Moral responsibility in relationships

The comment thread on my previous post raised some questions about the nature of values in a relationship and what it means to owe something to somebody. In this post I intend to explore these issues deeper.

A person can be a value to me merely by virtue of existing (so can things). As an example, a baby is a value to the parent in just this way. A person can be a value to me by virtue of his actions even when those actions are not personal. Sachin Tendulkar is a value to me because of the way he bats. Ayn Rand is a value to me because of the works she wrote. The latter is an example of a person no longer alive. Clearly there must be a difference in what (if anything) I owe Ayn Rand as compared to what I owe my parents. This difference arises from the nature of values I receive in these two cases. The values I receive from a hero or a role model with whom I have no personal interaction are non-exclusive. The production of those values is not directed towards me and my consumption of those values does not cost anything to the producers of those values. In contrast, the values that I receive from my parents or in any inter-personal relationship are exclusive. They are directed towards me. The time and money spent by my parents on me was spent on me. It cost something to them.

Exclusive values can be traded. Non-exclusive values cannot. A personal relationship – in as much as a relationship means something more than the existence of two people – is based on the long-term trade of values. This is not to say that non-exclusive values are not important. Many personal relationships would be impossible without non-exclusive values. But it is the trade of exclusive values that makes a relationship personal.

In the context of values, one owes something (exclusive values) to somebody when one is the recipient of exclusive values under mutually acceptable terms (the mutual agreement is usually implicit).

Trip to Mangalore: Reflections

Visited a manufacturing unit for diamond polishing machinery belonging to a business associate from my first venture. The unit contained several lathes, shapers, milling machines, a CNC machine and some other machines I could not identify, some of which were designed/assembled in house. There was nothing extra-ordinary about the machinery but it was difficult not to feel a sense of awe at the complexity of the machines. The owner of the unit is not even an engineer. His father, who apparantly has designed some of the machines hasn’t studied beyond class 8. I am supposedly a mechanical engineer with a masters degree from one of the most reputed colleges in India. What a waste of everyone’s time these degrees are!

Also visited the father of the owner of the unit, 79 years of age and a self-made man who came to Bombay at the age of 16, worked at several places in various jobs, set up a factory with all his savings at the age of 55 and still visits it everyday. The only advice this man had to give us was:
1) Everything comes from god
2) Take care of your parents, don’t make them cry!
I was quite bewildered. The world is a strange place.

Ramblings about Indian Culture

I attended a cousins wedding a couple of weeks back. I was expecting to get bored but ended up having some interesting discussions.

A game that turned philosophical:
An uncle was playing a game with a young cousin who had to answer several questions of the “What is your favorite …?” form. I did not see either the questions or the answers but my uncle declared that my cousin had failed because she ansered some (all?) questions with multiple answers instead of just one. That started a discussion on what it means to like or love something/someone and what these emotions are based on. To which an aunt said: A mother loves both her sons equally. One loves all one’s relatives. That does not mean that one likes them equally or even likes them much. Liking (Aavad in Marathi) is based on judgement. Love (Prem in Marathi) is unconditional (I am sort of putting words her mouth here, but that was clearly the intent). I think this particular sentiment is pretty much the general understanding of these concepts in Indian culture but I was quite surprised to hear my aunt – whom I had never regarded as an intellectual – frame the issue so clearly. It is rare to hear people outside of Ayn Rand novels say anything so clearly. I wonder how many individuals – particularly women – who are quite capable of thinking with clarity, have been turned into confirmists by our culture (More on the particularly women comment later).

A conversation that I dreaded but which turned out quite well:
I am now approaching the official, tradition-optimized age for marriage. As such, every relative – close or distant – is interested. Close relatives actually want to help me find a match. Distant ones are usually content with exhorting me to marry. Usually, I fend off the latter with a smile, but dealing with the former is a more serious affair and I knew I could not put it off indefinitely. It turned out that my uncle – mentioned previously – despite little meaningful interaction with me, had a fairly good idea of what sort of a person I am. When he – inevitably – raised the subject, he started with his own idea of what sort of person would be a good match. The matter of belief in God came up and when I said that I wanted an atheist like myself, he tried to get me to be “less rigid” by pointing out that as compared to men, very, very few women are rationalists (I don’t particularly like the term but it will do. I will use it here to merely describe anyone who does not accept the orthodox conception of God). He went on to explain that children get most (if not all) of their beliefs from their parents and their upbringing and it is only after they are grown (if at all) that they start evaluating and developing their own beliefs. So it does not make much sense to insist on specific beliefs in a potential partner. These could change after marriage too. There was nothing particularly new (to me) in what my uncle said but it was refreshing to have a rational discussion on a topic I hoped to evade.

