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.

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?

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.

Government Funding of Science

As part of a comment on a post on India’s Chandrayan mission on, I wrote

The government has no business pursuing scientific research.

Here are some responses

kerty: Unfortunately, many sectors can not rely on private commercial transactions. So tax payers have to pool their resources and create capital markets that can allow large scale projects to be undertaken. Unfortunately, capital markets run on profit motive. Lack of instant profit gratification can not help corpocracy or private sector to tackle fields of r&d and infra-structure that are key for economic development. So tax-payers have to pool money and assign such roles to government – roles that neither individual, private sector is capable of undertaking. Removing poverty is a function of economy – and that role is ideal for private sector – government need not dabble in it when empowerment of private sector can tackle it. R&D and economic infra-structure is a proper role of government and good use of tax money.

Morris: …a lot of other government activities are unjust to some people. I think the real question is; is this a proper activity for a government to engage into? If the answer is yes and I think it is then why not. The fact that India is poorer than the US is not relavent.

Chandra: It is increasingly debatable as to what the Govt should be or should not be in. The bottomline clearly is efficiency. Anybody who is able to use resources efficiently is good.

There are three aspects of this issue that I wish to comment on

1) The proper role of government

A government is an involuntary organization. Its involuntary nature makes it fundamentally different from other organizations such as companies, political parties, social groups etc. A voluntary organization is one which works on mutual consent. The individuals who are a part of such an organization, participate in it of their own choice. They (in whatever manner, democratic or otherwise) decide the rules by which the organization functions and the goals which the organization pursues. Any individual can leave a voluntary organization (subject to the rules to which he has already agreed) if he judges the rules or goals to be inappropriate. The only power a voluntary organization has over its members is the power of persuasion. It may not initiate physical force on its members and it may not violate its contracts with its members (the rules subject to which its members join the organization and stay in it). A voluntary organization cannot force a man to act against his judgement. A voluntary organization recognizes the principles that the individual is the unit of thought, choice and action; that the goals and interests of a group are merely the sum of the goals and interests of its members as determined by voluntary consensus; that the proper way to deal with men is persuasion and not force. A voluntary organization enables its members to work together in pursuit of their shared goals. No society can function without voluntary organizations.

But a voluntary organization cannot work without an arbiter. It cannot work if there is no authority to resolve and settle disputes. A voluntary organization cannot work in an anarchy. The role of government is to maintain a framework of individual rights within which individuals and voluntary organizations can work and interact with each other. The creation and maintenance of such a framework is the only proper role of government. This involves creating a system of laws and procedures in accordance with individual rights to adjudicate the resoluion and settlement of disputes (the law courts). It involves granting authority to certain individuals to implement laws (the police). It involves protecting its territory from outside interference (the army).

As a necessarily involuntary organization, a government can have no shared goals or purposes. Thought, choice, action, purpose, goal are all concepts which apply to individuals. Action, purpose and goal are concepts which can apply to groups if there is a consensus among its members and an agreement on the mechanism of estalishing a consensus. Shared goals can range from running a business to spreading a religion to landing on the moon to running a charity to achieving spiritual awakening. All such goals are legitimate. Individuals and voluntary groups have every right to spend their resources on pursuing these goals in any manner they see fit. No individual or group (and therefore the government) has any right to use the resources of some individuals to pursue the goals of others. For example a government may not subsidise a pilgrimage, may not sponser research, may not subsidise certain industries, may not provide social welfare etc. All such activities may properly be carried out by voluntary groups.

It is meaningless to talk of efficiency of resource allocation when one is talking of government activities. Is an efficient pilgrimage an efficient allocation of resources? Is a successful trip to the moon an efficient allocation of resources? Is a welfare scheme run without corruption an efficient allocation of resources? Is a subsidy or bailout granted to failing banks an efficient allocation of resources? Is the creation of a wildlife preserve an efficient allocation of resources? The concept of efficiency does not make sense without a purpose. And a government does not have a purpose beyond that of protecting individual rights.

