Tag Archives: morality

Private Truths, Public Lies And The Age Of Abundance

Years ago, I spent my mornings talking to an exceptionally smart Canadian teen on the internet. She loved to entertain her virtual friends by taking her clothes off. When I asked her why, she said that it was a pleasant experience for everybody concerned. But, the last thing she wanted was her mother knowing it. One day, she said that she was depressed. She said that she felt bad about being a harlot over the Yahoo Messenger. I knew this before she said it because I knew enough about human nature to be suspicious of such claims. But, the internet is the best teacher I can think of. 

A decade ago, I loved reading the Orkut scrapbook of a 16 year old girl who shared her nudes for everybody to see. I was a silent spectator who enjoyed her conversations with men who entered her space hoping that there is so much that is possible. She was wise beyond her years—smart as a whip. When we once talked, she said that I should have known her horrible reputation. Her language skills were excellent, unlike that of men who stalked her. When someone called her a snob for being a grammar Nazi, she said, “When I was in middle school, I used to read high school textbooks. Nobody ever helped me.” Years later, I heard that she killed herself at UC Berkeley, where she was studying Physics. Without the internet and social media, we would not have known much about the inner worlds of outliers like her. If we knew more, she would have….she would have, well, survived.

The internet tells us that we are all so similar and so different at the same time. Nothing is more important to morality than deep insight into people who are very different from us. Moral refinement is the fountainhead of human progress. The most prosperous societies are where morality and fairness are valued to the largest degree. If moral refinement is the fountainhead of human progress, this outweighs everything else that the internet gives us. I argue that this is the most underrated fact about the internet. This is an extraordinary claim. But, one day, the internet will be celebrated for this, more than for anything else.

The internet makes us human.

Philosopher Michael Huemer thinks that political ignorance is greatest problem that we face. Huemer believes that political ignorance is a graver threat than crime, drug addiction or even world poverty, because political ignorance is at the root of everything else.  He is wrong. Our moral failures are often a form of politicking. But, political ignorance does not explain everything. It is our poor understanding of ourselves and that of other minds that prevents us from solving much of our problems, including political ignorance.

If you are discerning enough, your Facebook friend list is probably a more diversified portfolio of human beings than your school or office will ever be. The best blogs say more about the inner workings of the finest minds on earth than any newspaper or magazine ever will. When the best minds are unguarded, what ensues is an unusually high supply of intelligent conversation—-and extraordinarily perceptive writing. This is why the internet is very important for moral refinement.

Now, many believe that, on the internet, no one will see the real “You”. In fact, the truth is the opposite. Over 5,000 years ago, the written word did not even exist. Aristotle would not have had much success in those days. But, this does not mean that “Nicomachean Ethics” is misleading or that Aristotle had quite a different personality when he wrote. Aristotle is remembered for his philosophical works, and not for being a wife-beater or for “not holding the gods in honor”.

Moral refinement of mankind would not have been possible without great literature. But, in a world without the written word, Aristotle’s greatest talent would not even have been a voice that people could recognize. To see the “Real Aristotle”, his contemporaries probably had to separate the “Aristotle who did not hold the Gods in honor” from Aristotle, the great philosopher. We face no such dilemma today. There is near unanimous agreement on the criteria Aristotle should be judged on. But, if the written word did not exist, Aristotle’s place in history would have been the same as that of the savages of his time. On the internet, we make finer distinctions. In the future, people will find it obvious that people were so undifferentiated before the internet. Before the internet, there was nothing but a heap of moral uniformity. For the same reason we celebrate language and literature for how far we have come today, one day, the internet will be celebrated for making people morally distinguishable.

The age of the internet is the age of abundance. This is indisputable. But, of all things we find on the internet, what matters the most is the abundance of moral perspectives. What matters the most is the abundance of knowledge about the inner worlds of people. Without knowing much about the inner worlds of people, we would never understand their moral beliefs.

In the real world, we see people. We see how they dress, walk and speak. But, their inner worlds are closed to us, and often to themselves. But, ultimately, their hidden inner worlds drive everything that they do. Hidden motives influence what people do, regardless of what they say publicly. Hidden assumptions almost determine their political and moral beliefs. But, if these motives and assumptions are hidden, often even to themselves, how do we know them? There are no substitutes for introspection, reading and hard thought. But, these are still not enough to know what other people hide, even from themselves. There is no better guide than the internet because people tend to be frank in their virtual lives. Unguarded.

Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messenger, Blogs. Yes.

Frankness on the internet may seem suicidal. A brewing revolution will always be invisible to everybody, but the most perceptive. When people underestimate the price of speaking their mind, many will. Speaking one’s mind will slowly become the norm, tweet by tweet. The price of speaking one’s mind will fall, tweet by tweet. One day, people will find it hard to believe that many of the most obvious truths about human nature were once private truths that no one spoke of.