I also got a new insight from the discussion – there must be a significant difference between the way girls and boys are brought up. In the households I have been in – urban, well-off, stable, salaried folk – I haven’t noticed any significant difference in the upbringing of girls and boys. Girls are educated as well as boys are and are allowed to pursue careers. And yet, it is certainly true that most (an overwhelming majority) girls from these households are orthodox and tradition-bound, while there are a significant number of boys who are much less orthodox. This could be a result of a difference in upbringing. Or it could be that girls tend to submit to authority more easily. I strongly suspect the former and will now be looking out for such a difference more actively. I did get an indication of the difference when an aunt asked me to marry a girl who would be willing to work part-time and take care of my mother. Paradoxically, my aunt’s daughter works a full-time demanding job and seems all set for a good career. I definitely need to understand how these things work.

A formula for life from the bridegroom:
Marry at 28. Have two children by 32. By the time you retire at 60 both your children will be married. Well, the math is certainly immaculate. But I cannot conceive living my life by such formulae. What I find staggerring is the number of people who do live like this. There is a whole thriving marriage industry to enable such formulae. No boy meets girl here. Rather it is family (with boy) meets family (with girl). They negotiate a few times. And if things work out, boy marries girl. Paradoxically, for a culture that looks upon any business activity as lowly and materialistic, the mechanics of a traditional marriage are indistinguishable from those of a business transaction.

Moving on

Discussions on the internet can be very entertaining (and distracting). The comment thread on this post on Raymond Chen’s blog is a case in point. A certain commenter makes a valid point criticizing a misspelled variable name in the post. Several other commenters feel compelled to defend Chen and the original commenter feels compelled to defend himself against them. The comment thread thus becomes a distraction from the highly interesting topic of the post.

Personally, I have learnt to move on after making a point. The point of this post is to reinforce those lessons.

Rationality

In common usage, people sometimes tend to use the words rational and logical somewhat interchangeably. The purpose of this post is to distinguish between these.

Logic:

Logic is the set of rules that allows me to evaluate an arguement independent of its content, purely from its structure. Just as I use grammar to parse a sentence and determine the relationships between the words in the sentence, I use logic to parse an arguement and determine the relationships between the statements in the arguement. Just as a grammatical sentence may be meaningless (Colorless green ideas sleep furiously), a logical arguement may be meaningless or irrelevant. However, the analogy with grammar only goes so far. There are many different grammars and all of them are equally valid within the context of their application – a given language. Any consistently applied way of meaningfully combining words in a sentence forms a grammar. Grammar is a matter of convention. The same is not true of logic. The word itself has no plural. This is a striking fact. Think about it. It indicates that man cannot even conceive of a plural for logic. There can be no such thing as my logic vs your logic. Logic is the structure of coherant thought. It is a part of the mental apparatus that man is born with. It is implicit in the capacity to think. By implicit, I mean that I cannot choose to think illogically (though I may make mistakes). To identify mistakes in thinking, the implicit rules of logic need to be made explicit by identifying them. This is a science. Like all sciences, the science of logic also presupposes several things. In particular, it presupposes man’s ability to use logic (implicitly). Whether the word logic refers to the implicit set of rules or to the science which deals with identifying them depends on context. In this post, I am going to use the word logic to refer to the implicit set of rules.

Reason:

Reason is the faculty of understanding and integrating sensory material into knowledge. Reason does not work automatically. To reason, man has to consciously choose to think and to direct his thoughts to achieve understanding. By directing thoughts, I mean preventing thoughts from wandering by staying focussed. Reasoning involves the use of logic. It also involves several other techniques. “Reason employs methods. Reason can use sense-perception, integration, differentiation, reduction, induction, deduction, philosophical detection, and so forth in any combination as a chosen method in solving a particular problem.” [Burgess Laughlin in a comment on an old post] Deduction obviously uses logic. I believe induction does too but the science on inductive logic is nowhere as well developed as it is on deductive logic. Sense-perception, integration and differentiation don’t use logic (Note: integration and differentiation refer to grasping the similarities and differences between various things). Reason then is not simply the faculty of using logic.

