Lance Armstrong

Just watched Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey where he confesses to doping over his entire career. Here is a man who recovered from cancer and went on to win 7 titles in an extremely demanding sport. Only to have it all fall apart. What went wrong?

I have never followed the sport, but judging from the interview and the nature of the sport itself, it seems clear that doping has been a common and widespread practice. In any case there does not seem to be any clear line demarcating what practices should be allowed and what practices should not. A sportsman in such an environment will have only two choices. Dope and compete with others on a level footing or not dope and accept that you will never be able to win. Is the first choice wrong? If so, why?

This is not a question limited to cycling alone. It is very much relevant in other fields as well. Speaking of India, it is clear that all politics and many areas of business are such that success requires breaking the rules. In fact, some of these rules are so flawed that they should not exist at all in any reasonable system. Others rules may not be flawed in themselves, but given the effects of the rules that are flawed, it is nevertheless difficult to follow them. In such circumstances, what should a person with an indomitable spirit and a fierce desire to succeed do? Is it OK to break rules that one thinks are wrong? Is it OK to break rules that are impractical?

Unless one wants to be a rebel and openly fight the “system”, it is wrong to base one’s entire career on breaking rules – regardless of whether those rules are right or wrong. It is wrong because one is then living a contradiction – pursuing success as defined by the very system whose rules one intends to break. In the long term, that cannot work. As Lance Armstrong found out.

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).

Reason and ethics

In a comment on one of his posts, Sanjeev Sabhlok says

Reason must be balanced with ethical conceptions.

Where does he think ethical conceptions come from?

Mises on The Free-Will Controversy

From Chapter 5 of Mises’ Theory and History,

Man chooses between modes of action incompatible with one another. Such decisions, says the free-will doctrine, are basically undetermined and uncaused; they are not the inevitable outcome of antecedent conditions. They are rather the display of man’s inmost disposition, the manifestation of his indelible moral freedom. This moral liberty is the essential characteristic of man, raising him to a unique position in the universe.

Determinists reject this doctrine as illusory. Man, they say, deceives himself in believing that he chooses. Something unknown to the individual directs his will. He thinks that he weighs in his mind the pros and cons of the alternatives left to his choice and then makes a decision. He fails to realize that the antecedent state of things enjoins on him a definite line of conduct and that there is no means to elude this pressure. Man does not act, he is acted upon.

Both doctrines neglect to pay due attention to the role of ideas. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas that he adopts.

This is quite close to my own position but with a very important qualification. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas he adopts provided he chooses to think. Mises denies that choice.

What the sciences of human action must reject is not determinism but the positivistic and panphysicalistic distortion of determinism. They stress the fact that ideas determine human action and that at least in the present state of human science it is impossible to reduce the emergence and the transformation of ideas to physical, chemical, or biological factors. It is this impossibility that constitutes the autonomy of the sciences of human action. Perhaps natural science will one day be in a position to describe the physical, chemical, and biological events. which in the body of the man Newton necessarily and inevitably produced the theory of gravitation. In the meantime, we must be content with the study of the history of ideas as a part of the sciences of human action.

The sciences of human action by no means reject determinism. The objective of history is to bring out in full relief the factors that were operative in producing a definite event. History is entirely guided by the category of cause and effect. In retrospect, there is no question of contingency. The notion of contingency as employed in dealing with human action always refers to man’s uncertainty about the future and the limitations of the specific historical understanding of future events. It refers to a limitation of the human search for knowledge, not to a condition of the universe or of some of its parts.

Having denied the choice to think, Mises treats determinism and causality as equivalent and rejects the notion of contingency for past actions. It will be interesting to see where this takes him in later chapters. One consequence is already apparant though – on his view of morality. A determinist cannot logically be a moralist and indeed Mises is not. Like Taleb, he denies the possibility of a normative science. In earlier chapters, Mises writes that the only possible judgement of human action is whether a particular means leads to a particular end. Ends cannot be judged. Adopting utilitarianism, he goes on to write about justice: “The ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation. Conduct suited to preserve social cooperation is just, conduct detrimental to the preservation of society is unjust.”

Just goes to show how important the foundational branches of philosophy are.

Sach Ka Saamna (Facing the truth)

Today’s supplement to the Times Of India carries a column by Vinita Nangia on the controversial TV show ‘Sach Ka Saamna’. Ironically the lesson Nangia draws from the show (as do many others) is

Facing the truth isn’t all that easy and some truths are best left unsaid. Each one of us has a dark side that is best left hidden from others; revealing our dark secrets can do nothing but cause harm to loved ones. As a young lady puts it succinctly, “There’re skeletons in every cupboard, and we shouldn’t rattle them!” Another adds, “Is there really anyone out there who doesn’t have a dark deed festering somewhere in his heart?”

