Category Archives: ethics

View from the outside – reality or caricature?

Social situations suffer from problems of interpretation, as much as any literary work or puzzling movie. The dynamics which make a situation what it is are very widely spread, both in time and space. From the immediate spark to historical wounds, from neighborhood feuds to global markets, all play their part in shaping interesting situations.

For this reason, much like in the natural sciences, social thinkers have tried to find the ‘essence’ of the situation — Marx saw class war as the dominant dynamic, others see markets as playing this role, Nationalists see it as an ‘us vs. them’ logic, and so on. The problem does not lie in an analysis for personal clarity, but in drumming it around as the way to look at things. Since forceful views feed back into popular perception, the analysis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, tribal communities have always been handed the short end of the bargain for a long time. So also the Dalit community all over India. However, there are many facets of tribal or dalit life that is simply inaccessible to the external analyst (who is normally urban and middle class), their daily lives, routines, modes of resistance, their culture, songs, Gods and loves. If an external analyst tries to learn about everything he/she can no longer be ‘external’. However, given the respect such a person normally accords, normally due to eloquence of speech and unsubstantiated self-assurance, the way these people view the world and themselves changes. Dalit writers themselves have documented this change, with Dalit leaders despising their own roots in the villages, consistent with Ambedkar’s analysis. The loss of a world view has to be replaced, and modern, Western thinking and contempt for non-European thinking set in, with an intensity that only occurs in new converts to a way of thinking or a religion.

Another example is that of the current trend of acquisition of rural land for personal gain by the BJP government. It is being seen as a farmer vs. corporate/politician nexus. This, however, does not explain why quite a few farmers (always with large amounts of land) seem to be willing to sell. Rural Karnataka has had to my mind three major changes over the past few decades.

One, with laying of roads everywhere due to the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana (started by Vajpayee), transport to the nearest city/town centre has become very easy. With urban wages and a rural lifestyle both being within reach, most of the labor force prefers to work on construction sites. Farmers with lands larger than they can till (not just absentee landlords) are consequently finding it impossible to find farm hands. This was something I noticed in Bihar as well on a recent trip. The advent of television and the boom in rural telephony due to cellphones is also facilitating wider awareness of options beyond the rural economy, driving people out.

Two, the trend of waiving away farm loans was started in Karnataka and is now there everywhere in India. This is not a very new idea, with landlords historically having done this during bad years. However, now neither the fine grained differentiation between deserving and otherwise is no longer possible, with the latter gaining more, nor is there accountability, with farmers taking loans from the local bank and waiting for the Government to waive it off. Access to credit at low interest rates has also enabled over borrowing, say borrowing 3 lakh when all you need is 1 lakh. An interesting case was of a woman setting up a shop using microcredit and using it to buy a TV and refrigerator (even though her roof still remained a thatched one) in an urban slum which was documented by one of my classmates. Oh, and she defaulted on the loan as well.

Third, NREGS work is highly attractive wherever it is working even half well, and there have been cases of laborers not working and simply paying off the contractor to get wages, which in the case of men inevitably goes to the nearest toddy shop-owner. Farmers growing time sensitive crops like rice, which simply have to have certain things done at certain times, are unable to find workers and this forces them to shift to horticulture or other alternatives. Ironically, the proper working of NREGS seems to be putting people out of work in such cases — there are many farmers who are simply giving up cultivating more than what is necessary for personal consumption.

Thus, it is not as if the rural population is a passive, mute spectator to emerging trends, but very aware, discerning and looking at how to profit from change. The only difference is that they don’t use excel sheets.

When a community listens to an outsider describing it, there can be two reactions, both flowing from an awareness of what is important and what is convenient. Most would go with a path that makes things more convenient, like developing a victim complex, which is present in Muslims, Brahmins, Dalits, Christians, rural and urban communities if one cares to look closely. Any ideological stand that facilitates a way to not do inconvenient things and gain political power is preferred, even though it may have no internal coherency. The second, harder way of actually learning what is relevant from an external analysis without losing self identity is rarely taken, and such attempts are celebrated for very good reasons. From being a real, living community that had its own way of looking at the world, we get a community that sees a caricature of itself, which focuses only on some aspect of their life, as reality.

