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.

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.

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.


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.

Books, Journal

An early birthday gift

Go Set a Watchman is a shady book. Since its publication in 2015, it has been drowned in controversy. It isn’t clear whether Harper Lee wanted it to be published, because she had maintained throughout her life that she will never publish another book. As a result, several Harper Lee fans have boycotted it. I was delighted to receive the book as a gift since I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. Before getting started, I wanted to quickly document my expectations from this book.

Even though the story is set chronologically a decade after To Kill a Mockingbird, the book itself was written earlier. It was rejected by the publisher and Mockingbird was born out of its ashes. Mockingbird, as we know, went on to become one of the most beloved American books of all time and its legendary protagonist, Atticus Finch, can be found on every list of inspiring literary characters (while Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus features at the very top of the American Film Institute’s list of heroes). He has been become nothing short of a benchmark for human morality.

Therefore, it comes as a rude shock that Go Set a Watchman portrays Atticus as a bigot. This is all word of mouth though and I won’t be passing any judgement before reading the book myself. Nevertheless, I will be treating this Atticus as if he were a completely different character altogether. Knowing that Mockingbird is an revised and improved version of Watchman makes this task simpler. I wouldn’t want Atticus’ existing image to be tarnished in any way.

I am also expecting to get some insights into the mind of Harper Lee. It is quite possible that this is the original and imperfect story that she wanted to tell, but was forced to change it to a more ‘agreeable’ version later in order to fall in line with the expectation of the masses.

Here’s to page 1.

Journal, Music

An art-lover’s duty

A lot of blame is usually thrown around when we talk about the decline in quality of art over generations, and a huge chunk of that blame goes towards capitalism. Materialism is ruining the industry, they say. What else can we expect when everything is ruled by money? The talented artists seem eager to compromise quality in order to earn a little extra cash. What’s the solution? Some people think we should do away with capitalism altogether. The rest just don’t care. Very few seem to address the elephant in the room — the rotten taste of the consumers.

As most of us are aware, the goods and services produced through capitalism are mere reflections of desires of the society at large. The consumer is the god of the system. Hence, the education and awareness of the consumer is of primary importance.

Let’s start first by acknowledging the power of an average consumer. He does not put a lot of thought into which movie he watches or what music he listens to. He hears about a new blockbuster which his friends are going to watch, and he tags along. He has a fun time. Isn’t that what movies are for, anyway? He does not ponder on the effects of his trivial decision. He, and millions of people like him, produce the market for the cheap masquerade that is mainstream Bollywood. This in itself isn’t bad. I mean, sure, they are just bad movies, but they aren’t hurting anyone. Yet some underpaid film director who had invested all his savings into creating something meaningful just lost his career.

Add to this the recent fascination with horribly dumb things (Taher Shah comes to mind) which people watch just to see how dumb they are, the justification being “they’re so bad that they’re funny”. Yet we don’t see the same dedication for the extremely intelligent things — you’d think they should be interesting too. We’re sending a clear message to all content producers: don’t give us anything that lasts; give us instant gratification, cheap thrills and things to mock.

I’m not claiming that we should aim to change everyone’s consuming habits. That is an unrealistic goal. However, the ones who describe themselves as “art lovers” should be aware that they’re hurting the efforts of countless passionate artists whenever they spend time and money on things that lack artistic value, even if they think of it as mere entertainment. We simply don’t have that luxury. We live in a world where a film like Masaan struggles to survive while Hate Story 3 shines like a diamond. It’s time we acknowledge our role in the bigger scheme of things and put our money where our mouth is. It’s our duty to dig out the gold that lies beneath all the soot and expose it to the world.

You’re young like tonight,
And to be young is to be right,
You never had to prove any loyalty.
But we dreamt of a war,
On that night and in that car,
We made a promise.
Do you recall?
It’s not a song,
That will prove them wrong,
This time around.

Faith: a rationalist’s POV

I’m an atheist and I feel a majority of people are religious because they never question the things they learn in their early years, and/or because they need faith to cope with the hardships of life. I would have considered the latter pragmatic if it had no side effects. However, there might also be some “good” reasons behind belief systems that aren’t readily obvious.

I have read various arguments in favor of faith and the ones that link it to personal happiness and achievements make some sense to me. Most atheists dismiss such claims as false crediting. In my opinion, they overlook a very important property of faith: the willpower and motivation it generates. If faith can create extremists who are willing to die for the silliest of causes, it is definitely powerful enough to push people beyond their natural limits. This makes it “real” irrespective of how shaky the foundations are. It is a force similar to love, patriotism, etc., and can control our brains to an extent that rational thought cannot. Thus, if faith can somehow be cultivated in a controlled manner, it might be put to good use.

This has been proven to some degree by Alcoholics Anonymous or AA, which is a group aimed at helping alcoholics stay sober and escape addiction. Developing faith and spirituality in alcoholics is a key part of their methodology, and statistically it has been highly successful.  AA exploits our brains’ tendency to prioritize feelings over reason.

Is irrationality a flaw that we should try to overcome? Reason and rationality have been given more and more importance as humanity progressed, and they have been extremely beneficial. But it must be speculated whether there is a limit after which we will start failing at our primary task, i.e. survival. The mental blocks we carry within ourselves are one of the forms of irrationality that have been proven useful. The most prominent example is that we avoid thinking about various existential questions. We know that the rational answer to a question like “Should I have coffee or should I die?” is “It doesn’t matter.” Yet we choose coffee every single time without pondering over the other possibility. It’s a miracle.

In this way, irrationality defines us. I believe spirituality and faith are just various forms of this irrationality that leak out from our fundamentals. While we continue this debate, we will keep shutting out the tiny voice at the back of our heads that whispers things we don’t want to hear.