2) The effects of government sponsored science

Since government funds come from taxation, government funding of research (whether by research institutes as in India, or grants to professors as in the U.S.) reduces the capacity of industry to conduct their own research. When industry conducts research and the research fails to yield any practical results, the industy’s profitability declines. When the research succeeds the industry makes greater profits and its capacity for research increases. Good research is rewarded and bad research is punished. That is not the case with government sponsored research. When research fails, the researcher(s) has nothing to lose. When it succeeds, he (they) receive a patent, commercialize the results and reap the rewards (out of taxpayer money). Profits are private and losses are public. This is true of any commercial activity by the government. Those favored individuals (or groups) who get government support are able to take higher risks since the upside is unlimited and there is no downside. (Just consider the current mortgage crisis for example.) In the American model of research grants to university professors, the university is turned into a research lab. The professors who are able to get the most grants and write the most papers succeed at the cost of the professors who are genuinely interested in teaching. In the Indian model of research institutes, there are labs all over the country engaged in carrying out meaningless research, little of which is ever commercialized.

More importantly, the quality of research suffers. Since the government has no specific goals for research and no ability to judge matters of science or the calibre of researchers or the potential of their proposals, the task of approving grants is taken over by favored panels of “scientists” whose primary skills are political rather than scientific. Obtaining research grants becomes a game of winning favors. Politically motivated projects often get funding. Consider the enormous amounts being spent on researching “climate change” as an example.

3) Private industry and large scale projects

Consider some numbers. The estimated cost of the Chandrayan mission is around $120 million. The annual profits of Exxon Mobil are $40 billion, of General Electric $21 billion, Reliance $2 billion, TCS $338 million. Private industry certainly has the sort of money required for large projects. The reason they do not engage in certain large scale projects is either that the projects are too risky or because under current laws (such as anti-trust), the projects are not profitable. Would a company spend billions on cancer or AIDS research when it knows that its intellectual property rights would immediately be confiscated? Would a company launch a satellite when it knows that government would demand control over its commercial uses? Would a company build a highway when it knows that toll-fares would be fixed by politicians eager to win the next election? Would a company setup a university when it knows that admissions and fees would be subject to vote-bank politics? Why do laws that prevent large scale projects from being profitable exist? Apparantly to “protect” “consumers” from the “greedy” private sector. These laws deliver the “consumer” to unprincipled politicians who do not care to look beyond the next election. If the road in front of my (am I a “consumer”?) house (which gets washed away every monsoon) had been laid by a private corporation, I (or some housing society) would have a contract and the corporation would be legally bound to implement it. The corporation would lay a concrete road that would last for 20 years. Instead the muncipal officers give the contract (for laying a 2-inch thick tar road which survives for about 8 months) to favored corporations, who in turn ensure that the muncipal officers will have adequate funds for political canvassing in the coming election. And if the muncipal officers decide that “public interest” will be better served by some other project, that is just too bad. I should learn to sacrifice my narrow selfish interests for a “larger purpose”. Or I can try going to court and proving that a road in front of my house is crucial to the “public interest”.

Note: This post is also available on with a separate comment thread.

Freedom of Speech

Paul McKeever has a post on Freedom and the Proper Regulation of Speech in which he claims that it is the role of government to outlaw speech that denies individuals control over their life, liberty and property. The object of this post is to argue that freedom of speech is indeed absolute.

The right to freedom of speech is a special case of the right to freedom of action – the only right that man has (Look at the first five paragraphs of this post for a detailed argument on why man has the right to freedom of action). It is considered specially by most constitutions because of its importance in maintaining a free society. Given this importance, it is worth considering the concepts underlying the right to free speech.

Speech as a form of action:
Speech is just a form of action. There is nothing about speech that does not apply to other actions. Speech may involve the initiation of physical force. Shouting “Fire!” in a theatre is just as much of an initiation of force as is the breaking of a chair in the same theatre. Both are actions that are not permitted by the owner of the theatre and thus are an initiation of force.

Initiation of force:
Initiation of physical force is the only thing that can curtail man’s freedom of action, and consequently, the only thing that a government must protect. Any “regulation” of speech that does not involve the initiation of force is a violation of  the right to freedom of action.

Responsibility of judgement:
Judging the statements or claims made by others is a necessary part of living in a society. Since no one can think for another person, this judgement and its consequences are the sole responsibility of the individual. A liar is morally responsible for his lies but that does not absolve his victims from the responsibility of judgements. Nor does the fact that man is infallible absolve him of that responsibility. It is a fact of nature that man must think, judge and act even though he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent.

Fraud as distinct from lies:
Fraud is the violation of a contract and thus an initiation of force. Not every statement is made within the context of a contract. In fact the vast majority of conversations do not involve any contract at all.