You’re ambitious, Peter

pglovesbitcoinI have been reading Paul Graham for the past four years. Paul Graham is one of the rare writers I have read who genuinely care for fairness and morality. Virtually every writer claims that he cares for fairness and morality. But only a vanishingly small minority really does. So, how do I know whether the writer I read genuinely care for morality or not? Bryan Caplan thinks that you will know them by their unpopular views. This is a good rule of thumb, but it is more easy to fake it. I believe you will know them by observing how nuanced their observations about morality are. Read this passage in Graham’s essay about cities and ambition:

“I’d always considered ambition a good thing, but I realize now that was because I’d always implicitly understood it to mean ambition in the areas I cared about. When you list everything ambitious people are ambitious about, it’s not so pretty.”

There is nothing really wrong with ambition as such. But, because for most people, ambition means things that are not really nice, they decided that ambition as such is a bad thing. They have always been ambitious about all the wrong things. It never occurred to them that ambitiousness can be the great driving force behind everything that is good in the word. If you have never been ambitious in the sense normal human beings are ambitious, you will never understand how ambition can be a bad thing unless people point it out to you. You understand what they mean when they say “ambition” using your intelligence and not your intuition. Why? You never shared the twisted moral intuitions of people in the first place. A normal human being would not notice, but this would be the first thing that occurs to you when you hear people condemning ambition.

An insightful passage from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead:

“You bet they are. Francon–he’s the greatest designer in New York, in the whole country, in the world maybe. He’s put up seventeen skyscrapers, eight cathedrals, six railroad terminals and God knows what else. Of course, you know, he’s an old fool and a pompous fraud who oils his way into everything and…” He stopped, his mouth open, staring at her. He had not intended to say that. He had never allowed himself to think that before.

She was looking at him serenely. “Yes?” she asked. “And…?”

“Well…and…” he stammered, and he knew that he could not speak differently, not to her, “and that’s what I really think of him. And I have no respect for him at all. And I’m delighted to be working for him. See?”

“Sure,” she said quietly. “You’re ambitious, Peter.”

When you read such prose, you know that you are reading a truly great writer.

Kasab’s Hanging: Revenge And Closure

I feel so Awww when I see the picture of a young boy walking around with his belongings.

Revenge has always had a bad press in a world where conformists are actively scheming to make a virtue out of a vice. But, it is not hard to see that deep down, they love what they claim to despise.

Crowds throng to the theaters to watch movies in which the hero stands victorious at the end, blood and sweat running down his chest. When S.P.S. Rathore got away with a measly fine and six months imprisonment after molesting a girl, ruining her family and driving her to suicide, Sagarika Ghose tweeted: “My daughter is almost 14. If I was Ruchika’s mother, I would have gone and broken Rathore’s jaw.”Above a picture in which Rathore was grinning widely saying “I am relieved today”, Sandipan Deb wrote: “Remember that face.” Revenge sells in a market where people consume what gives them joy, and not what is supposed to give them joy. The tycoons of the entertainment industry know it. Our journalists know it. Continue reading

The Distant Cheeping

They are so clever!

A week ago, I felt that pressure was suddenly building up inside my head. There was a mild heaviness that didn’t seem to go away. I have never had a headache in my life. But, one night, I was turning back in my bed, trying to sleep. I never had sleeping problems. There was suddenly a sharp pain that never came back. I was having mild bodily disturbances on and off which I have never had before. Doctors often dismiss it telling me: “Wait, you are confusing me now.” I almost never sleep in the morning-even during Magazine production when I often have to skip sleep. But lately I am sleeping at my desk or office sofa for hours. While I was listening to a talk, I noticed that my eyes were drooping, even when I had slept six hours the night before.

When I went to a hospital nearby, the doctor asked me many questions: “Where do you work? How many hours do you work? Do you read a lot? When you read, do you read from a computer? How many hours do you sleep?” I have averaged four hours of sleep for many years.  I am always hooked to the web. I rarely read hard copies.  He just asked me to do a vision test, brushing off everything else. Continue reading

Fiat justicia, ruat coelum

I have been thinking hard since my late teens of what David Friedman explicitly wrote in his book “Law’s Order”. “Consequences are an important part of what we want. The doctrine fiat justicia, ruat coelum (let justice be done though the skies fall) is, in my experience, uniformly proclaimed by people who are confident that doing justice will not, in fact, bring down the sky.” I find it striking that despite my driving passion for justice, I have always looked suspiciously at libertarians who argue that the moral argument is the most compelling one. One thing in common with many of them is that they have no satisfactory theory of morality.

In the words of David Friedman: “Justice does not give an adequate account of law, both because it is irrelevant to a surprisingly large number of legal issues and because we have no adequate theory of what makes some rules just and some unjust.” I find most of the standard points of view in morality-specifically natural law, utilitarianism and argumentation ethics lacking in many important ways. When we argue on the lines of any of these, we sudden run into obvious difficulties.

One way to see through such moralists is to ask what they think of pacifism, land reforms, free immigration or anarchy. Many of them oppose at least one of these, and the reason could only be that they wrongly or rightly believe that the end result would be utter chaos. How is a retaliatory war justified when we take civilian deaths into account? How can one oppose free immigration when no one can rightly claim the right to force someone out of his country simply because he happened to be born there? Why is reparations to blacks on slavery morally unjustified? How can one swear by the Non-Aggression principle and still oppose anarchy on moral grounds?