In worship of “I”

The Times of India asks “Is the first person pronoun sacred? Or should it be in the lower case, as it has appeared on our editorial page for the past few months?” and prints an article titled “Me, Myself and I

“Why do we capitalise the word “I”? There’s no grammatical reason for doing so… (some uninteresting history here)
So what effect has capitalising “I” but not “you” — or any other pronoun — had on English speakers? It’s impossible to know, but perhaps our individualistic, workaholic society would be more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small “i” with a sweet little dot.”

I cannot frame a more eloquent response to this assault on my values than this excerpt from Chapter 11 of Ayn Rand’s Anthem

I am. I think. I will.
My hands . . . My spirit . . . My sky . . . My forest . . . This earth of mine. . . . What must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer.
I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.
It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world. It is my mind which thinks, and the judgement of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth. It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect.
Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy: “I will it!”
Whatever road I take, the guiding star is within me; the guiding star and the loadstone which point the way. They point in but one direction. They point to me.
I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.

And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.
This god, this one word:
“I.”

So far I have kept my writings on this blog free from emotion. This undisguised assault on my highest values calls for a proud and passionate assertion. My quoting the excerpt above is a statement of worship for my highest value – me. This assault also calls for a proud and passionate rejection. No one who reads the excerpt and fails to be inspired can claim to be alive in a human sense.

Note:
Aristotle The Geek also has a similar response on his blog. Thanks Aristotle.

Philosophy is difficult – Applied Philosophy – 1

Background – I recently started a technical blog. It has just 4 posts so far, 3 of which are about WPF1. I have not actively tried to promote it. Yet it gets some steady traffic mostly from search engines, something that has started to happen with this blog after 30 posts, despite the fact that 2 of the posts are on highly controversial topics (here in India) and despite the numerous comments I have posted at other blogs. 

Although this is not particularly surprising, the reason is important in the context of this series.

Consider my technical blog. What is its target audience? Software developers working on the same combination of platform, application type and framework as I am. How do people find the blog? By searching for specific keywords, chosen to lead them to a solution to a very specific problem. How do they evaluate what they find? By testing it directly (usually a matter of minutes, or at most of hours) and seeing if it works. Why do they return to the blog (if they do)? Because they have found working solutions in the past and expect to find them again or get alerted to issues they have not encountered yet.

Consider this blog. What is its target audience? Everyone (i.e, no one in particular). How do people find the blog? By any number of ways but mostly by chance. How do they evaluate what they find? By reasoning about it or by their emotional reactions or by some mixture of both. Certainly not by testing it (That would take weeks, if not months or years). Why do they return to the blog? Most of the returning visitors are those who already agree with the content.

This difference is inherent in the nature of the two fields – software and philosophy (and more generally any technical field and philosophy). Technical content is narrow in scope, specific in its application and indisputable in its validity. Philosophy deals with everything that is. Technical content (with the necessary background) is easy to understand, easy to apply and its benefits are immediate and tangible. Philosophical ideas are difficult to understand, difficult to apply to real life situations even after they are understood and their benefits are rarely immediate or tangible. Philosophy is difficult.

Notes:
1) A not-yet-mainstream framework for writing desktop software applications for Windows.

Applied Philosophy – Series

This is an introduction to a series where I intend to put my thoughts on several loosely related topics and finally tie them together.

1. My tech blog gets much more traffic than this blog with no active effort to promote it.

2. Some comments on the article Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid

3. Some comments on the essay Why Nerds Are Unpopular?  (Thanks to Gus Van Horn for pointing me to it)

4. Analysis of a comment by a friend that “Perfect capitalism is untenable because of an innate desire for security in most men”

5. Conclusion

The series will begin with my next post.

Culture

What is a culture? What is its role in man’s life? Can a culture be good or bad?

