Now I have a right to reputation

The Times of India reports

The Supreme Court has ruled that a person’s reputation is an inseparable part of his fundamental right to life and liberty and hence, the police and other authorities with the power to detain should be very sure of their facts against an individual before taking him into preventive detention and lodging him in jail.

“The reputation of a person is a facet of his right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution”

Let me reiterate some facts that I noted in an earlier post. Under the Indian constitution:

I do not have the right to express my thoughts freely. The state may impose “reasonable restrictions” on my expression “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” (article 19)

I do not have a right to my property. (The right to property is not a fundamental right)

I do not have a right to my body. “Nothing in this article (article 23) shall prevent the State from imposing compulsory service for public purposes”

But now I do have a right to reputation – a right to what others think of me, a right to others judgement. And this is what the Times has to say about it

It should be welcomed by those who are disturbed by the rampant trend among cops to send the accused to jail even for bailable offences or when the evidence has not fully firmed up. Anxious to appease the chorus for swift justice and to be seen as discharging their law enforcement brief, cops and other detaining authorities see jailing the accused as an easy option.

There is no need to invoke a right to reputation to keep the police from abusing their powers. In the earlier post I wrote,

“This mess of contradictory and concrete-bound articles institutionalizes an approach of rampant pragmatism to governance. It institutionalizes the idea that there are no absolute rights, no absolute principles and no absolute limits to the actions governments can take.”

This ruling and its purpose serve to underline that.

The financial crisis and pragmatism

Following the recent financial crisis, there have been three kinds of reactions in general

The socialists are on a rampage denouncing capitalism, free enterprise, greed and the profit motive. It is difficult to miss a note of glee in their screams. It is almost as if the financial crisis and the alleged role of capitalism in causing it helps them get over the failures of socialism. However loud their screams may be, socialism is so completely discredited today that their screams are irrelevant.

A small number of free market advocates are using principled arguments about the working of the free market and the nature of government interference in the economy to interpret the crisis as a failure of the unfree market. However well reasoned and sound their arguments may be, these are not the men who run things today and the immediate impact of their ideas is going to be small.

The most interesting reaction is the one by the pragmatists. They claim that the financial crisis demonstrates the failure of deregulation and that what is needed is better regulation, more in line with the modern realities of today’s markets. They claim that the focus of the debate should be not whether regulation is needed or not, but what sort of regulation is required. They reject any principled arguments as “just theory”. What is interesting about their reaction is that they are the ones who were in charge of the situation the whole time. These are the people who “believe” in free markets and the gold standard and fiscal discipline and claim to be protecting capitalism. By doing what? By chairing the federal reserve. The blatant contradictions do not bother them. After all Bernanke is supposed to have said “There are no atheists in foxholes and no ideologues in financial crises”. Even after a century of failed attempts at regulation, these pragmatists are still searching for better ways of regulating the economy. There is an old saying that goes “When you find you have dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging”. But perhaps that too is “just theory” for these pragmatists.

Sadly, more regulation and more crises is what we are going to get, atleast until pragmatism gets discredited. For that to happen however, we need to learn that the way to get out of a crisis is not to renounce principles, but to discover, understand and practise them. Understanding the ideas in these piecies would be a good beginning.

Specialization – Applied Philosophy – 3

In an essay titled “Why Nerds are Unpopular?”, Paul Graham writes that life in elementary school is warped and savage because it is isolated from reality and identifies specialization as the reason for the isolation.

“Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers…
The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them…”
(Emphasis added)

Specialization and trade are the primary mechanisms of human progress. Todays industrial societies and the incredibly complex global economy would be impossible without specialization – without men who spend most of their lives working in a narrow field. Specialization has given us the sophisticated gadgets we use in our daily lives, the means to communicate with people across the globe, the opportunity to excel in our chosen careers. Specialization has given artists the time needed to create works of art and others the opportunity of enjoying them. Specialization has given sportsmen the time needed to perfect their skills and others the opportunity of being inspired by human perfection. In short, specialization has given us most of the things that we value in life.

Specialization has also caused innumerable problems. Specialization has made it very difficult for young people to make an informed choice of career or to change a choice of career once made. Specialization has made it difficult for people to adjust to economic changes. Specialization has created complex chains of dependencies among people. Specialization has made it difficult for people to understand fields other than their own. Specialization has made it difficult for anyone to understand the broader picture – the workings of the world. Specialization is atleast partly responsible for the large number of fallacious beliefs held by mostly reasonable people – particularly in economics and politics. Specialization is partly responsible for today’s rampant pragmatism – the lack of respect for abstract ideas and philosophy.

Perhaps the single biggest problem caused by specialization is the problem of knowing what to believe outside of one’s chosen field. Men have evolved a number of mechanisms to solve this problem – peer reviewed journals and techincal associations in science, the concepts of degrees and certifications in education, the concept of branding in advertising, independent rating agencies in industry, efforts like wikipedia, government regulatory bodies for everything, etc. While some mechanisms work better than others, it is clear that there can be no complete solution. The body of human knowledge is so vast and varied that it is impossible for anyone to establish trusted authorities in every field. The mixed success achieved in solving this problem is an important reason for the general lack of respect for abstract ideas and general principles. It also raises (well founded) questions about whether the entire system can sustain itself without directed effort. But the questions cannot be answered without abstract ideas and general principles, i.e without philosophy. Contrary to popular belief these are not merely questions of economics. They cannot be answered without an understanding of the nature of man, the function of his reason, the nature and structure of his knowledge and the reasons for his motives.

