Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tryst with Destiny

This morning I saw a kid, may be 9 years of age. A grimy bag slung over his back, the handle held in one clenched fist. He was walking - balancing as though on a tight-rope - on a single rail of the railway track. He seemed lost in his own world. Out of the corner of his eye, he seemed to have spotted something valuable lying in the dirt. He leapt of the rail with alacrity and retrieved the object. It was a postcard-sized transparent plastic folder with a plastic zip seal. He seemed quite pleased with his find, as he unzipped the folder and pretended to put something inside. Then, grinning to himself softly, he got back to balance-walking on the rail.

I do not know how many of my fellow commuters noticed the kid. There must have been several hundred of us waiting on the platform, waiting for the suburban train that would take us to our respective workplaces. Waiting for the train to trundle into the station so we could leap in and grab seats - or at least comfortable standing spaces. As the train trundled in, and I was about to leap into the first-class compartment, I noticed a few passengers standing in the passage-way trying to alight. In the ensuing shove and tussle, I missed my chance to grab a seat. Muttering curses I placed my bag on the luggage rack and pulled out my book. As I was reading the second sentence a high-pitched loud voice called out "paalis seth!", and I saw the same kid walking in the compartment, soliciting customers for his little shoe-shine business. The little diversion with the plastic folder seemed to be out of his mind - this was his peak business hour and he was focused on selling his shoe-shine services.

And, I stood there musing. All around me was the fodder that fuels our economy – the professionals, officers, bankers, clerks, accountants, small businessmen commuting to start a regular ‘Bombay’ working day. The Economic Times was being unfurled and folded into neat train-commuter-friendly columns, the hands-free and Bluetooth devices were being adjusted to commence the first business phone-calls of the day, the occasional student was pulling out his well thumbed bunch of photocopied notes. All crammed in a train filled many times its ‘standard’ capacity. And the little ‘entrepreneur’, (who should perhaps have been in school), winding his way amongst the passengers shining shoes for five rupees. I was seeing, as I see everyday, the face of India. The talented Human Capital that is winning accolades from the world, the infrastructure – founded by the British – now creaking at its seams as it struggles to cope with our ever growing numbers, and the grinding poverty that still afflicts millions of us.

And I mused, have we redeemed, wholly or substantially, the pledge of long years ago when we made a tryst with destiny? Perhaps not. Which is precisely why, this is the right occasion to remind ourselves of the dream we dreamt at midnight 60 years ago. Let us read and remember. Jai Hind.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this Assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India. Before the birth of freedom we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now.
That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this One World that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.

To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others.

We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell. The appointed day has come-the day appointed by destiny-and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent. The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken. Yet the turning-point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about.

It is a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia and for the world. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the East, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materializes. May the star never set and that hope never be betrayed! We rejoice in that freedom, even though clouds surround us, and many of our people are sorrowstricken and difficult problems encompass us. But freedom brings responsibilities and burdens and we have to face them in the spirit of a free and disciplined people.

On this day our first thoughts go to the architect of this freedom, the Father of our Nation [Gandhi], who, embodying the old spirit of India, held aloft the torch of freedom and lighted up the darkness that surrounded us. We have often been unworthy followers of his and have strayed from his message, but not only we but succeeding generations will remember this message and bear the imprint in their hearts of this great son of India, magnificent in his faith and strength and courage and humility. We shall never allow that torch of freedom to be blown out, however high the wind or stormy the tempest.

Our next thoughts must be of the unknown volunteers and soldiers of freedom who, without praise or reward, have served India even unto death. We think also of our brothers and sisters who have been cut off from us by political boundaries and who unhappily cannot share at present in the freedom that has come. They are of us and will remain of us whatever may happen, and we shall be sharers in their good [or] ill fortune alike.

The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.

We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be. We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.To the nations and peoples of the world we send greetings and pledge ourselves to cooperate with them in furthering peace, freedom and democracy. And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service. Jai Hind.

- Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister, भारत गणतंत्र (Republic of India), 15th August 1947

Friday, June 22, 2007

Ethics and Evolution

Ethics is the science of morality and is applied to daily living in that it seeks to guide human actions, thoughts, words and motives in terms of certain values. Meta-ethics is the science that investigates morality; that seeks to examine ethical values, arguments and inferences. Thus if we ask – “Is it right for X to spread lies about Y in revenge for not being invited to a party?” – we are posing an ethical question. However when we start asking “What do we mean by right?”, “What makes a specific action right or wrong?” we have strayed into the realm of meta-ethics.

The difference between these two levels of ethical analysis is often not obvious. Often we are not aware of these two operating levels, often we do not care to think at the level of meta-ethics. This is a moot point because most disagreements in ethical discourse though they are disagreements on ethical conclusions primarily arise because of fundamental differences in the meta-ethics operating beneath. This is in many ways analogous to everyday situations where we end up arguing about syntax and semantics (words and meanings) rather than about concepts.

