Deontology and Dogma

When I read the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on Deontological Ethics, I was struck by a phrase that brought out the distinction between deontology and consequentialism. It states that in deontology,

…the Right is said to have priority over the Good.

Does this mean that deontology as an ethical discourse is vulnerable to the influx of dogmatic positions masquerading as the Right? I ask this because deontology depends on a pre-emptive determination of whether a particular act passes the necessary ethical muster. This can lead to a regressive agenda hijacking the discourse and becoming the norm, suppressing dissident voices in the process.

In its defence, the article does provide a more nuanced study of deontology. It can be argued that a hijacking of the discourse would be antithetical to the way deontology is meant to function. For example, true agency is not being exercised in the agent-centric version of deontology if an individual is merely following the norms set by others. Similarly, a regressive position is unlikely to be in the interests of the subject matter of an act in the patient-centric version of deontology. Both of these are valid arguments for a continued engagement with deontological thought, particularly given some of the benefits that this discourse brings to the table.

That said, these discussions around ethical positions often take place in an ideal setting. This approach fails in a setting where actors do not necessarily spend a lot of time introspecting on the merits and demerits of their actions. Of course, this fallibility can be extended to any ethical standpoint that requires an individual to be aware of his actions. What this means for the study of ethical discourses is a different question altogether.

Note: If this short post seems muddled in its reasoning, it is because my thoughts on the subject are still in a state of flux. I do hope to attain more clarity on this in the future.

Frederick Douglass and Some Lessons for the Present

Too often political speeches aim to temporarily rouse the passions of those who listen without making any attempt to be a record for posterity. To be prescient requires an understanding of human nature and the wisdom to foresee the future that is beyond the ability of many who engage in rhetoric. This cannot be said of Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer and abolitionist, and his speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, delivered all the way back in 1852 but which remains timely even now.

The speech is a great piece of oration. It deserves to be read for the strength of its purpose and the clarity of its vision. Here are the two things in it that stood out for me, aspects that resonate in today’s world.

One, when Douglass refuses to engage in argument and reason with those who support slavery. Instead, he says he will rebuke such people and lay bare their faults as individuals. These are his words:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

This is a position that is reminiscent of many of the so-called liberal elites today (exemplified, in the US at least, by several late-night show hosts). The reasoning goes that the people you are in opposition to hold values that you disdain so much that it makes no sense to try and reason with them, to engage in a conversation with the aim of persuading them to your line of thinking. Is this the best method to adopt? I do not have an answer to this yet.

Two, and a more unambiguous lesson at that, is that Douglass is critical of his nation’s hypocrisy when it comes to liberty: extolling it as one of the foundations on which the nation is built and at the same time depriving millions of their liberty under the institution of slavery. He does not mince his words when talking about these national inconsistencies. If someone were to utter the sort of harsh words that Douglass uses today, they are likely to be branded unpatriotic. But as Douglass’ example shows, calling out the ills of your nation is an act of patriotism itself. For only when you know where you are going wrong as a nation can you correct your course.

Note: For more information about Douglass’ life, I would recommend this episode from BBC’s In Our Time.

The Conundrum of Informed Consent

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks recently, a masterful book about the real-life story of a woman named Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s. Before her death, Henrietta’s cancer cells were collected by doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and it was found that they had a remarkable capacity to grow and proliferate. The sheer scale of the scientific achievements that followed and which owed a measure of credit to HeLa, as the cells came to be known, is immense. The crux of the book, however, is that Henrietta Lacks never gave informed consent to the harvesting of cells from her body.

Towards the end of the book, the author juxtaposes Henrietta’s case with that of other individuals, like Ted Slavin, who recognise the potential that parts of their bodies have for research and medical advancement, and ensure that they have control over who uses the tissue in question and under what circumstances.

The following text from the book, centred around these examples, is one of the best enunciations of the dilemma of informed consent that I have read:

“This is a capitalist society,” says Wayne Grody. “People like Ted Slavin took advantage of that. You know, the way I see it is, if you think of doing that on the front end, more power to you.”