Role of government:
The proper role of government is limited to protecting the right to freedom of action. Ensuring any other form of justice is not its role. Notably, ensuring that rational men do not suffer because of the wrong judgements of others is not the role of government. Governments are instituted because of the necessity of placing the retalliatory use of force under objective control. Any other function that a government performs necessarily involves the initiation of force and is a perversion of the concept of a government.

Impossibility of outlawing lies:
The initiation of physical force (whether direct or the violation of a contract) is an objective standard. There can be no honest disagreement about whether a particular case involves the initiation of physical force in the presence of witnesses or evidence. Truth is often not an objective standard legally nor does it apply to all statements. A statement such as “X is incompetent to complete project Y on time.” is a matter of individual judgement and a prediction about the future. Truth does not apply to it. (Update: Look at the comments below for more on this) A statement such as “Candidate X believes in sorcery” cannot be judged objectively as there is no way to either prove or disprove it. A legal system that allows laws without objective standards will soon disintegrate into an arbitrary rule of men.

It should be clear from the above points that freedom of speech is an absolute right just like the right to life and the right to property and may not be violated by a proper government. For the sake of completeness however, I will analyze the flaw in McKeever’s argument and consider his examples.

McKeever writes:

Freedom is control. Specifically, it is control over ones own liberty and property; over the pursuit of ones own survival and happiness. The role of government is to ensure that no other person causes you to lose that control; that no other person deprives you of your freedom.

This is the primary flaw in his argument. Freedom is not control. Man is free by nature. He does not control his own life in the same sense. For example, I do not control whether I get to keep my job. If my employer decides to fire me, is he causing me to lose my control? I do not control my immediate emotions. If a stranger abuses me verbally and I get angry, is he causing me to lose my control? In both these cases I retain my freedom but do I lose my control or did I never have it?

Consider his examples:

By selling you a can of highly corrosive acid labeled “Soda Pop”, a person can deprive you of your life.

This is fraud and has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

By framing you for a crime you did not commit, or by bearing false witness against you, you can be deprived of your liberty.

If he frames me for a crime I did not commit and escapes detection completely so that he is not even required to testify, this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. If he bears false witness, he is lying intentionally on oath, which is a violation of an explicit contract with the legal system itself. Again it has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

By selling you an ineffective substance as “a new, 100% effective cure for strep throat”, you can be deprived of your property (i.e., the money you paid for the substance).

Fraud again.

Common to each example is the making of false or arbitrary assertions upon which you or others found decisions concerning your life, liberty, or property.

No. Common to each example is the initiation of force.


What is a culture? What is its role in man’s life? Can a culture be good or bad?

The concept culture refers to shared beliefs, practices, tastes, values, attitudes etc. A culture plays many important roles in man’s life

As a child grows, he learns by observing the world around him. An important part of this learning process is observing and mimicking the actions of others. He builds his knowledge and his concepts on the evidence that he sees – the facts that he observes, the results of the actions that he and others around him perform. Even as an adult, it is difficult – if not impossible – for man to consciously and explicitly think about every issue in his life or question all conventional wisdom. A conscientious man will attempt to find first hand all the relevant evidence on issues that he considers important. But he will also have to depend on commonly held beliefs and on trusted authorities. Clearly then, the extent of a man’s knowledge, the validity of his concepts, his conviction in his beliefs all depend to a considerable extent on the culture he lives in. This should be obvious. The most intelligent and conscientious man living in a tribal society has far less knowledge and holds far more false beliefs than an average person in a modern industrial society.

A very important part of commonly held beliefs are moral beliefs – beliefs about the right way for man to live his own life and to deal with others. These beliefs determine how a society will deal with those who choose to dissent. Irrespective of the specifics of these beliefs, a person who chooses to dissent on fundamental beliefs will be shunned by society. But a society that does not believe in the right to dissent will make life physically impossible for the dissenters.

It is easier for a man to live in a society whose members speak the same language, have similar behavioral habits, eat similar foods etc. A shared culture eases communication and makes interaction predictable.

Shared tastes in music, literature, cinema, sport etc provide psychological support to man. They give him ways to enjoy the company of friends and content for polite conversations with strangers. They help in making a purposeful life complete.

These roles are interrelated, particularly the cognitive and moral ones. As an example, although the role of culture in the cognitive realm is one of default (It affects those beliefs which a man has not consciously questioned), a freedom-loving and rights-respecting culture increases the motivation to question and discover knowledge while an authoritarian culture kills it. As another example, a technologically advanced culture gives men leisure time to spend on the arts.

