Ridiculous lyrics

Yun to akela hi aksar
Gir ke sambhal sakta hoon main
Tum jo pakad lo haath mera
Duniya badal sakta hoon main
Maanga hai tumhe
duniya ke liye
Ab khud hi sanam faisla kijiye

From the movie: Mere Jeevan Saathi (1970). Lyricist: Majrooh Sultanpuri

Rough English translation:

Usually, all by myself,
after a fall, I can pick myself up.
But if you take my hand,
I can change the world.
I have asked for you,
for the sake of the world.
Now, my love, decide for yourself

Love is the most selfish emotion that one can experience. Claiming that it is for the sake of the world – I wonder what it takes to sink so low.


Just happened to read this comment on a post about the relevance of Silverlight (a web software development framework from Microsoft)

It is the same song and dance all over again. The technology names are mere variables in a profit creation algorithm. Geeks love this drama though, as if it matters somehow. If all the time and energy spent discussing this crap was instead spent trying to help the less fortunate live better lives, the world would be a much better place. Oh well, that’s life!

                    — Josh Smith

What??? It is precisely because some people spend time and effort to choose and develop various technologies and make profits that anyone – fortunate or not – is able to live a better life.

For context, the person writing the comment is the owner of a high quality blog on WPF and Silverlight and by all indications loves his work.

Superstition and the free market

These days, several local TV channels here in Mumbai show advertisements for trinkets, bracelets, necklaces, armbands and what not with mystical powers. Usually these advertisements are preceded with a disclaimer stating that the channel does not take any responsibility for the claims made in the advertisements. I suppose most rational people would be disgusted by this and would be indignant at the channels and the swindlers who make such “products”. I cannot help feeling disgust myself but this is merely the free market at work and it is all for the good. There is a large number of people who are superstitious and desperate enough to try out these things and it is inevitable that someone will cater to them. The beauty of the free market is that it “works” even when the participants in the market are irrational. Whatever one may think of the swindlers and the channels involved, the free market (in this case) transfers money from superstitious fools to more rational people. That is good. And as more and more such “entrepreneurs” step into the market, the ineffectiveness of their “products” becomes easier to see. That is good too. Perhaps some fools will come to their senses after burning their fingers. That is good too. Those who don’t deserve to lose their money. That is justice. And the free market achieves this without coercion and without the altruism involved in activist efforts to reform people. Leave men free to deal with reality on their own terms and you have freedom, justice, efficiency and progress.

Consider the opposite where a government tries to regulate and restrict the sale of such “products”. Who pays for the government’s efforts? The rational tax payers. Who benefits? The superstitious fools. The net result? Money is transferred from the productive rational people to superstitious fools. Virtue is penalised and stupidity is protected. Can one imagine injustice worse than this? The only thing that can justify this is the miserable doctrine of altruism. Prevent men from dealing with reality on their own terms and you have bureaucracy, injustice and inefficiency.

Selfishness and death

I happened to watch a Hindi movie “Hu tu tu” while on a short break. The movie is about two people who are suffocated by the corruption of their politician parents and the system in general. In the climax, the couple blow themselves up along with their parents at a political rally. The socialist/communist sympathizing is disturbing but the climax is striking. It illustrates what bad philosophy does to serious minded people who question the system. Something is very wrong when killing someone, no matter how evil, becomes a higher purpose than living one’s own life. In one scene the male protagonist (Sunil Shetty) explains that he doesn’t know if what he is doing is right or wrong, but he knows that it is not selfish and that is extremely satisfying. Perhaps the script writer did not realize how effective the story line is as a warning against selflessness. A proper life is selfish and consistent selflessness is death. The movie illustrates that very well.

Update: The script is written by the celebrated Gulzar and his daughter Meghana

Book Review: Superfreakonomics

I had some spare time at an airport, and happened to pick up Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I haven’t read Freakonomics (I do plan to now) and didn’t know what to expect. I found the book to be an interesting read. It covers a wide range of topics – too many to list – but does so in an engaging and often witty way. The variety in topics makes this a particularly difficult book to review and I will not make any attempt to cover or even mention most of the contents.

Chapter 1 deals with prostitution. The authors write

Since time immemorial and all over the world, men have wanted more sex than they could get for free. So what inevitably emerges is a supply of women who, for the right price, are willing to satisfy this demand.

