December 27, 2014

2014: Intriguing Ideas...

As 2014 draws to a close, I look at some of the ideas that aroused my curiosity, challenged existing beliefs, and inspired awe this year.

Moral Progress
The predominant theme that piqued my interest this year is the field of ‘Moral Psychology’. From ideas of self-identity, to empathy, to the evolution of morality and lot else, the field opened me to a new world of ideas on the foundations of our moral lives.

        Ancient Greeks and Romans are the earliest champions of the cause of political liberty and equality at their home (if not abroad). They debated, argued and philosophized on issues of citizenry, rights, equality, etc. Despite this prevalent intellectual tradition, slavery was commonplace in ancient Greece & Rome. Fast forward to the 19th century. John Stuart Mill, the influential British philosopher and economist, argued for radical political ideas like: individual liberty, abolition of slavery, equality of women, etc. In stark contrast to his other views, he was deeply racist and prejudiced in the sense that he favored colonialism in countries like India, where he believed the inhabitants to be barbaric and not capable of self-rule. What explains these paradoxes? "Ancient Greeks did not see slavery as a case of injustice. Rather, justice arose as a question only among those who were not slaves" (Lane, 2014). Similarly, JS Mill’s support of a retrograde idea like ‘benevolent despotism’ shows the possibility of fallibility of thought even among progressive people. The two cases also illuminate that ideas of morality are not static or etched in stone. Views that are deeply held and considered as moral today might be looked down by people in the future as "immoral, prejudiced, simplistic, and misguided. And they might even be right about it."(Guerrero, 2014)

       How then does civilization achieve Moral progress, if even the smartest among us are fallible to poor logic and parochialism? Should empathy be our primary instrument to achieve moral progress? Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein (in their 2012 TED presentation) deconstruct the better of angel of our nature that causes moral progress, thus:

“Empathy is a feeble instrument for making moral progress. For one thing, it's innately biased toward blood relations, babies and warm, fuzzy animals. As far as empathy is concerned, ugly outsiders can go to hell…Reason has muscle. It's reason that provides the push to widen that circle of empathy…. Contradictions bother us, at least when we're forced to confront them, which is just another way of saying that we are susceptible to reason. And if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, and inconsistent with values already held. Their essay would go viral, get translated into many languages, get debated at pubs and coffee houses and salons, and at dinner parties, and influence leaders, legislators, popular opinion. Eventually their conclusions get absorbed into the common sense of decency, erasing the tracks of the original argument that had gotten us there.”

Another idea that captivated me recently is the use of behavioral economics to understand why poor people stay poor. There is a tendency to attribute poverty to people’s choices or their personalities, and not see it as a consequence of the circumstances they live in. In the context of inequality, Dr. Kaushik Basu (Chief Economist, World Bank) remarked recently that: “there can be no distinction on the lines of hard-working babies and lazy babies”. Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir (Professors at Harvard & Princeton University respectively) in their book “Scarcity” explain the reason why poor people stay poor. They deploy the notion of scarce ‘mental bandwidth’ as the primary reason why poor people (and most of us) make bad choices. They argue that scarcity “makes us dumber” (i.e. it lowers IQ points) and consequently makes us bad decision makers. Poor people, therefore, are not inherently dumb, immoral or demotivated. Rather, their constant pursuit to make ends meet constrains their bandwidth to reason through other choices in their life. The life-critical choices being: sending kids to school, borrowing money from a moneylender, buying fertilizers, etc.

This idea is humbling because people with abundance are fortunate, in a sense, to be part of a familial or cultural system that grants them sufficient mental bandwidth to make the right choices and design better lives.  

I have always found it puzzling as to how people perceive intuitively the notion of identity, both as self and other. Further, lacing identity with the notion of morality adds a new layer of complexity. From selling iPads, to detergents, to movies, to communal violence, identity is a potent ingredient. Let me consider two questions around identity: Are our self-identities static as most of us tend to believe? What is fundamental to the notion of self – is it memories as we commonly tend to believe?

       I have long held this view that people don’t change. The idea was comforting, for it grants a strange sense of authenticity to who we are. But, as I recently discovered, I was wrong! Dan Gilbert (Professor Psychology, Harvard), based on his research, argues that people vastly underestimate how much their values, personalities and preferences change over time. He attributes this tendency to underestimate change, more as our inability to imagine our future-self than the unlikelihood of change actually happening.

     If we are all so susceptible to change, then what is it that remains fundamental to who we are? In other words, what is the substrate of our identity? Most of us tend to think that memories fundamentally constitute who we are and stripped of them, we would lose our sense of self. But Nina Strohminger (Psychologist at Duke University) makes an interesting argument, dispelling these popular notions:

“If people have an essence that lends them their identity, memory might not be the most promising candidate… The single most important mental trait in judging self-identity is one’s deeply held moral convictions. We are not only concerned with moral character when constructing an identity for others, but when doing so for ourselves.”

Identity, as she argues, is an evolutionary design which helps us distinguish members of a society. Why would we need to do distinguish members of a society in the first place? To perpetuate shared values and humanity, “for reciprocal altruism and punishment”. Therefore,

“It’s not that identity is centered around morality. It’s that morality necessitates the concept of identity, breathes life into it, provides its raison d’ĂȘtre. If we had no scruples, we’d have precious little need for identities.”

