Unquestioned Moral Premises

In a blog entry on Desicritics.org, Shantanu Dutta comments about the manifestation of power in society in response to this incident. He writes

“It looks graceless when people with the power which only their position gives them use it so coarsely – whether it be by slapping a liftman or using the hapless, over worked people under you to look for a missing pet ( for a report on the working conditions of the Delhi Police look here) or raping a woman or through in any of the innumerable ways in which we demonstrate our power, not to lift up the weak but to further crush those who are already trampled.”

and further

“The sad paradigm of power is that the truly powerful seem to be frail of body like broken reeds like Gandhiji or Baba Amte or Nanaji Deshmush or Mother Teresa while their shadows flaunt a caricature of power through golden cages of glitzy cars or the grandeur of Lutyens’ bungalows displaying vain glory in the guise of the emperor’s new clothes as in Hans Christen Anderson.”

Yes. This is sad. But is that all that one can say about it? By what means did those who abuse power get that power? How is it that those who flout moral ideals become powerful while those who practise them consistently remain powerless? If moral ideals are doomed to failure, by what standard are they moral? What is the nature of a moral system that consistently results in punishment for its practioners and reward for its abusers? What is the nature of a moral system that no one has ever succeeded in putting into practice? What is the nature of those who continue to regard these ideals as moral? What is the nature of those that preach these ideals knowing that anyone practising them will be punished?

And finally what is the nature of those who choose not to ask these questions?

 K. M.

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17 Responses

  1. Actually , this post poses difficult questions. I did not have the answers and it looks no one else has either….

  2. In fact the questions were meant to be rhetorical. It should be obvious that something is fundamentally wrong with the moral ideals of a crumbling society, especially a society that boasts of people with great strength of character like Gandhi and Teresa. The answer to the questions is that altruism is a fundamentally corrupt code.
    In a comment on your original post on desicritics I wrote
    “The unquestioned moral ideal today is altruism. It is the idea that the good is sacrificing for others. It is obvious that when someone is making sacrifices, someone must be collecting them. If a person who makes sacrifices is good, what is the nature of a person who collects sacrifices? Why is it good to serve evil?”
    Indian society has not degenerated unfortunately into corruption and brutality. Those were the inevitable results of the moral ideology it started out with.

  3. Got here frm ur Desicritcs link abt “The Future of Freedom”. You presume hurting the weak is abuse of power. When you consider survival of fittest, the weak are normally eliminated from competition so that they will not be party to resources and mates. So, it can follow that the strong seek to denigrate the weak. Gandhi may have looked frail, but he that was his choice. He was one of the most powerful people in his time. Morality is subjective. For example, I would consider equality to be immoral, because there is marked difference between most people, intellectual and physical. But, the majority will disagree.

  4. arbyk,
    Survival of the fittest is a biological concept that applies to species that do not posess free will or the capacity for thought (atleast not in the human sense). It does not apply well to humans. Man has free will and can choose his course of action. His choices determine the course of his life, much much more than any physical or intellectual fitness. Consider the fact that so many people choose to accept the code of altruism, which demands sacrifice and try to practise it (necessarily inconsistently since altruism cannot be practised consistently). Morality is far more important in shaping the life of a person than any kind of fitness.
    Morality is a set of principles that guide man in his choices. As long as his own life is his purpose, morality is objective, since the requirements for living a successful life derive from reality and are objective. If his own life is not his purpose, then man can have no values, since his life is his ultimate value. Man needs to live to have any values at all. Without any values there can be no morality.
    You might be interested in reading my post on equality where I argue that equality of wealth or opportunity (the doctrine of egalitarianism) is indeed immoral.

  5. Survival of the fittest still applies to human societies. It has governed human history till now, because historically the stronger nations have conquered weaker ones and taken away their resources. Wars may not be as common as they used to be, but the stronger nations keep a military arsenal in case they need it to defend their way of life or feel threatened (US after 9/11, being the easiest example).
    The free will of humans is tied down by the responsibilities pushed on by the society and inherited from your parents and family. No one is totally free in today’s perspective. His choices are affected by these responsibilities and the situation they grow up in. U can say there is always a force on him (As u mentioned in the Equality post).
    As far as self sacrifice is concerned, again it is people who take it up. Not societies. No society is willing to risk itself for the sake of another (Otherwise, poverty would be solved much earlier).

