Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The rational, the right, and karma: a long and boring post

First, thanks to all of you who responded to my last, rather controversial post. Perhaps I have not been clear enough in expounding my views on ethics, and many doubts and questions have been raised about their soundness. Here is an attempt to clarify…

I have only one firm belief which I shall assume to hold for the rest of my rambling – man’s purpose (and highest desire) is to maximize his own happiness (call it satisfaction, utility, pleasure, whatever… but you get the point). A better version would be “maximize the happiness of his sense of self”, but let’s not get into my concept of “self” now. I know that many do not subscribe to this belief, but it seems almost axiomatic to me and there is not much I can say to convince the reader of its truth. In any case, I derive from this that what is rational for a man is to act in a way that he thinks will maximize his own happiness.

On to normative things. Now, either there is absolute right and wrong (as is preached by most religions) or there isn’t. But since we don’t know, this is kind of immaterial when we are talking about what’s right and what’s wrong. We judge things right and wrong according to principles we create, and, as any ethics anthology will attest to, there are many such principles. I, personally, subscribe to a variant of utilitarianism/rule utilitarianism despite their many problems and complications. I can understand why one would levy a charge of convenient rationalizing on me based on my previous two bribe posts since I have not systematized my version of utilitarianism yet. My brand of utilitarianism somewhat balances regular and rule utilitarianisms and tilts toward the former.

I called traffic cop bribing wrong and the specific case of corporate bribing non-wrong. Om-guy pointed out that if you pay a lower fine and the cop gets the money, then you are increasing the global utility. I simply disagree; these two positive utilities fall short of the total negative global utility that accrues to the world from violating a rule (paying a ticket whose money goes to the exchequer and eventually – at least a large part of it - goes toward traffic enforcement for the good of the public) whose maintenance is good for the public. The negligible negative utilities to the public add up to offset the (not so large) positive utilities. In my specific case, the utility arithmetic is especially easy since my paying the bribe would mean some substantial negative utility to me. I call the corporate bribing non-wrong because the large list of positive utilities that come of that action (and that I mentioned) offsets the negligible negative utilities that accrue to the public at large.

Now to the overarching picture. What is rational for a man is not necessarily what is right. Thus I can call a fellow Indian both rational and wrong in his paying a bribe to a traffic cop if he does not feel guilt and derives positive utility from his action. In a way, I am justifying the action by calling it rational and yet morally denouncing it as wrong. I would love to make a persuasive argument of the sort that what is rational is what is right, since continual doing of right actions (where right, of course, the utilitarian kind of right discussed above) accrues to more positive returns in the long run, but I fear that such an argument would just be wishful thinking. I, as an individual, have the kind of social conscience or “largeness of self” that, most of the time, what is rational for me is also right by the above standards. However, if there is a mismatch, I’d go for what’s rational for me. Of course, if enough people acted to maximize their happiness by doing wrong actions, systems would break eventually resulting in too much negative utility even for the doers of these actions. Since maximum global utility would be achieved through maximum right actions, social conscience and large senses of self are desirable qualities to be present at large.

Note that my normative judgments have nothing to do with karma or such metaphysical assumptions.

Now on to karma. I find the theory of karma exceedingly beautiful in that its normative assignment is consistent with a belief in maximizing one’s own happiness. A wrong action according to karma is simply what brings bad karma to the individual (similarly a right action…). And then it talks about what brings bad and good karma to the individual – and these rules are largely agreeable to the social conscience. With karma, we have that what is rational for a man is, almost by definition, what is right. This is why I’d love to believe that karma is a fact and would be severely disheartened if I could be convinced otherwise. As for the extent of my current belief in karma, let’s just say that if I had a 100 bucks to bet and god (if it exists) offered a double or nothing bet about the truth of karma, I’d put 40 on “karma exists” and 60 in Reliance Capital stock.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Indian Ethics of Bribing

The “om-guy” has brought up some interesting issues in his comments that have prodded me to ponder the ethics of bribing (politicians and bureaucrats, mainly) in a corporate setting. I have concluded that bribing can be an ethically neutral or non-bad act.

