11 Jul Culture, Nationality and Religion – 3
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 innovation whereby the same proposition is debated time after time. At times the questioner and answerer switch roles; at others, new contestants pick up where that last pair leaves off. A written record is kept of the arguments so that the debate does not start from scratch when it is resumed after a break.
It is an important premise of this exercise that the proposition is not something the answerer is personally convinced of or the questioner is opposed to. Both are charged with making the best case for their side. The arguments are impersonal and the debaters quarrel with the argument and not with the person making the argument. This point may seem an obvious one to those used to the practice of debating. But think how difficult it has become to adhere to this rule; people become personally attached to their arguments and intolerant of other viewpoints so easily.
Through this process of impersonal debating, the strong arguments are retained and the weak ones discarded. After many rounds, the final arguments, pro and con, begin to approach a consensus on the truth regarding any given proposition.
We can imagine such a debate about the proposition discussed in this series. One feels that it would be easy to establish the claim that people are willing to give up culture and nationality in return for economic gain. But would they also give up religion? The direct evidence may not be sufficient to prove the truth of the proposition. But it could be pointed out that the bribery and corruption rife today show that individuals are trading religious and moral principles for economic gain. This could be a difficult argument to demolish. It would be an interesting debate and one can expect a much better understanding of the issue at the end of the exercise compared to the beginning.
In this series I have presented only two rounds of the debate but one can easily engage in the mental exercise of extending the number of iterations. When I did so I was surprised to see the issues in a quite different perspective compared to the position from where I had started.
It seemed to me that the original proposition (‘Economic interest has a major influence on what we do; culture, nationality and religion are often impediments in the way’) was a subconsciously biased one. And I began to understand how the debate had begun to move the argument in the right direction.
In my view, the bias resulted from two pre-judgments: that actions to advance one’s economic interests are somehow unworthy; and that movements away from one’s culture, nationality and religion are somehow tantamount to disloyalty. I now believe that both these pre-judgments are unwarranted. In fact, these constitute two further propositions whose truth or falsehood needs to be established independently.
If one starts from a position stripped of bias, one could interpret the original proposition quite differently. One could plausibly argue that too rigid a commitment to culture, nationality and religion can be an impediment to the advancement of individual economic interest.
Our collective economic progress rests on the efforts of individuals to improve their lives and that of their children. Therefore, such efforts should be lauded. Problems arise only when individuals resort, in the pursuit of economic gain, to means that violate commonly agreed principles or hurt others’ interests.
From this vantage point it should follow that the emotive issues of culture, nationality and religion are nothing more than irrelevant distractions in the debate. Culture has little to do with principles; I don’t violate any when I reject a certain aspect of it. Indeed, culture itself is changing around me. There are always some bold types who are pushing the frontiers and meek ones who follow in their wake. Whether I choose to lead or to follow or to even retreat is a matter of personal choice.
Nationality and religion fall into much the same category. I take them as givens when I am born but I don’t sign on to anything in full knowledge of what I am committing myself to. Therefore, I remain perfectly within my rights to change if I feel the change is justified. My decision might cause unhappiness to some and disappointment to others but these do not qualify as violations of socially binding principles.
From the standpoint of logic these are legitimate choices and it is unwarranted to view every change as a betrayal. To imply that to remain true one would have to remain shackled to the attributes one inherited at birth is a patently false conclusion. In this sense, wearing a trilby or becoming a New Zealander or converting to Shintoism is, logically speaking, in the same category as deciding to go to college or not.
Thus, the debate was moving in the right direction when it identified culture, nationality and religion as accidents of birth that were given more importance than was warranted. Equally justified was the sense of the debate that not all changes needed to be viewed in a negative light.
The debate was also headed in the right direction when it discarded the argument built around religious conversions and focused on the increase in bribery and corruption as a better line of attack.
This puts the discussion on much firmer ground. While there are some who delight in being completely unprincipled, most individuals subscribe to a moral framework based on their choice of religion or ideology. By affirming that I am a Hindu, a Christian, a Zen Buddhist or an adherent of some personal belief, I simultaneously sign on to a set of fundamental ethics and an accepted code of behavior. And there isn’t a moral framework that sanctions the taking of bribes or recourse to cheating and falsehood.
The scope of the argument can be broadened beyond economics to include any form of personal gain. For example, cheating in examinations or the stuffing of ballot boxes falls within the same category of actions — they advance personal goals at the cost of ethical, moral or social principles. Thus the emergent proposition whose truth or falsehood needs to be established is whether the desire for personal advancement trumps principles.
Any action to enrich oneself by taking bribes or to advance one’s chances by lying, cheating, or by violating a principle that one professes to uphold can be adduced as evidence in support of the proposition that the desire for personal advancement trumps principles. And if one accepts as accurate the observation that the degree of corruption has been increasing in society one would have to agree that the reformulated proposition is a fair characterization of the truth.
If we restart the debate from this point, stripped of the irrelevant and emotive aspects, it would be a much sharper and more interesting contest. It would seem much harder to refute the proposition. The discussion might also point us in the direction of what could be done to improve the situation. Two choices suggest themselves. We could focus our efforts on trying to make individuals more devout believers in some given moral code. Or we could try to make it more costly for individuals to violate socially agreed rules and principles.
I leave it to the readers to debate which one of the two is the more effective choice. It is easy to start debating with one’s own self, subjecting one’s beliefs about any proposition to the tests of reason, logic and objective criticism. It can be an enlightening, though often painful, journey. But, can there be gain without pain?
Which leaves us with yet another proposition to argue about.
This is a modified version of articles that appeared first in the Daily News, Lahore, in July 2004. It is reproduced with permission of the author.