Specialization is a natural phenomenon. As long as men deal with each other, they have to trade. And as long as they trade, they will choose to spend their time on that which they are best equipped to do. In the absence of a catastophic disruption, a society will continue to grow in complexity. A system that constantly increases in complexity cannot be sustained without directed effort. Without that effort or with wrong efforts a catastrophic disruption is inevitable. Anyone who believes that the economy will continue to prosper irrespective of the social and political system is deeply mistaken. As the level of specialization continues to accelerate, the need for the right philosophy becomes ever more crucial.

Today’s Cultural Vacuum

This post began as a reply to a comment on my previous post that said “We must do something about it otherwise it will be too late.” but I decided it was worthy of posting as an entry by itself1. So here goes.

Indeed now is the time to do something about improving our culture. The culture around us today is dominated by people who have seen that the ideals they believed in have failed. Instead of questioning the ideals, they have chosen to reject the necessity of ideals and principles itself. They believe that as long as they do not stick to any principles and do not take any definite stands but keep revising their positions everytime a new angle of some issue confronts them, all will be well. But man cannot live without ideals or principles. Since these men have not questioned their ideals, they still believe in them implicitly, and these ideals still drive the decisions they make, but this time unconsciously. The old leaders and trend-setters of this country atleast had the advantage of knowing what they wanted and of being sure of what they chose, no matter how flawed their ideas were. The cultural leaders of today now live in perpetual doubt, ready to change their stands at a moments notice. They are in the position of men trying to navigate a vast desert who have seen that the compass they had is faulty and decide to depend only on the terrain around them but end up using the faulty compass everytime they get confused. Except that the compass here is a code of ethics and the terrain is a world that gets more complex by the day as technology progresses. It is no wonder that our politics is now dominated by crooks (in place of the misguided do-gooders) who know how to take advantage of the cultural vacuum and the lack of any principled opposition. The time is indeed ripe for those who know the importance of ideals and principles to discover the right ideals, advocate them and take control of the culture. Cultural trends are set by those who dare to set them. Today India is in a position where no one will present any real opposition to anyone who dares to set the trends. If those who have the right ideas fail to set the right trends, the fault will squarely be theirs.

Notes
1) Since it integrates the content of some earlier posts and has to do with the purpose of this blog.

Altruism, Pragmatism and Moral Relativism

Man is faced with choices in every conscious moment. To make these choices, he needs a code of ethics – a morality. For his choices to be successful, his moral code must be based on the facts of reality (including his own nature). Properly, a code of ethics must be derived from the nature of existence and the nature of man (man has specific requirements for survival and has free will and the abilty to reason) with reference to an ultimate purpose. This is the motivation for studying philosophy. One must discover the nature of existence – existents have a specific identity and behave in accordance with it. This is the task of metaphysics. One must acquire knowledge of the world (including of man’s nature). To ensure that the knowledge is accurate, one must validate it. This is the task of epistemology.

The dominant morality today is that of altruism. Here is the dictionary meaning.
1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

Altruism is a code that has “the welfare of others” as its ultimate purpose (note meaning 1 above) and sacrifice as its guiding principle (note meaning 2 above).

What altruism does by defining sacrifice as the guiding principle need not be elaborated here. The consequences are painfully apparent. By defining the ultimate purpose to be the welfare of others, altruism destroys the motivation to study philosophy. Without an explicit understanding of the nature of existence and the nature of knowledge, man is left in chronic doubt. He cannot be sure of what he knows or even whether he actually knows anything at all. Nevertheless, he knows that he has to make choices. He knows that he is not equipped to make them. What does he do? He adopts the principle “Do not decide any issue beyond the range of the moment”. He decides that he will only consider immediate concretes. He decides to reject principles on principle. This is how altruism leads to pragmatism.

Having rejected principles, man is left with no means to judge others. By considering concretes, he can still judge individual actions or situations to a limited extent. But he cannot judge others. Their motives and the long term consequences of their actions are not concretes. They can only be considered with reference to principles. Thus he adopts the principle “Do not judge people”. He decides that the concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are neither absolute nor objective, but only have meaning in the range of the moment. This is how altruism leads to moral relativism.

Added on 29 April 2008 (In response to Scott Hughes’ comment):

Most religions prescribe altruistic ethical rules as absolutes, as a revelation from God. However those absolutes are of little help in the application of ethics to most real-life issues. Look at the Ten Commandments. How would they apply in formulating (or even evaluating) a company’s policy regarding employee benefits? Altruism has “the welfare of others” as its ultimate purpose. But what is this welfare? Altruism does not answer that. Without an explicit understanding of the nature of existence and the nature of knowledge, man is left with subjective (and inconsistent) emotions as the only means to an answer.

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