Indian fledglings in their mother’s wombs know as well as you and I that setting up any multi-crore business unit (I am thinking mostly manufacturing/infrastructure here) in India requires bribing certain government folks. I would like to stress this point of necessity – bribe is REQUIRED to get such a project completed. We shall not go into the gory details of where and when and to whom bribe is given. My point is best illustrated with a simple example.

Let us now consider a hypothetical case where I set up a 1000 crore steel plant in some backward area of, say, Himachal Pradesh (reasons of cheap power and labor etc.). I pay the minimum possible bribes, say a total of 20 crore, to get permissions etc. for the project. Take note that this is not the kind of project that someone else would set up if I did not. Consider the huge list of positives that come out this: contribution to India’s economy, employment to hundreds of laborers, development (through ancillary economies that will build up around the project) of the backward area, value to shareholders of the company, etc. etc.

As a person with utilitarian leanings, I’d have to say that my act of bribing would then be an ethically non-bad act. By giving a large undue benefit to a few handfuls of assholes, I would have benefited thousands to different extents. This example is obviously widely applicable in industry.

PS: Note that there are some hidden ethical costs here - a small harm is being done to all the shareholders by disbursing their rightful money to the assholes. Also, I’d be furthering the system of bribes etc. Yet, I think the overall effect is positive.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Star in jail

Great news, gentle reader. Salman Khan has been awarded 5 years rigorous imprisonment for hunting down a Chinkara, an endangered deer species. He is apparently in some jail in Jodhpur right now, that too in a regular convict cell. Why am I so happy? Besides the fact that justice has been meted out to this imbecilic retard who killed a rare and beautiful animal for cheap thrills, we shall now be spared the corny acting and rotten movies that Salman has subjected us to over the years.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sonia rules for resigning

A master strategist, this woman. She is establishing a new idiom in politics by her behavior: keep shut when others criticize you (for nationality and other fluff), speak only on the bare essential issues, and maintain a very high moral stand in public eyes by making known your desire to serve the country and indifference to power. It must be said that she is handling her political career with utmost finesse and dignity.

In the meantime, let us exult in this slap on BJP's ugly face.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Indian family system must change

It seems to me that not enough blame is given to India’s traditional patriarchal family system for our economic condition and disempowerment of women.

This point was driven home to me by a trip to China. I am told that a typical family in contemporary China is nuclear, consisting of a married couple and one child. The Chinese government imposes financial disincentives for having more than one child. Women in China almost always work. The concept of “housewife” has no currency in China. So in this typical family you have 2 persons earning incomes and 3 mouths to feed. Contrast this with the traditional Indian family where you’d have anywhere between 4 to 8+ mouths to feed with 1 to 2+ persons earning incomes. The China and India ratios of earning person: dependent person probably account for much of our economic disparities as developing nations. (This comparison is slightly unfair in that I am including the grandparents in the traditional Indian family whereas in the China case these older couples would be living by themselves. Even so, they’d have 2 pensions instead of 1)

There are two glaring reasons for this contrast. One, Indians produce more offspring than the Chinese. Two, the women in a traditional Indian family do not earn, or at least do not earn nearly as much as the males (this may not be true for many rural areas). This economic disadvantage, aside from many cultural factors, is, in my view, the biggest reason for gender inequality in India.

Now we come to the detrimental role of our family system in abetting the disempowerment of women. The first and perhaps lesser significant contribution is to the abovementioned economic disadvantage of women. A large patriarchal family has large household operations (food, housekeeping, looking after the aged and children, etc.), and women are seen, not unjustifiably, as better suited to fulfill this role. In the general case, it is simply not possible, even with hired help, for the household to function smoothly if both the husband and wife both work full time.

