Independence

Ishaan: Aaj tak koi bhi faisla mera apna nahin tha. Kuch faisle mujhe virasat mein mile. Kuch kartavya ke naam pe liye gaye. Aur baki mere mahol ne kar diye. Aaj tak koi bhi faisla sahi ya galat ka farak dekh ke nahin kiya gaya. Mere mahol ne jo mujhe diya main leta gaya, jo mujhse maanga main deta gaya. Suman, tumse milne ke baad mujhe ehsaas hua ki is daayre ke bahar bhi kuch hai.

Suman: Ishaan, tumhare saamne do hi raaste hain. Sachai chupao, ek khuni ko azaad phirne do aur apne dost se wafadaar raho. Ya sach ka saath do. Sachai ko saamne la kar us khuni ko uski saza dilao. Aur insaniyat ke naate jo hamaara farz banta hai, use poora karo. Ishaan, mere liye ye farz, apne kisi bhi niji faisle ya shapath se bahut bada hai.

— From the Hindi movie Thakshak by Govind Nihalani

Translation:

Ishaan: “Not a single decision so far has been mine. Some decisions, I inherited. Some were made in the name of duty. And the rest were made by my circumstances. Not a single decision was made by considering whether it was right or wrong. Whatever my circumstances gave me, I accepted. Whatever they demanded from me, I submitted. Suman, after meeting you, I realized that there is something beyond this.”

Suman: “Ishaan, you have only two roads ahead of you. Hide the truth, let a murderer roam free, and remain loyal to your friend. Or, support the truth. Bring the truth into the open and punish that murderer. And fulfil the duty that is ours through our humanity. Ishaan, for me this duty is much bigger than any personal decision or promise.”

This is one of the very rare moments when – briefly and inconsistently, in a raw, sense of life form – Hindi Cinema comes close to a proper understanding of morality. And then immediately afterwards it returns to the tired old cliches of duty to humanity and sacrifice of personal values.

Interesting observations from my attempt at translation.

“Sach ka saath do” : “Support the truth”. That’s the best I can think of. Not something one says in English.

Is there a word in Hindi/Urdu that means obligation as against duty. “Kartavya” and “farz” both mean duty. Or is the difference not expressible in Hindi?

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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.

Deep rooted altruism

Plenty of work coupled with a lack of motivation to spend time on editing has meant that its been quite a while since I last wrote a proper,  thought-out post although I do have plenty of accumulated material to write about. While the lack of motivation hasn’t changed, I thought I should just put this down.

In a short conversation over lunch, one of my colleagues talked about how hedge funds are now back in business after all the losses they made recently (probably based on a report from bloomberg.com). He then went on to say that there should be some protection – government regulation – for the consumers. As I resisted, the discussion went on to the food and drug industries. I mentioned how regulations against drugs prevents people from using new drugs even if they sorely need them and are willing to take the risk. He countered by saying that it is not possible for any individual to take responsibility for evaluating all the available goods (be they drugs or foods) and so a government agency is needed. I replied that doctors should certainly be capable of doing the required evaluation. He replied “saare doctors bike hue hain” – all the doctors are mercenaries and have been bought over (presumably by drug companies). I asked “And how about the employees in the government?” and that was the end of the conversation.