Rationality:

“Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues… The virtue of rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.” [Ayn Rand, in The Virtue of Selfishness]

In the discussion that motivated this post, a colleague argued that if the use of reason does not guarantee correct decisions, it cannot be one’s only guide to action. A gut feeling or intuition might sometimes be a better guide to action. There are two separate issues here – the fact that the use of reason cannot guarantee correct decisions and the claim that intuition can be an alternative guide to action.

Consider intuition first. Intuition is an involuntary automatic evaluation of the available choices. There is no conscious awareness of the reasons for the evaluation. Intuition is a learnt response from previous experience. As such intuition is extremely helpful in any decision making process. However, the fact remains that in every voluntary decision – the sort of decision where there is enough time to reason – intuition is only one of the inputs to the use of reason. As long as I make a decision consciously and deliberately, reason remains the only guide to action. The only alternative is to evade the responsibility of a choice. Relying upon intuition is not irrational in itself. I might decide that I do not have sufficient knowledge to reach a decision and choose to rely upon intuition instead. As long as I identify the lack of knowledge, my decision is fully rational. Identifying the lack of knowledge (and hopefully doing something about it) will actually allow me to learn from the new experience and improve my intuitions for future use. Blindly relying on intuition – by default instead of by choice – will actually weaken my intuition in the long run. Intuition is one of the most valuable tools for decision making but it needs to be carefully cultivated by the use of reason for it to be good or useful.

It is important to stress that rationality (in the context of making a decision) involves the use of all my knowledge to the best of my ability. In particular, this includes knowledge of the time available, the relevance of prior experience and any known gaps in knowledge. It is this last aspect of rationality – the use of known gaps in knowledge – that is the motivation for the field of probability. Probability is about quantifying uncertainty by making use of all known information and postulating equal likelihood where no information is available. The consistent use of the equal likelihood postulate is at the heart of probability theory and it is what gives probability its precise mathematical characteristics. In modeling an outcome for an uncertain event, I start with a uniform distribution (every outcome is equally likely) and use available information to transform it into a more appropriate distribution. The parameters of the transformation represent a quantitative use of known information. The shape of the final distribution represent a qualitative use of the known information.

With this brief treatment of probability, I can now address the obvious fact that the use of reason cannot guarantee correct decisions. Consider an example. I have historical data for the exchange rate between a pair of currencies. I also have market quoted prices for various financial instruments involving the currency pair. To model the exchange rate at some future time with a probability distribution, I can use the historical data to establish the shape of the distribution and the market quoted prices to obtain the parameters of the distribution. If I had more information (say a model for other parameters that affect the exchange rate), I could incorporate that too. A decision based on such a model would be a rational decision. On the other hand, I could say that since the model does not guarantee success, I will simply use a uniform distribution (Ouch!! That is not even possible since the range for the exchange rate is unbounded. Let me simply restrict the range to an intuitive upper bound) with the arguement that the uniform distribution might actually turn out to be better. Yes, it might turn out to be better, but the arguement that it should be used is still invalid (Consequentialism is invalid and I am not going to argue this). Not all decisions can be formulated with precise mathematics like this, but the principle is the same. It is always better to use all my knowledge to the best of my ability.

Another aspect of the original discussion remains unaddressed – the claim that rationality is subjective. Since this post has already got long enough, I will just stress here that there is a difference between context-dependent and subjective.

Justice

In comments on a previous post on discrimination against Muslims in Mumbai, Krishnamurthy asks

…suppose you have a “weak” government, which does not run schools, provide health care, etc.

What’s to prevent the “majority”– “those in power” — from denying education and other resources to the “minority”?

The concern is that a section of people who possess “power” – political and/or economic – engage in irrational discriminatory behavior to the detriment of certain other sections of people. The Indian caste system is a case in point. The issue is whether this concern should be addressed by political measures such as laws against discrimination, affirmative action, reservations etc.

It is clear that political measures against irrational discrimination necessarily infringe on the freedom of the individual to act according to his own judgement and therefore are unjust. On the other hand, the discrimination is also clearly unjust. This is seemingly a moral dilemma. This dilemma must be resolved before one can evaluate the practicality of political measures.