The concept culture refers to shared beliefs, practices, tastes, values, attitudes etc. A culture plays many important roles in man’s life

Cognitive:
As a child grows, he learns by observing the world around him. An important part of this learning process is observing and mimicking the actions of others. He builds his knowledge and his concepts on the evidence that he sees – the facts that he observes, the results of the actions that he and others around him perform. Even as an adult, it is difficult – if not impossible – for man to consciously and explicitly think about every issue in his life or question all conventional wisdom. A conscientious man will attempt to find first hand all the relevant evidence on issues that he considers important. But he will also have to depend on commonly held beliefs and on trusted authorities. Clearly then, the extent of a man’s knowledge, the validity of his concepts, his conviction in his beliefs all depend to a considerable extent on the culture he lives in. This should be obvious. The most intelligent and conscientious man living in a tribal society has far less knowledge and holds far more false beliefs than an average person in a modern industrial society.

Moral:
A very important part of commonly held beliefs are moral beliefs – beliefs about the right way for man to live his own life and to deal with others. These beliefs determine how a society will deal with those who choose to dissent. Irrespective of the specifics of these beliefs, a person who chooses to dissent on fundamental beliefs will be shunned by society. But a society that does not believe in the right to dissent will make life physically impossible for the dissenters.

Practical:
It is easier for a man to live in a society whose members speak the same language, have similar behavioral habits, eat similar foods etc. A shared culture eases communication and makes interaction predictable.

Psychological:
Shared tastes in music, literature, cinema, sport etc provide psychological support to man. They give him ways to enjoy the company of friends and content for polite conversations with strangers. They help in making a purposeful life complete.

These roles are interrelated, particularly the cognitive and moral ones. As an example, although the role of culture in the cognitive realm is one of default (It affects those beliefs which a man has not consciously questioned), a freedom-loving and rights-respecting culture increases the motivation to question and discover knowledge while an authoritarian culture kills it. As another example, a technologically advanced culture gives men leisure time to spend on the arts.

The cognitive and moral aspects of a culture are its defining or essential characteristics. It is easy for man to change his food and behavioral habits, or to enjoy different sports. It is not very difficult to learn a different dialect or a new language. It is difficult to reject long held fundamental beliefs. It is nearly impossible to change a thought process or an outlook on life. These are formed at the early stages of a person’s growth and they are the core of a person’s identity. A culture that promotes rational and independent thought is a great value to its members. A culture that inhibits it is a great burden.

A note on geography and globalization:
Today geography is an important factor in the way culture affects a person’s life. As globalization happens and people are exposed to ideas (and their effects) from other cultures, the importance of geography will decrease. But globalization is by no means an inevitable process. A culture that seeks truth and believes that its pursuit is possible by natural means will welcome globalization. A culture that believes that truth can only be attained by mystical insights will consider outside influences as harmful and will close itself to them. Moreover the mere spread of ideas and information is no guarantee that the right ideas will win. Information has to be interpreted. Ideas have to be understood. Understanding ideas and interpreting information from another place or age is not an easy task – especially in cultures dominated by bad ideas. The success of globalization depends on active effort by intellectuals who understand its nature and importance. If globalization fails, the results might be worse than if it had never occurred.

Patriotism

The concept of patriotism (atleast from what I remember of my school education) is presented as a self-evident virtue requiring no justification. It is presented as a virtue by merely describing it with positive (and often hyperbolic) adjectives and by associating it with the concept of sacrifice (which is also presented in the same way). In contrast, concepts like honesty, hard work, optimism, determination, punctuality etc are presented as virtues by demonstrating the results of practising them. The obvious purpose behind such a presentation is to condition peoples’ minds to consider these concepts as virtues merely by association with actual virtues and without ever needing to provide a single reason. The question is

Is patriotism actually a virtue and if so why is it presented this way?

Patriotism is love for or devotion to one’s country. A country is a geographical region with a single ruler or government. Except for periods of political turmoil, the people of a country usually share the same culture. Love for one’s country is love for its culture or its political institutions. Patriotism is a contextual virtue, not a fundamental one. It is a virtue if one’s culture or political institutions are valuable.

India’s political institutions are clearly not worthy of love. What about its culture? The first thing that comes to mind (and overwhelmingly so) when one thinks of Indian culture is the religiosity of its people – an unthinking, unquestioning attitude of blind obedience to tradition. This can be seen in the way religious rituals are a part of everyday life in general and all special occasions in particular like festivals, the inaugration of a home or an office or a business, the birth of a child, marriage, death, anniversaries of death. This is worthy of ridicule, not love.