The second and more harmful effect of this family system is that because a wife marries into the home of her husband, a girl child is seen as inherently less desirable than a male child. A girl child becomes a financial liability for her parents until the time she is married, whereas parents can expect economic support from a male child. Any earnings of a woman after marriage contribute toward her new home. Also, since people generally prefer to live with a large, supportive family in their old age, they’d want a male child over a female child to facilitate this possibility. Partly for such reasons, family continuity through a male child culturally becomes a very significant incentive for having a male child, further fueling the process.

Tradition tries to compensate for this by stressing on powerful imagery, symbolism and drawing on mythology. The female is supposed to be the Lakshmi of the house, the one that brings wealth and good luck to her parents as well as her husband and his home after marriage. The joy, nobility, and karmic benefit of kanyadaan (daughter-giving) is stressed upon. The disempowerment is compensated for by venerated images of female as Shakti, the source and acme of strength.

As powerful as these cultural images may be, in the end the economics and more practical reasons win out. Which is why the girl child is generally less desired in our country, and I don’t think this will change unless our family system changes. Thankfully, this is slowly happening.

On the other hand, I live in a traditional family system and, for many reasons, not the least being my privileged economic situation, enjoy it more than if I were living in a nuclear family. There are many benefits (especially to the old) of a joint family system over a nuclear one. It would be interesting if we could evolve a system that adds the pluses of both systems and avoids the minuses. Some other day...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Traffic police: beggars and thieves

In all my life in Delhi, I’ve been stopped 5-6 times by cops for violation of traffic laws. There hasn’t been a time – not ONE – when I was not blatantly asked for a bribe. And there hasn’t been one time where a cop seriously asked me to pay for a ticket.

Yet, my recent brush with the Delhi traffic police was an eye-opener and positively appalling. I was stopped for speaking on phone while driving. The cop sits in my passenger seat and, in his finest threatening baritone (an unbroken pan-cultural cop tradition), informs me that the charge for this heinous crime is a hefty Rs.1000. So far so good. I was in a bit of a hurry, so I promptly produced the money and asked him for the ticket, fully expecting a couple of groans of disappointment from the cop and then a ticket and then freedom. But this one was a particularly resilient vermin. He asks for a “compromise”, since 1000 bucks is a lot of money, he’s nice and he can offer me a better rate. I flatly refuse to give him a naya paisa without a ticket, and ask him to either let me off with a warning or write up a ticket quick coz I’m in a hurry. He’s rather surprised and thinks I don’t get it: “See, you don’t understand. With the ticket, it’s Rs.1000. Without the ticket, it’s Rs.500.” I say that I understand very well but I don’t pay bribes. He smiles and plays his trump card: “Do you know that your Rs.1000 will go to the Indian government?” The implication is clear – honesty and stuff is nice and idealistic, but the Indian government’s a corrupt enterprise. Do you really wanna shell out that kind of money to this outfit? Though this was no new insight, I found it quite disturbing that an employee of the government machinery, one whose job it is to enforce a certain set of rules installed by this machinery, speaks of it with such disdain. Anyway, I got impatient at this point and asked him (in a milder vein) to hurry up or to fuck off. Still hopeful for his pocket money, he tells me that he’ll have to call his senior officer to make the ticket and it may take quite some time. I ask him to fuck off. A few minutes later, Mr. Senior Officer makes his grand entry. This one is a slicker and more polished beggar than the last one. His way is different – he cajoles and uses emotional wiles. Sir, he says, “Think a bit about us too. Holi is approaching. Do you want our Holi to be dry (Hamari Holi sookhi hi jayegi)?” I reply in a rude affirmative. He repeats his pleas a few times, and finally relents. “Well, if you’ve made up you mind, I guess I’ll give you a ticket.” I guess there is a wee bit of the cop left in him, or at least the ability to fake it, as he responsibly adds that talking on phone while driving is dangerous both for me and other drivers on the road.

I feel spent and positively ashamed that my city has come to this. Never thought I’d close to say this – I miss those rude, cocky American cops.