Subsidizing spirituality

If we define as ‘spiritual’ pretty much anyone who does not worry (or have to worry) about getting his daily bread (which would include swamis, scientists and musicians), then it seems strange that those who actually put in hard work to earn money somehow willingly part with it to keep the other kind alive. It does not seem to end with just economically subsidizing them, but also allowing them to behave in ways simply unacceptable normally even though they are, for all purposes, under the mercy of the people who pay them. You do not have to think hard to find examples — Musicians, actors and spiritual gurus have not all been exactly role models, but they still seem to get by pretty well, even better than those who collectively keep them alive.

A straightforward and somewhat simple-minded reason for such collective insanity would be that the ‘spirituals’ are somehow brainwashing the mob into such behavior, that some version of class antagonism goes on behind such dynamics. It is of course valid in some situations, but cannot explain the general trend. Similarly, one can give evolutionary explanations saying the if a society has to evolve, it must always have variety, and somehow this is unconsciously understood by everyone and this is the reason why we subsidize cranks and academics.

However, a deeper look into human nature always shows a desire for transcendence. No matter how rich or poor and regardless of location, this is always noticeable. To transcend time and space, to leave a mark which remains beyond personal existence has forever been something we have been striving for. From hopes of being immortalized by folk tales and songs to training our children to be like us (or better), this desire crops up everywhere. Since the’ spiritual’ section of humanity aims at creations which seem to fit exactly such ambitions, the synergy between some strange kind of demand and supply is hard to miss. From gurus puporting to explain inner space and scientists outer space and musicians trying to link both, all the while creating edifices of thought, emotion and technique which remain with humanity for ever, these people naturally have something that the people can tap into, either by ‘consumption’ of their works of looking up for guidance in their own quest.

However, this relationship is not as one-dimensional as the above description might suggest. A good example is that of the Sringeri Math in earlier times. It was the largest landowner in the region and simply because of its size was dependent not only on the donations of the common people but also the good-will of the local rulers. Similarly, the rulers understood the influence the Math had in the region and patronised it for political reasons if nothing else. Hence the basis for the extremely cordial relations between the Math and Tippu Sultan.

All over the world, religious institutions played an important role in the material life of people, and continue to do so in India. The best recent example is the Gadag land acquisition issue where in the forefront of the agitation were the heads of the various Maths in the region, since the local BJP MLAs obviously would not do anything about it. In fact, until the deliberate attempts of the British to dismantle it, everyday life in India seemed to revolve around local institutions and were largely insulated from the vagaries of the large scale political vagaries. In such a situation, an ‘impartial observer’ who was largely insulated from the demands of normal life was naturally needed, and in a strongly religious country like ours, no guesses as to who would be that observer.

Afer India went onto the path of modernization, and the temples of modern India were being built, there are again no surprises as to who were to lead the discussions and debates on how life should be organised. New religions require new priests. Scientists of Nehru’s time were very active in public life due to the mandate given to them to build a modern nation, a trait that is not very conspicuous among scientists today, given that India has a new religion called economics. There were, of course exceptions to the rule, people who were truly unaccountable for their actions either due to extreme mass appeal or asceticism, but these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Societies seem to subsidize certain capabilities and allow strange behavior when they see how influential they can be in everyday life — either by helping them forget the humdrum of daily life, if only for a moment, as entertainers or inspirers, or by making life easier to live by reaching for concepts not everyone has the time or the talent to absorb. Spirituality, on the other hand, cannot survive unless it comes down from the skies once in a while and actually dirties its hands in the slush that all those who support it have to wade through daily.

Those on the ground want to reach for the skies, whereas those up above will do well to keep their ears to the ground. Just as life flourishes where the earth and sky meet, civilization can sustain itself when the farmer and the philosopher can actually understand each other.

Philosophy and the Common Person

In a recent sermon at Church, the priest was discussing the concept of resurrection, which is supposed to be one of the central bases of Christian faith. There was apparently a debate between our own church-goers as to the validity of resurrection and therefore he called up a set of people, divided into two groups, each trying to argue why resurrection is valid or not. Thankfully, it was a short debate, since neither group had the philosophical skills nor the oratorial skills to interest me. Obviously, nothing came out of this debate other than a huge waste of time – Something debated for two thousand years is unlikely to settled by six minutes of incoherent arguments.

