Friday, December 12, 2014

Superego and Morality

A few days ago, I had a stimulating discussion with a friend about finding and adhering to one's core values.  We wondered about the modern predicament of having no strong values to guide one's actions.

This predicament naturally leads itself to pleasure-seeking, short-term, impulsive behavior.  With no long-term goals, the pleasures of stimulation, attention and validation (the infantile pleasures) become prominent drivers of one's life.

Humans are unique in some ways.  The most important obviously being the role our frontal cortex, the conscious mind, plays in our survival and genetic success.  The training of a human mind takes twenty to thirty years.  This training imparts linguistic, social and vocational skills important for becoming a stable, synergistic and useful part of the human society.  This education is, at its core, utilizing the present for the future.  It is an investment of time.  "Delayed gratification", "planning" and working toward a better future are some of the hallmarks of being human.

This essentially human perspective about time and that the future is in many ways more important than the present requires a moral, frictional apparatus that prevents one from just going after immediate enjoyments and addictions.  This apparatus propels us to do the right thing even if that is difficult, rather than what just seems pleasant and comforting.

This apparatus, colloquially termed as the "conscience" prevents us from becoming self-serving, hedonistic, sociopathic individuals who live for nothing more than the next "fix".  Society, culture, religion, family all instil in us that certain behaviors, even though pleasant, are not "good", and that harm will come to both oneself and others in the longer term if one just follows the path of pleasure.

Freud divided the human intentional apparatus into three parts: the id, the ego and the superego.  Even though Freud's theories are not scientific in the strict sense, they are useful and illustrative to analyze and understand human behavior.

In simple terms, the id is the "animal" in us which seeks gratification, the ego is the "individual" what gets trained to become a social individual with feelings of pride, guilt and suchlike, and, and the superego is the "influence" which keeps the ego from collaborating with the id.

The ego has to be prevented from becoming the id's partner, because then the individual can become a cunning animal who seeks gratification via manipulation and dishonesty, for example.  The superego ensures that the ego suffers pangs of guilt and shame if it tries to go that way, and that it feels pride and the pleasure of righteousness if it refrains and resists temptation.

The superego is the conscience.  The superego, to be effective, has to have a basis which is larger than the individual.  It can be based in loyalty to one's family, in devotion to one's religious tradition, in one's sense of honor of being part of a group of people, and in an imprinted belief that the universe is not just random, but that it is fair and that righteousness carries a reward.

From the Wikipedia description of the Superego:
The super-ego aims for perfection.  It forms the organized part of the personality structure, mainly but not entirely unconscious, that includes the individual's ego ideals, spiritual goals, and the psychic agency (commonly called "conscience") that criticizes and prohibits his or her drives, fantasies, feelings, and actions...
The super-ego works in contradiction to the id...
The super-ego's demands often oppose the id’s, so the ego sometimes has a hard time in reconciling the two.
Modernity, for all the good it does, demolishes wholesale the bases of a healthy superego.  Family gives way to individuation, religion gives way to atheism, community gives way to atomization, and metaphysical beliefs are realized as truthy but false.

Modernism, Existentialism, Nihilism, Atheism are all related in the sense that their guns are all pointed in the same direction: at a derived conscience and morality.  All proclaim, in various ways, the absence of a meaning higher than oneself.  Atheism claims that there can be nothing but "individual morality", existentialism claims that there can be nothing but "individual meaning", and Nihilism claims nothing really matters.

Some individuals are alarmed at this lack of conscience in themselves, and wonder if there is a way to nurture a conscience in them as an adult.  In other words, whether an adult can undergo "moral education".

I believe the answer is in the negative.  The ship has sailed by the time it is seen from the harbor and when its ugliness makes you want to repaint it.

Values and meaning cannot be consciously created because the ego cannot sustain itself.  In the ego's battle with the id, it needs something that it considers higher, sacred or sacrosanct in its battle.  The ego can convince itself and train itself to be opposed to the id, but it's not designed to work that way.  It is too much work for the ego to be moral on its own.  If it has created some rules, it knows that those rules are self-created and it can also therefore break those rules.  The ego can be trained to fear legal consequences, but that is legal education, not moral education.

