Boys vs Men, Indian weddings, and an essay by Paul Graham

Boys vs Men

This has been going around in my head for some time; ever since I read/reread some of Alexander Dumas’ novels a few months back. The main characters in his novels (especially “The Three Musketeers”) are all people in their early twenties. And they are described as men and women, not as boys and girls. Today the age at which we describe someone as a man seems to be around 30. Young people seem to think of themselves as boys and girls, not men and women. The standard love stories in the movies are described as boy meets girl, not man meets woman. It should be a matter of pride to think of oneself as a man or a woman as opposed to a boy or girl. And yet, there is a definite reluctance in most young people today about letting go the self-image of a boy or girl. It is as if we want to remain boys and girls forever. This reluctance is quite surprising considering that young people – atleast in India – have never been as financially independent as they are today.

Most of us have grown up in families where our parents have been extremely responsible people in an age when there were very few opportunities. Our parents have held the same job for decades while we are free to change our jobs every few years. Our parents have lived in a socialist hell where achieving financial security meant dreary jobs and a sacrifice of their dreams. Is it that we associate adulthood and responsibilty with sacrifice, boredom and dreary routine? In the relatively free economy today, it does not have to be so.

Regardless of the cause, thinking of oneself as a boy well into actual adulthood is clearly a bad thing. Ideas held unconsciously have an enormous influence on our lives. If we don’t think or even want to think of ourselves as fully grown adults, we will always look to various authority figures in our lives to make our decisions for us, to take responsibility for our lives.

Indian weddings

There are two parts to most Indian wedding ceremonies. A religious ceremony consisting of various rituals and a reception party. The interesting thing is that neither part is directly controlled – to the extent that a ceremony involving so many people can be controlled – by the couple getting married or even their families. The first is controlled by some Pandit and the second is controlled by a photographer! If ever I have a wedding ceremony I would want to control every aspect of it.

“The Top Idea in Your Mind”, Essay by Paul Graham

Paul Graham is easily one of the most thought-provoking essayists I have read. And this one is particularly good (Via Gus Van Horn). Graham writes that there is a “top idea” in one’s mind – the idea that one’s thoughts keep turning to when one allows them to drift.

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

This seems to be a brilliant observation and an excellent way to take control of one’s thoughts.

Terrorism and moral outrage

In my last post, I wrote about political outrage among the public (directed at the politicians) in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Mumbai and why it is unjustified (Ramesh has a long post on a similar theme that, unlike mine, is not polemical). This post is about moral outrage and its importance.

Why do we feel morally outraged by a terrorist attack? Is it because of the number of people who are injured or killed? No. People die because of a number of causes but we don’t feel outraged by their deaths. Is it because the deaths were untimely? No. People die in accidents but we don’t feel outraged at that. Is it because the deaths were preventable? No. People die in adventure sports but we don’t feel outraged by that. We feel outraged because the injuries and deaths inflicted by the terrorists are unjust. Because the people who suffer do not deserve to suffer. Because they are not morally responsible for the whatever grievances (if any) the terrorists may have. Specifically, the moral value that the terrorists outrage is justice. And the implicit principle by which we recognize the violation of justice is deliberate initiation of force – the use of force against men who did not use it. Consider some simple examples to see that it is indeed so.

A soldier is practising with his rifle in an enclosure. Someone accidentally enters it and gets killed. We do not feel outraged at the soldier because his act was not deliberate.

A trader on the stock market loses his entire fortune and kills himself. We do not feel outraged at the other traders on the market because there is no force involved.

A criminal tries to set fire to someone’s house. The victim happens to have a gun and shoots the criminal. We do not feel outraged at the victim because he has not initiated force, but merely used it in retalliation.

Note that this principle is an absolute. No mitigating factors, ideas, or convictions can justify deliberate initiation of force. If men wish to remain in a civilized society (and with the size of the world population being what it is, there is no other way to live), they must recognize this principle, or rather, the extent to which a society recognizes and implements this principle is the extent of its civilization.

A person who violates this principle is a criminal and deserves to be treated as such. Most people who do so are petty, short sighted crooks who seek short term gains and hope to get away with their crimes. They deserve punishment proportionate to their crimes (and it is a matter of philosophy of law to determine this punishment). A terrorist however is not an ordinary criminal. Whatever his motivations, he is not after short term gains. His acts are a rejection of civilization as such. The only appropriate response – morally and practically – to a terrorist act is the use of overwhelming force in retalliation and defence. Morally, overwhelming force is justified because what is at stake is the very principle of civilization. Practically, overwhelming force is necessary, because any indication of uncertainty can only increase the motivation of the terrorists (more so when the terrorists are motivated by supremacist religious principles). The only proper issues to be considered in a response to a terrorist act are ones of strategy – not what needs to be done, but how it should be done.

Such a response might involve civilian casualties in the countries that harbour and promote terrorism. The moral responsibility for any innocent people who may suffer in such an attack belongs to the terrorists, to the governments who support them and to the civilians who elect the governments. And it is here that moral courage and certainty comes into play. Are we so sure of our innocence that we are willing to take all measures to protect them? Do we value our lives enough to believe that force used in retalliating to lethal threats is always justified? Do we believe fully in the justice of our cause to accept the idea that there are no innocents in war?

Needless to say, we do not have such courage or certainty. And for good reason. We simply do not value our lives high enough. We believe in a code of ethics that holds serving others as the highest virtue. We constantly tolerate any amount of interference from the governments in our private lives. We advocate policies that are based on nothing but coercion. We participate in a political system that recognizes no absolute principles and places no limitations on the powers of the government to coerce people. There is no way we can say that we deserve to live even if it takes a war that may kill innocents to secure our lives. Is it any wonder that the statements of our elected representatives are empty platitudes devoid of any meaning or intent? And is it any wonder that the terrorists are convinced that they are morally supreme?

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The moral outrage that we feel everytime the terrorists attack, is a badge of virtue. It represents the implicit sense of justice that is needed for a civilized society. But in itself, it is not a guide to action. What we need is to understand the principles on which that sense of outrage is based and apply them consistently. Until we do so, until we establish a just society based on absolute moral principles, we will have no answer to terrorism.

Note: The ‘we’ in this post refers to the dominant culture as I see it.

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