One wonders why this particular issue is controversial, and not the issue of whether beer or whisky is served in heaven. Each one of us has the same insight into either problem, and atleast the latter is more relatable and one can argue from experience why beer or whisky is more divine. While debating such trivialities is definitely good intellectual exercise to keep the gray matter in shape, but can hardly be the carrier of any message of use to the people attending Church.

Each of us lives in two worlds, the imagined world of possibilities and potentialities and the lived world. Depending on one’s inclinations and imagination, one is as real as the other. Heaven, Rebirth, Resurrection, all these belong to the former, and beer and whisky to the latter. Priests, Philosophers and miscellaneous IISc junta normally spend most of their time in the former, whereas those engaged in productive work predominantly reside in the lived world of rude shopkeepers, interminable queues and overcrowded buses. One set tries to find dynamical patterns in the Monsoon, whereas the other gets drenched and muddy due to it.

This being the case, it is hardly surprising that people tend to nod off when the priest talks about the Nicean council and eschatology, and observation of ritual is an excuse to socialise than to learn something useful. Philosophy is useful, in that it gives us a broad understanding of and the limits of the way of life that we pursue. However, its methods to try and reach useful conclusions are normally not interesting to anyone. It may make for dazzling sermons, but poor party gossip. What really matters is what understanding one gains from it, and its applicability in everyday life.

The issue is that Philosophy tries to reach at general, immutable principles guiding the universe and human nature. However, everyday life is exactly the opposite — particular (to an individual, community,…) and contingent. Therefore, while the question of resurrection and the implied final judgement may dissuade most believers from performing blatantly ‘sinful’ acts, it cannot tell them whether it is ethical to bargain with a street vendor or travel ticketless in a bus. One just cannot be debating the ethical merit of one’s position when  action is required right now, right here.

It is therefore not surprising when we see the popularity of new age gurus rising. These people are giving their followers exactly what they are looking for — guidance about their teenage child, workplace feud or love interest. The traditional stress on ritual and metaphysics almost pushes people toward Sri Sri and their ilk. What we need is a philosophy for life in this world, not for after death in another world.

Moral stories in the age of computers

All of us have been brought up listening of reading some or the other kind of moral stories –  Panchatantra, Aesop’s fables, Bible stories and so on. They are part of our standard training while learning to live in the world. All moral stories are motivated by some ultimate aim of human life, though these are never explicit or overshadowed by talking animals and trees. Our morals do not develop in a vacuum – they are shaped strongly by our socio-cultural and geographical locations, and moral stories are among the more effective means towards our ‘shaping’. Not only that, like everything else in the world, they evolve, though not necessarily in the Darwinian sense of the word. Aristotle and Plato may have condoned slavery, but not Adam Smith and his ilk. Even then, considering that Aesop’s fables and the Bible provide relevant advice even to this day, there seem to be some things that are eternal, like numbers.

From where do we derive our ethical codes? The most abundant source is of course our own history. When viewed from a certain lens (which comes from a certain metaphysical position about man and his relationship with other humans and the rest of the universe), history can give us all the lessons we need. Which is why it is said that people who forget history are condemned to repeat it – not that we have progressed linearly from being barbarians to civilized people, it is just that we are animals with an enormous memory, most of it outside our heads and in books, and preservation or changing of such a legacy necessarily requires engagement with it. Therefore, ethics and epistemology have always gone hand in hand.

Our times are unique from any other in history simply due to the predominance of science in determining what we know – Ancient Greeks or Indians would do physics and metaphysics simultaneously without necessarily putting one or the other on a pedestal. Scientific method and mystical revelation were both valid ways at getting to the truth. Nowadays, of course, the second would hardly be considered a valid method for getting at anything at all, let alone the truth. Hard to say whether this is good or bad – evolution does not seem to have a sense of morality.

