Thoughts on morality and utilitarianism

“Morality is subjective.”

If you’re about to drop that bomb on someone trying to have a logical argument on morals or ethics, don’t do it. It kills the discussion without any productive outcome. There’s nothing wrong with the statement itself, but it’s ultimately a useless assertion.

Subjectiveness is mostly seen as a shapeshifting blob that can be molded according to our whims. But subjective philosophies – moral or otherwise – don’t work that way. They are logical frameworks that start with some basic axioms and grow through precise arguments. Contradictions in such frameworks can be proved – almost mathematically – and such contradictions are unacceptable irrespective of objectiveness or subjectiveness.

Therefore, when someone says “morality is subjective”, he does nothing to defend against moral criticism. Legitimate moral disagreements can only be on the axioms themselves. It’s essential to make our axioms explicit at the beginning of a debate for it to be productive. Unfortunately, most of us are unaware of our own axioms.

I feel – and this may seem cynical – the majority of us have no consistent underlying moral framework. An individual typically takes a top-down approach: he starts with the assumption that he and his loved ones are moral beings and then builds his moral principles around that belief. Thus the very purpose of moral philosophy – i.e. to look beyond the biases of the society – gets defeated. The individual typically ends up adopting the predominant values of his time.

This highlights the vastly different standards that we have for scientific and non-scientific pursuits of philosophy. No one claims to be a physicist before learning the existing theories of Physics. Yet most people think they understand morality without any academic exploration on the topic. We feel we can arrive at insightful moral conclusions on our own. In reality, we’re no taller than the metaphorical cavemen unless we stand on the shoulders of giants; without the incremental knowledge of previous generations, we’ll be reinventing fire over and over again at best.

Improvement can start by introducing courses on morality in the mainstream curriculum. I don’t mean ones that say “Be good. Do good.” We need to know about the major schools of moral thought and their stances on the issues of conflict in today’s society.

My knowledge on moral theories leaves a lot to be desired, primarily because I learned them off the internet.

The initial years of my undergrad were transformative in many ways. I remember I was obsessed with the ideologies of an anime character called Kiritsugu Emiya. Someone had described him as a “utilitarian” in an online community, and I looked it up.

I had explored few other moral philosophies by then. But reading about utilitarianism was a significantly different experience. It condensed many of my beliefs in a straightforward and coherent way. I have been a subscriber to “rule utilitarianism” ever since.

When Jeremy Bentham came up with utilitarianism in 1789, he became a champion of several modern values such as freedom of speech, women’s rights, animal rights, the separation of religion and politics, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of capital and corporal punishment, legalizing of homosexuality, etc. He championed these in 1789. I see it as a display of the power of a good framework.

But as good as it is, I don’t agree with utilitarianism completely. Maybe I’ll write about that in detail someday. For now, the search for better philosophies must continue.


Laziness and irony

Laziness is right at the top on my list of character flaws. Which is why I have never been much interested in sports. Ironically, I carry with me a permanent sports injury.

In 10th standard, I was playing as a replacement goalkeeper. The original guy was injured. Halfway through the match, a player stepped on my hand with spiked boots while I was holding the ball. And that was that.

The bandages came off after a few days but one finger remained slightly bent. Even though I could straighten it externally, it would go right back to being bent as soon as I let go. And so I did the sensible thing: I googled.

I learned it’s a mild case of “mallet finger” and can be cured with a splint if treated within weeks. That would mean going to a doctor. But the pain had subsided and the crookedness was hardly noticeable. I could live with that, I thought.

I had forgotten all about it over time. But years later, I started playing the piano and realized that this particular finger tires faster than the others. So I got off my ass and went to a doctor.

“When did this happen?” was his first question.
“Er… 6 years ago.”

He laughed and made some joke about me being in a coma or whatever. Then he informed that such old injuries can be fixed through surgery.

And that was that.