The first step in resolving the dilemma is to distinguish the concept of justice from the concept of fairness.

Fairness (in its most plausible form) is the idea that people are entitled to benefits that are in line with their capabilities – commonly referred to as equality of opportunity. Consider the question: Is it fair that some people are born rich and some are born poor? If it is unfair, who is responsible for it? Next consider the question: Is it fair that some people are tall and some are short? If it is unfair, who is responsible for it? It should now be clear that whether one is born rich or poor, tall or short is a metaphysical fact. It is neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong, neither fair nor unfair. It simply is. Metaphysical facts are not subject to normative judgement. A person’s genetic makeup, his family, his attributes are part of his identity. Different people will necessarily have different identities. To hold that this is unfair is absurd. The concept of fairness has no basis in reality.

What about justice? What facts of reality is the concept of justice based on?

What fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around him, i.e., must judge and evaluate them.


Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature, that you must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with the same respect for truth, with the same incorruptible vision, by as pure and as rational a process of identification—that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly,…

                  — Ayn Rand

The concept of justice arises from the individual’s need to judge people. Justice pertains to the mental process by which an individual judges others. A mental process cannot be forced. The injustice in discrimination lies in the fact that the person making judgements includes considerations that are not relevant to the judgement. The only way to correct this injustice is to make him realize the error in his judgement. The appropriate tool for this is arguement and persuasion, not coercion. Judgement cannot be forced. When one attempts to correct the injustice in discrimination by coercive measures, one is severing the concept of justice from the facts that give rise to it. The motivation for making good judgements is to be able to act on them. Forcing a man to act against the judgement of his mind is the worst imaginable way of improving his judgement. One cannot achieve justice by destroying the need for it. Man must be left free to act on his own judgement as long as he allows others to do so.

The potential for injustice is inherent in the fact that man is neither infallible nor omniscient. As such his judgements will not always be right. It is not possible to eliminate injustice. One can try to reduce its consequences when it is in one’s own interest to do so. That is what proper charity should be about. This is the resolution to the dilemma. As long as the injustice in question does not involve coercion, such injustice cannot be criminalized. It should be worked around by charity.

Now that the moral questions are resolved, one can address the practicality of political measures against discrimination. As the history of caste based reservations in India shows, these reservations do not work. 50 years after they were instituted, political parties continue to call for increasing their scope. If there could be a plainer indication that they do not work, I don’t see what it might be. What does work is just plain self-interest and appropriate charity. Those who see the injustice of discrimination stand to benefit. They get to work with a larger pool of deserving people. Those who engage in discrimination lose out. The free market at work. It takes its time – changing people’s ideas always does – but it is the only thing that works.

As with any idea, one of the most effective ways of determining its truth is to examine all of its logical implications. If it can be beneficial to abolish discrimination in education and employment decisions, why stop there? Why not go further and abolish discrimination in friendships? Why not abolish discrimination in marriage? Surely these would have a greater effect? Most people would shudder at this suggestion. Yet this is just one of the implications of the same idea. This absurd suggestion only makes plain what is a little more difficult to see when one is merely looking at economic effects. Economic judgement cannot be forced just as personal judgement cannot be forced. There is no such thing as forced justice.

Passivity

I was listening to a radio programme with a host (epithet loveguru) who in between songs, takes questions on matters “related to the heart” and heard this conversation (translated from Hindi)

A girl: I had a proposal for marriage. I liked the guy but our kundalis didn’t match. Now I have another proposal where the kundalis match. I like the new guy too. I am confused. [In a typical Indian arranged marriage, a family puts forward a proposal to another family, astrological records are matched and the couple gets to meet a few times before deciding]

loveguru: I can’t understand your problem. Why do you need to think so much? For whatever reason your earlier relationship didn’t progress. Now you have a new opportunity. Take it and move on.

Note the second-handedness involved in asking a total stranger for advice on deeply personal matters. And note the complete passivity being preached. This passivity is pervasive in Indian culture. In a comment on an earlier post, Burgess Laughlin wrote

…The Times article refers to “fatalism.” If fatalism is indeed widespread in India, what is its source? A particular religion?

I have still not identified the source of this passivity or fatalism beyond the concept of karma. But this is a concrete instance and I thought I should record it for future reference.

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