Patriotism is not a virtue in the Indian context. It is merely a convenient concept that is employed by the power-hungry as a cover for their actions. Just like the concept of sacrifice, it is used to draw attention away from the results and legitimacy of actions and focus it on their allegedly noble motivations.

A Confession of Collectivism

In a guest article in The Times of India, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes1

“The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality … You can create a global continuum with the most individualistic societies — like the United States or Britain — on one end, and the most collectivist societies — like China or Japan — on the other. The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts … individualistic societies have tended to do better economically But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? … A new sort of global conversation develops. The opening ceremony in Beijing was a statement in that conversation. It was part of China’s assertion that development doesn’t come only through western, liberal means, but also through eastern and collective ones … it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge … the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts. The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream. It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”
(Emphasis mine)

Note that Brooks sees China’s recent economic success as the sole criterion for deciding whether collectivist are attractive inspite of the fact that China is a dictatorship that routinely violates the rights of its people. By his own observations about the preferences of individualists (“The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first”), that makes him a collectivist (Also note that he does not believe in individual choice). So why does a collectivist need to write an article saying that the ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be attractive? Because he believes in collectivist ideals but also wants the dignity of a society that respects rights and privacy. At some level he realizes that the two are incompatible (Note his cynical final sentence) but he is unwilling to choose one over the other. Even as some Eastern societies are accepting the fact that collectivism does not work and are starting to prosper by slowly embracing individualism, the collectivists in the West are trying to use this prosperity as evidence that their ideals can actually work.

Notes:

1) Thanks to Aristotle The Geek who alerted me to the fact that there is an extra paragraph in the Brooks original NYT article. That paragraph does not change the essence of his article or my post however.

Today’s Cultural Vacuum

This post began as a reply to a comment on my previous post that said “We must do something about it otherwise it will be too late.” but I decided it was worthy of posting as an entry by itself1. So here goes.

Indeed now is the time to do something about improving our culture. The culture around us today is dominated by people who have seen that the ideals they believed in have failed. Instead of questioning the ideals, they have chosen to reject the necessity of ideals and principles itself. They believe that as long as they do not stick to any principles and do not take any definite stands but keep revising their positions everytime a new angle of some issue confronts them, all will be well. But man cannot live without ideals or principles. Since these men have not questioned their ideals, they still believe in them implicitly, and these ideals still drive the decisions they make, but this time unconsciously. The old leaders and trend-setters of this country atleast had the advantage of knowing what they wanted and of being sure of what they chose, no matter how flawed their ideas were. The cultural leaders of today now live in perpetual doubt, ready to change their stands at a moments notice. They are in the position of men trying to navigate a vast desert who have seen that the compass they had is faulty and decide to depend only on the terrain around them but end up using the faulty compass everytime they get confused. Except that the compass here is a code of ethics and the terrain is a world that gets more complex by the day as technology progresses. It is no wonder that our politics is now dominated by crooks (in place of the misguided do-gooders) who know how to take advantage of the cultural vacuum and the lack of any principled opposition. The time is indeed ripe for those who know the importance of ideals and principles to discover the right ideals, advocate them and take control of the culture. Cultural trends are set by those who dare to set them. Today India is in a position where no one will present any real opposition to anyone who dares to set the trends. If those who have the right ideas fail to set the right trends, the fault will squarely be theirs.

Notes
1) Since it integrates the content of some earlier posts and has to do with the purpose of this blog.

Abortion, Female Foeticide and Rights

The fundamental issue in the abotion debate is (or should be) “Does a fetus have rights?”. Answering this question requires an understanding of the question of rights.

What are rights? Why are they necessary? Where do they come from? Is it possible to protect everyones rights? If not whose rights get precedence? Who decides? By what standard?

The concept “right” – as in right vs wrong (not the political concept of rights) – arises because man has the capacity of choice and alternatives to choose from. To judge whether a particular choice is right or wrong, he needs to evaluate the consequences of the choice with respect to a purpose. To evaluate consequences, he needs knowledge and reason. To compare the consequences of different choices, he needs a standard. A normal human has all of these attributes. He is born with the capacity to choose, to think, to gain knowledge. As a living being, he has an ultimate purpose of sustaining his life (man’s life is his ultimate purpose because without it he can have no other values or purposes). The laws of reality provide him with a standard, a way to determine whether the consequences of his choices help to serve his purpose. The concept “right” thus applies to living beings with a capacity of choice and thought.