Classroom reflections #1

Some courses require us to write a “reflection sheet” after each lecture. And what better way to make it bearable than blogging about it?

The documentary Story of Stuff, shown to us during the first lecture of Socio-cultural Environment of Business, describes the negative effects and unsustainability of the modern culture of consumerism. It drew a mixed reaction from the class of 88 PGP students. There seemed to be two significantly opposing opinions:

  1. Some claimed that the documentary was one-sided; it talks about the cons of the system without really going into details about why it was built in the first place. Case in point, the documentary complained about the use of pesticides and chemicals in commodities without factoring in how they have significantly increased yield and allowed us to meet the basic needs of the huge human population. Points were also raised that there is no “cure” to consumerism as it is the main driver of the world economy today and any attempt to thwart it would end up harming the poor working class in third world countries instead of helping them. Therefore, the current state of affairs is inevitable and has good reason to exist.
  2. Others stressed the importance of sustainability. The reasons that lead us here and the economic benefits of the current system are irrelevant, they argued, if it cannot be sustained. The merits of consuming sustainably are already recognized in our culture and this can be leveraged further to move the world towards a better future. References were brought from the Gandhian idea of self-reliant village economies (as opposed to interdependent national economies) and from popular film quotes, such as Fight Club’s “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

I disagree with both these opinions to some extent.

“Change is impossible” is a weak argument and to it, I say (in the words of philosopher Cooper) “No, it’s necessary”. Consumerism is not an inevitable outcome of human evolution, but a marketing gimmick. It may have had considerable value in the past but is a major liability now. Any man-made system can be undone or modified through focused efforts.

However, rolling back in scale (village economy) isn’t the answer either. That would be too restrictive for modern life and would take away the livelihoods of millions of people with highly specialized skill sets that are only useful in the current vast economies.

We should instead address the root of the problem: externalized costs.

Externalized costs are costs that a company doesn’t pay for. For example, if producing an item uses some volume of water, the company should ideally pay the cost of purifying the same volume of water and putting it back into the ecosystem. Without government interference, a company has no incentive pay the extra amount. This is one of the major issues of an unregulated free market.

To address this, the government can impose fines and taxes on unsustainable activities and the money raised can go towards restoring the environmental and social damage. The solution is as simple as that, but it cannot be exercised due to the significant hold that corporations have on the government.

Which brings us to the question: how do we create a truly independent government? But that’s a discussion for another day.

Books, Journal

The useless third

A nice side effect of being a business student is that it made The Restaurant at the End of the Universe an even more hilarious read than what it would’ve been otherwise. I’m referring to a part of the story known as the ‘B’ Ark, where our protagonists stumble across millions of alien management consultants, marketing heads, and others of similar professions traveling through space.

The ‘B’ Ark is a Golgafrinchan spaceship designed to carry them to another planet, since their home planet, Golgafrincham, was about to be ‘doomed’. As explained nicely by the ship’s captain:

“The idea was that into the first ship, the ‘A’ ship, would go all the brilliant leaders, the scientists, the great artists, you know, all the achievers; and into the third, or ‘C’ ship, would go all the people who did the actual work, who made things and did things, and then into the ‘B’ ship – that’s us – would go everyone else, the middlemen you see.”

He smiled happily.

“And we were sent off first,” he concluded, and hummed a little bathing tune.

It turns out, the ships A and C did not exist, and the entire thing was a ploy to get rid of the useless third of the Golgafrinchan population. The B ship was hard-coded to carry them to a faraway planet and crash-land in a way that would render it unable to fly ever again. This faraway planet, coincidentally, was Earth, at a time when cavemen were just beginning their journey outside caves.

Upon arrival, these Golgafrinchans started employing their skills to start a colony on Earth. Here’s an example of how it went:

“If,” the management consultant said tersely, “we could for a moment move on to the subject of fiscal policy. . .”

“Fiscal policy!” whooped Ford Prefect. “Fiscal policy!”

