Behavior / 21.11.2010

I found our discussion on values and behavior (On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior) particularly useful. Here I wish to summarize my conclusions and illustrate the arguments further with reference to the ongoing changes in attitude towards the institution of marriage. The principal conclusions are the following: Moral values and related behaviors are not static. They can often change with surprising rapidity. The possibility of change can be triggered by any number of reasons – wars, famines, technology, etc. The changes are usually advocated by a small group of opinion leaders or role models and adopted by a small set of social rebels or dissidents. Wide adoption by people who may or may not have thought consciously about the values result in the changes being incorporated at the level of society. Variations in behavior become acceptable when social taboos erode and often a new...

Behavior / 21.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf I had been intending to explore why, throughout history, man has been the perpetrator of so much inhuman behavior and what, if anything, could be done about it. My plan was to substantiate the claim of inhumanity with some examples before moving on to a discussion of the possible remedies. It is a coincidence that between the intention and the execution, I chanced upon a poem by Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982), a poet held in high regard in Urdu poetry. This poem written in 1928 (Fitrat-e Aqvaam – The Character of Nations) makes a much better case than I could have and I offer it here (with a rough translation by myself) in lieu of the first part of the intended article. zulm-e la intihaa se tang aa kar aadmii chaahtaa hai aazaadi ho ke azaad phuunk deta hai doosre bhaai’oN kii aabaadi pehle banta hai dushman-e jalaad khud hii phir...

Behavior / 16.07.2010

Loyalty and patriotism are emotive issues and it often proves difficult to have a reasoned discussion about them. I am going to seek an easier entry by dealing first with misplaced loyalty and patriotism. I was drawn to this subject by the swirl of conspiracy theories that surrounded the refereeing in the recently concluded soccer World Cup in South Africa. (See the articles by Jeffrey Marcus and Tim Parks.) I recalled the times when home umpires were the rule in test cricket and the endless talk of favoritism that inevitably ensued. There were umpires about whom it was said that their fingers used to go up even before there was any appeal. I suppose the umpires must have considered this an act of patriotism and loyalty to their fellow countrymen and I suppose some of the latter might have seen it in the same light.Opposing teams...

Behavior / 11.07.2010

By Anjum Altaf In two previous posts in this series (here and here) I argued both sides of the proposition that economic interests take precedence over loyalty to attributes like culture, nationality and religion. How do we determine which argument is the more convincing? What is the “truth” regarding such a proposition and how can we discover it? A partial motivation in working through this series of posts was to illustrate a special debating technique used by the ancient Greeks to arrive at the truth or falsehood of such propositions. Part of the exercise conforms to the usual debating format: a questioner undertakes to challenge the proposition and prove it wrong; an answerer undertakes to defend it and prove it right; and there is an audience that acts as a jury and enforces the correct rules of argumentation. The more interesting aspect of the Greek practice pertains to an...

Behavior / 09.07.2010

By Anjum Altaf   In the previous post in this series I had argued in favor of the proposition that economic interest has the dominant influence on what we do in life; even culture, nationality and religion are often treated as impediments to economic advancement and sacrificed for its sake. In this post, I aim to see how well the contrary case can be argued. The key point I intend to stress is that the argument of the last post embodied a superficial perspective on the trade-off between economic gain and these attributes (culture, nationality, religion) making the classic error of mistaking form for content In thinking through my argument, a very old and remarkable film song from 1955 came to mind. (Now that I look at it anew I am amazed how it anticipated globalization almost a half-century before globalization itself became a household word.) Mera joota hai Japani Yeh...

Behavior / 05.07.2010

By Anjum Altaf I am going to present a provocative thesis in this post: Economic interest has the dominant influence on what we do in life; even culture, nationality and religion are often treated as impediments to economic advancement and sacrificed for its sake. On the face of it this is indeed a provocative claim and it is not one that I necessarily subscribe to in its entirety. I take it on in the spirit of a challenge faced by a participant in an extempore debate or by a lawyer arguing the best case for his client. In that spirit, I would be more than happy to argue the exact opposite case after a good night’s sleep. The drive for upward mobility in British India dealt a mortal blow to many aspects of our culture. Gone are our modes of dress, our ways of eating, and our postures...

Behavior / 20.06.2010

By Anjum Altaf We are reproducing, with slight changes, an article that discusses popular myths about the behavioral attributes of high-achievers. The objective is to show that some inherent and constant disposition is not a defining variable in achievement. A recent article titled ‘Successful risk-takers’ advised readers to take only moderate risks if they wanted to be high-achievers. Before you follow the advice, imagine that you meet an old high school friend with whom you used to do the most risky things, and you suggest repeating them for old-times sakes. How likely are you to be told that he couldn’t because he was now a respectable married man with a young daughter to care for? If you have experienced the above, or find it plausible, you can conclude that the amount of risk people take depends upon circumstances. And that conclusion can be the starting point of...

Behavior / 05.06.2010

In a number of preceding posts we have discussed how best to characterize the repressive actions of the Indian state in its dealings with the tribal population. The ensuing discussion has fanned out to include the violent actions of Naxalites and Islamic groups. What motivates these state and non-state actors and how do they themselves understand and rationalize their actions? In one of the posts we had presented a hypothesis about the Indian state: that it saw itself as a ‘modernizing’ state that felt it necessary to propel the ‘backward’ elements of society into the ‘modern’ age, against their will if necessary, if such action would advance ‘national’ progress. It was a ‘utilitarian’ state that viewed human lives in the calculus of gains and losses and was not averse to imposing costs if, in its view, the net benefits would be positive.And, it was ‘colonial’ state...

Behavior / 24.05.2010

What are the determinants of our choices? Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy evolved into a discussion on whether the natural resources in tribal lands ought to be mined in the existing conditions. After over a hundred comments, we are better aware of the issues involved but still left with many unanswered questions. In this post I propose a thought experiment that would explore in more detail the factors that can influence our choices in such matters. The difficulty in using real life cases (like that of mining in tribal lands) is that they are characterized by ambiguities and uncertainties that influence our thinking about them. For example, in the case under discussion we do not know the extent to which the tribals are willing partners, the extent to which they are being coerced by external agents, the extent to which the state and the mining companies can be trusted, and the extent to which the resources extracted would actually be used for the welfare of the tribals.
Behavior / 11.03.2010

By Anjum Altaf I attended a talk by Professor Vali Nasr where he presented the central argument of his new book Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it Will Mean for Our World. Professor Nasr is an influential voice as senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the special Representative of the US for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which makes it relevant to summarize his views and to identify some areas of agreement and disagreement. Professor Nasr’s underlying hypothesis was quite straightforward: the middle class transformed the modern West and it can transform the Muslim world as well. The rise of trade, capitalism and merchant life is the most important trend at work and one that shapes the contours of culture and delimits the uses of religious belief. From this vantage point the prescription follows logically: if Islamic countries are integrated into the...