Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘uncategorized musings’ Category

One question that  is pertinent to politics as well as psychology is the nature of moral progress. When I say moral progress, I mean the process by which individuals end up updating or modifying their basic moral beliefs (or priors). This process usually is a slow one, and at the micro level involves one’s reaction to evidences or thought processes.

This typically happens when Person A comes across some data/evidence that is in tension with his moral system. For example, A may value a certain principle and then realize one day that some regular action of his violates this principle. Or maybe A values several principles, and new data (or just new reasoning) seems to suggest that in at least some instance these principles are in conflict.

To give a couple of examples:

Time: 1790. Place: America. A values both individual liberty and a harmonious, prosperous society. The issue at hand is slave ownership. A reluctantly accepts slave ownership for the time being because he believes that Blacks are intellectually inferior and would not be able to live in the same land as the Whites. Perhaps A supports emancipation in principle but thinks an actual implementation would result in tremendous disorder, huge decrease in prosperity and would also require eventual deportation of all the Blacks back to Africa in a painful, costly and disrupting process. But one day his scientist friend shows him evidence that seems to strongly suggest that the inferiority of Blacks is a myth, and given proper education they would be as likely as Whites to succeed in intellectual endeavors.

Or to give a second example, A is a young European, living currently, who has a strong moral opposition to hunting for pleasure. He thinks it is wrong and rights-violating. Yet he eats meat. He justifies this by saying that killing for food or to achieve some other basic necessity is ok, but killing for pleasure is morally wrong. But one day, after a conversation with a friend he starts to wonder if his position is morally sound. He realizes  that he can get by  without eating animals (gaining the needed protein from other sources, such as lentils, milk and soy, as many Asians do) so the main reason behind eating meat is the pleasure he gains from it. So how is eating meat different form hunting then?

And so on…

The interesting question to me, is what A does in such a situation.  He has several choices:

1. Simple minded denial: He can just deny that the evidence exists. For instance the 18th century American could refuse to believe his scientist friend. He could claim that the facts and the research are false and move on. We seem to see something similar with some (not all) global warming sceptics today.

2. Tweaking:  He can decide that despite the new evidence/argument, he can resolve the tension with minor tweaks. For instance, he comes up with other evidence or arguments to counter the tension. Or he  makes minor changes to his priors that make this tension go away or at least become less pronounced. There are many ways to tweak one’s beliefs, some simple, some highly complex; some honest, some not, some based on reason, some based on emotion.

3. Biting the bullet: He can decide that his values are truly in conflict and modify them significantly. The 18th century American could either give up his belief  in liberty, or abandon his support for slave-ownership. The 2oth century European could decide that animals don’t have rights (and end his moral opposition to hunting) or decide to become a vegetarian. Any of these outcomes are what I’d call significant moral progress. At the individual level, they can be life-changing.

It seems to me that personality plays a complex role in deciding which of the above outcomes occur. As a rule, people have a strong emotional resistance to any sort of change in their moral priors. For that would mean acknowledging to themselves, and perhaps to others, that they have engaged in beliefs/actions that are false/evil. Some make a conscious attempt to avoid letting emotions take precedence over reason in deciding how one deals with such conflicts, while others go with the flow.

Age probably plays an important role in all this; younger people are more likely to change their belief systems. As Fitzgerald once wrote, “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

In any case, I don’t have any deep insights to offer, but I think these are interesting questions, and being able to deal with moral dilemmas in an efficient, unbiased and rational manner would certainly improve political outcomes.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

When it comes to how to deal with used stuff, or with things that you don’t need anymore, there are two kinds of people, the keepers and the discarders. My temparament leant towards keeper when I was younger but today I am a staunch discarder.

I love throwing away — or even better, physically destroying — my things whose time I deem to have passed. It is like being part of the dynamic cycle of destruction and creation.

Read Full Post »

1. I am currently in Hawaii. It is most wonderful. And there is something truly special about doing math on the beach. Some day I hope to find out if it is as good as having sex on the beach.

2. I am in the final couple of months of my US stay. This is not the post to express all the things I feel about the last five years of my life — that would take far too long — but I’ll just note a few things. Doing a PhD, at least in math, is much more about learning than research. The USA has its good and bad sides, but I came here, like a lot of Indians, with a somewhat negative view of this country and over the years I have come to love it and much of what it stands for. I really enjoyed my grad life and I think I grew as an individual — my political and philosophical views got more refined, my view of relationships and people got more mature. I will be sad to leave, sad to no longer be a student, sad to leave my friends, a close ex-girlfriend and a lover behind on this continent. But change is a wonderful thing, in spite of everything it entails; and while there are many aspects of my identity I consider significant — libertarian, atheist, mathematician, dreamer — I am perhaps above all a dynamist.