The management consultant gave him a look that only a lungfish could have copied.

“Fiscal policy. . .” he repeated, “that is what I said.”

“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn’t grow on trees you know.”

“If you would allow me to continue.. .”

Ford nodded dejectedly.

“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”

Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.

“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.”

Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down.

“So in order to obviate this problem,” he continued, “and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and. . .er, burn down all the forests. I think you’ll all agree that’s a sensible move under the circumstances.”

The crowd seemed a little uncertain about this for a second or two until someone pointed out how much this would increase the value of the leaves in their pockets whereupon they let out whoops of delight and gave the management consultant a standing ovation. The accountants among them looked forward to a profitable autumn aloft and it got an appreciative round from the crowd.”

Behind every joke is a hint of truth. For more fun-filled encounters, I highly recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.


Into the Wild

It has been many years since I first watched Into the Wild but I find myself revisiting it from time to time. The film is based on the real story of Christopher McCandless, a guy who was repulsed by the materialistic inclinations of society and decided to get away from it all. He was later discovered – starved to death – in an abandoned bus near the bank of Sushana river in Alaska.

The tale brings forth some important aspects of the nature of mankind.

For thousands of years, we have worked hard at building civilizations – carefully crafting out economic and social systems, making remarkable progress in science and medicine, dominating other species to the point of servitude, and even extending our reaches beyond the planet we’re born in. We’ve won the battle for daily survival (temporarily, at least).

Yet, here’s a man willing to abandon all that and return to the mercy of nature’s whims, where he is weaker than the weakest of animals. The answer, I believe, lies in a passing thought which is narrated halfway through the movie:

…how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. Facing the blind death stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.

In a system where our day-to-day survival is automatically taken care of, we seek other forms of victory. Like careers, hobbies, riches. We build our lives around these, hoping to find happiness through them – and sometimes we do. But the stakes just aren’t high enough to bring the raw “feeling of strength” that Chris talks about.

There’s a scene where he eats an apple during his trek. His happiness is beyond bounds. He starts talking to it:

You are really good. I mean, you’re like, a hundred thousand times better than like any apple I’ve ever had. I’m not Superman, I’m Supertramp and you’re Superapple. You’re so tasty, you’re so organic, so natural. You are the apple of my eye, ha!

This, for me, is the defining moment of the film – the ideal that Chris was chasing.

But everything said and done, his foolhardy decisions led to his demise. When Chris first discovered the abandoned vehicle in the middle of nowhere, he lovingly named it “the Magic bus”, not knowing what’s in store. What started off as a shelter quickly became a prison.

It’s hard to imagine how he might have felt as he waited for death. His last words serve as a chilly reminder that no one wants to die alone:

Happiness is only real when shared.


Ramblings… and a new domain!

I was reading through the blog posts of one of my favorite writers today and I realized I will never be as good. Not in a million years. This is not a hotshot, famous writer I am talking about, this is someone who is still struggling to make a name and probably requires additional jobs to stay afloat. Just goes to remind us that success in careers are determined through the law of supply and demand, and the demand side is pretty abysmal when it comes to writing. No one has the time to read anymore; this is the era of fast-paced entertainment. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it’s just a little sad.

Which brings me to this site. I started Scintilla with the sole purpose of improving as a writer so that I can publish a book someday. I had created my previous blogs for the same reason. But as days pass by, I’m beginning to realize – this is it. This is where it ends.

One doesn’t need to be a great writer to get published. There’s the way of marketing – writing books specifically targeted to sell in volumes. But here’s the thing: for me, a book isn’t a commodity that should be aligned to popular demand. It is not a path to money. The satisfaction would come only when people read something I write on their own accord because it’s a good read, and not when it has been strategically marketed to them. So yeah, writing as a business endeavor is not something I would pursue even though it might be comparatively more feasible.