The Newtonian and Darwinian revolutions have had important implications for the modes of moral story telling: First, they remove the notion of an ultimate purpose from our vocabulary. Newton’s ideal particles and forces acting on them removed any ideas of the purpose of the universe, and the correspondence between particle<->force of Newton and Darwin’s phenotype<->natural selection is straightforward. Thus, biology or life itself lost any notion of ultimate purpose. Economists extended it to humans, and we get a human<->pain/pleasure kind of model of ourselves (pain/pleasure is now cost/benefit, of course). All in all, there are some kind of ‘particles’ and some ‘forces’ acting on them, and these explain everything from movement of planets to why we fall in love.

Secondly, history is partially or wholly out of the picture – at any given instant, given a ‘particle’ and a ‘force’ acting on it, we can predict what will happen in the next instant, without any appeal to its history (or so is the claim). Biology and Economics use history, but only to the extent to claim that their subject matter consists of random events in history, which therefore cannot be subsumed into physics.

If life has no ultimate purpose, or to put it in Aristotle’s language, no final cause, and is completely driven by the efficient cause of cost/benefit calculations, then why do we need morals? And how can one justify moral stories any longer?

The person of today no longer sees himself as a person whose position in life is set by historical forces or karma, depending on your inclination, but as an active agent who shapes history. Thus, while the past may be important, the future is much more so. He wants to hear stories about the future, not about the past.

This is exactly where computers come in. If we accept a particle<->force model for ourselves, then we can always construct a future scenario based on certain values for both particles and forces. We can take a peek into the future and include that into our cost-benefit calculations (using discount rates and Net Present Value etc etc.,). Be it climate, the economy or the environment, what everyone wants to know are projections, not into the past, but the future. The computation of fairytales about the future may be difficult, but not impossible, what with all the supercomputers everybody seems to be in a race to build.

The notion of a final cause is somewhat peculiar – it is the only one which is explained in terms of its effect. If I have a watch and ask why it is ticking, I can give a straightforward efficient cause saying because of the gear mechanisms. On the other hand, If I ask why are the gear mechanisms working the way they do, I can only answer by saying to make the clock tick – by its own effect. Thus, if we see the future a computer simulates and change our behavior, we have our final cause back again – we can say to increase future benefit, we change our present way of life. The effect determines the cause.

Corporations, Countries, Communities are faced with the inevitable choice of using a computer to dictate their moral stance. However, one can always question the conception of a human being (or other life for that matter) as doing cost benefit calculations as their ultimate goal. If we need a more textured model of a human, writing an algorithm for it remains an impossibility to this day.

For example, one can argue that the ultimate pupose of life is to live in harmony with nature or that we should ‘manage’ nature sustainably. The former does not need (indeed, does not have at present) a computer model, whereas the other does. One is within the reach of every person, the latter is only accessible to a technological high-priesthood. Which should we choose? at a future time, which one will we be forced to choose?

Therefore, in this post-Darwinian world, can we imagine an ultimate purpose for ourselves that will enable us to act on our own, or will we be guided by supercomputers simulating caricatures of ourselves? Time will tell.

This Fissured Land – Review

My second book by these two authors – Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, ‘This Fissured Land’ is as much an exercise in understanding systemic biases against those who rely on their local ecology for sustenance as it is a history of India from an ecological point of view. It also makes clear the ecological roots of the various tribal/peasant vs. forest department conflicts that continue to plague India to this day, nowadays very much in the news due to the Naxalite problem.

The agenda of the book is to understand usage of resources by various types of communities, which are classified from lowest impact (hunter/gatherer, pastoralist) to the highest (Industrial/urban dweller), and the conflict that these usage patterns have caused and who eventually won. It also examines the belief systems, technological capabilities that made each type of community what it is. In short, the hardware and software of coexistence and conflict of very different human communities are examined here.

Books such as these are as important now as when they were written, just to give some historical perspective on what seems extremely ‘odd’ or ‘natural’ in our society today. For example, shifting cultivation terrifies ecologists as much as wildlife sanctuaries reassures them. While shifting cultivation may no longer be a sustainable practice nowadays and wildflife sanctuaries may have no alternate, it is instructive to understand under what circumstances this has come to be the case. Most opinions about tribal poaching and Naxalism are held without any historical context, and thus the actual problem is never identified. This leads to strange prescriptions like ‘kick the tribals out of the sanctuaries’ and ‘send in the army to wipe out Naxalism’, which are not assured of positive results but will definitely increase the suffering of those who are already at the brink.

