My Way or the Highway

Why it’s hard to arrive at a decision when faced with 2 horrid choices…

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The other day we were having a heated discussion. The heat was all theirs and I was merely fanning the flames. It wasn’t summer yet so heat stroke wasn’t the thing that we were worried about. But one of the members of our discussion squad almost did jump out of the window from T-11 to prove his point. It’s good that his rationale stopped him because ethically I had no reason to stop him. Or did I? But then who defines what is right (or for that matter wrong)? Why should helping someone to their feet be an accepted social more? Why is killing other human beings wrong? Don’t try to melt my heart by emotionally blackmailing me from behind those curtains of tears. That’s not logic. So, then is there a period to logic? Are there thus entire arenas where logic can’t be applied? Too many questions? Okay. Let’s take a break and listen to Hurricane from Thirty Seconds To Mars. Jared Leto’s voice is booming through my head:

Tell me would you kill, to save your/a life;

Tell me would you kill to prove you are right…

A very famous related ethical dilemma is the trolley problem. A trolley is running on a track where 2 people are bound to the track through which the trolley is plying. You can access a switch which moves the trolley over to the other track. However, there is 1 person bound to the track on the other side. Just to be clear, the trolley doesn’t slow down when running over any person. Thus if there are 1, 2 or more people bound to tracks and the trolley runs over them, they all die. Do you make the intervention?

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The dilemma in the given scenario is due to our inability to categorise crime. Is 1 death better than 2 deaths? Who gives us the authority to choose who to “allow” to live? In fact, this situation is so common in certain modified scenarios, that it has gained a significant traction among pop culture films. The most striking one which stimulates my memory cells (if there is any such thing ie.) is the movie, Dark Knight. This Christopher Nolan magnum opus is replete with references to the trolley problem. And at one pivotal point, Batman is forced to choose between the woman he loves and the person he regards as the “white knight” of Gotham. But far more interesting is a quote from the Joker himself:

If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

In fact, I think he gives us a way to resolve our problem. So, the way to look at the problem cannot be strictly utilitarian. Killing in any form is unjustified. (As to why so, we’ll come to that later. Let that be an axiom for now.) This axiom thus makes us incapable of being the judge, jury and executioner to a life or lives that matter (or don’t). In any event, it cannot be treated as a simple binary problem. So when faced with the given choice, ideally one should look for more information. The Joker through his quote makes a strong point. A mayor is more important than some random Tom, Dick or Harry. One guy on the other track might be more important to save than the other 2 or 5 or 100 lying on the doomed rails for that matter. The other 5 may be criminals. In fact, the possibilities are endless. And thus our decision should be a function of the information available to us.

In a variation of the trolley problem, one is asked whether one would push a fat but “guilty and evil” person onto the trolley to deflect it to save the lives of others. This was more an attempt to see whether people differed in views if the closeness to the action directly leading to the death of a fellow being changed the statistical distribution of people wishing to participate.  Interestingly, people favoured killing the embonpoint of a guy. Because he was guilty. The point thus resolves the fact that the information we have available regarding the people we can save (or kill) should change decisions. (For the record, in a paper published by PhilPapers in 2013 by Chalmers et al., 68% prefer switching while 8% were opposed. 24% had other views or couldn’t answer. This was in regard to the original problem I discussed without any additional information provided. This goes to show democracy is not always useful especially with regard critical policy making, for example asking people to vote if Global Warming exists. Yes. Sigh! I am one of those people!)

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But what if you have no information available? In that case run as hard as you can and save the two people. People have built revolutions this way. Overthrown monarchies. Upsetted the balance of power. Subverted authority. Okay, that’s a bit too far, but I’m sure you’ve all heard it. It’s called: For the greater good. But what must be kept in mind is that 2 lives are not always worth more than 1. Not always.

Some of this might appear distasteful to those who think with their hearts and not minds, which is most people I know. If I have a war to win, I will sacrifice a few soldiers than gamble away my general(s). That’s why chess pieces are ranked based on their abilities on the 8×8 checkerboard. That’s why people are rated on the world they live in. That’s why they have different values attached to their lives. Yes, the life of business tycoon or country head is worth more than yours. Perhaps a utopian socialist world order might lead to a 100% utilitarian approach. But the world we live in is not utopian. And decisions taken should reflect that. It should not be simply based on your view of the world or what you desire the world to be. Or mine. Or anyone else’s for that matter. Because as George Orwell said:

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

And that is how the world is. For better or worse, you decide.

Two and a half thoughts

Half a thought? What’s that?

Okay, I have been uploading quite a slew of posts over a few days, eh? I must be jobless. Hmm. Not really. I have my final lab internal: SciLab tomorrow but meh. I am putting off some coding practice for a few more hours.

Firstly, I thought that I’d title this post Renaissance. But decided against it. The primary reason being that this is a more personal post and while “Renaissance” does put some weight to the topic, it isn’t what I’d normally tell myself. So, let’s give a high five for authenticity here. (Just imagine the palms meeting. Duh!)

Second one is regarding the nature of this blog or blogging itself. Blogging, I believe was quite popular in the pre-Facebook era. Blogspot (what’s WordPress?) was the chosen arena and most of the still running blogs took their birth at that time. When Youtube wasn’t yet a thing. When computers were huge boxes and when data was stored in megabytes. Gulp! I am thus a pretty rare breed or just plain anachronistic. So why do people blog?

