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.

Selfishness and death

I happened to watch a Hindi movie “Hu tu tu” while on a short break. The movie is about two people who are suffocated by the corruption of their politician parents and the system in general. In the climax, the couple blow themselves up along with their parents at a political rally. The socialist/communist sympathizing is disturbing but the climax is striking. It illustrates what bad philosophy does to serious minded people who question the system. Something is very wrong when killing someone, no matter how evil, becomes a higher purpose than living one’s own life. In one scene the male protagonist (Sunil Shetty) explains that he doesn’t know if what he is doing is right or wrong, but he knows that it is not selfish and that is extremely satisfying. Perhaps the script writer did not realize how effective the story line is as a warning against selflessness. A proper life is selfish and consistent selflessness is death. The movie illustrates that very well.

Update: The script is written by the celebrated Gulzar and his daughter Meghana

Ayn Rand’s contradictory life?

Via Muse Free, I came across this article in the NY Times by Adam Kirsch. From the article

When Bennett Cerf, a head of Random House, begged her to cut Galt’s speech, Rand replied with what Heller calls “a comment that became publishing legend”: “Would you cut the Bible?” …
In fact, any editor certainly would cut the Bible, if an agent submitted it as a new work of fiction. But Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable…
Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.

Anyone who has read and bothered to understand The Fountainhead should remember the scene where Howard Roark refuses a contract for a building to protect the integrity of his vision when that contract is the only thing that can save him from bankruptcy. When asked “Do you have to be quite so fanatical and selfless about it?” Roark replies “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”

Perhaps Kirsch missed it or perhaps he just took it as an unbelievable part of the plot. “The plotting and characterization in her books may be vulgar and unbelievable, just as one would expect from the middling Holly­wood screenwriter she once was.” Either way he has no conception of what Rand meant by selfishness or capitalism. Kirsch should read this excerpt from The Fountainhead

“Dominique,” he said softly, reasonably, “that’s it. Now I know. I know what’s been the matter all the time.”
“Has anything been the matter?”
“Wait. This is terribly important. Dominique, you’ve never said, not once, what you thought. Not about anything. You’ve never expressed a desire. Not of any kind.”
“What’s wrong about that?”
“But it’s…it’s like death. You’re not real. You’re only a body. Look, Dominique, you don’t know it, I’ll try to explain. You understand what death is? When a body can’t move any more, when it has no…no will, no meaning. You understand? Nothing. The absolute nothing. Well, your body moves–but that’s all. The other, the thing inside you, your–oh, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking religion, but there’s no other word for it, so I’ll say: your soul–your soul doesn’t exist. No will, no meaning. There’s no real you any more.”
“What’s the real me?” she asked. For the first time, she looked attentive; not compassionate; but, at least, attentive.
“What’s the real anyone?” he said, encouraged. “It’s not just the body. It’s…it’s the soul.”
“What is the soul?”
“It’s–you. The thing inside you.”
“The thing that thinks and values and makes decisions?”
“Yes! Yes, that’s it. And the thing that feels. You’ve–you’ve given it up.”
“So there are two things that one can’t give up: One’s thoughts and one’s desires?”
“Yes! Oh, you do understand! So you see, you’re like a corpse to everybody around you. A kind of walking death. That’s worse than any active crime. It’s…”
“Yes. Just blank negation. You’re not here. You’ve never been here. If you’d tell me that the curtains in this room are ghastly and if you’d rip them off and put up some you like–something of you would be real, here, in this room. But you never have. You’ve never told the cook what dessert you liked for dinner.
You’re not here, Dominique. You’re not alive. Where’s your I?”
“Where’s yours, Peter?” she asked quietly.
He sat still, his eyes wide. She knew that his thoughts, in this moment, were clear and immediate like visual perception, that the act of thinking was an act of seeing a procession of years behind him.
“It’s not true,” he said at last, his voice hollow. “It’s not true.”
“What is not true?”
“What you said.”
“I’ve said nothing. I asked you a question.”
His eyes were begging her to speak, to deny. She rose, stood before him, and the taut erectness of her body was a sign of life, the life he had missed and begged for, a positive quality of purpose, but the quality of a judge.
“You’re beginning to see, aren’t you, Peter? Shall I make it clearer. You’ve never wanted me to be real. You never wanted anyone to be. But you didn’t want to show it. You wanted an act to help your act–a beautiful, complicated act, all twists, trimmings and words. All words. You didn’t like what I said about Vincent Knowlton. You liked it when I said the same thing under cover of virtuous sentiments. You didn’t want me to believe. You only wanted me to convince you that I believed. My real soul, Peter? It’s real only when it’s independent–you’ve discovered that, haven’t you? It’s real only when it chooses curtains and desserts–you’re right about that–curtains, desserts and religions, Peter, and the shapes of buildings. But you’ve never wanted that. You wanted a mirror. People want nothing but mirrors around them. To reflect them while they’re reflecting too. You know, like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage. Usually in the more vulgar kind of hotels. Reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose. I gave you what
you wanted. I became what you are, what your friends are, what most of humanity is so busy being–only with the trimmings. I didn’t go around spouting book reviews to hide my emptiness of judgment–I said I
had no judgment. I didn’t borrow designs to hide my creative impotence–I created nothing. I didn’t say that equality is a noble conception and unity the chief goal of mankind–I just agreed with everybody.
You call it death, Peter? That kind of death–I’ve imposed it on you and on everyone around us. But you–you haven’t done that. People are comfortable with you, they like you, they enjoy your presence. You’ve spared them the blank death. Because you’ve imposed it–on yourself.”