  6. arbyk,
    Since our primary disagreement is “Is it moral for the strong to denigrate the weak?”, let me start with an extremely brief outline of an argument that leads to the position with which you disagree. You can then object to any particular step in the argument and we will take it from there.
    Morality is a set of principles that guide man in his choices to help him to achieve and retain his values. Since man needs to live to have any values at all, his own life is his ultimate value. To live man needs to think, and translate his thoughts into actions. From this it follows that thinking or rationality is the primary virtue. Anything that hampers the exercise of rationality is evil. Since force always hampers thought, force is evil. To protect himself from force in a society, it is proper for man to form a government which ensures that any initiation of force is punished. In this social context, the initiation of force for any purpose is wrong.

    From the above arguement, it follows that any initiation of force, whether it be by the strong against the weak or by the weak against the strong, is wrong. Thus it is wrong for the strong to denigrate the weak.

  7. One difference in our analysis is u r focusing on an individual while I am looking at a society. An individual, on his own, is limited and and as a result will have a sub standard life on his own.
    In a society, we can pool talents and bring out better results to evolve forward. But for a society to work optimally, it has to focus its resources optimally as well. Here, people who can bring more talent get more resource, because they can provide a better life for the society. Conversely, the less talented loses out, because their contributions may be minimal or not relevant at all. Hence, there will be an implied force on the weak in a society, if it has to move forward. Also, when faced with a weaker society or individual it makes more sense to take over their resource, because the stronger society will be able to make use of it better.
    If u believe an individual will be able to lead a better life on his own, then u may not consider the above argument valid. So, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  8. “One difference in our analysis is u r focusing on an individual while I am looking at a society.”
    Quite true. Society is only a group of individuals. It is individuals who think, have opinions and make choices. It is individuals who have values, goals and a purpose. Since morality is concerned with values, choices and actions, its starting point is the individual.

    “An individual, on his own, is limited and and as a result will have a sub standard life on his own.”
    True. Man, irrespective of his abilities, has a lot of values to gain from living in a society. But the crucial question here is ‘What social interactions are proper?’ All values are products of the mind. The proper way of gaining values from others is trade – an exchange of values. Force – as the antithesis of the mind – can only destroy values or their producers. Sanctioning the use of force in social interaction can therefore never be proper.

    “Conversely, the less talented loses out, because their contributions may be minimal or not relevant at all.”
    No one loses out in a society that operates on the principle of trade. Neither the strong nor the weak. The weak, by virtue of trade get access to values they could never have created. The strong get access to the efforts they would not like to put in. A society based on trade is to everyones advantage.

    “Also, when faced with a weaker society or individual it makes more sense to take over their resource, because the stronger society will be able to make use of it better”
    All values are products of the mind. The mind needs an environment of freedom (from force) to work. A society that permits the use of force is incapable of creating such an environment. Resources – as the raw material for production – are only valuable in an environment of freedom. Just look at the violence and strife in the Arab societies that are rich in resources but have no freedom.

    “If u believe an individual will be able to lead a better life on his own, then u may not consider the above argument valid. So, we’ll have to agree to disagree.”
    No, I do not believe an individual can lead a better life cut off from society. But it is precisely because society is so important to an individual’s life, that it is crucial to prevent it from degenerating into violence, chaos and anarchy as it is certain to do when it permits the use of force.

    You might be interested in reading Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ for a very dramatic and enjoyable (and life-changing for me) presentation of these ideas.

  9. “The weak, by virtue of trade get access to values they could never have created.”
    What do the weak bring to the table to earn the resources they get? If u look at the poor in India, they are mainly agricultural workers who perform at a lower efficiency than in other nations like US, lack education and cannot provide beyond their profession. In return they get subsidized education and health care and rarely need to pay taxes. Clearly, there is no parity in this situation. Investing more in technology and reducing the number of workers will be more beneficial for the society, but that will be construed as the strong oppressing the weak.

    “All values are products of the mind”
    I disagree with this point of view. We are not brains floating in thin air. There are large sections of the world that rely on their strength to bring value to the society. The brainy ones can utilize the resources of the society, while the brawny ones can work on acquiring them. The US Armed Forces can conquer the Arab nations and let their scientists make use of them in full freedom. The relevance of this situation arises in a situation of dwindling resources. It makes logical sense for the person ( or the society), who can make best use of the resource, to possess them.

    “degenerating into violence, chaos and anarchy as it is certain to do when it permits the use of force”
    Use of force need not degenerate into anarchy. Instead an equilibrium between chaos and control should be maintained. Control as a a way of limiting force and chaos as a way of allowing it.

    Regarding Atlas Shrugged – I have read the book, except for Galt’s speech in the end (because it was too long). Since you recommended I read it, I am guessing either the speech contained more I thought it would, or I interpreted the entire story incorrectly. Ragnar stealing the resources sent to begging non-performing Third World countries would be an example of strong (Ragnar) oppressing the weak (Third World) in my opinion.

