Mind-body dichotomy

Just happened to hear this old song that talks of “pure love” and it struck me as a perfect expression of the mind body dichotomy.

Hum ne dekhi hai un aankhon ki mehakti khushboo
Haath se chhoo ke ise rishton ka ilzaam na do
Sirf ehsaas hai yeh, rooh se mehsoos karo
Pyar ko pyar hi rehne do, koi naam na do

Film: Khamoshi (1969)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyricist: Gulzar
Music Director: Hemant Kumar

Translation:

I have seen the fragrance of those eyes
Dont accuse my looks of any ties by a touch
This is just a feeling, experience it with your soul
Let love remain love, don’t give it a name.

Old Hindi movie songs were brilliant in terms of lyrics, melody and music. Over the last two decades, with a very few exceptions, they have lost all of that. Over the same time, misplaced idealism has been replaced by dogmatic pragmatism (yes, there is such a thing). Cause and effect?

Cheating at school exams

I just happened to land on this post about the prevalence of cheating in school exams. Somehow, I had forgotten about this particular aspect of school life and the numbers came as a shock even though they shouldn’t have. From the post

According to a private research, 68% of middle class students and 75% of high school students cheats in general during exams. Why cheating is so high? We talk of controlling corruption, where the root lay? The only way to find out the root of the problem is to analyze this problem from the standpoint of a student. What rational he uses to decide whether to cheat or not?
(bad grammar in original)

From my own experience those numbers seem about right – perhaps on the lower side which is not surprising given that not everyone who cheats will admit to cheating. Most of my classmates at school cheated. I would put the figure at around 80% of the boys (I don’t know what the figure was among the girls – I suspect it would be significantly lower). It was considered helping each other. The few students who did not allow others to copy were regarded as selfish – particularly in middle school (5th – 7th standard). Even I succumbed to the pressure to allow “friends” to copy answers from my answer sheets in middle school. I did get over that by high school though – partly because I grasped that cheating does not in fact help anybody and partly because the pressure to allow others to cheat was lower in high school – a no cheating stand was not looked down on as selfish (I certainly was a long way away from grasping that selfishness is a virtue at this point).

The surprising thing is that those numbers are not as bad as they seem. In junior college, I was in a section of students who were all preparing for IIT JEE. I don’t know anyone there who cheated or even copied assignments. Ironically, this honesty did not last in IIT itself. There were atleast a few cases of cheating in IIT exams. Copying of assignments was routine.

I am glad that I never copied an assignment or an answer in an exam, but the variation of the prevalence of copying matches very well with my own estimate of the importance of those exams. Even though I was under some pressure from my parents to study and excel (in terms of marks and rank) in school, I always knew that most of the exams and half the subjects (Hindi, Social Studies and Biology in particular) were of no importance to me. In junior college, on the other hand, everyone knew that the competition was fierce and one had to do one’s best to get into a good college. The goal was worthy and the studies were interesting. I put in disciplined and sustained efforts in those two years – I have never worked with that sort of discipline before or after that. I think the same is true of most of my friends as well. In IIT, I still had some pressure (self-imposed) to do well (in terms of grades) but atleast half the courses in each semester were boring. Most of the assignments seemed pointless.

My reading of the trend seems to be that students copy when they do not care – either about the studies or about the significance in their own lives. The prevalence of cheating is an indicator of how poorly designed the education system is (of course, that is hardly a novel conclusion!). More importantly, it indicates that most people (atleast in my generation) have no intrinsic respect for abstract principles like honesty. While self-interest tends to make people honest (as in junior college), in situations where there is no immediate self-interest (having to study courses in engineering when you want to get into finance or consulting), there is no incentive for honesty. My generation does not believe in virtues or principles or philosophy – only in concrete results. If honesty pays, they will be honest; if it seems pointless, they don’t give a damn. They call it being pragmatic. What they don’t realize is that by not believing in any philosophy, they have never developed any identity and so their behavior is determined by the world around them. They are driven entirely by incentives, not by motives. All that someone has to do to enslave this generation is to arrange the incentives conveniently. It has always cracked me up when people write that this generation is going to reform India, because it is pragmatic and not dogmatic. After thinking through this post, this reform thing cracks me up even more. This generation is the most malleable ever in the last few decades.

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.

Contradictory ideas

I recently had a couple of meetings with a senior banker. In the first meeting, during some light talk, he mentioned his support for a signature campaign for the stricter implementation of the PCPNDT act (which bans sex determination tests). In the second meeting, he mentioned how certain regulations recently imposed by the Reserve Bank of India are so oppressive that his bank can either comply with them fully or serve its customers well but not both. Presumably he does not like the regulations and wants them removed.

Both the PCPNDT act and the banking regulations are a violation of the right of individuals to freely contract with each other. The advocates of both justify them by claiming that they serve the “public good”. But recognizing this involves thinking in terms of principles. That is something that even the most successful businessmen seem incapable of. As another example, just read this piece on the budget in today’s Times of India by Narayan Murthy, the founder of Infosys. He starts off complaining about the fiscal deficit and then goes on to write that all the allocations in the budget are inadequate! Do these people ever bother to think?

What is propaganda?

