If

If, by Rudyard Kipling, is by far my favorite poem. The topic came up in an email conversation and I decided to write down my understanding of the poem. At face value, If might seem to be an appeal to stoicism. But it is actually a brilliant and passionate expression of how experiencing the emotions that arise from moral behavior is the only thing that really matters. Refreshingly, the moral outline is explicitly individualistic – focusing primarily on the actions of the individual and the reasons for those actions, rather than on consequences – for the individual or anyone else. There is no mention of the “greater good” or “giving back” or “a cause larger than oneself”. This is what a proper morality is.

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.

The first 7 lines are clear enough. The last line is not so clear. What is “looking too good” and “talking too wise”? Modesty is not a virtue. Honesty is. And being honest includes being honest about yourself. However, an independent man is not concerned primarily with what others think of him. Looking good and talking wise can be driven either by a desire to be seen as good and perceived as wise or as a natural consequence of being good and wise. I take this last line as a caution against the former.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

A dream is usually about something that doesn’t yet exist. About changing reality to make it better. And it is easy to get carried away by visions of the better reality and lose sight of whether those visions are actually realizable or not.

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

To a thinking man, thinking is a pleasurable activity. But, as with dreams, aimless thinking leads to worthless thoughts disconnected from reality.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

This does not mean that you should have the same emotional response to triumph and disaster. The only way to do that would be to not feel anything at all. And that is death (“Without pleasure, without pain, …”). This is a rejection of consequentialism. Triumph and disaster are consequences, not causes. Your sense of value should derive from your actions, not the consequences of those actions. This is illustrated in the lines below.

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Apart from the above, however painful it may be to see your words twisted, protecting fools from knaves is not the goal of your life.

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.

You don’t really give your life to things (or people or causes). You act in a particular way for yourself, for your own satisfaction, to achieve the goals you set out for yourself. And if the things break, you build them up again.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

Rejection of consequentialism again. The end result is not what matters. The experience does. The actions that enabled you to have those winnings matter, that you have those winnings doesn’t. That you have the courage to risk them matters. The loss (consequence) doesn’t.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Very clear.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Very clear again – especially with so many demagogues and populists around!

‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

Clear again.

if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

The only person you have any real control over is yourself. And no one – friend or foe – should be able to hurt you in a significant way. Rand makes the same point in “The Fountainhead” when Roark talks of a pain that only goes down to a certain point. You should value all men (appropriately) not not be dependent on anyone.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Amen!

Aspiring for a developed India

A commentator (call him X since he did not disclose his identity) wrote:

Consider India, which is a developing nation with majority of its population still below the poverty line. If we aspire for a developed India, every Indian must be educated . It is only by (good quality and free) Government schools one can achieve complete literacy, as the poor cant afford education. I feel that government must actively be a part and ensure that quality education is available for free of cost (till 10th standard).

The short answer would be that government already plays a very active part and that has ensured that the quality of education (irrespective of cost) is quite pathetic. I could write an arguement about why this state of affairs is inevitable and why government subsidized education cannot meet its intended goals. But I am not going to do that. Instead I am going to write about the premises underlying this argument. These premises are completely incompatible with my own premises. So it is difficult to find a point to start. Nor is it going to be possible to reach an arguement in one post that could convince anyone. So my goal in this post is simply to identify the premises and point out the incompatibility. If you are actually interested in a conclusive arguement, you will have to stay around for several more posts.

Read the arguement again. What is the vision? A developed India. I suppose that means things like a certain percentage of literacy, a certain percentage of child mortality, a certain kind of roads, a certain percentage of people below the poverty line, a certain stability in growth, etc, etc… What is the timeframe for this vision? No timeframe is mentioned. This suggests that a timeframe is not essential. The lack of a timeframe is one clue (among others) that this vision is not linked to X’s life. In fact, the vision is not linked to any specific individual’s life. It is statistical, collective.

Now consider my vision. I want to live in a world where I am free to act on my thoughts and take responsibility for wherever those actions may lead. Underlying this vision is the premise that life is worth living and that my enjoyment (material, spiritual, whatever…) or happiness achieved through my thoughts and actions is the sole purpose of my life. My vision is not linked to any specific collective.

The achievement of my vision involves a society that respects life and the values required for life such as freedom and individual rights (political), goodwill and cooperation (social), rationality and purpose (moral). Such a society will have the sort of statistical properties that X implies. But the two visions are very different. To repeat, X’s vision is not linked to any specific individual’s life; my vision is not linked to any specific collective. X wants India to become a developed country irrespective of the course of his life. I want to live in or bring about a free society irrespective of what happens to India.