The conscience cannot be conscious.

Many consider the modern age to be a "moral vacuum".  They are not wrong.  The response to them that one can create one's own morality ignores difference in emotional force between the ego-based-morality and the superego-based-morality.  Ego-based-morality is much, much weaker than a morality based on a deep, subconscious sense of right and wrong.

The "hero" is absent in the modern world because the basis of heroism is the superego, and that is weaker than ever.

The destruction of the superego is partly due to the advances in human knowledge.  We know a lot about the hollowness of culture, the hokey bases of religion and spirituality, and the fraud that is patriotism and nationality.

But what is behind the destruction of the family?  I believe that the reasons for the breakdown of family in the modern world are economic.  This is a far more complex topic than I wish to cover in this essay, but in short: technology, globalization, industrialization, and urbanization has made it financially untenable for a family of many generations to live together.  From a default of grandparents+parents+children+grandchildren living in one house, we have now "progressed" to a single individual earning, cooking and sleeping by himself/herself.  Pets are not the answer.

While one is still young and under the supervision of one's parents, the parents (hopefully) act as tangible enforcers of the superego.  They act as moral guardians to the id of the child.  They act as the custodians of its future.  As soon as one is eighteen and anonymous and unaccountable, say in a large city or in college, what is to prevent the id from taking over?

In the absence of superego, morality will break down and it is breaking down.  Law will take the place of morality.  Increasingly draconian laws will become common.  Mass surveillance by large institutions will take the place of community supervision.  Addictions and mental disorders born of loneliness and boredom will reach epidemic proportions and will be controlled by media, chemicals, threats of financial ruin, and prisons.

It is not possible to go back to a past in which God and Country still rule our hearts and minds.  The battle between the ego and the superego has been won.  The battle between the ego and the id is going to be a stressful, uphill struggle for the modern individual.  The ego is now burdened not just with function, but with supervision.

Most will be defeated, a rare few will drop out and form alternate communities and bow to new gods, and the ones who manage to overcome will need to continually overcome, and thereby feel perennially exhausted.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A Sci-Fi Allegory about a Country

nvnasm,sllqllll1222llllll2kkdaddddd ...

In January of 2311 AD, XVAC, the greatest mainframe (or so it was believed) had started to print nonsense. Crucial tasks were being postponed, and the motherboard was getting overheated with the processing of random, meaningless data which was just flowing back and forth in the buses.

A crack team of engineers was called in to diagnose and fix the situation.

After more than twenty days of investigation, this was the summary of their lengthy technical report:


REPORT XXIV, Final Summary, by NCG Systems INC.
  • As we all know, XVAC is an approximation of a formal system and runs compiled programs written in XLANG
  • Unfortunately, XLANG has 23,000 logic errors in its specification.  A program written in XLANG will work after thousands of patches and non-formal fixes, and then too only occasionally.
  • We are amazed that the system has lasted so long.  It should have failed long ago, but since the system load was only 20% till last year, we understand why only now we are facing a crisis.
  • In fact, not only the language is badly specified, the compiler XCOMP is a vestige from a much older system (CVAC).  It was written to compile code with human support, and to compile only two programs in one year.
  • The printer has no accounting, hence it has been used to print private jobs of power users for so long.  Since there is a priority system, unprivileged print jobs never even start.  Even when the program wants to print something meaningful, the printer prints gibberish because its ribbons have become frayed and its heads worn out.
  • The memory of system is being taken over by the ADWORD program.
Here are our recommendations:
  1. Respecify XLANG so that programs written in it are coherent.
  2. XCOMP, the compiler, needs to be rewritten from scratch given the new conditions.  
  3. The time sharing environment in which the binaries run needs to have clear policies so that frivolous users cannot overload the system.
  4. The printer needs to be replaced and print accounting instituted.  The printer must not have any priority system.  It should print on a first-come-first-served basis.
  5. The ADWORD program should only be run at night when the usage is minimal.