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Well, most blogs I read turned out to be an online reproduction of personal diaries. I will make an often used disclaimer here: This is NOT one of those blogs. While most people who maintain diaries, prefer not making them available to the public eye, they secretly desire their works to be read. Perhaps anonymously. But definitely read. To be read for what they have to say about someone and somethings perhaps, but not judged for who they are. Which explains the paranoia towards secrecy among those penning diaries. Blogging achieves the same goals, albeit in a different way. The blog could be anonymous. And the odds of some ol’ friend of yours finding the blog and linking it to you is relatively low. However, it acts more as an outlet for one’s feelings. Thoughts pent up and thought out loud but never articulated. Emotions which could not be emoted. Desires which could not be met. It becomes an avenue for channelling these creatively. And what better way to do this than to blog.

I have my own reasons to blog, some of which are perhaps tangential to those described in the previous para. But then, my blog is also very different. It is not anonymous. Of course, I don’t link it to Facebook, Twitter etc. But that’s more in an effort to keep this realm separate and exclusive. Besides, I reveal quite a lot about myself through successive posts which should take little pain to discover. Furthermore, I started this blog at a time when Facebook has killed blogging and Twitter has brought Creativity to his grave. At a time when attention spans are lost with a few flashy pictures and some cute half-liners, my reasons for choosing blogging are very different from those of the average blogger. Which brings me to my final thought.

What is half a thought? Can there be such a thing? Okay. I was plain pulling your legs here. Or was I? What if I am anonymous? What if my identity is fake? What if all I claim here is the polar opposite of what I believe in? You can never really verify. And that satisfies me!

I’ll continue with the other half some other time. Or perhaps not.

The Zeroth Thought

The first before the first.

Why do we exist? Why does the world exist? Why? When? How? What? Wait!!!

Hold your horses! Yeah, I do have the indulgence of free time to pose these languid questions and pen or in this instance type out a few thoughts regarding the same. More importantly, you too should earn some time to invest some for these thoughts.(Nah! Who am I kidding?!) This is too vast a topic in scope for me to do justice in a solitary blog post(or any number actually), never mind that I am free for a couple of weeks now before my final semester exams break down my door to continual procrastination. Thus expect to be inundated by a series of such posts from me as long as this blog remains alive and kicking. Of course I promise to intersperse other content as well as I slyly just did, so you won’t be bored by the vapidity of monotonicity(!) as is another name for existence. But I deviate. And we see that therein lies the problem.

It is difficult to answer those questions primarily because they are not the primary questions we seek to ask. It’s better to know about the weather and what’s for dinner rather than bother with such arcane questions anyway. Perhaps if these are resolved we can give each other black eyes for having the gall to differ from the “correct” racial, religious, political line of thought and point of view. Or perhaps we can follow some sports and support and question support for Federer or Nadal, Ganguly or Dhoni, Messi or Ronaldo. Or we might want to know what the Kardashians wore for a party or perhaps what Narendra Modi had for dinner. Pakistan might be aiming “more” nukes at us and some bomb blast or earthquake might have killed a few scores of people somewhere in the 1/4\times 4\pi \times (6400 km)^{2} of land mass. (Politically correct disclaimer here: I sympathise with all deaths. Yeah these days, legal suits can be thrown at anyone. Also I’m glad I hail from the right (I mean left) side of Bengal. Also skip). North Korea and China might be getting aggressive (against the US media probably) and Donald Trump might have said something immature(and more importantly irrelevant) in an offensive way. Either way we have to know. We really do. When we are done with that, we can go back to our jobs and schools and colleges and work our asses off trying to complete our next assignment. Or reading my blog. But this is different(!)

If you notice, those slightly better off in all of these places are also slightly more immune to the bullets of news. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that one shouldn’t salivate to cuisine from roadside dhabas. But that doesn’t mean that we lift the stall (and others along with it) and bring it home because our eyes and nose found it tasty! It’s not that most of us don’t know of the above facets and lack the judgement. It’s just that we lack the resolve.

But that is the average, regular and mediocre life cycle. Even a slightly less congested daily routine was enough for Siddhartha to found Buddhism about 2000 years ago while relinquishing his family and Lumbini and yes, gulp, his kingdom! He found solace in equating the Universe with Nothing and claimed that we needed to obtain nirvana from these desires because an universe of nothing had no value in the first place. I don’t necessarily buy such a point of view and in fact opposition to a like point of view led to the Reformation and eventual Renaissance in Europe. So abstinence to all desires is not really the answer. We have on an average 80 years to live if you are one of those privileged enough to be reading this post. We might by some freak of nature live less than that, be maimed for half of that or perhaps even be robbed of “happiness” for a majority of our lifespans. But either way, 80 years is a speck on the timeline of the human race. And as Edward Norton and Peter Weyland mumbled and persuaded during one their soliloquies:

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate of everyone drops to zero. The trick Potter is not minding it hurts.

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(BTW some help here for the dim witted here: first quote from The Fight Club. Last line from 2023 TED Talk: Prometheus.) I’ll add another spicy quote here. One shouldn’t be locked inside because life is a tragedy of a play (even Shakespeare would agree)! In fact, that is what should set us free. (For the slow ones reading this, that was not a quote!) Picking up lines from another Brad Pitt classic:

The Gods envy us. They envy us because we are mortal. Because any moment might be our last.

And that is what makes our lives special. You may agree to disagree with me or Achilles on that one. But it’s an irrefutable fact whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. That we have limited time. Thus it’s never how long but just how we live that’s ever always going to matter. To us. And to those around us. And if you are lucky enough, to a few more people not around us and who never knew us.

I ended the first paragraph of this post saying that “therein” lay the problem. We are way too distracted. Our attention spans are so small that it was flitting between so many different things that we  didn’t notice that one of the sentences I typed out had an obvious grammatical error. Okay it didn’t! (It might though; I don’t really proofread everything). But, yes, I rest my case. And trust me, it’s pretty heavy.