The thing is, people can’t “think of doing that on the front end” unless they know their tissues might be valuable to researchers in the first place. The difference between Ted Slavin, John Moore, and Henrietta Lacks was that someone told Slavin his tissues were special and that scientists would want to use them in research, so he was able to control his tissues by establishing his terms before anything left his body. In other words, he was informed, and he gave consent. In the end, the question is how much science should be obligated (ethically and legally) to put people in the position to do the same as Slavin. Which brings us back to the complicated issue of consent. [emphasis from the text]

New Perspectives for Independence Day

Last week, India celebrated more than seventy years of being independent. This is a fact that Indians should be proud of and we are, judging by the articles and news segments that are common during this time of the year. At the same time, it is useful to not look at the country’s independence and its progress in isolation. Taking a step back and looking at the experiences of other countries can provide an interesting perspective on our own journey and offer some lessons for the future. I thought of this as I came across some literature about Kenya over the past few weeks.

First was the novel A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, set during the time Kenya became independent in the sixties as well as the long period of emergency that preceded it. While the book illuminates much about how Kenya gained independence and how ordinary Kenyans approached it, what took me by surprise were the multiple references to India. India, by then, had already been an independent nation for the better part of two decades and was a model of resistance for people still struggling against colonialism elsewhere. One of the characters in the book makes repeated references to Gandhi and the spirit of non-violence that contributed to India’s liberation. There are also less charitable references to Indians vying with the Europeans to seize local markets at the cost of the indigenous population.

The second was about the prosecution service in Kenya which is, on paper, an excellent and well thought out mechanism. It provides for the Director of Public Prosecutions to be a Constitutional position answerable to the Parliament with adequate safeguards against executive interference. It is also a relatively recent system, with the current version of the Kenyan Constitution having been in force for less than ten years. It shows the advantage of learning from the mistakes of other countries. For instance, as was pointed out to me, it would be difficult for India, without a Presidential form of government and with the anti-defection rule in place, to adopt a similar model even if it guarantees to be an upgrade on our existing system.

So, to recap the lessons learnt: one, we should be mindful of our influence and our power in being role models for other countries. And two, wherever possible, we should take advantage of being late to the party by adopting systems and institutions that do not carry the heavy burden of legacy while being best-suited for our unique needs.

Public Transport and Nudges

The messages in the Bangalore metro urging people to give up their seats to those who need them more are an excellent example of a nudge adopted to mould the behaviour of commuters. They are also a cautionary tale on the need for nudges to have the right messaging.

This is what the infographic says:

Please give up these seats for persons with disabilities, the elderly, women with children or pregnant women.

There does not seem to be much wrong with this at first glance. But a closer look reveals something disquieting:

Please give up these seats for persons with disabilities, the elderly, women with children or pregnant women. [emphasis supplied]

Why did it have to say women with children? Does this not act as a subtle propagation of existing gender roles for child rearing? This unfortunate state of things could have been easily avoided by the use of a gender-neutral expression, say, persons with children. What is infuriating is that a similar expression is, in fact, used earlier when a reference is made to individuals with disabilities. That this was not done for the other part of the message shows just how entrenched societal norms are when it comes to child rearing and the scale of the task before us to effect a change in them.

Hard and Soft Data Localisation

Last year, when conversations were taking place on the kind of data protection framework India should adopt following the landmark privacy judgement, one issue kept turning up over and over. It seemed strange that the Justice Srikrishna Committee was seriously considering data localisation when most evidence suggested it did not protect citizens from foreign governments or agents and was harmful to the economy. It was little surprise then that the draft Personal Data Protection Bill released last week revealed a strong data localisation mandate.

Looking at the provisions around this in the proposed law, I see a distinction between two types of data localisation: a hard data localisation and a soft one.