For the perplexed:

XVAC: The government of India
XLANG: The constitution and the IPC
XCOMP: The judiciary
CVAC: Colonial times
The printer: The Police
ADWORD: The media

Monday, December 08, 2014

The American Trucker

I developed an appreciation of the North American trucker's life while I did my 3000 mile road trip from California to Virginia in October this year.

I saw them up close, ate meals with them and talked to them about their lives.  Since I was driving a truck myself, had a first-hand understanding that while their life looks romantic to an outsider, it is literally a backbreaking one for the trucker himself. (On the third day of my road trip I had to work out the physiology of my lumbar region, and engineer special cushions and postures to make the pain go away!)

It's a hard, harsh life. Bad food, rest while in motion, homelessness, cheap motels, gas station showers, caffeine shots, pride in one's shiny truck, the distractions of Indian (native American) casinos and roadside "spas", a strange relationship with highway patrol, a condescending but caring view of cars on the road, ...

Eighteen wheelers are a quintessential part of Americana. Long distances, the interstate highway system and the American consumer culture is the paradigm which pushes these hundreds of thousands of behemoths on the country's freeways. They fascinate young boys (in the same way trains, planes and other big engines do), they impress fresh immigrants with their carrying of eight or more large cars in a weirdly angled manner, and with a reputation of blind spots, wide turns, and their sheer momentum, they scare regular commuters and tourists on the road.

I saw so many trucks and truck stops during my trip that the names "Wabash National", "Freightliner", "Peterbilt", "Knight, "Love's", "Pilot Travel Center", "TA", became as familiar as those of friends or siblings.

The truckers lead lonely lives. Some travel with their spouses but most travel alone, driving all day and sometimes even through the night. They commune with other truckers via their CB radios and use calling cards to keep in touch with their families which in many cases are still in their home countries.

Such a life requires extraordinary stamina and willpower and many can only do it for so long before they become zombie-like and hardened. From one rest stop to the next, from one member gas station to the next, from one "trucks welcome" travel center to the next, it is just an unending, monotonous journey of metal.

Truckers in poor countries are well known to numb their exhaustion with cheap liquor but in USA, the drug of choice is caffeine. Heavy doses of black coffee, extra shots, caffeine pills, large volume containers of coke and sprite are provided by gas stations as a norm.

Truckers can't go inside the cities for healthy food because there isn't any place on city roads to park their big rigs. Parking only in travel centers, they subsist on a diet of fried, cheap fast food, and chemically-flavored juices and sodas. The juicing film 'Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead' presents the hopeful journey of a trucker suffering from years of dietary abuse, toward fitness and normalcy.

Truckers are doing a job on the road and the road is their workplace.  They view road-trippers and others who are driving for pleasure with barely concealed amusement. "This is fun for them? Being on the road, minding the speed limits, the deer warnings, the bad drivers, the cops?". But people genuinely enjoy being on the road, as an escape from their suburban lives.  It is the truckers who have become desensitized to exploration. The journey has become a chore for them, and the well-known destination is the relief they long for. And that too, not for long.

Driving a truck pays well, considering that no expensive education is required. Many are trained on the job. They can "easily" (heh) earn $60k a year. For many, the promise of this kind of money is enough to tear them away from their families, and from their homes and native countries. And once addicted to this flow of dollars, to move away from the road seems comforting but a difficult choice.  They are addicts to this pain which pays.

Many retire only when their bodies give up.

I love their spirit. But I also feel sad about them. They are sacrificing themselves for their children, for their old parents, and in some way, for the hedonistic consumers of the first world.

They are the Atlases of today.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Social Disapproval and Freedom

For many, social disapproval is a paralyzing force.

My experience has been quite different.  In my interactions with other people, they have generally kept their opinions (about me) to themselves.  Sometimes there is a whimper of a protest at the way I am choosing to live my life, but I have rarely had to counter any such disapproval.