What are the premises underlying X’s vision. As I see it, it is the idea that man’s life must have some ‘greater’ purpose, beyond his own life. The mystic seeks a purpose in another, more important world. The collectivist seeks a purpose in other men. Both seek a purpose that is external. But purpose, vision, thought are all inseparably linked to an individuals life. My vision is based on this simple fact. To quote Ayn Rand from Anthem, (emphasis mine)

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

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

History is not the case against collectivism

In an analysis of a newspaper article by David Brooks on China and collectivism, Mark writes

When we consider criticisms of Collectivism, we almost automatically associate it with the past experiences of Communism, Socialism, and Fascism, and how the societies based on these collectivist systems we’ve seen have either failed or stagnated.

Taleb calls history a fallacy and history is the only case against Collectivism.

In my previous post I mentioned that the critics of Collectivism and Individualism seem to have a common fear: that of society degenerating to serve the interests of a minority. This suggests that both lines of thought are capable of creating that horror.

Thankfully, what David’s article shows is that just as importantly: both lines of thought are just as possibly capable of creating a better world instead.
(Empasis mine, links added)

I will write on collectivism later. This post is about the role of history in evaluating it.

Consider my knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union. I learnt a little about Lenin and the 1917 revolution in school. I read a few Russian stories in my childhood. I read some references to the Soviet Union in some American novels. I picked up information about its political collapse and disintegration in newspapers and by hearing my parents talk about it (I was far too young to understand much of it at the time). I read a few entries in Wikipedia during my college years. I also must have picked up some information from several assorted sources which I do not remember now. Note that none of this knowledge is first hand. I believe that most of it is true because any given concrete fact is “verifiable” in principle. More importantly, however, most (almost all) of my knowledge involves written records made by someone else. Even if I do not doubt the veracity of these records, the records are selective – selected by someone’s judgement of what is significant and what is not. Any historical knowledge (especially about events that occurred long ago) is at best a selective record created by several peoples’ perception and judgement. And history in itelf does not help me to reach any firm conclusions. For that, I have to integrate the historical record with a relevant theory of cause and effect. At best history can serve as part of the empirical observations that lead to a such a theory.

Consider an evaluation of communism. To reach a conclusion about whether communism is a proper political system, I first need a vision of what a proper political system should look like – what sort of relationships between men it should enable and what sort it should prohibit. Note that any such vision necessarily has a moral aspect to it. What sort of relationships between men I regard as proper depends on the moral values I want to achieve. My political vision of liberty is inextricably tied to my moral values of rationality and independence. And moral values are not derived from history. Given that my political vision is liberty, I don’t need any knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union to decide if communism “works”. Even if the Soviet Union had succeeded in creating an economically egalitarian system at gunpoint, it wouldn’t “work” for me. I remember David Brooks writing something to the effect that “Communism failed because people stopped believing in it.” While there is much that I disagree with in that statement, it has an important element of truth. The mass poverty, the Gulags, the brutal suppression of all dissent, the famines, the economic failures don’t count as failure. If they did, communism probably failed in its first five years. The Soviet Union dictators and the communists who helped them stay in power were not deterred by these. They considered these things as necessities to achieve their ideals. As long as a sufficient number of people still held these ideals as absolute, the Soviet Union didn’t “fail”. The element of truth in Brooks statement is: Moral ideals shape history – not the other way round. What the statement does not acknowledge is: Moral ideals are not arbitrary. Some are impossible to achieve, no matter how strongly one believes in them. Communism would fail irrespective of what anyone believed about it.

The point is that political ideals are based not on history but on morality. A choice of political ideals cannot be made by some kind of a cost-benefit analysis of historical records. Consider an analogy in software. The industry has reached a consensus that there are great benefits to creating web-enabled software and spends a lot of resources in achieving it. Making complex software web-enabled is no easy task but the costs do not deter anyone since the end is desirable. The desirability of the end is independent of the costs. It is the same with politics. If the end (say egalitarianism) is seen as desirable, all the costs (in human life and liberty) can be easily shrugged off. But David Brooks and Mark seem to have no clear political vision. They have probably inherited the values of rights and privacy from the Western culture. And they have also inherited the altruist and egalitarian ideals that are ubiquitous today without realizing that these values are mutually exclusive. And that is where the emergence of China gives rise to cognitive dissonance. All this while they have been secure in the knowledge that a nominally capitalist and confused individualist political system (such as the ones in the West) is the best way to achieve their mixed bag of ideals. After all they have seen that consistent collectivist political systems do not “work”. They had history behind them. Now that China with a nominally communist and confused collectivist political system has achieved some economic success, their sense of security is lost. History now gives them no guidance. Their acknowledgement of cognitive dissonance is a confession of collectivism. Why do I call it a confession? Because they don’t like it themselves. Note the last line in Brooke’s article “It’s [Collectivism] certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”

The struggle between collectivism and individualism is primarily a moral one. The case against collectivism (atleast my case) is not based on history. What is it based on? I will present that in my next post.

In worship of “I”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Confession of Collectivism

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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