Interesting. I hadn’t encountered this description before. A few pages further down, the authors note that the prostitute’s wage has fallen drastically over time and attribute it to the change in sexual mores that has resulted in “competition for the prostitute” – any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free. The authors write

If prostitution were a typical industry, it might have hired lobbyists to fight against the encroachment of premarital sex. They would have pushed to have premarital sex criminalized or, at the very least, heavily taxed.

That is just hilarious. I wonder if the social conservatives (in India and abroad) who preach abstinence, oppose the mixing of the sexes etc. realize that they are promoting prostitution.

Chapter 3 – titled Unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism – was the one I found most interesting. The authors describe experiments conducted by economists in the 80s to measure altruism. The typical experiment involved two players, one of whom was given a sum of money with the choice to keep all of it or give any part of it to the other player. Players gave 20% of their money on average. The experimenters took this as proof of altruism. The authors then describe experiments by John List. List conducted the same experiment – called the Dictator game – with some variants. In the first variant, the player given the money ($20) was given the choice to give the other player any part of it or take $1 from the other player. Only half the number of people who had given money in the original version now gave money. In the second variant, the player making the decision was told that the other player was also given the same amount of money. The choice offered was to take the entire amount from the other player or to give any portion of her own money. In this variant, only 10% of the players gave money while more than 40% took all of the other player’s money. In the final variant, both players had to work for their money with the choice being the same as in the previous variant. In this variant two-thirds of the players neither gave nor took any money while 28% took the other player’s money. The authors note “It [the final variant of the experiment] suggests that when a person comes into some money honestly and believes that another person has done the same, she neither gives away what she earned nor takes what doesn’t belong to her.”

It should be obvious that any of the experimenters could have tried the twists that List used. In fact, without such twists, the experiments look quite weak. Yet they did not do so over a period of two decades. That indicates that the experiments’ motivation was a desire to find proof for hard-wired altruism rather a simple scientific enquiry.

After discussing a few factors that might influence the outcomes of such experiments such as selection bias – the people who volunteer to play along are more likely to be cooperative, the effect of scrutiny and the absence of a real-world context, the authors write

If John List’s research proves anything, it’s that a question like “Are people innately altruistic?” is the wrong kind of question to ask. People aren’t “good” or “bad”. People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated – for good or ill – if only you find the right levers.
So are human beings capable of generous, selfless, even heroic behavior? Absolutely. Are they also capable of heartless acts of apathy? Absolutely.

I disagree with the authors but that is a subject for another post. Meanwhile, there several interesting questions worth considering. Were the experimenters really measuring altruism (or its lack, in the case of List) at all? Do such experimental results justify conclusions of the form that the experimenters drew – human beings are hardwired for altruism? If not, what would be required to establish (or reject) ahypothesis that a certain kind of behavior is hardwired?

Chapters 4 describes how several problems that were once thought of as difficult or unsurmountable have been solved very effectively at a low cost. As one instance, the authors write of how the simple practice of doctors disinfecting their hands before treating patients saved innumerable lives. It seems awful that doctors were/are responsible for easily avoidable deaths. It seems even more awful that doctors resisted and still resist policies that require them to wash/disinfect their hands. My reaction was – how could they be so negligent when the cost (potentially lost human lives) is so high? A little reflection shows that such negligence is not uncommon at all in any profession. Washing hands is after all a boring, time consuming act and its consequences (prevention of infection) are not apparant at all by their very nature. A parallel example from the field of software is writing tests – also a boring, time-consuming act whose consequences are not apparant. Is the cost of not writing tests as high as the cost of not washing hands? Again, it is doesn’t seems so, but in a world where the use of software is all-pervasive, it might even be higher. This is a good lesson in looking beyond the obvious.

Chapter 5 is about global warming and how there might be a cheap and simple solution to the problem – injecting sulphur compounds into the upper atmosphere. But don’t expect anyone to try it (or be allowed to try it). I find the whole issue of global warming extremely boring – I don’t think I have a single post on it here. But I suspect that the contents of this one chapter – less than a fifth of the book – will dominate most reactions to this book.

Overall, the book is a collection of a large number of interesting and thought-provoking analyses and anecdotes and the attitude of the authors is refreshingly healthy.