The cognitive and moral aspects of a culture are its defining or essential characteristics. It is easy for man to change his food and behavioral habits, or to enjoy different sports. It is not very difficult to learn a different dialect or a new language. It is difficult to reject long held fundamental beliefs. It is nearly impossible to change a thought process or an outlook on life. These are formed at the early stages of a person’s growth and they are the core of a person’s identity. A culture that promotes rational and independent thought is a great value to its members. A culture that inhibits it is a great burden.

A note on geography and globalization:
Today geography is an important factor in the way culture affects a person’s life. As globalization happens and people are exposed to ideas (and their effects) from other cultures, the importance of geography will decrease. But globalization is by no means an inevitable process. A culture that seeks truth and believes that its pursuit is possible by natural means will welcome globalization. A culture that believes that truth can only be attained by mystical insights will consider outside influences as harmful and will close itself to them. Moreover the mere spread of ideas and information is no guarantee that the right ideas will win. Information has to be interpreted. Ideas have to be understood. Understanding ideas and interpreting information from another place or age is not an easy task – especially in cultures dominated by bad ideas. The success of globalization depends on active effort by intellectuals who understand its nature and importance. If globalization fails, the results might be worse than if it had never occurred.

Abortion, Female Foeticide and Rights

The fundamental issue in the abotion debate is (or should be) “Does a fetus have rights?”. Answering this question requires an understanding of the question of rights.

What are rights? Why are they necessary? Where do they come from? Is it possible to protect everyones rights? If not whose rights get precedence? Who decides? By what standard?

The concept “right” – as in right vs wrong (not the political concept of rights) – arises because man has the capacity of choice and alternatives to choose from. To judge whether a particular choice is right or wrong, he needs to evaluate the consequences of the choice with respect to a purpose. To evaluate consequences, he needs knowledge and reason. To compare the consequences of different choices, he needs a standard. A normal human has all of these attributes. He is born with the capacity to choose, to think, to gain knowledge. As a living being, he has an ultimate purpose of sustaining his life (man’s life is his ultimate purpose because without it he can have no other values or purposes). The laws of reality provide him with a standard, a way to determine whether the consequences of his choices help to serve his purpose. The concept “right” thus applies to living beings with a capacity of choice and thought.

This means it is right for man to think, to understand the world around him and gain knowledge, to systematize this knowledge to form principles, to apply these principles to his life to pursue his ultimate purpose. It is wrong for man to evade thought, to evade the evidence of his senses, to form ideas that contradict his knowledge, to act against his principles, to refuse in any way to see reality for what it is. To translate his thoughts into actions, man needs freedom to act on his judgements. The only thing that can curtail this freedom is the use of force by other men. Since man lives in a society of men, each of whom needs this same freedom, it is right for man to organize a system that protects him from force. This organization is government. The means it uses to achieve this purpose are laws and rights. Rights – the political concept of rights – are a sanction of the human need for freedom to translate thoughts into action. The rights of individuals cannot conflict with each other. Maintaining the rights of one individual requires no positive action from anyone else. Everyones rights can be maintained in peace as long as no man initiates the use of force. A man (and any group of men) who initiates force is a criminal. A government that initiates force is just a group of criminals who have happened to seize power. The sole purpose of government is to protect all its members from force. Any other actions that it undertakes are a violation of someones freedom to act. Just as it is right for man to form an organisation to protect his rights, it is wrong for man to institute or sanction a government that violates someones rights.

Rights are the conditions that are required for every man’s survival – a legal recognition that man must be free to act on his thoughts. They arise from the nature of man. They are not granted by society. Their recognition is the result of voluntary action on the part of individuals. Rights of individuals do not conflict. Conflicts arise only when men do not respect the rights of others or demand rights that cannot exist without violating others rights. The protection of rights and the resolution of conflict between men (not between rights) is achieved by implementing appropriate objective laws.

Once the nature of rights is understood, it is easy to resolve the issue of abortion. A fetus is a living human entity. But it lacks the capacity of choice and thought. Without this capacity the question of political rights is moot. Even the moral concept of right (on which the political concept of rights depends) does not apply to a fetus. Granting the “right to life” to a fetus is synonymous with violating the freedom of the mother. This position – called pro life – by its supporters, is deeply anti life. By violating the freedom of the mother, it destroys the conditions required for her survival.

