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.