  10. Just went thru ur post regarding Poverty on DC. Let me add on to my previous comment, in light of the views presented in that post.

    Since u mentioned unearned reward should be denied, what will the weak do if they lack the skill to attain the reward?

    Agricultural and factory workers rely more on their body than their brain to provide value to the society. It can to an extent be easily automated as well. If automated, the ppl who have lost their jobs, who are mostly adults, have reached an age where it is difficult for them to be taught new skills. The weak are weak because they lack talent and not because of wealth or opportunity . If whatever talent they have can be easily replaced mechanically, what will happen to them?

    The situation will lead to a highly polarized society. We cannot make them stronger because their skills are limited. They will become weaker because their existing skills are redundant and hence they cannot contribute to the society. But since their number is large they can bring a collaborate and form a considerable force in the society (even more politically, if it is a democratic society). So, this force has to be countered by the strong so as to maintain the well being of the society. In a sense, if the strong do not oppress the weak, the weak will oppress the strong. Since the strong will be able to make a better contribution to the society, it will better if the former happens.

    U can ignore the comment regarding Ragnar, since u r also of the opinion the weak should not receive material wealth by giving their weakness as an excuse.

  11. arbyk,
    Let me first address what i see as the central point in your arguments.
    You seem to view life as competition. But it does not have to be so. From a moral perspective, the purpose of life is to achieve happiness, not to compete with others. From a practical perspective, trade as opposed to competition is the most beneficial interaction that one can have with other people. Competition is wasteful. Trade is mutually beneficial. Over the last few centuries, the global economy has grown and reached heights that would have been unimaginable at the start of the industrial revolution. The primary mechanism at work in this process is specialization. People specialize in fields that they have the greatest abilities in and trade the products of their efforts with others. Specialization is in direct contrast to competition. As specialization increases, competition reduces.
    With this background, consider what a proper political system should be like. From a moral perspective, man (every man) needs freedom to act and achieve happiness. Such freedom requires a political system that guarantees it. From a practical perspective, trade requires mutual consent and protection from force. This protection can only come from a political system that protects every individual from physical force. Take a look at these essays by Ayn Rand

    Now let me address some of the issues you raised in your last two comments.

    Regarding Ragnar’s actions in Atlas Shrugged, Ragnar actions were justified, because the government had turned from a protector of rights to its greatest violator. It is crucial to make a distinction between the initiation of force and retalliation by force. The first is oppression and a violation of rights. The second is self defence if the victim carries it out, or justice if the government does so.

    “what will the weak do if they lack the skill to attain the reward?”
    Try to attain the necessary skills by peaceful means, depend on charity, or perish. The government exists to protect people should they resort to force. Government retalliation is not oppression however. It is justice.

    “…They will become weaker because their existing skills are redundant and hence they cannot contribute to the society. But since their number is large they can bring a collaborate and form a considerable force in the society (even more politically, if it is a democratic society)…”
    In a proper political system – a government limited to protecting people from force – no majority may initiate force against anyone. Yes, in a democracy, majorities do vote away the rights of the minorities. But a democracy is not a proper political system. Nor is a democracy the only sustainable system as is commonly believed today. Democracies are prevalent today because a recognition of the nature of man’s rights is almost non-existent today. A majority is not necessary to establish a political system. All revolutions in history have been carried out by small determined minorities. The majority tends to accept whatever political system they happen to live in and mostly follows its rules.

    “I disagree with this point of view. We are not brains floating in thin air. There are large sections of the world that rely on their strength to bring value to the society. The brainy ones can utilize the resources of the society, while the brawny ones can work on acquiring them.”
    Certainly there are many people who rely on physical labor to produce value. But manual physical labor is only used in an industrial society when automating it is impossible or uneconomical. Which means that the manual labor is not fully mindless. More to the point, that labor also has to be learned and performed by an act of the mind. All values are ultimately produced by the mind.

  12. Try to attain the necessary skills by peaceful means, depend on charity, or perish.
    This is the statement I wanted to bring in my first comment. If u can’t cut it, u perish. That is what survival of the fittest is all about. The problem is that people don’t perish by the touch of a button. And they won’t go down without a fight. In such a case, the government, in ur opinion, will step in and prevent the application of revolt. Am I correct?
    Now, from where do the government get their power? In today’s world, the government gets its power by virtue of the support of the mass, which they have to oppress in case of revolt. There is an obvious conflict of interest. So, the stronger ppl use their influence to make sure such a revolt will not happen. This they do by applying force on the weak, making sure they do not have enough resource (in other words, oppress) to revolt. Which brings to my previous comment where I mentioned if strong do not oppress the weak, the weak will oppress the strong.
    I am in agreement with most of ur points, regarding Ragnar and the illogic of democracy, but ur premise regarding strong denigrating the weak holds good in an ideal society, which we are not. In today’s world, the strong oppressing the weak is a pre-empted reply for the weak oppressing the strong. The weak have a higher political clout because of the fallacies of democracy, but the strong make sure the weak do not make use of the clout, by taking action beforehand.