It might have something to do with my personality, given that I have always been a heretic and a philosophical enfant terrible. My persona might be intimidating to feeble and consensus-minded people who would therefore rather not engage me in a debate.  But I have, after long observation, concluded that people, society, family, peer groups, etc. can influence and coerce you only insofar as you are bothered about what they think of you.

When I see someone bothered by or complaining  against the entrapment of society, I look a little deeper and see someone who seeks everybody's approval.

It might be said that disapproval is costly.  Hence, it is important to have some financial freedom if you wish to embark on a path which may not meet with society's approval.  In my case, my education and my first job in the US gave me the confidence as well as the cushion to embark on a life of exploration.

I understand others may not be that fortunate.  But I have also seen people much more financially comfortable than me feeling trapped under the weight of others' expectations.  And I have friends who may not have a big bank balance, but there is freedom in their hearts and they follow their own beat.  They and I have the confidence that no matter what happens, we will find a way to survive.  They and I have not gotten used to luxury, even as we can enjoy fine wines and fluffy beds and hot foamy jacuzzis.

What is the origin of that confidence?  I do not know.  Even when I was a young boy, I remember myself being rebellious and heretical.  Not always in a good way, but I did not simply care about what the respectable or good people thought of me.  I considered them unqualified to judge me.

Perhaps it was an early exposure to world literature and philosophy.  Who knows.

We all have, to varying degrees, a desire to live true to ourselves, and without the weight of others' expectations.  Whenever therefore we see someone actually living that way, we feel a bond and an admiration for that person.  It is as if the other person is channeling the collective heart of humanity, which seeks joy and exploration.

After I had returned from the US and decided to take many years off to study philosophy and meditation, almost without exception everybody that I met admired my decision.  And when later I re-entered the job market and explained my sabbatical, without exception my hiring manager(s) admired my conviction and spirit.

It is a real pleasure to meet an authentic person.  And I would like to believe that my authenticity, to whatever extent it exists, is also similarly a pleasure to others.  When others detect the free spirit in me, my experience has mostly been that they are friendly, helpful, loving and kind.  I have occasionally found souls which were hateful and resentful toward me, but it has been easy to ignore them or to even pity them for whatever twists exist in them.  I could see that they were suffering, and I was just the current object of their inner resentment.

There have been no "undue" influences in my life.

I meet many people who complain against their circumstances.  But when offered a way out, they feel hesitant and scared of the uncertainty.  Stagnation, resentment and certainty usually exist together.  Fear of the unknown is real, but it must be embraced.  Exploration and freedom cannot by its nature be predictable or comforting, but the reward is that it won't lead to a life of regret.

If social disapproval bothers you, try this thought experiment:

Imagine yourself thirty or fifty years into the future and only a few years away from your death.  All the people who disapprove of you at present are dead and gone.  What would your old self advise your present self?  What would you regret less at that age?  Follow that path.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is Sex-Selective Abortion Wrong?

Families in many regions in India, especially in the North, are loath to have a girl-child.

The reasons are complex.  There have been many in-depth studies about this phenomenon.  In essence, it is widely held that to be parents of a girl imposes certain heavy responsibilities and burdens with not enough compensation.  For example:
  • India is largely a patrilocal society.  In non-nuclear families, the wife becomes a part of the husband's family.  Parents invest in bringing up a marriageable woman only to see her leave and become a primary member of another family.
  • The tradition of dowry in which parents of the bride give gifts and money to the groom's family.
  • The daughters now have property rights over their parents' property, but since patrilocality still continues, this means that the illiquid property of a household gets partly owned by the daughter's new family (the in-laws) and thereby gets diluted.  (The tradition of dowry, by many accounts, was a liquid (in cash or gold) compensation to the bride from her family when she did not have property rights.  According to certain other naratives, it was a financial disincentive for the bride in case she ever thought of abandoning her new family.  If she abandoned her husband or her in-laws, the dowry was forfeited.)
  • An environment in which families have to worry about protecting the virginity, modesty and reputation of unmarried women in their homes.
  • Since property inheritance is patrilineal in most of India, to not have a son meant that there was no natural heir and there was a risk of losing control of the ancestral property.
  • The bride's parents are generally in a socially submissive posture relative to the groom's family.  The bride's parents and the bride are expected to be docile, pleasant and generous.  They are afraid of annoying their in-laws and go to great lengths to be amicable.  The fear being that if the groom's family was annoyed for any reason, the bride was going to be subject to taunts, harassment, perhaps even violence, or in extreme cases, she could even be turned out of her conjugal home.  The bride's status in her new home was considered tenuous and fragile, at least till she begot a son of her own (and thereby an eventual heir to her husband's family).
Short of abandonment or murder, there was till recently no solution to the "problem" of the burden of a daughter.  Not till medical advances made prenatal sex-determination possible, and the procedure of abortion become relatively safe.