This is bound to destroy a lot of relationships… simply because more questions will be asked… and more truths served up on a platter! Thankfully, we all have a choice — stop watching or at least stop trying to lift the veils of illusion; believe me, it is sure to backfire miserably…
(Emphasis mine)

I should note that I haven’t watched the show yet, nor do I intend to do so. I have no interest in the private lives of random strangers. But the concept of the show (from what I have read of it) is fascinating in the context of today’s culture. This is obvious from the attention the show has got. It is worth analyzing the issues that the show raises.

The show is about facing the truth about one’s emotions and actions and whether these are consistent with one’s consciously or implictly held value system. An emotion is an automatic reaction. It is determined by one’s values. If one’s emotions are not consistent with one’s values, it means that one’s value system is not consistent with itself. In any situation where one’s value system clashes with itself, there is bound to be conflict. It is not surprising that people act badly when they are in conflict. What the show reveals is that its participants and audience – judging by their reaction – are very often in conflict about a lot of very important aspects of their lives. And worse, that this conflict is usually brushed under the carpet by repressing one’s emotions or by indulging them stealthily.

By bringing this conflict into the open, the show has disturbed a lot of people. That is good. It is good that people are concerned about the truth. But the concern will not be of much use if it does not lead one to question its cause – the inconsistencies in one’s value system. But that is not what Nangia (or any other article writer that I have read) wants to do. They all want to brush the truth, the conflict and the show itself under the carpet. Some even want to legislate the show out of existence. All of them want to preserve their existing relationships even at the cost of the truth. They think that conflict is inevitable. There is a grain of truth to that. Man is not born with a value system. He has to create it for himself. And not being infallible, it is likely that he will make mistakes. So some amount of conflict is inevitable when those mistakes manifest themselves. But the mistakes can and should be corrected. And that requires facing the truth. Conflict certainly does not have to be perpetual. For most people, it is perpetual because they have never made the effort to explicitly create a value system or even to question the one they happen to absorb from the culture. Their method of dealing with conflict is to pretend that it does not exist. When someone exposes this pretense, they want to pretend that the exposure does not exist either.

There isn’t anything wrong about not revealing the entire truth to everyone. Honesty is not an unconditional virtue. It is merely a recognition of the fact that wishing something does not make it so, that reality cannot be changed by refusing to recognize it. It is a virue when one is dealing with rational people. There is no reason to reveal the entire truth to random strangers when one does not know whether they are rational or not. But when one is dealing with people one claims to value, there can be no excuse for dishonesty. If a relationship is weakened by the truth, it cannot be valuable in the first place. Anyone who advocates hiding the truth from one’s loved ones is doing himself, his ‘loved ones’ and everyone else a great disservice.


I was following the comments on this post and wrote a response that turned out to be long enough for a post. So here goes:

Here is my principled (not utilitarian) argument [against anarchism].
To implement the non-aggression principle, people must agree on what constitutes aggression, not just at a philosophical level but at a more detailed level. For example, firing a gun in the air is not aggression but firing it close to someone’s residence is. Even if I am a champion shot and the bullets do not hit anyone. That might not be the best example, but the point is that some of these distinctions are not philosophical but merely a matter of convention or reasonable definition. If such distinctions are not made beforehand, then the non-aggression principle is meaningless. Establishing the process by which people can agree to such distictions is what politics is (should be) all about. Saying that each person must form his own answer and never commit to any answer (committing would mean agreeing to be bound by it) is an abdication of politics. As you mentioned, politics only arises in a social context and therefore must involve social processes. Because these distinctions depend on convention (by necessity, not for any lack of good philosophy), there is a need for legislation – a process by which people can agree to and modify (when necessary) conventions.
So the answer to Rothbard’s question “how does the state get the authority to govern?” is:
By the delegation of those who choose to form a state. Ideally, the state would be formed by those who subscribe (philosophically) to the non-agression principle. If someone does not recognize the authority of the state, he is not harmed by the state. Unless he breaks its institutionalized definitions of aggression. As long as the state does not break its own definitions of aggression and as long as the definitions are not philosophically wrong, the mere existence of a state is not aggression against any individual.

