Superstition and the inversion of causality

From an interesting conversation about superstitions with my sister…

There are a number of superstitions that have little or nothing to do with religion. A few examples. There are probably a lot more like these.

  • Not serving poli (bread) before bhaaji (curry). Why? Poor people do that because they can’t afford vegetables.
  • Not taking a bath in the evening. Why? One does that after attending a funeral.
  • Not using a particular kind of flower for decoration. Why? That kind of flower is used during funeral.
  • Not saying/doing a namaskar (a kind of salute with folded hands) to a person who is resting. Why? One does that after a person is dead to pay one’s last respects.
  • Saying “yete” (“I will be back”) instead of “jaate” (“I will now leave”) at the end of a meeting, lest it be the last meeting.

Each one of these has a common thread to it – the belief that acting as if something has happened will make that thing happen. The belief that an effect will produce the cause. This is an incredible inversion of causality. But, now that I think about it, I think it is pervasive in our culture. Absolutely mind-boggling.

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Delhi gang-rape: Some answers – 2

As I write this, the victim in the Delhi gang-rape case is no more. Despite the best efforts of the state to provide medical help.

The protests will continue and demands for capital punishment for rape will intensify. These demands are little more than an instinctive reaction. The first thing that came to my mind when I read about this case was: I would like to kill the perpetrators. Combine that thought with the inability to really do anything of the sort and the Indian habit of seeking a state solution for every problem, and the result is a demand for state action: Stricter laws, more policing, capital punishment.

Consider this report from Tehelka. It is titled: The rapes will go on. Along with some commentary, it describes the views held by senior police officers in and around Delhi. Most of the police officers believe that of the cases that are reported, most are not really rapes at all. That in itself, may not be surprising. Somewhere in the report there is a parenthetical reference to studies indicating that for every reported case of rape, more than 50 go unreported. Most genuine cases are perhaps never reported and the once that are fall through, given the attitude of the police officers. What is noteworthy (though not surprising) about the report is that the police primarily blame the dressing and behavior of the victims for the rise in rapes.

It is all too easy to demand things of the state. In this case, it might even seem right to demand that the state provide a safer environment. Crime is after all, a state subject. But the question that the protesters seem to be missing is: Can the state really do anything about it? Can it ensure that the police have the same outlook on our modern lifestyles that we do? Can it punish the perpetrators in cases that are never reported? Can it remove the stigma attached to rape?

But the state can indeed attempt to do the things the protesters want it to do. The state can create new laws (which will never be implemented, just as existing ones aren’t), it can allocate more funds to recruit more police (who will drink Chai at the corner shops and collect bribes from hapless non-rapists), it can declare capital punishment for rapes (further reducing the already dismal conviction rate). And clueless politicians who have no idea how to deal with the protests will indeed be too happy to to oblige.

Is this what we want?

Look below the surface and it is clear that the rising number of rapes (and other crimes against women) are social and cultural issues. The state is entirely powerless to do anything about these underlying issues.

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.

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.

Moral Absolutes

In a comment on my previous post “Terrorism and moral outrage“, wgreen asked

The inward sense of justice is evidence of the existence of moral “absolutes”. How do you justify the existence of such absolutes?

Is an inward sense of justice really evidence of the existence of moral absolutes? Consider the concept ‘justice’. Without any absolute (universal and objective) moral standards, it would be impossible to judge any action (particularly the actions of others). And without such judgement, there could be no such thing as justice. To the extent that a person has a sense of justice, he recognizes the existence of moral absolutes. An inward sense of justice is evidence of a (possibly implicit) belief in the existence of moral absolutes, but in itself, it is not evidence of the existence of moral absolutes. But where does a sense of justice come from? What is the basis for the moral absolutes on which a sense of justice depends?

A sense of justice comes from the constant necessity of judging actions (both one’s own and those of others) to achieve one’s goals. Those actions that further (or appear to further) one’s goals are judged as good. Those actions that hinder one’s goals are judged as bad. The requirements of one’s chosen goals become a personal standard by which actions are judged. This personal standard can be used objectively, since the requirements of any particular goal can be objectively determined. But by itself this standard is not universal. It is only when one projects one’ s own goals on other people (whether consciously or unconsciously) that the personal standard becomes a universal one and gives rise to a sense of justice. Is such a projection proper?

Since man has free choice, he may choose any goal. But the achievement of his goals is not merely a matter of choice. He cannot achieve any goal without meeting its requirements. No matter what his goal is, he cannot achieve it if he is not alive to pursue it. In this sense, his own life is his ultimate goal. Without it, no goals can be achieved. The requirements of his life are a part of the requirements of any goal he may choose. Since the requirements of life are essentially common to all men, the principles required to pursue these requirements successfully are moral absolutes – moral because the principles are guides to action and have to be voluntarily followed, absolute because they are objective and universal.