Secularism, Enlightenment and India

A colleague sent me this link to an article in The Hindu and asked for my thoughts. From the article

For a long time it was held that a close link existed between the modernisation of society and the secularisation of the population. Consequently, it was argued that the influence of religion declined in post-enlightenment society. This assumption, Professor Habermas suggests, was based on three considerations. First, the progress in science and technology made causal explanation possible and more importantly, for a scientifically enlightened mind it was difficult to reconcile with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secondly, the churches and other religious organisations lost their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science. Finally, the economic transformation led to higher levels of welfare and greater social security. The impact of these developments, it is argued, has led to the decline of the relevance and influence of religion.
…the view that “the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground.” It is not only that this expectation has not been realised, religion has emerged as a powerful influence in the public sphere all over the world. This is particularly so in India.

The existence of the public sphere [in Europe] was contingent upon the access of all citizens to, and protection of individual rights by, the rule of law. In essence, the character of the public sphere as it evolved in Europe in the 18th century was secular and democratic.

Unlike in Europe the public sphere in India was not the product of a free bourgeois society; it took shape within the political, social and economic parameters set by the colonial government.
(Emphasis mine)

The article concludes with

Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.

The article with its implied positive evaluation of enlightenment ideas and recognition of their relevance to the issue of secularism is very much welcome in an age where enlightenment ideas have almost been forgotten. But it itself suffers from an incomplete understanding of all the implications of these ideas. Protection of individual rights by the rule of law is not compatible with democracy (atleast as we might understand it from concrete examples today). Democracy is about placing the control of human affairs in the public sphere. Individual rights are about limiting the control of human affairs to the actual individuals involved, primarily by the recognition of private property. (This might seem unrelated to the issue of secularism and the influence of religion, but bear with me for a while.) This uneasy relationship between democracy and individual rights (note the difference in character between the French revolution which was essentially democratic and the American revolution which instituted a government for the purpose of protecting individual rights) persists to this day and has been the apparant cause of the failure of enlightenment ideas to have as large and lasting an influence as might have been expected. But that is not all. It is worth noting that pre-enlightenment Europe was neither democratic nor did it have any conception of individual rights. How did both ideas emerge out of the same intellectual change?

I am no historian – or even a good student of history – but it seems to me that the enlightenment thinkers never really rejected religion in all its implications. Religion offers more than an explanation of the world. It offers moral principles. The progress in science that made causal explanations possible led people to abandon the role of religion in understanding the world. Note that this progress has been lasting. Even the church today accepts that religion is not a guide to understanding the world. But there was no equivalent progress in moral theory that would lead people to abandon the role of religion in evaluating the world and guiding human action. The enlightenment brought about political, scientific and industrial revolutions. It did not result in any moral revolution. The moral base of religion – altruism – was not challenged at all. On the contrary, it led some intellectuals to believe that morality is mostly irrelevant to progress. For example, the character of Enjolras in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – the leader of an uprising, and in my reading, a mirror to Hugo’s own ideas – believed (if memory serves me right) that progress would be automatic and inevitable provided that people had access to (scientific) education. This was naive. Morality is indispensable to human existence.

It seems to me that enlightenment ideas split into two distinct streams. One stream could be characterized by the French revolution, militantly anti-religious and with an emphasis on democracy, equality and social justice. This stream secularized altruism without changing any of its fundamentals. It substituted God by society and the church and the king by the state. The other stream could be characterized by the American revolution, ambivalent to religion and with an emphasis on liberty and self-evident inalienable individual rights endowed by a creator. But a complex concept like individual rights cannot be self-evident. By not grounding individual rights in reason, this stream was left without a moral foundation independent of religion. The overtly-secular, altruist, democratic stream failed. It took Europe through several dictatorships, wars and misery. The liberal, pro individual rights but more religious stream succeeded. It allowed America to enjoy more than a century of uinterrupted peace and prosperity (except for the civil war that abolished slavery). But, over time, through lack of an explicit moral foundation, the American stream itself split into the modern secular Europe inspired liberals (an insult to the original classical sense of the term) and the religious conservatives seeking to conserve the political system of liberty with an incompatible base of altruist Christianity.