Hard data localisation can be seen in Sec. 40(2):

40(2) The Central Government shall notify categories of personal data as critical personal data that shall only be processed in a server or data centre located in India.

This is the stereotypical notion of data localisation, one that completely restricts the ability of an entity to transfer data outside a set territory.

Soft data localisation, on the other hand, can be seen in Sec. 40(1) of the Bill:

40(1) Every data fiduciary shall ensure the storage, on a server or data centre located in India, of at least one serving copy of personal data to which this Act applies.

While this is not a complete restriction on cross-border data transfers like the previous one, it does impose costs on a data fiduciary. These costs, which might take the form of setting up local servers or procuring the services of an entity that provides local storage, is a real and tangible one. When the inevitable criticisms of the data localisation mandate in the Bill make it to the headlines, I hope this softer variant also attracts equal attention.

Quotable Quotes from Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is an intellectual tour de force. While there are enough ideas in the book to write a full-blown thesis, I will restrict this post to highlighting two quotes that are reflective of the state of the country today, in the light of the recent spate of mob lynching.

The first quote goes thus:

Coercion is the least efficient means of obtaining order.

And the second one:

You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them.

What do these passages tell us about tackling mob lynching?

First, is a new law, as the Supreme Court recommended in its order last week, the best way forward? A law is a blunt instrument and is coercive more often than not. Amit Varma has already written about this in a recent post, where he mentions the lack of a rule of law as being of more concern than the absence of a legal provision.

Second, are there more subtle solutions for addressing the rumours that spark a lynching than restrictions on services like WhatsApp or a blanket shutdown of internet in a region? The second passage might hold the key here. However, I would argue that the ignoring that is mentioned there cannot be passive. This is a case where there might be merit in fighting fire with fire, instead of being a firefighter.

Politics as Persuasive Performance

In this post, I juxtapose two notions about politics that I came across in the past couple of weeks.

One, in Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast on Julius Caesar (which I referenced in my two earlier posts, available here and here), Mark Antony’s famous speech is seen as an appeal to emotion and is in stark contrast with Brutus’ appeal to reason. It is a performance, a façade that Antony puts up to get what he desires.

Two, in an episode of the Waking Up Podcast on the current fate of liberalism in the USA, Mark Lilla argues against the pull of identity politics. He says that politics should not succumb to self-expression. Instead, it should be a tool for persuasion.

So, there you have the reason for the annoying alliteration in this post’s title. Politics as a combination of performance and persuasion. A persuasive performance, if you will. Of course, this begs the larger question: would it be good politics, and I use good in a value-neutral sense here, if one of these features is absent? This is something to mull over in the future.

Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-II

Note: This is the second of a two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. You can read the first part here. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play.  

Julius Caesar is a tragedy. Characters exhibit flaws and make choices that lead to terrible consequences. It is easy to feel sorry for Caesar, who gets stabbed by his good friend, or Brutus, whose misplaced idealism comes back to haunt him (quite literally at that). But the individual I felt sorry for the most was one who had a bit part role, the poet Cinna.

In the aftermath of Mark Antony’s incendiary speech, the Romans go berserk, searching for the men who murdered Caesar. They come upon Cinna on the street and kill him because his namesake was one of the conspirators. The scene is short but shocking, but with a tinge of black humour when the crowd realises they have the wrong man but kill him regardless, justifying their action on the basis of his supposedly bad verses.

I have two thoughts on this little episode.

One, it best showcases Shakespeare’s cynicism about human reason that I touched upon in my previous post. If it was not clear already, this scene shows just how vacuous a crowd can be. The broader implications this has on a democracy and a republic cannot be ignored.

Two, it asks questions about Antony’s role in Cinna’s death. Yes, he could claim he had no intention and that Cinna’s death was an unfortunate case of collateral damage. But he was aware of the crowd’s nature and knew exactly what buttons to push to get them riled up. Shouldn’t he then bear some responsibility for his words? Or does the blame lie solely on the crowd even though their capacity to reason is stunted? These questions act as a precursor to a conversation about hate speech and how best one can prevent it while still preserving a right to free speech. That we are still having this conversation centuries after Shakespeare wrote the play shows just how vexing a problem it is.

Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-I

Note: This is the first of a planned two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play. 

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an intriguing blend of high drama, sudden bursts of violence, and impressive speeches. It is also a realistic and sombre meditation on the fragility of a republic. This fragility stems from the play’s take on human nature, which it would not be a stretch to say is a touch cynical.

Brutus, the idealistic senator and Caesar’s friend, sets great store by reason to disastrous effect. He believes that his fellow conspirators are as idealistically motivated as he is. He believes that the citizens of Rome will understand his reasons for assassinating Caesar. He is mistaken on both counts. The self-interest that propels these groups is a trait that very few individuals, like Brutus, can disavow. Left to their own devices, they will wreak havoc on society, which they do in the play to varying degrees of success.

This points towards the quality that a republic must have in order to endure, namely, that of being more than the sum of its parts. It needs to rise above the individuals who form it. And the way it can achieve this is by having institutions that channel the best of such individuals while avoiding the unsavoury bits. A republic thus lives and dies on the strength of the institutions that undergird it. This is a lesson worth revisiting every time the functioning of a republic is questioned.

A Police Officer in an Assistant Public Prosecutor’s Clothing

I came across a strange provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. Part of Section 25, which concerns the appointment of Assistant Public Prosecutors (APPs), reads as follows:

…(2) Save as otherwise provided in sub-section (3), no police officer shall be eligible to be appointed as an Assistant Public Prosecutor.

(3) Where no Assistant Public Prosecutor is available for the purposes of any particular case, the District Magistrate may appoint any other person to be the Assistant Public Prosecutor in charge of that case: Provided that a police officer shall not be so appointed—

(a) if he has taken any part in the investigation into the offence with respect to which the accused is being prosecuted; or

(b) if he is below the rank of Inspector.

Yes, the appointment of a police official as an APP is an exception rather than the rule and yes, an officer involved in a case is not eligible to be a prosecutor as well. Even then, it seems stretching the bounds of propriety to have a provision such as this.

So many questions come to mind about this provision. How is it consistent with the principle of separation of powers? Can it be said with a high degree of certainty that an individual will not be conflicted between her loyalty to the police force to which she belongs and the responsibility she has been entrusted with as an APP? Is there such a lack of qualified advocates who can be appointed as APPs that this provision needs to exist? How often has this been utilised over the years?

On the last question, it would be a relief to know if, like several legal provisions, this one is seldom applied in practice. But even if it is never used, we need to take a long hard look at the continued existence of such language in the statute.

A Case for Unpredictability

Researchers in Germany have created a machine learning tool that has predicted the winner of the ongoing FIFA World Cup. This tool says that Spain has a higher chance at the outset but if the Germans make it to the quarter-finals, the odds tilt in their favour.

The creation of this tool does not come as a surprise. Machine learning tools thrive at making predictions and this is just another example of a technology that has become adept at doing a task far better than humans.

However, impressive as a technology might be, there is always room to ask if it should be applied in a particular field. These were my thoughts as I read the article. It goes without saying that better predictions would be beneficial in a lot of fields, including ones like medicine and weather. But would they add value to a sport like football?

I must admit I pose this question from a philosophical bent of mind. Isn’t part of the thrill of a sport its inherent unpredictability, of the unexpected happening? Bookmakers and gamblers might beg to disagree but there is a reason why seeing an unfancied team win against all odds is deeply satisfying. Is it possible then that the invention of a machine learning tool that accurately predicts the result of every match might lessen the enjoyment of the game itself? Worse, can it contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy where players contrive to fit the results of the prediction (of course, this means having a particularly low opinion of the free will of the human beings involved)? I do not have any concrete answers at present but this is a line of questioning worth pursuing, both for this particular application and for machine learning in general.