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.


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:55h, 11 July Reply

    I liked this series of articles a lot, especially the third one. I would like to put in a slightly long post here, which is related to these articles, but may be a bit tangential in certain respects. The post is a short note I had written in 1999 in a certain context.

    On Globalization: Separating Ideas from Geography via Tradition

    July 1999

    Before we can talk about separating ideas from geography, it is necessary to say what ideas are, what I mean by geography, and what traditions are. I will start with ideas.


    Ideas are abstract things, like words and numbers. They don’t occupy space or time. A physical object occupies space and time, and if it is in one place, it cannot be in another (I will ignore the puzzles of quantum mechanics here.) This is not true of ideas. We can all simultaneously entertain the same ideas, or utter the same words, or calculate with the same numbers. (This is partly why the area of intellectual property rights is so tricky.) In any case, there is a fund of ideas that belongs to everyone, like the ideas in the sciences and other areas of culture. This fund is available to anyone who wants to avail of it, the only prerequisite being a certain readiness to learn. I will broadly classify these ideas into science, business, art, and everyday life. No doubt many areas of culture are left out as a result, but the chosen areas can serve as examples.


    Geography, on the other hand, is a fixed thing, rooted as it is in a particular place. Geography is more than just the physical place however. It includes everything that is tied to the place as well. In particular, it includes certain aspects of traditions. For example, by the geography of India, I mean not just its land, but also aspects of its traditions and culture that are relatively fixed and embodied in its people.


    Traditions themselves are in between. They are partly tied to a certain geography and context. But their content can be quite general. At the level of everyday life, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the thoughts we think are all nurtured or possibly stifled by the traditions that undergird them. They define us, both making our lives possible and circumscribing our lives. They allow us to pose problems, whether in science, business, art, or everyday life and solve them in one way or another. Thus, traditions can be thought of as providing problem-solving capabilities to a culture and society. This may be an unusual way of thinking about traditions, but it is extremely powerful because it conceives of traditions as tools for progress, rather than as historical accidents that have to be preserved for their own sake.

    It is via traditions, via particular modes of approaching problems, that we access most ideas. Thus, ideas are linked to traditions and traditions are linked to geography.

    What do I mean by separating ideas from geography via tradition?

    I mean that it is possible and desirable to have access to the whole fund of ideas in existence today by detaching traditions from their contexts and geography to a large degree. This is possible mainly because ideas are abstract. If traditions become relatively independent of geography, then they can house ideas from a wider range of sources than local geography can provide. In other words, our ideas can be freed from geography, from fixity to time and place, by merely making our traditions, our problem-solving capabilities, less rooted. To a certain degree, this has already happened everywhere via the traditions of modernity and postmodernity. Modernity can be thought of as having introduced a relative abstractness in culture, while postmodernity has emphasized the portability of traditions across time and place. Both developments have dislodged tradition from geography. However, this has happened more in the West than elsewhere, partly because these recent traditions originated in the West.

    It is impossible to practice science today without being fully global and partaking of developments everywhere in the world. Any result, theoretical or experimental, has to be validated by the world scientific community, and in this sense, scientists are the best examples of true world citizens.

    Business everywhere is forced to be global by the very nature of the capitalist system. One can put temporary artificial barriers in its way, as India has done for half a century, but eventually the logic of capitalism makes liberalization inexorable.

    Art is a vexed area. Here passions are heated about globalization. But it seems fair to say that many potent developments in all the modern arts came from outside India. Modern art, in all its guises, is not just an intramural phenomenon.

    Everyday life is the most rooted in local geography. Here too, largely as a result of the media, there is a gradual but partial movement away from geography.

    But why separate ideas from geography?

    The main reason is obviously to expand our problem-solving capabilities in every area of human endeavor beyond what is afforded by our geography. In India, except for certain pockets, our fund of ideas is limited to our local (i.e. national and regional) traditions. This may be true elsewhere too, but it is especially true of our relatively autarkic ideologies. This limitation to the local means that we do not and cannot take advantage of advances made elsewhere, especially in business, the arts, and everyday life. Today, many of our traditions are largely of a local sort, and there are efforts to differentiate and defend our local traditions against what is perceived as the onslaught of the West.