This means, in a way, Scintilla is not a means to something anymore, but the something itself. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I’m really proud of it. This is its sixth year and is probably the longest running venture that I have ever taken up. Six years is an eternity for a person with fickle hobbies.

I’ve always maintained that the content here is not written keeping readers in mind. It’s just a place I come to when I feel like writing. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the fact that readers provide some much-needed motivation sometimes, and I’m happy that people do visit occasionally.

Scintilla is no longer maintaining its previous exponential growth, though, and will probably wrap up 2016 with a lower number of reads than last year.

Scintilla: yearly stats

The reason is IIMA. Most of my posts used to be takeaways from books/movies and documentations of contemplative moments. These are products of free time – something I’m currently lacking.

Anyway, WordPress recently launched the .blog domains, and I bought one! A little monetary investment increases commitment, eh?


Punctuality and IIMA

We went to watch Fantastic Beasts last week. The theater was running 15 minutes late and made us wait in line. While standing there with a tub of rapidly dissipating popcorn, I suddenly realized how unaccustomed I have become to queues, waiting, and things not happening as they are supposed to.

Good management is only appreciated in its absence. I remember being amazed at the efficiency of the IIMA campus when I first arrived here, but thereafter, the awareness of it faded into the background as daily routine took over. It required an incident like this, therefore, to remind me that systems don’t magically function optimally.

The IIMA system stands as a model of good management, as any management institute should. Built around the core value of punctuality, all activities are undertaken with a “better never than late” mindset. Everything else just falls into place.

But one may wonder: if such a simple system works so well, why is it not used everywhere?

The problem is that the systems contain people, and it is a mammoth task to get a bunch of people into a singular mindset. A manager cannot simply announce – “Everyone must be punctual from now on” – and expect it to be followed. Coercion may yield short term results but is mostly unsustainable. Such cultures are built over a period of time through continuous and focused effort.

Another equally challenging task is maintaining the culture after it is established. Every year, 400 fresh students are admitted for PGP, and they need to be ‘indoctrinated’ for the system to function smoothly. This is traditionally done through faccha-tuccha (fresher-senior) interactions instead of a formal induction.

The punctuality constraint applies not only to students but to all faculty and staff as well. No one gets to waste someone else’s time, resulting in a super-efficient environment.


Optimizing a Prey-Predator model using Genetic Algorithms

Picture source: The Royal Society, Flickr

The programming section of this blog has been quite inactive lately. Hence, here’s an interesting little project I did last year.

The idea started off as a biophysics class presentation in collaboration with Abhilash Sahoo. From there, I adopted it into an optimization tool through Genetic Algorithms.

I’ve used MATLAB for all purposes. (Click here to view the code.)

The final animation:

The herding concept is inspired from Strogatz’s TED Talk: “How things in nature tend to sync up”.

Here is the basic skeleton:

  1. Green particles are prey
  2. Red particles are predators
  3. Each prey has 3 forces acting on it:
    1. a weak long-distance attractive force towards other prey
    2. a strong short-distance repulsive force away from other prey
    3. a strong repulsive force from predators
  4. The first two forces make the prey form a herd, while maintaining an equilibrium distance between themselves within the herd. The third force makes them flee from incoming predators.
  5. Each predator has 2 forces acting on it:
    1. A long-distance medium attractive force towards the general direction of a herd of prey
    2. A short-distance targeted strong attractive force towards a particular prey
  6. The predator starts its hunt using the first force. When it gets close to a prey, it switches to the second force to target the particular prey while ignoring the rest of the herd.
  7. The targeting is denoted in the video through red lines connecting the prey to the predator that appear when a prey is targeted.
  8. The green enclosure contains food for the prey.
  9. Predators have higher top speeds but are more massive. They can catch up to the prey in a straight line, but can’t turn as fast.
  10. The prey swerve automatically due to the nature of the forces, which sometimes allow them to escape.

Things get more interesting when we introduce natural selection. This can be done by creating survival parameters and the concepts of death, reproduction and imperfect copying.