As I wrote above, anarchism is an abdication of politics. It is merely a moral position that states: man should not submit to be bound by legislation. The answer to that position is merely “Don’t submit”. The funny thing is: I dont know of any sane anarchists who follow that moral position. A seemingly political way of framing anarchism would be: “In an ideal society, no organization of people should have a monopoly over the exercise of force.” But that is a thorougly contradictory position. What sort of monopoly is being referred to here? Metaphysical or existential? If it is metaphysical, then we already have anarchy, since no state can have a metaphysical monopoly on force (or on anything else). If it is an existential (or de facto) monopoly that the anarchist wants to abolish (not the right word, the right word would be ‘wish away’), then the anarchist is claiming that other people should not grant their consent to a de-facto monopoly on force. But then, that is a moral position.

Psychologically, an advocate of anarchism is saying:
I refuse to be bound by <i>any</i> institutionalized principles. Even if I agree with those principles today. I do not wish to take responsibility for my beliefs. The desire for anarchism is not a desire for freedom from aggression – it is a desire for freedom from responsibility.

Why should values be agent-relative?

Heumer’s critique of Ayn Rand’s “The Objectivist Ethics” begins with

…premise 1 [Value is agent-relative; things can only be valuable for particular entities] begs the question.
One of the central groups of opponents Rand is facing is people who believe in absolute value, and not just agent-relative value. The absolutist view is that it is possible for some things to be good, simply, or in an absolute sense; whereas agent-relativists think that things can only be good for or relative to certain individuals, and that what is good relative to one individual need not be good relative to another. (N.B., this should not be confused with what are commonly called “moral relativism” and “cultural relativism.”)
Rand bases her ethics on the agent-relative position, but she offers no argument for it, only a bald assertion.

Why indeed should value be agent relative? The answer lies in Rand’s claim that

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
(emphasis in original)

The clue to the answer is in the question “Why”. If X is an absolute value (not just agent-relative), one can ask “Why is X an absolute value?”. There are three possible responses:

a) God said so:
This is unacceptable to me since the existence of God is an arbitrary claim and I do not want to elaborate further in this post (especially since this is not Heumer’s response).

b) It is self-evident:
It is impossible to argue with someone who really means this. If a particular proposition seems self-evident to him and it does not seem self-evident to me, how do we argue? I can only say that apart from the axioms in metaphysics and epistemology (‘Something exists’, ‘I am conscious’, ‘entities have identity’ and ‘I have free will’) no proposition which is not a direct observation is self-evident to me. For example, ‘the sky is blue’ is self-evident because it is a direct observation. But I have no sense organ that senses value – no sense organ that tells me that the sky is valuable. If someone who gives this answers (It is self-evident) really means it, then we have fundamentally different natures – so that I do not even know what he means when he says ‘It is self-evident that X is an absolute value’. But I don’t believe this. To see why consider just one example of a self-evident value that Heumer cites – justice. Heumer claims that it is self-evident that “It is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit.” It is obvious that different people have widely varying understandings of the concepts ‘crime’ and ‘justice’. For example, I don’t think it is just to punish or compensate people for crimes that their ancestors committed or suffered. But the whole concept of affirmative action depends on doing just that. Therefore even if the affirmative action advocates say that they believe it is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit, they mean something very different from what I understand by it. The only way to say that justice is a self-evident value is to broaden the concept so much that it becomes useless. 

c) The question why is not appropriate:
There are some things about which really does not make any sense to ask why. For example, it makes no sense to ask “Why does anything exist at all?”. Is the question “Why is X an absolute value?” like that, atleast for some X? If so, then the why immediately turns into a how – “How do you know that X is an absolute value?” One answer to this could be that it is self-evident, but I have already dismissed that. Another answer could be that it is axiomatic (like the four axiomatic propositions I stated above). But just claiming that something is an axiom is not sufficient. Even axioms have to be validated. An axiom can be validated by assuming that it is not true and then looking at the implications. If the axiom is true, one immediately reaches a contradiction or an absurdity. I won’t actually demonstrate this for the four axioms I stated. Anyone should be able to see that this is so. For what X does the proposition “X is not an absolute value” lead to a contradiction or an absurdity? I know of no such X (and none of the supposedly self-evident principles that Heumer cites – more on them in another post – indicate the existence of any such X). Anyway it is not my task to prove that no such X exists. Obviously I cannot (just like the existence of God). It is upto someone who believes that such X exist to identify them. Even one example would be enough.

But if one actually wants to answer the ‘why’, one will have to say something of the form “because it [verb] [noun]” where noun is some purpose. And only agents can have purposes. Atleast I cannot think of any other way to answer the ‘why’. If one does give the “because it [verb] [noun]” answer, then X is a value relative to the agent who has the particular purpose and not in any absolute sense.

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