Pee brained

One small rain shower, and the traffic infrastructure of Delhi collapses. It took me ~ 2 hours to go from Friends Colony to Saket – a distance of ~ 8 kilometers. There was an amusing highlight of this painful journey. So we’re stuck with bumper-to-bumper traffic under a flyover. The driver of the car behind me coolly switches his car off, gets off onto the pavement, and pees his bladder off on the flyover side in full public view. His composure is astonishing. When the car behind him honks at him, he looks over his back while still peeing and gives the honker a mouthful, perhaps vexed at this unsavory intrusion into his bio break. I change the music to a bluesy raga.

Though this blog is supposed to be a largely negative exercise – an aid to self-destruction, an encouraging little push over the abyss for all you neurotics out there -, I would like to offer something positive here. I call on you, gentle reader, to embarrass all those that pee in public audience. A few suggestions: Shoot a water gun in the general direction of the pee, and delightedly exclaim “Mine goes farther than yours”. This may be followed by a cursory shot in the direction of the peeing individual (here it is advised to use a real gun). Say “SMILEEEEE” and click a picture of the peeing individual doing his stuff in public view, and later put it on the internet. Better yet, get your cute doggie out of the car and make him pee right next to the peeing individual. Or on him. Further suggestions, and especially those of a more violent nature, are invited.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Pet Peeves 2


4) When people skillfully delimit their religion to make it blameless. Typically, such zealots will manipulate and harp on the intricacies of what religions means, will conveniently exclude or disown scriptures and important religious texts (“Manu-smriti ain’t Hindu”) and auxiliary customs (“The caste system ain’t Hindu coz it ain’t practiced properly”), and resort to obscure historical and a-historical “facts” (“Sati ain’t all that bad coz it started as a voluntary act”).

3) When people give heinous scriptural injunctions a gentle turn. Popular candidates for such benevolent twisting include quotes from the Koran – “Take them (Kafirs) and kill them wherever you may find them” (yeah, right, the Prophet was only talking about select few Kafirs) and Manu-smriti - Animals, drums, illiterates, low castes, and women are worthy of being beaten (sure, Manu’s referring only to those animals, illiterates, low castes, and women that harm you).

2) When people put on the noble garb of universality and say with great self-importance: “All religions are equal” or “I respect all religions equally” or the most nerve-racking “All religions are true and lead to God”. The average Joe of this species is near illiterate on religious matters, has zero respect for academia, has not touched most major religious scriptures with a ten-foot-pole, and has foul breath.

1) Jihadis, RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, KKK, bible-pushers, the Pope, ISKCON, mullahs, et al. These sand-monkeys are very easy to avoid but difficult to eliminate. They look strange and wear weird clothes (white gowns, saffron gowns, dilapidated dhotis, nudists, crowns, turbans, beard sans mustache – the works), have exceedingly putrid body odors, and spout garbled bullshit. Stronger identification tests include resistance to all reason and to corrosive acids.


3) A statistically established 95% of Hindi movie music. A.R.Rahman, Ismail Darbar, and some other precious few music makers save the day.

2) When people summarily dismiss Indian or Western vocal classical music as “wailing” or “shouting”. These savages constitute that burgeoning class of nincompoops whose technical denomination is “ghaat”. They are often found shaking their unshapely booties to Yash Raj Film music, Britney Spears, rap, and metal.

1) When the uninitiated are suddenly accosted by the sublimity of Kishori Amonkar or Kesarbai, they pose as pundits on the subject and pronounce with a learned mien: “Oh, you like bhajans, do you?” Or even worse “I love ghazals tooooooooo”. The distinctions between Khayal, Drupad, Dadra, Hori, Bhajan, and Ghazal are lost on these philistines. An anecdote will be instructive at this juncture. A friend (well, she was a friend before this happened) and I were leisurely driving along in good company with Kishori’s vilambit Gaud Sarang in the background. She says: “I really like classical music too.” “Oh? What do you like?” Carefully, like a child proudly pronouncing a newly-learned word, she says: “You know, r-aa-g-aaaa-s.” Life was never quite the same for me ever after.