But then, Kirsch probably won’t understand it anyway.

And while I am at it, consider this from Kirsch’s article

Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: they are as cartoonish and sexed-up as any best seller, yet they are constantly suggesting that the reader who appreciates them is one of the elect.

Mass market elitism? Talk about contradictions. Elitism, by definition, cannot have a mass market. Yet, Kirsch is desperate to label Rand’s ideas as elitist. Why?

Fear of commercialization and the malevolent universe premise

In my previous incomplete post (published by mistake), I quoted a news report on the one year bar on architect Hafeez Contractor for appearing in an advertisement and asked why some professionals are not allowed to advertise. In a comment, Aristotle The Geek explains:

Most professions in India are regulated by so called autonomous bodies brought into being by various acts of parliament – the Bar Council of India, the Medical Council of India, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and so on. They thus have a charter that grants them absolute power to decide who is allowed to practice and who isn’t, who’s qualified and who isn’t, and to frame rules to “regulate” the profession. And so the regulations, most of them political in nature, start flowing. The ban on advertising, is one such regulation, because it helps those who are already entrenched in the profession (most clients come though word-of-mouth; this ban makes it the only option, except surrogate advertising through appearance on tv shows etc). And that is its main purpose. The “ethics” argument is just that – an argument. (emphasis mine)

Certainly a ban on advertising serves to “protect the establishment” (helping those who are already entrenched at the expense of newcomers). But is that all? I don’t think so. I think there is a deep fear of commercialization in most people’s minds that allows the establishment to create rules that prevent commercialization. The “protecting the establishment” is merely a consequence, though perhaps a welcome one for some in the establishment. There is a belief even among “liberals” (in the classical sense) that some professions like medicine, law, media etc are special and cannot be left to market forces. This belief is rooted in a distrust of the bania (merchant) and more generally the profit motive. As an example, anytime we happen to get an inferior product from some shop, my mother says: “He is a bania, after all”, refering to whoever the product was bought from. But why is the profit motive distrusted? Because it is selfish and the morality of altruism says that selfish motives are amoral at best. The profit motive is therefore viewed as an inevitable but unfortunate aspect of human nature, to be regulated by force for the general welfare. This leads to the perverse paradox of people believing that every individual is driven by an ignoble profit motive to perform harmful actions, but that these same individuals as a part of a collective can overcome these ignoble motives by force. In essence, this is the argument that man is too depraved to be left free. In practice, the creation of collectives to “temper” the profit motive always results in providing a platform for those who actually believe they can prosper by cheating others to set the rules. This is inevitable because when force is accepted as a proper way to produce desired outcomes, the winners are necessarily the most ruthless and unscrupulous.

The distrust of the profit motive and self interest is probably the result of a malevolent universe premise  (I have yet to reach a conclusive position about this, but I am sure they are linked), specifically the idea that man is short sighted, irrational and immoral by nature. But even among some who do not view self-interest as immoral and regard force as wrong, a variant of the malevolent universe premise applies. Consider Aristotle The Geek’s comment for example. If the main purpose of the ban on advertising is to unfairly protect the establishment, then, given the fact that similar rules in one form or the other exist in most of the world, evil can win (and has won) on its own strength. This is just another side of the malevolent universe premise, specifically the idea that immoral men can win through their immorality. If this is so, any attempts to change the status-quo are necessarily doomed, and posts such as these are merely cathartic. But it is not so. The universe is not malevolent in any way. Laws such as the ban on advertisement are a result of a bad ethics (altruism) and bad premises. The crooks who cash in on such laws are merely parasites, not the originators. Their power stems not from their ruthlessness or lack of scruples but from the willingness of the establishment, most of which actually believes it is protecting their profession from destructive commercialization.

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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