The book  starts off interpreting prehistorical societies in India as being shaped by their environment and technologies, and given ecological explanations for the rise of the heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism, and finally an interesting explanation of caste as a system to prevent resource conflicts. It then comes to the Colonial Era and outlines the major changes in the belief systems especially with respect to the utility of forests, whom they belong to, and the inevitable clashes when traditional users of the forests were excluded from them in the name of British interests.

It then outlines how a change in administration did nothing to change the forest policy of the State, with British interests being replaced by State and industrial ones. The subversive acts of those who were denied what their ancestors assumed to belong to them are then highlighted and this seems to be the only thing that people outside seem to care about.

Reading this should ensure no one ever blames tribals for the present state of the environment in India. Its strong focus on equity and its insights into understanding how conservation is not a value-independent notion, but stems from a certain world-view are useful take aways from the book.

On ends and means, rights and duties

A quite generic model of a human is one who has certain ends that he wants to pursue (gaadi-bungalow, moksha, etc.,), and is looking for means to achieve these ends. Given this, your preferred ends are finally governed by your ethical, moral and metaphysical outlook, and the normal means are politics, economics and religion. For example, if national service is what interests you, you might want to look at politics (replace national with self, and still the same means holds. Politics is such an adaptive thing!). If you wish a comfortable life, you look to the market to sell your goods/services/labor to make money. A normal person will have many such ends, and we end up doing politics, economics and religion. Now, if we are to accept the axiom that each person must be free to pursue any end that she so wishes, the as societal beings, we must come up with a way to ensure that this axiom holds, atleast theoretically.

And thus we come to the concept of a State. Whether it materialized due a ‘social contract’ or as a necessity in a Hobbsean society, the main function of a State is to ensure the above axiom holds. Thus, the State has powers of coercion over its citizens, which is willingly given to it by the citizens themselves (who are given a fancy name: ‘polity’) to ensure that each can lead a fulfilling life. Why this is necessary has been written about before.

There cannot be a common set of ends for all, since each person is unique (not everyone wants the same brand/color of motor vehicles!). There are, in any sufficiently organized society, limited number of means, and they are normally classified as those that do not harm others, and those that do. Since we want each person to acheive whatever he wants to, provided he does not hurt anyone, each person is assumed to have a set of ‘rights’. There are some negative rights (‘right against something’, ‘something’ can be being cheated, murdered, discriminated, etc.,) and positive rights (‘right to something’, ‘something’ can be a good education, employment, etc.,). There have been arguments as to whether the State much only ensure negative or positive or both kind of rights, but that is a different story altogether. Get this if you want to dive into this stuff.

The Indian State is no different, and certain rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Violation of these can be referred directly to the Supreme Court, without going through any lower courts. We also have certain duties, but these are not enforcable and citizens are ‘morally obligated’ to perform them. This is not the case with other countries, with Switzerland having compulsory military service for all male citizens.

In all political activity seen nowadays, the main cry is to demand for certain rights, whereas duties are never mentioned. Bangalore demands a positive right to water, but Bangaloreans have absolutely no interest even in a basic duty such as voting. The reason for this is a conception of humans as ‘possessive individualists‘, which simply says that people have to make money from their (god-given, or acquired?) skills, and owe nothing to society. Whether it be Dalit, Brahmin, tribal or industrialist, the political scene is full with clamor for rights, new rights, and redressal for their violation. Everybody wants good food at the mess, but nobody (including myself!) wants anything to do with how it runs. It should simply run itself, somehow.

Another approach is to say our duty is to pay tax and obey laws, the rest is the duty of the State. This has worked well in the Scandinavian countries, but in a country as vast and heterogenous as India, this amounts almost to escapism – no State of reasonable size can ever perform the duties of a billion people. The gradual withdrawal from society to ‘attain realization’ amounts to saying moksha can be pursued without the fulfillment of dharma. It is in this sense that modern economics and liberalism have been a liberating force: they have given theoretical justification for people to be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of dharma. Religions were the traditional body of authority which dictated the duties of an individual, but no longer wield the same influence as before.