It has been argued that a principled protection of a woman’s right to an abortion is impractical in a country where female foeticide is a serious problem. More widely, it is argued that the principled protection of everyones rights is utopic, idealistic, impractical and perhaps even undesirable. (For example, many would argue that a person “right” to food or a child’s “right” to education take precedence over a millionaire’s right to invest his money as he sees fit.)

Consider the causes of female foeticide. The fundamental cause is a belief that the male gender is superior to the female gender (Factors like the practice of dowry are not fundamental. They are also a result of this belief.)

This belief is totally irrational (and in more ways than one), especially in a modern industrial society where a drive to succeed and intellectual capacity are the only relevant factors in shaping any individual’s life. Biologically most males are physically stronger than most females and this meant that the genders had different roles in pre-industrial societies. Today even that is irrelevant. Man does not and cannot depend on physical strength in an industrial society. More importantly, individual differences are far more relevant than biological factors in today’s world. Judging a person on the basis of gender is just plain wrong.

Given the prevalence of this belief and its many victims – unlucky children of both genders in the miserable societies where it is prevalent – the question arises “What is to be done?”.

The parents who hold the irrational beliefs are no ones concerns. Their actions too are no ones concern as long as they do not violate anyones rights. Their irrational actions will bring them well-deserved problems. In fact the only subjects of concern can be the children born in these societies. Any rational parent who does not hold these beliefs should make every possible attempt to get out such societies. As for the children, it is an unalterable fact that a childs life will be influenced by its parents and the culture in general. No one can change that fact. Trying to correct the situation by laws that violate people’s rights can only result in the birth of unwanted girls – unwanted by their parents who will not treat them fairly and forced by the state which cannot take responsibility for their upbringing. Trying to provide economic incentives (taken from taxation) is even worse. Since wealth is produced by rational effort, taxing that wealth to change the behavior of irrational men is to penalize the rational to sustain the irrational.

The answer to the question “What is to be done about female foeticide (substitute any other irrational evil here)?” is:

Educate anyone willing to listen to reason. Help any deserving victim within your means. More importantly, do not advocate laws or political action that violates anyones rights (including the rights of the irrational – freedom is meaningless if rationality is enforced). Social problems cannot be solved by political shortcuts. Work for a culture of rights and reason. Do not hesitate to condemn irrationality. Do not feel any sympathy for the well-deserved problems that people face through their irrational behavior. Most importantly, do not lose sight of your own goals and purposes. A rational society and culture are important to personal goals. But they are not the ends.


To anyone who made it this far, I strongly recommend investigating the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

The Times’ Response to the Mehta Abortion Case

In the space of the two days after their initial response (which I labeled Intellectual Cowardice), The Times of India has come out with some articles whose substance helps explain their initial response. There could have been two principled stands to take.

a) A woman has an absolute right to her body and no one else may properly interfere with it for any purposes whatsoever.

b) A fetus has an absolute right to life and no one may properly take any action that violates it, irrespective of any risk to the mother or the potential child.

The Times does not take any of these stands. In fact, in the world of moral relativism that it inhabits (and has helped create), it would not even understand any of these stands. It does not think of anything as absolute, not even the right to life. In its world view, everything must be judged within a context and invariably the means of judgement is “a democratic consensus” and the context is “good of the society”. Both the stands above would be termed dogmatic, impractical and dangerous.

As evidence consider:

“There are valid concerns that in a country like India where female foeticide is a real problem, any further relaxation of abortion laws could be misused. However, that argument must not hold reasonable reforms to the MTP Act to ransom. There is a separate law — the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Tests Act — to address the issue of female foeticide. Its enforcement is poor; government would do well to get its act together in that area.”

“Ethicists, social scientists, lawmakers and medical specialists should discuss such issues on a common platform until a consensus is reached. A new and liberal abortion law is urgently required but we need to be careful as it may be abused to perform female foeticide. The medical profession in the past has refused to accept collective responsibility for this genocide and has a poor record in ensuring ethical conduct of doctors. It does not have any credibility and has failed to self-regulate. All future laws must be transparent and have built-in checks and mechanisms to curb female foeticide, while accommodating late abortions of grossly abnormal foetuses.”

“It [The current law] allows termination of the pregnancy even beyond the 20th week, if there is a threat to the mother’s life. However, it does not extend that provision to cases where the child’s health after birth might be under adverse risk. It was this lacuna that the Mehtas were challenging as their unborn child runs the risk of being born with congenital heart ailments.”