I sent this excellent post at Titanic Deck Chairs to a friend, who forwarded it to another and got a reply that started with

 Well the blog post reads like a propaganda piece. But thats not my argument. …

I will answer his actual argument later. But first, what is propaganda? Here are the relevant meanings of the word from the merriam webster dictionary

2: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
3: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause ; also : a public action having such an effect

So yes, the blog post linked to is propaganda, i.e, it is a deliberate attempt to propagate ideas that the author believes in. In fact, by that definition, almost every post I have written on this blog qualifies as propaganda too. Why does the word have a negative connotation? It is because ideas are supposed to be held in a disinterested, dispassionate manner. But is that possible? I write about ideas because I believe they are essential to my life. Having the right ideas and spreading them is crucial to my interest. I do not write about ideas that do not interest me. I consider them a waste of my time. In fact, it is the disinterested pursuit of ideas, a pursuit cut off from any contact with reality or from any any attainable purpose that is disingenuous. It is precisely the disinterested nature of much of dominant philosophy that gives philosophy a bad name, that allows schools of thought such as pragmatism (a rejection of all abstract principles) to exist. What is more genuine – a passionate and interested expression of an idea the author believes in or a disinterested, dispassionate analysis of information with no specific purpose? As long as man has a purpose in his life, he cannot divorce interest and passion from the ideas which he entertains. And interest, passion and purpose are not bad things. They are what make life meaningful and enjoyable.

A new blog on business, economics and free enterprise

Simply Capitalism (feed) is a new blog on business, economics and free enterprise.

Here is an excerpt from their first post

Today, we live in a mixed economy made up of both semi-free markets and government controls. We live in a culture that views business and businessmen as a necessary evil. While the ability of capitalism to bring general prosperity is begrudgingly acknowledged, big business and naked “greed” are routinely blamed for the country’s problems. Calls continue for more government controls and regulations to fix a “broken” system. We think this view is flawed.

When it becomes difficult to determine which effects are due to government interference and which are due to free market influences, our goal is clarity and proper identification. When we hear calls for pragmatism and “balance” in our approach, our goal is to find the principles that illuminate the proper course of action. When we see a system of political pull and coercive government replacing a system of merit, productivity and voluntary trade, our goal is to defend the individual rights that make the latter possible once again.

Among its contributors are two bloggers I have regularly followed for some time

Galileo Blogs, author of Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid

Kendall Justiniano who also blogs at The Crucible

I am looking forward to getting new insights and good discussion on this blog. Highly recommended for anyone who wants a better understanding of the economy.

Satyam chairman Raju’s crime and the Times’ reaction

About a couple of weeks back, I had a very interesting conversation with a friend (and former classmate). The converstion started off with him telling another friend that “a day will come when you will look for a meaning, a larger purpose in your job/life”. I enquired what he meant by a larger purpose and the conversation moved to self-interest and sacrifice. By the end of the discussion his position was that sacrifice should not be the guiding principle in normal life but that it may be necessary in certain (rare) situations. I claimed that pro-sacrifice and anti-selfishness principles are the dominant ethical principles today, to the exclusion of everything else and this has severe consequences in our lives, as these principles provide no guidance (at best) in normal life and actually create an undeserved sense of guilt if accepted. He responded that he did not believe that the pro-sacrifice ethical principles had many far reaching consequences. Since we were running out of time at this point, I said that I would provide evidence for my claim. Here is the first piece of evidence. This post seeks to show how prevalent the “selfishness is evil” theme is in the culture at large.

In its leading frontpage article on friday, The Times of India asks

Did Raju Pick Lesser Of 2 Crimes?
He Said He Inflated Figures, But Did He Divert Money?

… Raju said that in the second quarter (July-Sept) of 2008, Satyam showed an operating margin of Rs 649 crore (which was 24% of revenue) when it was actually only Rs 61 crore (that’s 3% of revenue). This, he indicated, was part of a fudging exercise over years to inflate profits—presumably to keep the stock price up and the magic of Satyam alive.
Essentially, what Raju confessed to was creative accounting—showing cash where none was generated and therefore did not exist. But, as he kept emphasizing, he did not profit personally from it. Still a crime, but not top of the pops in order of heinousness.

It’s a crime to show money in the books where none existed, which is what Raju said he did. But it’s a worse crime to divert money that actually did exist. 

Note the assertion that Raju’s crime would be less heinous if he did not profit personally from it. I do not know if this is true as per the Indian penal code. It is the moral angle that is more interesting. Consider the two possibilities.

1) What Raju wrote is true – that Satyam really was making very small profits (compared to the IT industry norms) and Raju inflated the books to keep the company going.

2) Satyam was making normal profits and Raju siphoned them off.

In both cases, Raju betrayed the responsibility he had as the company founder and board chairman. In both cases, he defrauded the shareholders. The difference in the two cases is that the motive in the first case is somewhat less personal than the second. So what does the Times’s assertion mean? It could mean one of two things:

a) Self-interest (personal profit in this case) is bad in itself.

b) Self-interest is amoral (neither good nor bad) but concern with other people’s interests (a larger purpose) is good.

I am sure that the pragmatist Times would hold that there is nothing wrong with personal profit if it is obtained by honest means. Its position on the issue (if it ever took the trouble of taking a definite position at all) would essentially be something like:

Selfishness is (regrettably) part of human nature and it is impractical to oppose it consistently. However it needs to be restrained in favor of a larger purpose (the common good).

So the Times assertion essentially means b. Now consider what that implies. It implies that the supposed “larger purpose” (keeping Satyam going in this case) can be a mitigating factor in the moral judgement of Raju’s actions. If things had gone a little differently and Raju had said that he fudged accounts after considering the delicate position of the global economy, the troubles his employees would face if Satyam were to shut down etc, etc…, the Times would find it difficult to take a unequivocal moral stand. After all it routinely justifies and calls for fudging the national accounts – by imposing fuel prices, interest rates, lending rates, printing money and a host of other such actions – on precisely such grounds.

Holding self-interest as amoral results in moral paralysis. One can no longer say that fraud is wrong irrespective of the motives behind it. All that is needed to justify it is some sufficiently “larger” purpose. And since everyone has a different “larger” purpose, a different “shared” vision for how other people should live – purposes such as Maharashtra for Marathis or India for Hindus or universal health care or universal education or the rule of Islam or saving the planet – anything goes.

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