However second degree ethical analysis or meta-ethical analysis is required for humans to be able to justify our uniqueness as moral animals. The bottom-line being that we need to have basic ethical principles defined which we can apply consistently, coherently, correctly and completely. These principles would in turn drive our ethical values which makes comparison between alternative choices possible. This comparison is required, obviously to make the choices, but a more important consequence of this top down approach is that we should be prepared to review old choices as new information becomes available which could change the ethical value associated with each choice.

I brought this analysis up for a specific reason. We often hear views raised with regards to 'absolute morality' and 'relative morality'. These are almost always passionate views expressed with great conviction. But they are not often backed up by clear explanation of what absolute morality vis-a-vis relative morality entails. However when these votaries of absolute versus relative morality are asked to explain or give examples; it often transpires that the 'absolutists' are talking about the broad ethical principles while the 'relativists' tend to focus on specific ethical values and the resultant choices and decisions. It is intuitive then that 'absolute' and 'relative' morality are not necessarily contradictory or conflicting concepts; it is perhaps just as intuitive to observe that ethical principles are more or less stable or fixed while their application is dynamic and open to contextual nuances that must be relatively evaluated. Of course, one would expect a given set of ethical principles to be internally consistent, coherent and logical - in the absence of which attributes their stability comes into question. It perhaps seems to be a little in-apt to use the plural 'ethical principles' in this discussion when in most cases a single over-riding ethical principle seems to be operative. However, deeper analysis of the roots of the moral decison making machinery in the human psyche may lead to a plurality of ethical principles.

Differentiating between ethical values and ethical principles is often tricky and subjective. Take for instance the Ten Commandments. Are they 10 ethical principles? Or are they 10 ethical values? I would tend to analyse them as ethical values - specific statements mandating specific ethical choices. The underlying ethical principle is explicit in the very title 'Commandments' - Obeying the Commands of the Abrahmic Deity is the overriding ethical principle entailed here. But then this is my analysis, others may disagree.

However, the ethics - metaethics / principle-value schema adumbrated above is merely the surface simplicity and structure of a complex and less investigated substrate lying underneath. Ethical thinking, like any other kind of thinking, derives from the mental machinery configured in the human brain and is therefore shaped by the very configuration. Ethical thinking is primarily associated with how we deal with other people. This is significant because through the 0.5 million years of human (homo sapiens) evolution and 5 million years of homonid evolution, a defining feature of the EEA - Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation has been 'each other'. In other words the environment to adapt to which most of human and recent homonid evolution happened was other humans / homonids! It is almost certain that this evolution - which happened in response to other people - was an evolution principally of mental machinery. Significant development being growth in brain size, acquisition of language, a powerful inference engine, and a sophisticated theory of mind - which lets us make conjectures about other minds upto as high as 5 degrees (Peter thinks that Jane knows that he believes Jane's impression about Peter is based on . . .). The mind is far from being a tabula rasa at birth, but comes pre-fabricated with a complex mental machinery, algorithms, templates and inference systems developed over 5 million years of hominid and human mental evolution in response to living with othjer people. As stated above, since ethics is primarily concerned with thinking about how to behave towards other people, ipso facto, ethical thinking is a prime candidate for having been factored into the mental machinery that evolved as an adaptation to other people.

What this entails is that despite the possible variety of ethical principles and the ethical values founded from those principles; human ethical thinking has at its roots a universal set of templates and algorithms. Evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, biologists, sociologists and such other scientists are only now beginning to look under the hood of this 'ethical brain' which has so far operated like a black box. This is not really surprising. We are thinking machines; ‘thoughts’ keep pulsing rapidly through the synaptic network and soup of neuro-chemicals that constitute our cauliflowers. But we are not aware of the thinking process (unless we define ‘thought’ specifically as a conscious and deliberate activity). There is literally much more happening in our minds than we know - Freud was right after all! Once the above mentioned scientists have finished mapping out the ethical brain, we will have a factual description of a truly universal meta-ethic. The meta-ethic of Gray's Anatomy that applies to each and every human being on the planet - from French or Fijian, American or Aboriginal. And yet, this is a fallacy. Any description of our naturally selected, evolved, adapted, 'ethical thinking' would just be a description of a partially innately developed process that inclines most of us into arriving at certain ethical conclusions in certain situations. This is purely descriptive of a natural / innate thought process and in no way determines the ethical value of the thoughts so arrived at!! To say that is to argue something to the effect that what is natural is what is right; or what is un-natural is what is wrong. It smacks of the all too common confusing of what IS with what ought to be. It is one thing to say that certain ethical inference systems (or tendencies towards developing these inference systems) may have evolved in the human / hominid EEA, because those ethical inference systems conferred on the genetic-factors responsible for their development selective advantage over other genetic-factors that could have led to different ethical inference systems. Such a claim probably is testable, and may be a fair hypothesis to proffer based on what we presently understand about natural selection and how it works. But should these ethical inference systems – as and when their mechanism is fully understood and explained – be the basis for the meta-ethic for human societies to operate by? Probably not. Going one level higher – does the process that in all likelihood was ‘responsible’ for the evolution of these inference system – namely Darwinian natural selection – itself constitute a viable meta-ethic? Should we define good as “that which makes our genes prolific”? Most of us would cringe with horror of the very prospects of that.