But what about goals that are not consistent with the requirements of life – goals that can only be achieved with damage to one’s life? It is certainly possible to choose such goals. Indeed, altruism – the dominant moral code today – considers such goals and the sacrifice necessary to achieve them as noble. What does the acceptance of altruism do the idea of moral absolutes? When man’s life was dominated by religion and a concern with the supernatural, it was possible to hold moral absolutes inconsistent with life. Today, when the influence of religion has weakened and men are concerned with their lives on earth, moral absolutes inconsistent with life cannot survive. Since it is impossible to practise altruism consistently – the ‘noblest’ men would become martyrs – an (implicit) acceptance of altruism inevitably leads to a rejection of moral absolutes and a gulf between the moral and the practical. It leads to a culture that believes that the manufacturing of cars requires adherence to absolute principles, but the life of a man (which is far more complex and sensitive) requires none.

As long as man is concerned with his life on earth, he must consider any goal that is inconsistent with the requirements of his life as destructive. He must discover the correct moral principles that are required to lead his life successfully. He must recognize that some of these principles are absolute and others are contextual but all of them are objective – based on his nature and the facts of reality. The resurgence of violent radical religious movements (like Islamic terrorism and Hindu vandalism – both of which bemoan decaying moral values) is evidence that man cannot live without absolute moral principles in perpetual doubt and uncertainty. The decay of moral values is a definite trend and it cannot be addressed by an uninspiring stew of tolerance, moderation, permissiveness and compassion that rejects all moral principles. Reversing that trend requires a discovery and assertion of the absolutism of correct moral principles.

Book Review: The Future of Freedom

Summary

Fareed Zakaria’s book “The Future of Freedom – Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad” is a critique of democracy. Zakaria notes that democracy is not the same thing as constitutional liberty. He notes that democracy is a process of selecting governments whereas constitutional liberalism is about selecting government’s goals and refers to the Western tradition of seeking to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion. Drawing examples from history and from around the world, he argues that societies that had liberal institutions, the rule of law and protection of property rights were able to turn into liberal democracies, whereas in societies that did not have such institutions, democracy allowed tyrants, demagogues, dictators and autocrats to cement their power. He argues that the presence of the church as an independent authority from the state helped in preventing concentration of power and allowed liberal institutions to develop. Similarly he argues that the political strength of the landed aristocracy in England was good for liberty as it helped to institutionalize property rights and kept the monarchy weak, while the political strength of the state in France was bad for liberty as it kept society dependent on the state.

Zakaria picks several examples of countries around the world that tried to democratize too early – before developing the necessary social institutions, or before becoming sufficently wealthy – and failed. He also notes that the wealth necessary for a liberal democracy must be earned wealth and not the wealth obtained from taxing a canal or exporting oil.

Regarding the Middle East, Zakaria denies that there is anything specific about Islam that makes its followers more susceptible to authoritarian rule. He also rejects the idea that Islamic terrorism has anything to do with poverty in the Muslim world. He notes that until the 1940s and 1950s, Arab countries seemed to be doing better than several other newly democratizing ones. Instead he blames the total failure of politics in the Arab region for the rise of radical Islam. He writes that with no free press and no political parties, mosques became the place to discuss politics, and the language of opposition became the language of religion. He also notes that the Arab states have allowed free reign to the most extreme clerics to give themselves legitimacy.

Regarding the American political system, Zakaria writes that since the 1960s all of America’s political institutions have democratized. He cites several examples – the selection of candidates by primaries instead of party decisions, the campaign finance laws that made candidates dependent on fundraisers, the expanded number of sub-committees, the changing of rules to allow unlimited number of bills, the open committee meetings and recorded votes and the system of referendums and initiatives. He describes how all these changes have opened up politics to the influence of special interest groups and lobbyists and how democracy has defeated itself with all its institutions being controlled not by a majority but by a variety of highly motivated minorities and special interest groups.

Zakaria goes on to describe the deep changes that democratization has caused even outside politics. He describes how religious figures like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell have toned down religion to make it appeal to the masses. Zakaria writes that in general, members of professions such as law, medicine and accounting were public spirited individuals who operated on high standards and these standards have deteriorated with time. He blames this on the changes made to make these industries more open and competitive such as the decision to allow lawyers to advertise and to allow accountants to charge contingency fees. He writes that the internet frenzy destroyed the separation between the bankers and the researchers in the banking and brokerage industries, opening up conflicts of interest and perverse incentives. He writes that the central shift underlying these changes is the role of the elites. He writes that while elites in the earlier days saw themselves as elites and recognized their responsibilities, today’s elites are a bunch of smart college graduates, who are not conscious of their elite status and thus enjoy power without exercising responsibility. He writes how a school such as Groton which once emphasized character over achievement in its students now focuses only on achievement. He describes how in the movie “Titanic”, the first class passengers are shown to scramble into the small number of lifeboats, whereas in the actual accounts of survivors, the “women and children first” convention was observed almost without exception among the upper classes. He writes “The movie-makers altered the story for good reason: no one would believe it today.”