  13. arbyk,
    I think we are in broad agreement about what an ideal political system should be like. So I will not write more on that.

    Consider that there are three kinds of ‘strong’ people today.
    1) The honest productive people, who earn their own wealth, do not try to use political power for economic gains and play what could be called a fair game.
    2) The crooks, who understand how the system operates, understand what it takes to achieve political power, have no scruples about doing so and milk the system for all it is worth.
    3) The productive but unprincipled people, who play along with the crooks when it suits them and cry foul when it hurts them. (people like Anil Ambani come to mind) They operate on the principle “I didn’t make this system, and I can’t help it. I will do whatever it takes to succeed, whether it is fair or not. Don’t lecture me about fairness. There is no such thing”

    Consider that the crooks have no real strength. Evil cannot succeed on its own merits. It is the people in ‘category 3′ who give them their power. It is the people in ‘category 3′ who support the whole system and prevent it from collapsing.
    Not surprisingly, playing along with the crooks is not actually practical. The ‘category 3′ people think that they are smart and can beat the crooks at their own game. But it is a game that has no long term winners, not even the crooks win it for long. The crooks are always fighting against each other for the spoils, and are soon replaced by those who are even less scrupulous or even more brutal. And the ‘category 3′ people lose every time their political patrons lose and also every time their political patrons win, since every subsidy granted, every tax break obtained, every protective tariff enforced, gives greater control to the crooks, making life more difficult for every productive person.
    The system that we are in today can go in only one direction in the absence of any principled opposition – towards chaos and violence. Just look at what happened in Singur for instance. The farmers who owned their property were ousted by a fascist (it is no longer communist) government, with some losing their lives. Mamata Bannerjee started an agitation which resulted in the farmers losing the jobs that they would have got if the factory had been set up. The Tatas who thought they made a smart deal with the government took a massive loss. Mamata might win the next election but might be assassinated by either the cmmunists-fascists or the farmers. Who wins? No one. Not those in ‘category 1′ and not those in ‘category 3′.
    This is why I insist that we oppose any oppression (initiation of force) on moral and practical grounds. That is the only way to establish a proper system.

  14. Mamata Banerjee did what she did because she could garner support. The same for the Left government. Category 2 are dependant on Category 3 for their power.
    The farmers who supported her are not interested in becoming Mamata Banerjee or outdoing her, they were just looking for a better life. So, they resorted to the force with Mamata leading them. Category 3 do not always look to beat Category 2. They are more concerned about themselves. Hence, their support is not permanent either. So, category 2 need to back category 3 to stay in power.
    Thus, the latter two categories live in a mutually dependent structure feeding off the other.
    Category 1 has limited choices – Either join the game and be corrupted, break the current system or perish.
    If u want to establish a proper system, option 2 would be the only option. In current political circumstances, I do not believe that to be feasible. The other option is to join the system, to make sure the next best scenario happens – Keep the weak in check and make sure optimum use of resources and mind. Not a long lasting structure, but more about biding your time till the circumstances allow the second option.

  15. Just realized what I wrote in the end of the last comment. How Category 1 should carry out the second option? While biding time, bring together Category 1, so that they are not wasted in dealing with Category 2 and 3 or change category. Make category 2 dependent on 1, because 1 will have the creative talent and 2 will need them to add value. Weaken the influence of category 3 on 2. Finally take out category 2 (and some of 3, in case needed).
    That sums up “Atlas Shrugged” I reckon, though I still am to read Galt’s speech. Only thing is “Who’s John Galt?” ;)

  16. arbyk,
    I agree with most of your last comment. I do want to emphasize however that a compromise on moral principles can never be practical. One could compromise on narrow political issues, keeping in view the present political reality. But no matter what one does, one must always condemn what one sees to be wrong and also present an alternative. Most people know that something is wrong but cannot think of any alternative.

  17. We do not live in an ideal world. If u want to make it ideal, u need to compromise and look for the bigger picture. For example, Mahatma Gandhi attempted to lead an ideal life and bring independence to India. But Indian independence hd more to do with the devastation suffered by Britain in WWII, than anything Gandhi did. Post independence he recommended Congress be dismantled, which could have led India into confusion over leadership and led India into anarchy (Which we r increasingly progressing to, currently).
    Building an ideal society is a lengthy process. I wud recommend u go thru Issac Asimov’s Foundation series and its correlation with world history.

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