Note the reason given to justify the existence of regulation – the people who are competent to evaluate are mercenaries and so, will not act in the interests of consumers, whereas a neutral government body not motivated by profit, will. There is plenty of evidence – living in India, I will not bother to write about it – about how “neutral” government bureaucrats – known, not so fondly as babus – act. How then does an intelligent guy offer such a reason? The short answer is altruism. Just a week back we had a discussion about altruism in which I argued that it is for moral reasons and not economic ones that people accept socialist ideas. My colleague is well aware of my views and probably does not explicitly believe in altruism himself. But he has not explicitly rejected it as evil either. The deeply rooted morality of altruism makes him look with implicit suspicion at the profit motive and – by extension – at all private activity. It seems safer to trust a faceless bureaucrat working in a non-profit organization than to trust a doctor who stands to profit by selling you unproven drugs regardless of all the corruption that the bureaucracy is famous for. After all, by the altruist morality, the non-profit government organization has a noble aim – to serve others. The private doctor is just a lowly human driven by his own profit (which tends to morph into greed). According to the altruist morality, the doctor would have to make a sacrifice to forego the quick cash that he could make by being unscrupulous. And as everyone knows, very few people make sacrifices. So the altruist morality implicitly implies that private individuals will tend be more unscrupulous than public organizations. The facts do not bear this out. And it is simple to see why. Once one assigns a face to a bureaucrat instead of referring to a convenient collective called the government, it is clear that the bureaucrat is also working for profit. And unlike the doctor, whose career depends on his reputation, his career depends on – as Ayn Rand eloquently described in Atlas Shrugged – the aristocracy of pull. If a doctor makes a mistake or even if he is simply thought to have made a mistake by the public, his career is ruined. The faceless bureaucrat has no such responsibility. The profit motive cannot be abolished just by choosing to think of a certain group of individuals in terms of a collective – government. Within a framework of voluntary trade, the profit motive is not evil but good. It is what makes individuals want to prosper. It is what motivates them to work. Within a coercive framework of government regulation, the profit motive produces what is called “corruption”. A bureaucrat has nothing to gain by being scrupulous and a lot to gain by being unscrupulous at little risk. So he chooses to be unscrupulous. If his actions ever get traced back to him, the altruists have a field day damning his greed and the profit motive. But what is it that is corrupt? An unthinking bureaucrat doing what everyone around him does? Or the ethical system that invariably sets up men in situations where they stand to gain by duping others?

One should also look at the secondary consequences of oppressive regulations (take a look at other pages on FA/RM too). Regulations enormously raise the cost of compliance to standards – both directly in terms of the costs of running a regulatory agency and indirectly through the aristocracy of pull (lobbying is a nice euphemism). This effectively puts local small-scale industry at an enormous disadvantage and gives an unfair advantage to the bigger players. It also converts local, easily correctable problems such as occasional food poisoning into large systemic problems (in the same way as centrally controlled money supply creates systemic problems in the financial sector). The first strengthens the aristocracy of pull. The second creates even more demands for its continued existence.

At the end of the discussion, another colleague with whom I recently had a long discussion about the concept of sacrifice (note the reference to sacrifice above) mentioned that it will take another 50 years for people to reject socialist ideas. Today people look to the government for a solution to every problem. That is true. But socialist ideas will never be rejected until one first rejects their basis – the altruist morality – and discovers the alternative – egoism. The history of the U.S. which is now descending into just the sort of socialism that India is coming out of is proof of this fact.

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.

Patriotism

The concept of patriotism (atleast from what I remember of my school education) is presented as a self-evident virtue requiring no justification. It is presented as a virtue by merely describing it with positive (and often hyperbolic) adjectives and by associating it with the concept of sacrifice (which is also presented in the same way). In contrast, concepts like honesty, hard work, optimism, determination, punctuality etc are presented as virtues by demonstrating the results of practising them. The obvious purpose behind such a presentation is to condition peoples’ minds to consider these concepts as virtues merely by association with actual virtues and without ever needing to provide a single reason. The question is

Is patriotism actually a virtue and if so why is it presented this way?

Patriotism is love for or devotion to one’s country. A country is a geographical region with a single ruler or government. Except for periods of political turmoil, the people of a country usually share the same culture. Love for one’s country is love for its culture or its political institutions. Patriotism is a contextual virtue, not a fundamental one. It is a virtue if one’s culture or political institutions are valuable.

India’s political institutions are clearly not worthy of love. What about its culture? The first thing that comes to mind (and overwhelmingly so) when one thinks of Indian culture is the religiosity of its people – an unthinking, unquestioning attitude of blind obedience to tradition. This can be seen in the way religious rituals are a part of everyday life in general and all special occasions in particular like festivals, the inaugration of a home or an office or a business, the birth of a child, marriage, death, anniversaries of death. This is worthy of ridicule, not love.

Patriotism is not a virtue in the Indian context. It is merely a convenient concept that is employed by the power-hungry as a cover for their actions. Just like the concept of sacrifice, it is used to draw attention away from the results and legitimacy of actions and focus it on their allegedly noble motivations.

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