Asceticism or the theory of karma cannot justify the non-performance of dharma. Renunciation, as taught by Buddha, Mahavira or Sankara, which involves a complete removal of oneself from society to attain moksha has found rebuttals by the actions of reformers like Basavanna, Rammohun Roy, Gokhale, Vivekananda and Gandhi. Even Buddhism requires of enlightened individuals to alleviate suffering by removal of ignorance, which is what Buddhism considers the root of suffering. While this purely mental view of human suffering may not be correct, but it is aleast something. The new age philosophers/activists, especially Gandhi, believed that only through active participation in civic duty can one harmonise artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Gandhi himself, though a continuous seeker of moksha (which he called Truth as well), used the instrument of politics to achieve this end. Of course, his idea of politics which was to uplift the underprivileged, unlike present day netas.

And thus from Gandhi comes the most clarifying present day articulation of what one’s dharma should be in this day and age:

I will give you a talisman. ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person whom you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him the control over his life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and starving millions?’ Then you will find your doubts and self melting away.

Wilde, Chaplin and being ‘Modern’

Coincidentally, read a book of Oscar Wilde’s plays and viewed Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ the same week. Both give an interesting picture of the society in which they lived and how these great artists viewed modernity. Both are criticizing the audiences of their art – Wilde would make lot of allusions to places and situations which only a ‘cultured’ audience would appreciate, Chaplin’s movie was unlikely to have been seen by many of the poor, considering that it was released just after the Great Depression.

It is quite remarkable that both were darlings of a society that they treated with disrespect in their respective arts. They did not get away with it completely, however – Wilde was jailed for being a homosexual and died very young (his leftist leanings would have caught up with him sooner or later anyways), Chaplin was driven out of the USA during the McCarthy Inquisitions for his strong leftist inclinations.

Wilde uses his sharp wit to expose the moral hypocrisy of the elite in Victorian England who loved a scandal, as long as it was not in their homes. The public moralising, commodification of women, gender discrimination (“Women must be pure, unlike men…” kind of moral policing of women by women) are all themes he touches upon many times in his plays. Some of his characters are nervous about the wave of  ‘modern decadence’ in Europe (apparently French novels were banned in England at that time), whereas others embrace modernity. But regardless of their standing in the modern-Victorian divide, Wilde shows that the same hypocrisy persists – some of the characters, whether modern or not are shown to be morally corrupt and reprehensible at the end. In the same way, other characters, modern or not, are shown to be upright and honest. Thus, one can infer that Modernity by itself cannot be playing a crucial role in determining a person’s character, there are values that can withstand the ravages of change in social and personal life. Thus, the Victorian anxiety about the profound change that Modernity promised to bring seems unfounded.

Chaplin’s film, on the other hand, depicts the profound changes that ‘Modern Times’ has wrought upon the poor. The opening scene of the assembly line is to me as good a description of the change in the value of human life in the age of the machine as any. The movie has some remarkable scenes depicting the relation of man and machine, which is probably why it is considered one of Chaplin’s greatest films. It shows how it was impossible for the poor to make a decent living and people trying to satiate their hunger were called thieves, while opulent luxury (very well shown in the department store where Chaplin gets a job as a night watchman) was still available to those who could afford it. Almost a century down the line, USA (along with other countries now!) still does not seem to have learnt its lessons. Communism was not attractive to the poor for its intellectual value, but just that it promised them relief from hunger.

Chaplin shows us how things have changed, and Wilde shows us the more things change, the more they remain the same. There were (are!) many that place hope in the ingenuity of man to eradicate his less desirable creations like poverty and exploitation, when the fact remains that the problem is not material or technological, but mainly moral.This transference of moral problems to technological ones is not very rare: you have automatic light systems because people don’t want to switch them off themselves, police since we are incapable of ruling ourselves, carbon credits to enjoy cars without guilt and taxes to help our fellow human beings.

Coming back to the artists themselves, both delivered strong social messages through their work though art for art’s sake was the mantra to most artists – Wilde himself was a passionate supporter of freedom of art from shackles of morality. This seems to point to the transcendent quality of art – an artist with all her prejudices is capable of creating something that is very little touched by the same prejudice. Literary and artistic pieces, which embedded within their own time, are still appreciated centuries later even though the original context is completely lost. This to me is the true measure of great art.