Note that no stream ever rejected altruism and it was the secular democratic, left-leaning intellectuals who upheld it most consistently. Now the case of India. Indian political leaders educated in Europe brought back the European ideas and attempted to foist them upon a servile, religious people. Worse, in attempting to fight colonialism, they absorbed Marxist ideas from Russia. Needless to say, they failed miserably, discrediting secularism in the process. As Gurcharan Das’s wrote in the article that I criticized in my last post, “Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists”. Marxism – the most consistent political implication of altruism, is only for educated idiots. The uneducated “masses” – that Marx had such a disdain for – never have and never will accept it. But the association of secularism with Marxism does indeed make the spread of secularism difficult.

Anyone concerned with the increasing role of religion in public affairs in general and political affairs in particular should be looking to discover/establish a morality based on reason. Until such a morality becomes culturally dominant, it will be impossible to eliminate the role of religion. But that is not something the secularists in India understand. For a concrete example, consider the expose of the Khap Panchayat system in Today’s Times. Read it here, here, here and here. From the last link,

Daryal Singh, one of Tikait’s retainers, adds that “shameless people (lovers) deserve to die.’’ He gives graphic accounts of lovers being “hanged, tortured or nailed to death”. But Singh stands alone in providing the only real explanation for what sustains this medieval system: bad governance. “The government has failed to provide basic necessities. It’s impossible for people to survive without the samaj. They can’t challenge it,’’ he says.

It would be difficult to mis-diagnose the problem worse. Even the villagers are more intelligent than that. They know that they are following a moral code. Providing basic necessities is not going to change their moral code. And what basic necessities anyway? From another article in the links

There are pucca houses, cobbled streets, wellfed cattle, neat schools and sprawling green fields. It’s easy to be impressed by the colleges and professional institutes that dot the area. But Sanghi, like most villages in this prosperous belt, has dark secrets to keep. Here, rape is casual, murder-by-pesticide of teenage daughters acceptable and it is routine to dispose of their bodies by burning them in cattlecarts.

Defeat the morality and religion – with all its mindless rituals and superstitions – will go away. But without challenging the morality and in the lack of any alternative (socialist ideology is not an alternative), religion will continue to grow in influence.

The moral vs the practical

Via NoodleFood I came across this blog post on time management. The post is quite good in general but one particular point is not.

Determine what matters most to you. Make a list of the people, activities, and things in your life that mean the most to you and then spend the vast majority of your time focusing on these items. Be honest with yourself, though, and put on your list what really matters to you, not what you think should matter to you. [emphasis changed]

Consider the emphasized part. The author makes a distinction between what you think should matter to you and what really matters to you, between the moral and the practical. And then he goes on to say that you should choose the practical and disregard the moral. But if  ‘what you think should matter to you’ is not ‘what really matters to you’, then you have a much bigger problem than time management. If that which you consider to be moral is not practical, what sort of a moral code do you have? What purpose does it serve?

A person whose value judgements do not match his actions is a hypocrite. But the author advises exactly such hypocrisy and calls it ‘being honest to yourself’! What is the result of hypocrisy? A sense of guilt. The author seems to know that. In another point he writes

If an activity or responsibility isn’t on your list of what matters most to you, say “no” to it. Learn to say “no” in such a way as to not be a jerk, but say “no” when you need to. This is where I greatly differ from most people because I don’t feel guilty about protecting my time. [emphasis added]

I agree with the point. You shouldn’t feel guilty about protecting your time. But why do most people feel guilty about it? Because their moral code tells them that the good consists of serving others, that other peoples’ claims on your time or money or life are more important than your values – because they accept the moral code of altruism.

The author claims to feel no guilt. If that is true, then the author has rejected morality so completely that breaches of morality no longer bother him. But it also means that morality gives him no guidance whatsoever. The author might be quite good at managing his time – but to what end? Is whatever he chooses to do with his time worth doing in the first place? That is a moral question and no amount of pragmatism will answer it. But the question does need to be answered. So how does the pragmatist answer it? By default. By allowing his emotions (instead of a moral code) to determine his value judgements. Emotions are the result of earlier value judgements. If you choose not to make those judgements yourself, then you pick them up from others – from the culture in general, from the dominant code of morality. The very code of morality that the pragmatist thinks he has rejected in his day-to-day work ends up determining the goals of his life. And since the moral code of altruism is impractical and therefore destructive, the pragmatist ends up destroying his own life, values and goals – efficiently.

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