    This is partly a misperception. It is a fact, perhaps unfortunate, that the major developments of the last 500 years came from the West. However, these developments are no longer the property of the West, they belong to the common fund of ideas that anyone can draw upon. If we insist on labeling them as Western ideas, that is the limitation of our traditions, and we have only ourselves to blame. I am not suggesting that everything the West developed in the last 500 years is worthwhile, nor am I suggesting that we did nothing worthwhile in the last 500 years. It is a matter of how the world developed in the last 500 years, that is all.

    The important thing is, to repeat, that this is all part of world culture now, and it is pointless to harp on the opposition between India and the West. It is high time that we should be drawing unapologetically upon the world than upon our local geography alone.

    Why is it difficult to do?

    Traditions are embodied as habits in people, and habits are hard to break because they invariably become part of our self-definition. Adopting a new tradition involves changing the way we are and this few can readily do. It takes tremendous self-confidence not to say plain effort. But, fortunately or unfortunately, a new world demands new habits.

    A way out is to abstract ourselves from our embodiments, and view things as dispassionate problem-solvers and learners. To the extent that we learn to choose our traditions (rather than be chosen by them), and choose through them the ideas that will influence our actions, we will make it possible for our culture and society to prosper in the 21st century.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 09:52h, 12 July Reply

    From Anjum Altaf’s post-
    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….Whether I choose to lead or to follow or to even retreat is a matter of personal choice.

    From Arun Pillai’s article –
    To the extent that we learn to choose our traditions (rather than be chosen by them), and choose through them the ideas that will influence our actions, we will make it possible for our culture and society to prosper in the 21st century.

    While both of these makes for a cute ought-to, it is not how choices are actually made by human beings. The above statement is an arrogant and self-conceited statement of modern man based on an exaggeration of the potential of human nature. Traditions cannot be chosen by individuals. They are a collective phenomenon. Part of the meaning of traditions comes from the fact that they are from antiquity and that they are shared by many around us. Choice itself is not exactly made in “full freedom”. In making choices, we are often driven in directions by our powerful emotional experiences. Choices are made depending on the strength of the emotional drives we face and our capacity to place ourselves outside of these experiences and take a bird’s eye view of ourselves. Emotional waves are thrown into turmoil in us by the quality of our relationships. The relationships we get into again depend extensively on the sum total of our emotional needs, which in turn are made from the combination of our commitment to ideals plus peer pressure. It is the uncertainty and inconsistency of emotions, our quintessential irrationality, that defines who we are and how we choose. Logic unfortunately does not take account of our emotions. While being submerged in our emotional experiences, it is not logic that dictates who we are and what we do.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 18:59h, 12 July Reply


    That is eloquently expressed but I am not sure I agree. Individuals cannot create traditions singlehandedly but they can switch from one to another. Someone who once wore a dhoti could choose to wear trousers, someone who was vegetarian could choose to eat meat, someone who was a leftist could become a rightist, and so on. There are “small” traditions and “large” traditions. The important thing is that we typically approach problems through the framework of a tradition. And I am saying that we should try to be *rational* about how we approach problems, that is, what traditions we adopt. Often, we are not so rational but that is something to try and overcome.

    It is not easy to switch. Someone trained to sing in one gharana cannot easily switch to another. But one gharana may solve a musical problem better than another and if that matters to the singer, then he should try to switch, and so on.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 19:08h, 12 July Reply

    Perhaps it is worth elaborating on how traditions make a difference with some larger examples. Consider the tradition of religious fundamentalism – any religion could serve as an example. Then if a group of persons faces a set of problems – for example, a lack of a modern identity and place in the world – then it could be approached through the tradition of religious fundamentalism or through the tradition of secular modernity. How one approaches the same problem of identity obviously makes a huge difference to what actions are chosen to address the problem. A fundamentalist may choose a violent option whereas a secularist may choose a non-violent option.

    Similarly, if the state approaches the Naxalite problem through a more militaristic tradition rather than a developmental tradition, the outcomes will be very different.

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