3. Talking of girlfriends and lovers, I completely agree with Kerry Howley’s take on the issue (stated only for marriages, but surely applicable to any meaningful relationship).

Read Full Post »

To make up for my lack of posting, let me link to a discussion over at Aristotle’s blog. It started off with Rawls but has evolved into topics like the nature of morality and the objectivity (or lack thereof) of values.

To a casual reader of the thread linked above, I might come across as rather critical of Ayn Rand and what I consider to be a flawed attempt by her to build an objective theory of morality. So to give a more balanced picture of what I really think of Rand and her works, let me quote myself from a different thread on the same blog.

I won’t say Rand is for everyone; I really do think you need to have certain personality traits in order for Rand’s fiction to really speak to you. This is especially true of the way she depicts the sexual and emotional aspects of her characters.

[…] So, I can see why The Fountainhead does not appeal to a lot of people, including many who really value individualism. As for me, I read it in my late teens and have re-read it since. I love it, and that’s an understatement.

Actually Ayn Rand is *not* my favourite moral philosopher; she does not even come close. There are several fundamental logical flaws in the way she treats the topics of rationality and first principles. But The Fountainhead is a different matter; it distills just the right aspects of her philosophy, perhaps by accident, but nevertheless.

There are a lot of things I dream of doing with my life and none of them have much to do with Rand or objectivism.

But if you ask me the name of just one book, *any* book from *any era*, that I wish *I* had written…. it would be the Fountainhead.

Reading Rand was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. For that I will be eternally grateful.

Read Full Post »

Certain events reminded me

of this funniness I once wrote.

So I called up K —  he told me

of she he was with no more;

So I asked him about the circles

And he said he’d come a full circle.

For some reason that makes me  sad.

Read Full Post »

Conversations, news and movies inform me that it is pretty common for a person to say bad things about his or her ex. I have always found that practice mystifyingly alien. It is not that I necessarily have any moral objection to saying such things; just that I cannot ever imagine myself doing it.

A part of this attitude has probably to do with my general distate to voicing private matters in public, even to close friends. But a lot of it also has to do with pride and self-respect; it seems to me that it is impossible to say really bad things about someone you were close to for an extended period of time in the past without disrespecting yourself. How can you today badmouth someone you loved and respected in the past without implying that your judgment, taste — in a sense your entire existence then — was in some fundamental way flawed or false? I mean I see that people can feel pretty strong negative emotions after a bad break-up but still… I simply don’t get it. I don’t think I can ever publicly put down or even strongly criticize anyone I had been together with for a reasonable period of time; however acrimonious the break-up, however hurt I were in the process. Maybe I am just weird in this way.

Read Full Post »

All time favourites are of two kinds.

The first kind is what I call ‘love at first sight’. You like them from the start and by the time you are done with them, you know they are going to become an all time favourite. Your appreciation for them peaks at or towards the end of your first experience with them and future reflection upon them does not increase your liking much higher.

In the second kind, much rarer, you don’t particularly like the object on first taste. By the time you are done with it, you still don’t exactly love it, though you are aware there is something very interesting about them. It is only on reflection, over the next few days or even weeks that you succeed in unraveling the many layers of quality that wrap around them. You fall in love slowly, the process is intrinsic rather than external and the eventual effect is a powerful, permanent one.

I am not trying to imply that one kind of favourite is superior to the other; nor am I saying the opposite. The above is merely an observation and nothing more.

Examples of the first kind in my life: Harry Potter, The Fountainhead, Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman, Saving Private Ryan, No Man’s land, The lives of others, Chungking express, When Harry met Sally, Satyajit Ray movies, most Tarantino movies, Top of the World, El Condor Pasa, Carmen, Dvorak’s 9th symphony, solution to IMO ’99 problem 3.

Examples of the second kind in my life: The Great Gatsby,The old man and the sea, The outsider, American Beauty, most Polanski movies (particularly Bitter Moon), Strawberry fields forever, Bangalore, TJ Bolivian blend coffee.

Some things however, I can’t decide which category to put in. Examples: Mozart’s music, Hardy’s Apology.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »