the anticipation of pleasure or satisfaction that is essential, and not the actual outcome.  Therefore, I would revise the requirement to be, “anticipation of satisfaction or pleasure for A from the infliction of harm to B”.  It is irrelevant whether said satisfaction is actually experienced or not.  So what, then, is the act of revenge without anticipation of pleasure?  I would call it a form of retribution.  It seems more like the governmental justice system, indifferent and detached.

Final requirement, B knowing or guessing to a reasonable certainty that said harm was inflicted by A, in response to a previous perceived grievance.  Or is it?  Does B have to know that the harm was inflicted by A for the revenge to be valid?  It would certainly be more satisfying to A knowing that not only had perceived justice been done but also that B was aware that it had been doled out by the wronged party.  Most would agree that this proposed requirement is not essential to revenge.  It would require significant mental discipline on A to resist the natural urge to gloat, and realize that there is no real upside to B knowing.  It is a comparatively rational form of revenge, and in my opinion the only type that ends the vicious circle.  So let’s scrap the final requirement.  Of course revenge is not only between A and B, but also to deter other parties from potential transgressions towards A.  I think that whether publicly/implicitly known or not, A would still sport a Duchenne smile.

Revenge is therefore better defined as: “Inflicted harm through conscious action or inaction in direct response to perceived direct or indirect grievance, with anticipation of satisfaction or pleasure from the infliction of said harm”.  I am probably committing great offenses to the English language here but hey, this is my blog.

Take the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon as an example.  Currently the perpetrator is unknown, and no party has claimed responsibility yet.  It is probably reasonable to speculate that it is likely to be an act of revenge, rather than a ill conceived test or stupidity gone awry.  Should the responsible party not come forward at all, I would argue that is a more effective modality of revenge.  Not that I condone the bombing in any way; this is simply my opinion on the nuances of revenge execution.


1. The bombing suspects are now known, but my point still stands.

2. I am ignoring a very important function of revenge, which is deterrence.  Deterrence is most effective when the revenge is done in a public (or at least implicitly public) manner.  The lust for revenge likely evolved psychologically from deterrence.


Although I think the “Skeptical 12 Step Program” is really a 3 step program,  I think that the first step is the one most profound: “we admit that our cognition, perception, and memory are flawed, and pseudoscience and gullibility are rampant”.

Everyone knows to a certain extent that they can be fooled by others to a certain extent.  For examples, by magicians, politicians, used car salesmen, parents, spouses, etc.  In my opinion, the REAL first step is realizing how often, unconsciously, and profoundly one can be fooled by himself/herself.  Realizing that one has been fooled by others is easy.  How does one break out of self-delusion if he doesn’t even know self-delusion is possible?   As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”.

There are plenty of books such as “Sleights of Mind” that are not only insightful but also entertaining, and those can be great as an introduction.  Others like “Mistakes Were Made” are interesting but belabors the point IMO.  I personally benefited greatly from taking some excellent free courses in psychology on iTunes U, and I highly recommend courses from Dr. Jeremy Wolfe and Dr. Paul Bloom. 

A long time ago when I was studying engineering, I actually considered psychology a scientifically imprecise, and by mistaken inference, a less legitimate field.  It was not until much later in life, after I got interested in behavior, psychology, and neuroscience, that led me to look into the field, and by doing so, alter my misconception.  Engineers are used to dealing with hard numbers, and although it is true that you cannot quantify thoughts, it does not diminish the insight it provides to the human mind, nor does it imply that the theories make less useful or testable predictions. 

Compared to the other bodily organs, the chunk of thinking meat between your ears is by far the most difficult to understand, and recent scientific advancements have made it possible to peer into some of the inner workings of the chunk of crumpled meat.

I’ve always wondered at what point the meat turns bad and the ability to think deteriorate.  My guess is that the CPU slows down, RAM is lost, some ROM is corrupted, and the keyboard gets stuck.  Eventually, “Inception” style,  entire levels of consciousness (e.g., this is sweet – this is sweet but is artificial and has no calories – I am consciously thinking about the fact that this sweetness is from an artificial sweetener – I am blogging about the fact that I might lose the ability to consciously think about the useless assessment of that stupid sweetener) will be lost.  Maybe it’ll be like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon.

Lawyers and scientists

Note: This post is poorly written and need heavy editing.  Read at your own risk.


Which profession garners more respect: Lawyer or Scientist?

I think most people would choose Scientist.  In fact, most polls put Scientist in the top 3 but Lawyers somewhere in the mid-low range.  But why?  Both professions require extensive education and qualifications; both do a lot of research, and use reasoning as part of their daily jobs.  What makes one so much more respectable than the other?

How much of the perception is influenced by the second hand Hollywood stereotype of the slick talking, self-serving, win-at-all-cost image vs. the smart, honest, socially-awkward nerd, and how much of that sterotyping is real?

This is what I think.  Regardless of stereotypes, the professions use similar tools but serve very different purposes.  The job of a lawyer is to protect the client’s interest; the job of a scientist is to pursue knowledge scientifically, wherever that may lead.  Given the same information, a competent lawyer will cherry-pick the evidence beneficial to his client to build his case and arguments, and formulate defending arguments against the detremental evidence against his client (that was conveniently ignored).  The lawyer is paid to win, to protect his client’s interest, not to pursue the truth.  A competent scientist will look at everything and base his opinion on the quality of the available evidence.

If both are merely doing their jobs, why are lawyers so looked down upon?

Let’s say a top-notch tax lawyer is able to exploit all the loopholes in the system and save a billionaire obscene amounts of money.  Many would find that disgusting.  However, assuming that no law is broken, is it really the lawyer’s fault for being excellent at his job (protecting the client’s interest)?  How about a criminal defense lawyer who is able to get a serial child molester/murderer off the hook?  Is it morally reprehensible to be good at what is legally required of the profession?

The only thing that remains is the conscious choice of this particular profession, which one can hardly criticize.

Let’s take an air force pilot as another example.  Say he is ordered to drop a few MOABs on some villages suspected to harbor high-value terrorists, and is exceptionally accurate and inadvertently wipes out a few orphanages, hospitals, endangered species (a.k.a. collateral damage), along with suspected high-value terrorists.  We do not generally make moral judgements on the pilot for following orders.

The difference between lawyers and pilots would be mainly, one is doing his job and killing for our country, and one is doing his job and making a killing for himself.  The reasoning in professional respect typically goes like this: each dime that shyster helps that rich guy save (cheat) on taxes is a dime stolen from Uncle Sam, which is like stealing from the people, which is stealing from me, those thieves.  Those cratered former zip codes are far away, in a country I can’t spell, and rampant with terrorist-ridden towelheads anyway.  We pay the armed forces = working for me.  Saving on taxes = stealing from me.  And it goes without saying, can’t respect a thief.  Cognitive dissonance wins.