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!


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).

What does one owe one’s parents?

Context: A delightful discussion on email, delightful because this is the first time I am engaging in serious personal discussion in a written medium.

Intuitively, one owes quite a lot to one’s parents. But in a matter as important as morality, one cannot rely on intuition alone. These matters must be examined rationally, ground up.

Choice is a crucial aspect of morality. The unchosen is not subject to a moral analysis. Being born was not a choice I made. I do not owe anything to my parents merely because they gave me birth. Asserting so would be subscribing to the duty view of morality. On the other hand, giving me birth was a choice they made. And this choice does impose moral responsibilities on them. This is a special asymmetry in a parent-child relationship as opposed to other relationships.

If one’s parents have fulfilled their responsibilities – and most parents at least try to do so – then one owes them respect for being moral people. The better they fulfill their responsibilities, the greater this respect should be. The same kind of respect is due to any person who acts morally. The respect due to one’s parents is just a specific application of the principle of justice. However, by virtue of living together, one has far better knowledge of the actions of one’s parents. And so, one has better grounds for respecting one’s parents than people about whom you do not know as much.

When a child is still a baby incapable of doing anything on his own, the flow of values is completely one-sided. The parent gives, the child receives. The responsibility too is entirely on one side. It is the parent’s responsibility to give and the child’s right to receive. The parent deserves nothing more than respect for fulfilling his responsibilities. The child does not owe anything specific to his parents up to this point in the relationship.

As the relationship develops, as the child grows and becomes capable of exercising choice, the initial asymmetry reduces and eventually disappears. The relationship becomes a normal relationship based on an exchange of value. The exchange of value in any relationship between adults is conditional. Both parties must provide value, else the relationship cannot last. Moral responsibilities are the terms on which values are exchanged. Sometimes these terms are explicit, most often they are not. Particularly in a parent-child relationship which only develops into a normal relationship over a long time, the terms are overwhelmingly implicit. But it would be a mistake to believe that the terms do not exist, or that different principles apply to a parent-child relationship than to one between adults. A child begins life with no moral responsibility towards his parents (or for that matter towards anyone else). As the child becomes an adult, he acquires moral responsibilities towards his parents over a period of time by participating in the implicit terms on which values are exchanged between him and his parents.

Because the terms on which a parent-child relationship is built are overwhelmingly (and inevitably) implicit, one experiences the moral responsibility towards one’s parents emotionally rather than rationally. Yet – borrowing Rand’s words – emotions are not tools of cognition. When one is faced with a dilemma, emotions are not enough to enable one to resolve it. One needs a full, explicit understanding of all relevant facts and principles. And that is the greatest responsibility any person has – to try to attain such an understanding. The specific application of this to the parent-child relationship implies that the child, once he grows up, should evaluate his childhood, evaluate his parents and then decide what he owes them.

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.

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.

The climate is changing

The climate is changing (via The New Clarion). And the change is certainly induced by humans. (I couldn’t resist the pun but it is not funny at all)

A couple of weeks ago I talked to the director of marketing for a leading private aviation company, which offers fractional jet ownership, pre-paid membership packages of private jet flight, and concierge-organized private jet travel. In her 15+ years in the industry, she said, she’d never encountered as many people who would not buy and travel in this manner because they were afraid of being seen and judged harshly. Many even feared having their companies singled out for reprisal by the government. She said, “I’m doing business in a climate of fear, almost clandestinely, as if engaged in espionage rather than commerce.” She too asked not to be identified.

Normally I would not have linked to an article that mentions no names. But I just read this (also via The New Clarion).

Forced abortions. Mass sterilization. A “Planetary Regime” with the power of life and death over American citizens.

These ideas (among many other equally horrifying recommendations) were put forth by John Holdren, whom Barack Obama has recently appointed Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — informally known as the United States’ Science Czar. In a book Holdren co-authored in 1977, the man now firmly in control of science policy in this country wrote that:
• Women could be forced to abort their pregnancies, whether they wanted to or not;
• The population at large could be sterilized by infertility drugs intentionally put into the nation’s drinking water or in food;
• Single mothers and teen mothers should have their babies seized from them against their will and given away to other couples to raise;
• People who “contribute to social deterioration” (i.e. undesirables) “can be required by law to exercise reproductive responsibility” — in other words, be compelled to have abortions or be sterilized.
• A transnational “Planetary Regime” should assume control of the global economy and also dictate the most intimate details of Americans’ lives — using an armed international police force.

What is most remarkable about Holdren’s views is that they are totally unencumbered by any sense of morality.

Adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods is a suggestion that seems to horrify people more than most proposals for involuntary fertility control. Indeed, this would pose some very difficult political, legal, and social questions, to say nothing of the technical problems.
(Emphasis mine. Note that there is no mention of moral questions)

The man is a monster. He is in power and he has merely substituted overpopulation with climate change. Worse, the president who appointed him was elected with a comfortable majority. It has come to this. Can the situation still be reversed peacefully? I doubt it.


Here is an illuminating comment on the Holdren piece

It is way too late for forced sterilization and abortions! There have been mass dieoffs of our species before we are on the brink of one again. One way or another there will be far fewer of us by the end of this century. It blows my mind that youall mostly seem to think that we have a right to dominate this planet at the expence of all other life forms. Have a nice day.

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