Sociological Imagination
The idea of “Sociological Imagination” proposed by C. Wright Mills (in 1959), is another fascinating work that I stumbled across this year. Mills provides an excellent framework for conducting social analysis & understanding social outcomes. The sociological imagination, says Mills, insists on understanding people in terms of the intersection of their own lives (their biographies) and their larger social and historical context (in history). He also exhorts us to see the interconnections between personal ‘troubles’ and public ‘issues’ to really understand the underlying the structural problem plaguing the society. For example, he takes the case of marriage and argues thus:

“Inside a marriage a man and a woman may experience personal troubles, but when the divorce rate during the first four years of marriage is 850 out of every 1,000 attempts, this is an indication of a structural issue having to do with the institutions of marriage and the family and other institutions that bear upon them… In so far as the family as an institution turns women into darling little slaves and men into their chief providers and unweaned dependents, the problem of a satisfactory marriage remains incapable of purely private solution.”


  1. Very well articulated article. I was having some ideas about the topics in issues of Social Imagination but it is nice to know there is a structure. Regarding First topic, I believe I have different ideas. What defines moral progress? If there is moral progress is there a progress trajectory? If there is a progress trajectory then where does it lead to? When we don't have an answer for "Where" is it ideal to discuss about moral progress? I believe it is impossible to understand or judge morals without understanding the need and nature of society. It is very much possible that a given construct of society can have better morals. But with ever changing nature of society is it possible to compare morals over time? In such a scenario I believe it is difficult to make comparative statements like moral progress

  2. "What defines moral progress? If there is moral progress is there a progress trajectory?” -
    If there is a revision in the values/practices of a society over time, which is consistent with normative values and rational thought, that indicates moral progress in the society.
    For example, take the case of slavery. It is indefensible to treat some people as being inferior to others. We have moved from practicing that indefensible act to a point where all are equal. The progress trajectory is there for us to see.

    “If there is a progress trajectory then where does it lead to? When we don't have an answer for "Where" is it ideal to discuss about moral progress?” -
    We don’t know where. That is precisely the work of science and reason to constantly question our held beliefs. If we give up on that endeavor, we would just be perpetuating the injustices that we practice currently (even if we don’t realize that we are perpetrating them). We could have moved from point A to point B in the progress trajectory, and even if don’t know where/if there is a point C (which, say, is a higher point in the trajectory), it is still our duty to constantly discuss the validity of point B.

    “…with ever changing nature of society is it possible to compare morals over time? In such a scenario I believe it is difficult to make comparative statements like moral progress” -
    I think your concern is around the idea of moral absolutism vs moral relativism. If I read you correctly, you argue that different cultures and culture at different time periods have varied structure & practices, and hence the need for different set of morals. I don’t agree entirely. One cannot always hide under the excuse of present nature/need of society/culture to defend existing values. For example, one might argue that treating women as second class citizens in Saudi Arabia is moral. One might even come up with an explanation for why men need to protect them in their culture and their present state is a necessary condition for their survival. But we know now (after decades/centuries of reasoning) that it’s absolutely wrong to treat woman/any human being as second class citizens. The practice is inconsistent with normative values, irrespective of the nature of society/period/culture. The practice is just as wrong now as it is was 10 centuries before. Therefore something as simple as letting them drive a car is progress.

  3. Again a well written reply. But I think you are missing my argument. In all your arguments the idea of society is fixed. My argument what we define as society is an ever changing one. People change, interactions between people in that society change, value systems of society change. In such a scenario to compare morals of societies is a very difficult one, for it misses the context of morals. Moral relativism is an important idea over time. But I have also said that, for a given society there can always be a set of competing morals and there can be better morals. I would like to classify morals in two spheres. The first sphere comprises of morals which are derived from society's belief of what it means to be human. There can be absolutism in this.But again this absolutism is defined on your premise of what constitutes a human being and his relationship with other worldly beings. For example, you can say empathy is defining nature of an human being, while there may be people who can believe some or born to be kings and some or born to be slaves. The second sphere consists of social morals. These change over time and there can be no absolutism in this.

  4. Interesting perspective. I think the fundamental difference between both our viewpoints lie in how we perceive the value systems of a society (which is either static or dynamic). You think the value systems or morals flow out of the needs of a changing society (or 'context' as you call it) and therefore one cannot judge or make a comparative assessment of them over time. While I concede some merit in the changing context of morals, I don’t necessarily believe that context should dominate all else in the discourse on the validity of the held value systems. The reason being the implicit assumption in such an argument that – a society has no free will or is, in some sense, a prisoner of its need, context or circumstances.

    For example, in a hypothetical society where there is no food and the only way people can survive is by killing and feeding on each other, context (or shared values) might make it moral to kill another human being. As I said before, to some extent, I would even concede merit in that view of morality. But such a view of moral trajectory would be a total cop out, in the sense that, it shuts out the possibility of the ability of a society to push the moral frontiers. Perhaps the society can live without everyone killing each other, if only they strive to discover alternate forms to gather food, say, by stumbling into something called ‘agriculture’. I place the onus entirely on the society to explore and push the limits without giving an excuse to be comfortable of what it does based on the circumstances.

    So when Steven Pinker says that aggregate violence in the world has drastically declined over the last thousand years, I see that as moral progress. The fact that a king in the 10th century had no option but to kill a million people to let his kingdom survive, wouldn’t pass my test of pushing ones moral boundaries. It just shows a lack of moral imagination.

  5. Hi, Really great effort. Everyone must read this article. Thanks for sharing.

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