This means it is right for man to think, to understand the world around him and gain knowledge, to systematize this knowledge to form principles, to apply these principles to his life to pursue his ultimate purpose. It is wrong for man to evade thought, to evade the evidence of his senses, to form ideas that contradict his knowledge, to act against his principles, to refuse in any way to see reality for what it is. To translate his thoughts into actions, man needs freedom to act on his judgements. The only thing that can curtail this freedom is the use of force by other men. Since man lives in a society of men, each of whom needs this same freedom, it is right for man to organize a system that protects him from force. This organization is government. The means it uses to achieve this purpose are laws and rights. Rights – the political concept of rights – are a sanction of the human need for freedom to translate thoughts into action. The rights of individuals cannot conflict with each other. Maintaining the rights of one individual requires no positive action from anyone else. Everyones rights can be maintained in peace as long as no man initiates the use of force. A man (and any group of men) who initiates force is a criminal. A government that initiates force is just a group of criminals who have happened to seize power. The sole purpose of government is to protect all its members from force. Any other actions that it undertakes are a violation of someones freedom to act. Just as it is right for man to form an organisation to protect his rights, it is wrong for man to institute or sanction a government that violates someones rights.

Rights are the conditions that are required for every man’s survival – a legal recognition that man must be free to act on his thoughts. They arise from the nature of man. They are not granted by society. Their recognition is the result of voluntary action on the part of individuals. Rights of individuals do not conflict. Conflicts arise only when men do not respect the rights of others or demand rights that cannot exist without violating others rights. The protection of rights and the resolution of conflict between men (not between rights) is achieved by implementing appropriate objective laws.

Once the nature of rights is understood, it is easy to resolve the issue of abortion. A fetus is a living human entity. But it lacks the capacity of choice and thought. Without this capacity the question of political rights is moot. Even the moral concept of right (on which the political concept of rights depends) does not apply to a fetus. Granting the “right to life” to a fetus is synonymous with violating the freedom of the mother. This position – called pro life – by its supporters, is deeply anti life. By violating the freedom of the mother, it destroys the conditions required for her survival.

It has been argued that a principled protection of a woman’s right to an abortion is impractical in a country where female foeticide is a serious problem. More widely, it is argued that the principled protection of everyones rights is utopic, idealistic, impractical and perhaps even undesirable. (For example, many would argue that a person “right” to food or a child’s “right” to education take precedence over a millionaire’s right to invest his money as he sees fit.)

Consider the causes of female foeticide. The fundamental cause is a belief that the male gender is superior to the female gender (Factors like the practice of dowry are not fundamental. They are also a result of this belief.)

This belief is totally irrational (and in more ways than one), especially in a modern industrial society where a drive to succeed and intellectual capacity are the only relevant factors in shaping any individual’s life. Biologically most males are physically stronger than most females and this meant that the genders had different roles in pre-industrial societies. Today even that is irrelevant. Man does not and cannot depend on physical strength in an industrial society. More importantly, individual differences are far more relevant than biological factors in today’s world. Judging a person on the basis of gender is just plain wrong.

Given the prevalence of this belief and its many victims – unlucky children of both genders in the miserable societies where it is prevalent – the question arises “What is to be done?”.

The parents who hold the irrational beliefs are no ones concerns. Their actions too are no ones concern as long as they do not violate anyones rights. Their irrational actions will bring them well-deserved problems. In fact the only subjects of concern can be the children born in these societies. Any rational parent who does not hold these beliefs should make every possible attempt to get out such societies. As for the children, it is an unalterable fact that a childs life will be influenced by its parents and the culture in general. No one can change that fact. Trying to correct the situation by laws that violate people’s rights can only result in the birth of unwanted girls – unwanted by their parents who will not treat them fairly and forced by the state which cannot take responsibility for their upbringing. Trying to provide economic incentives (taken from taxation) is even worse. Since wealth is produced by rational effort, taxing that wealth to change the behavior of irrational men is to penalize the rational to sustain the irrational.