(emphasis mine)

In the world view that The Times exemplifies, laws and rights are optimization parameters, that are to be continuously tweaked to achieve the common good. This case then was only a sad but inevitable occurrence that highlighted the need for some more tweaking. Their initial reponse was not intellectual cowardice. It was not intellectual at all. It arose from a rejection of principles as being applicable to life. Since principles are derived by an application of the intellect, it showed a rejection of the intellect, an abdication of the role that a newspaper is expected to play in public discourse.

Mehta Couple’s Abortion Case

The Bombay High Court today dismissed the Mehta couple’s plea to permit an abortion of their 25 week old fetus diagnosed with heart problems. (More information here). This sad case has raised a debate about the law regarding termination of pregnancy. It has been said that the law (which only permits abortion upto the 20th week of pregnancy or if the mother’s life is in danger) is out of date and needs to change with medical advances. Yet the issue here is not the extent of advancement or reliability of medical procedures. The issue is whether a fetus has the right to life.

The concept of rights arises from the fact that man (by his nature) needs to act on his own independent judgement if he is to survive. Rights can only pertain to beings that have a purpose and the capacity to exercise judgement. The right to life is the right to act independently, free from physical force from other men. A fetus is not independent. It depends on the mother for its sustenance. It cannot exercise or even form judgement. It does not have a purpose. Judgement and purpose are concepts that depend on the capacity of choice. A fetus is incapable of choice. As Ayn Rand noted

“An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).”

The current law regarding abortion (like most of India’s laws) protects no ones rights. Neither the rights of the mother to her own body (as illustrated by this case) nor the alleged right of the fetus (since its life can be terminated in the case of a risk to the life of the mother). Properly defined, there can be no conflict (such as the one implied by the law) between the rights of individuals. Every man has an inalienable and absolute right to life. These rights are not a gift from the state and it is not upto the state to arbitrarily try to balance them. Nor do laws that protect these rights need to change with the times or with advancements in technology if they are properly framed. What needs to change is the lack of understanding about the source of rights and the role of the state in protecting them.

I have a more detailed post on this topic here.

In Defense of the Status Quo

While India’s parliamentarians were busy brokering power deals, managing defections and alliances, arranging, accepting and reporting bribes supposedly over the nuclear deal, The Times of India was busy defending the status quo with articles like this and this.

From the first article (titled “For India’s Future”)

“…a superficial look at news headlines conveys the impression that the vote is all about the loaves and fishes of office, a numbers game, where not much is at stake…
…Let’s not be fooled. This is a time for sober reflection. The trust vote is not just about the survival or fall of a government. It is about the future direction of India…
…Those are the issues at stake in tomorrow’s trust vote. Let parliamentarians now choose which way India should go.

And from the second (titled “It’s Messy, But It Works”)

“…It was indeed a new low in the history of Indian democracy…
…Over the better part of two days, the best speakers from major political parties held forth with varying degrees of eloquence on the Indo-US nuclear deal and its consequences for the country…
…And the best part was that there was a mad scramble for seats in the visitors’ gallery to hear speeches.
That is precisely what Parliament is supposed to do – debate issues of national importance before voters…
…This is not a pretty picture. But we must not make the mistake of judging Indian democracy and Parliament only by its low points…
…Indian democracy can often be exasperating and messy…For all its chaos, Indian democracy and its institutions have served us reasonably well.

Yes, in spite of the tamasha in Parliament that you all saw last evening.”

Most people look at what is going on and worry about what the country and its institutions are coming to. But those who bear the responsibility of analyzing current events and forming the basis of educated opinion tell us that not much is wrong with our political institutions, that we should contain our outrage, that we should be happy we are not a banana republic, that our institutions are serving us reasonably well, and above all that we must not judge these events as a failure of democracy.

But the events we see today are inevitable in a system that places majority opinion over rights. When people realize that they can succeed only by being in the majority, they will try to manufacture a majority by whatever means they can. A system that prevents people from achieving their ends by fair means, encourages them to resort to foul means. A democracy is an embodiment of the principle “Might makes right”. Is it any wonder that rogues succeed at it? We must realize that these failures are inherent in a democracy, that the role of government is to subordinate might to right, that the right is not a matter of consensus and that the only way to achieve the right is to leave men free to follow their judgement. Our national motto is “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth alone triumphs). We need to realize that truth triumphs only when it is left free.

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