In his concluding chapter Zakaria writes that the 20th century was marked by the regulation of capitalism and the deregulation of democracy and that both experiments overreached. He writes that whenever a problem arose, the solution was more democracy and more regulations. He writes that the way out of the problems is to delegate democracy to mostly autonomous entities, that are limited by democracy but shielded from political pressures. He writes that the institutions and attitudes that preserved liberal democratic capitalism, built up over centuries are being destroyed in decades and if these trends continue, democracy will face a crisis of legitimacy. He finishes with “Eighty years ago, Woodrow Wilson took America into the twentieth century with a challenge to make the world safe for democracy. As we enter the twenty-first century, our task is to make democracy safe for the world.”

Comments

Zakaria’s critique is very welcome today in an age where democracy is often seen as unquestionably good and historically inevitable. The numerous examples he draws clearly show that it is neither. His description of the state of American politics and the role of democracy in causing it is well presented with concrete examples. He makes a number of good points in this book. And yet, there is something missing in his analysis. There are atleast three distinct phenomena that he refers to as democratization – the way people select their government and the increased amount of power that elected representatives have, the way people make economic decisions and the increased importance these decisions have in shaping the economy, and the shift from “high culture” to “popular culture”. While these phenomena are certainly related, they should not be lumped together under a single concept, especially considering that the purpose of the book is to examine the problems with democracy. It is only the first phenomenon that can accurately be called democratization. Including the other two phenomena under the same concept makes the concept useless for analytical purposes – something that Zakaria himself warns about at the start of the book.

Consider these phenomena in more detail.

Political democracy:
All over the world, government powers and policies are increasingly being determined by popular opinion (or atleast what is seen as popular opinion). Politics is increasingly seen as a struggle for inclusion and representation and not as a means to achieve a proper social organization. The focus is increasingly on ‘who gets to make decisions‘ and not on ‘what decisions are made and whether they are legitimate‘. In the absence or weakening of any limits on political power, government necessarily become corrupt, illiberal and dysfuncional. Special interest groups take over such a system and dominate all policy making. This is a problem inherent in democracy and Zakaria does well to illustrate this.

Economic changes (“consumerism”): 
In the last few decades the bargaining power that “consumers” enjoy has risen steadily. We have come a long way from Henry Ford’s times (“You can have any color as long as it’s black”). This is a result of technological progress and has almost nothing to do with democracy. The only connection it has with (political) democracy is that it makes democracy more dangerous and its ill effects more catastrophic. It is impossible for people today to know about the workings of the global economy in any sort of detail. Which makes it impossible for the government (whether democratic or not) to control or regulate the economy effectively. Zakaria does not discuss these issues much and incorrectly labels this phenomenon as part of a process of democratization.

Rise of popular culture and the decline of values:
In the last few decades, high culture has declined and popular culture has risen. Zakaria uses a quote by Seabrook to describe this process “The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was ‘good’ in the sense of ‘valuable’ were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define ‘good’ in terms of ‘popular’…” This decline of high culture goes hand in hand with a general decline in values – people no longer have rigid standards for judging behavior, the word ‘judgemental’ has become a perjorative and a good number of people would assert that there are no objective values. Zakaria does a good job of describing the symptoms of this trend. However he does not even attempt to examine its causes. But without an understanding of these causes, there is no way to reverse the ill-effects of democracy. Consider Zakaria’s proposed solution – the creation of autonomous regulatory bodies such as the US Federal Reserve (which he considers a success and seems to hold in high esteem). Today we see that the Federal Reserve has not been able to prevent a catastrophe and there is strong evidence to suggest that the catastrophe was in fact its own creation.

It is clear from the book that Zakaria is troubled by the general decline of values and that he respects the older value system, atleast in a general sense. He writes

It is easy to mock the Anglo-American elite, with its striking air of high-minded paternalism, born of a cultural sense of superiority. But it also embodied certain values – fair play, decency, liberty, and a Protestant sense of mission – that helped set standards for society…When powerful people acknowledge that there are certain standards for behavior, they limit their own power, however indirectly, and signal to society, “This is what we strive for.”

and a couple of pages earlier describing the decline of the elite status of the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants)

As America became more diverse, open, and inclusive over the twentieth century, the WASP establishment faced a dilemna: it could maintain its power and refuse to allow new entrants into its sanctuaries, or it could open up to the new rising non-WASP members of society…But in the end the WASPs opened the doors to their club… Therein lay the seeds of the establishment’s own destruction… The WASPs made this move partly because they were pushed, but also because they knew it was the right thing to do. Confronted with a choice between their privilege and their values, they chose the latter.

If this description is correct, there is a paradox. The elite chose their values over privilege and yet this choice helped in the decline of their values. This paradox is at the heart of all of man’s problems. It has plagued people throughout the ages. The way out of this paradox is a code of ethics that is geared to man’s life, here on earth, by which the moral is also the practical and which when practised results in both material and spiritual reward – the code of rational egoism.

The complete expression of the constitutional liberal democracy that Zakaria wants to protect is a system of capitalism and it can only be protected with an explicit moral base. Although Zakaria presents a quite insightful analysis of the workings of democracy and its problems, he does not discuss the foundations of politics at all, and without it, his book is incomplete.

Note: This post can also be found on desicritics.org with an independent comments section.

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.

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