The answer to the question “What is to be done about female foeticide (substitute any other irrational evil here)?” is:

Educate anyone willing to listen to reason. Help any deserving victim within your means. More importantly, do not advocate laws or political action that violates anyones rights (including the rights of the irrational – freedom is meaningless if rationality is enforced). Social problems cannot be solved by political shortcuts. Work for a culture of rights and reason. Do not hesitate to condemn irrationality. Do not feel any sympathy for the well-deserved problems that people face through their irrational behavior. Most importantly, do not lose sight of your own goals and purposes. A rational society and culture are important to personal goals. But they are not the ends.

P.S.

To anyone who made it this far, I strongly recommend investigating the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

The Times’ Response to the Mehta Abortion Case

In the space of the two days after their initial response (which I labeled Intellectual Cowardice), The Times of India has come out with some articles whose substance helps explain their initial response. There could have been two principled stands to take.

a) A woman has an absolute right to her body and no one else may properly interfere with it for any purposes whatsoever.

b) A fetus has an absolute right to life and no one may properly take any action that violates it, irrespective of any risk to the mother or the potential child.

The Times does not take any of these stands. In fact, in the world of moral relativism that it inhabits (and has helped create), it would not even understand any of these stands. It does not think of anything as absolute, not even the right to life. In its world view, everything must be judged within a context and invariably the means of judgement is “a democratic consensus” and the context is “good of the society”. Both the stands above would be termed dogmatic, impractical and dangerous.

As evidence consider:

“There are valid concerns that in a country like India where female foeticide is a real problem, any further relaxation of abortion laws could be misused. However, that argument must not hold reasonable reforms to the MTP Act to ransom. There is a separate law — the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Tests Act — to address the issue of female foeticide. Its enforcement is poor; government would do well to get its act together in that area.”

“Ethicists, social scientists, lawmakers and medical specialists should discuss such issues on a common platform until a consensus is reached. A new and liberal abortion law is urgently required but we need to be careful as it may be abused to perform female foeticide. The medical profession in the past has refused to accept collective responsibility for this genocide and has a poor record in ensuring ethical conduct of doctors. It does not have any credibility and has failed to self-regulate. All future laws must be transparent and have built-in checks and mechanisms to curb female foeticide, while accommodating late abortions of grossly abnormal foetuses.”

“It [The current law] allows termination of the pregnancy even beyond the 20th week, if there is a threat to the mother’s life. However, it does not extend that provision to cases where the child’s health after birth might be under adverse risk. It was this lacuna that the Mehtas were challenging as their unborn child runs the risk of being born with congenital heart ailments.”

(emphasis mine)

In the world view that The Times exemplifies, laws and rights are optimization parameters, that are to be continuously tweaked to achieve the common good. This case then was only a sad but inevitable occurrence that highlighted the need for some more tweaking. Their initial reponse was not intellectual cowardice. It was not intellectual at all. It arose from a rejection of principles as being applicable to life. Since principles are derived by an application of the intellect, it showed a rejection of the intellect, an abdication of the role that a newspaper is expected to play in public discourse.

The Mehta Case and Intellectual Cowardice

In all the detailed coverage that The Times of India gave to the case of the Mehta Couple’s rejected abortion plea, this is what the newspaper had to show as its view:

Times View:For the Mehtas, this is a very difficult time, and our heart goes out to them. It’ll be everyone’s prayer that the child is born without any serious complications and grows up healthy. If the baby is normal, the Mehtas must not be blamed for seeking abortion—after all, they approached the court on the basis of medical evidence that suggested a congenital heart block. At least they had the courage and the honesty to take the legal route instead of aborting illegally. The Mehtas, for their part, must put the legal battle behind them and focus on what’s ahead. There have been cases where children have been born out of extremely complicated pregnancies and gone on to lead normal lives. Also, advances in medical science bring new hope every day.”

This is the same newspaper that began its lead article with

This was a court battle that had everything: law, medicine, ethics, religion—and human drama.”
(Emphasis in original)

P.S.
I wanted to comment, but anything I could say should be obvious.

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