Death happens when:

  1. A particle starves, that is:
    1. If a prey stays outside the green boundary for a long time
    2. If a predator cannot catch a prey for a long time
  2. A particle gets old, i.e. it runs out of its natural lifespan
  3. A prey gets caught by a predator

The survival parameters have different values for each prey/predator. I call them survival parameters as they are directly linked to the chances/duration of survival in our little virtual reality. The ones that I’ve included in this model are:

  1. The ability to accelerate (or inverse mass)
  2. Top speed
  3. Range of vision (e.g. from how far a prey can detect an approaching predator)
  4. Maximum duration of survival without food
  5. Natural lifespan
  6. The frequency of reproduction
  7. The strength of herding tendency (in case of preys)

Reproduction here is defined as a particle spawning a copy of itself. Each particle reproduces at a certain frequency. The child inherits the same values of parameters from the parent, but with small random errors. Over time these errors lead to a natural selection of parameter values in a way that maximizes the probable survival duration of the particles (since more survival duration means more number of offspring).

Leaving the model here would not be of any real use though. It’s a no-brainer that all the survival parameters will keep increasing in value over time; we don’t need a code to tell us that!

Hence we introduce interdependencies between the parameters to make them competitive. For example, we decide that a greater ability to accelerate (or less mass) would imply that the particle cannot survive without food for a long time. Thus we have created a trade-off between two desirable parameters.

This simple tweak makes this model a powerful tool of optimization. The code will ultimately maximize the survival duration and we can find out the values of the parameters that comprise the optimal solution. Basically, we will be able to quantify exactly how important each of these abstract survival parameters are for the particles in the simulation.

We can use similar techniques to optimize highly complex systems with several interdependent variables.

Books, Journal

Setting a watchman

Disclaimer: This post might not make a lot of sense to most readers. It is mainly written to document some key insights that I want to take away from a book, for self reference in future.

My love for Harper Lee magnified after reading Go Set a Watchman. The book addresses a topic that is extremely relevant to me – how to accept a world that disregards the values that one holds dear. Jean Louise returns to her hometown, Maycomb County, and finds it rotting with racist ideas. Even her father, Atticus – a man who had been her idol since childhood and from whom she has derived all her morals – is a member of a white supremacist organization. The initial shock of the discovery makes her vomit in disgust.

“You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it’s coming home to you—”

“Are you finished with what you have to say?”

She sneered. “Not half through. I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me. You cheated me, you’ve driven me out of my home and now I’m in a no-man’s-land but good—there’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.”

Several altercations follow. We get to see how different characters justify their stances. They are exactly the kinds of arguments I’m used to when the topic of animal rights comes up. This is proof of the constancy of the human brain – the irresistible urge to justify the status quo through self delusion, no matter how black and white the issue is on moral grounds.

The book doesn’t stop here, but goes on to give some much needed comfort, for what it’s worth (through Uncle Jack, whose role in the novel makes him one of my favorite characters of all time). Uncle Jack asks Jean Louise to look at the other aspects of the world around her, to realize that it is not as doomed as it might seem:

Some men who cheat their wives out of grocery money wouldn’t think of cheating the grocer. Men tend to carry their honesty in pigeonholes, Jean Louise. They can be perfectly honest in some ways and fool themselves in other ways.

It begins with the basic understanding that one moral shortcoming doesn’t make a person bad. This is particularly true when the shortcoming is a general property of the society, as it indicates that the person has adopted the evil instead of initiating it. Thus, a slaughter of a sentient animal for pleasure (taste buds) should not be judged to the full extent of the crime just because it is the societal norm. The same is true for the white supremacists of Maycomb.

Then it moves on to how every one of us develops a personal conscience, and how it sometimes deviates from others’. This leads to falling out with people around us, including those whom we used to admire. But that’s okay, since it protects us from being blind followers and from the backlash that ensues as soon as we challenge society.

Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious… now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.

And finally, the book shows us how we can co-exist in society despite such significant differences. In fact, it reassures that the conflicts are necessary for the society to make healthy progress over time. It also shows us how we are never truly alone in our convictions – there is always a significant number of people who feel the same, invisible though they may be.

“You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”

“You mean Atticus needs me?”

“Not altogether. I was thinking of Maycomb.”

“That’d be great, with me on one side and everybody else on the other. If life’s an endless flow of the kind of talk I heard this morning, I don’t think I’d exactly fit in.”

“That’s the one thing about here, the South, you’ve missed. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”

… “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”

“I don’t mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”

Journal, Misc.

Life is strange… and beautiful

I prefer to spend my holidays alone in my room. This has its drawbacks, but it also allows me to make some time for books, movies, etc. Losing oneself in others’ imaginations is quite enriching in my opinion.

I decided to try out Life is Strange during this short term break, a game about time travel gone wrong. The story itself is nothing new; it contains the same old message: don’t mess with time unless you’re a Time Lord. But the execution… damn! I was blown away by the way lighting and music were used to create a surreal world, that too, without intense graphics.

I must say I’m really impressed how far the gaming industry has come in such a short time. It’s sad to know that a majority of the population didn’t follow the journey and are unlikely to appreciate the evolution that took place right under their noses. It’s high time we started considering games as serious art, at par with novels, films and music. A piece of code that lets you experience a virtual reality is nothing short of a miracle.

Gaming has an incredible potential as a form of visual storytelling (I used to think the same about anime too, but it got taken over by fetishes and stereotypes). Unlike real movies, there are no real constraints on camera movement and settings. The creators are free to pursue themes and styles that are beyond the reach of film directors. The possibilities are endless and the only limits are the limits of imagination.

I hope good stuff keeps coming.

Lists, Music

Beautiful soundtracks #4 – PC Games

This is just a list off the top of my head. I might’ve missed out some of my favorites. Put on your best earphones if you plan to listen.

• The Spirit Tree, Ori and the Blind Forest

• Kids will be Skeletons, Life is Strange

• The Dragonborn Comes, Skyrim

• Quinn and Valor, League of Legends

• Ezio’s Family, Assassin’s Creed II

• Welcome to Los Santos, GTA V

• Naru Embracing the Light, Ori and the Blind Forest

• Tazer, Age of Empires II

• Main Theme, Max Payne

• From Past to Present, Skyrim

Click here for part 1.
Click here for part 2.
Click here for part 3.


IIMA classroom diaries #1

First day of the preparatory course.

Professor: What’s your background?
Student: I’m a lawyer.
Professor: What are you doing in an MBA program?
Student: [starts generic interview answer]
Professor: Oh please. You’re here because you were a bad lawyer.

Professor addressing a student during the on-boarding session, after we completed the first group task.

Professor: Did you feel comfortable working in a team?
Student: Well, we didn’t have proper coordination at first. But later we worked things out.
Professor: Can you describe exactly when the transition happened?
Student: When time was running short…

Someone had dozed off in Microeconomics class.

Professor: Hello, mister. Explain where we are now [pointing at graphs on the board].
Student: [waking up, startled] In the class.
Professor: Good!

Third HRM lecture.

Professor: What question should we address in class today?
Students: “What is HRM?”
Professor: But we already did that in the last class, and in the class before that.
Students: [silent]
Professor: The question we ask today is: “What is HRM?”

The question remains the same. The answer changes.

During the second on-boarding session.

Professor: We’re going to watch a movie on group dynamics.
Students: Yayy.
[The movie is 12 Angry Men]
Me: Yayy.

We were asked to prepare a case report for Marketing-I before attending our first lecture. The issue was raised afterwards in class.

Student: Most of us know nothing about marketing. How do you expect us to write a report?
Professor: That’s life, right? You’re supposed to figure things out.