These advances tempted many families with their promise of delivering a baby boy with 100% confidence.  Yes, there were risks to the pregnant mother's health.  But it is sobering that those risks were generally considered more acceptable than the risk of a daughter being born.

Abortion was legalized in India in 1971 by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act.  When abortions were illegal, they were still performed, albeit by possibly untrained hands in unsafe conditions.

It is hard to crack down against sex-selective abortions, since people will just specify other reasons for the abortion.  Therefore the Indian state criminzalized the prenatal sex-determination diagnostic procedures.  Even that proved notoriously hard to enforce.  The diagnostic center staff came up with code words or sign language to tell the expecting parents whether it was a male or a female fetus.  There is also, supposedly, now a simple blood test which can determine the gender of the fetus.  In my opinion, it is impossible in today's world to forcibly prohibit parents from knowing the gender of their unborn child.

Having failed there, now again the focus is on abortion clinics, with the widespread assumption that one is guilty of sex-selective abortion until proven innocent. Hence, we are again seeing a spate of illegal abortions, incidents of abandonment, cases of infanticide, etc.

Many who worry about this issue try to induce guilt about the murderous violence done on the "innocent" fetus. But that is an argument against abortion. So, unless we are against abortion per se, let us disregard that argument. If we accept that parents have a right to abort their unborn child because they do not want it to be born, then that right overrides a compassion for the fetus.

So, once abortion has been concluded to be a right of the would-be parents, does the state have a right to restrict that right by listing the only "proper" reasons for such a decision? If the parents only want a daughter (rare, I know), or only a son, or one son and one daughter, or only two sons, or whatever combination they might fancy, does someone else have the right to (and at the point of a gun, no less) tell them to wish otherwise?

It is perhaps better to offer them some counseling before their go in for the abortion, educating them about the health risks, risks to future pregnancies, etc. But in the end, the decision is their own.

What kind of affection and future is a daughter going to have from her parents who were forced against their will to have her? They may develop affection and a bond with her, but it is also likely that every time there is a challenge in bringing her up, they are going to look back at their forced decision and seethe with resentment.

If the argument is made that the mother usually is against abortion, but that she is coerced against her will by her in-laws, then it is a sorry state of affairs and points at the intimidation inherent in family structures in India. But unless she is capable and willing to be on her own and renounce her in-laws, interference by the state can only introduce further suffering into her life. The mother will probably be subjected to an illegal abortion, her girl-child may be murdered, or she herself might abandon it to again be in the good books of her in-laws, or the girl will grow up only to feel an unwanted burden.

The environment in which the girl-child is a huge cost and burden is a reality.  The desire to only have a boy is a symptom of this environment.  To legislate against this desire is not only futile, it might even be considered morally wrong by libertarians, and a way for conservatives to again make abortion difficult.  For example, in the US, the blurb of a book about these laws (such laws exist in the US too, though only in a few states) makes the remark that:
Rather than to combat gender discrimination, the report shows that sex-selective abortion bans are intended to limit access to abortion generally.
The long-term effect of this gender discrimination is to skew the gender ratio in a region, which can lead to social stresses leading to kidnappings and violence and rapes.  Such a situation can lead to either the demise of the society, or a draconian legislation which bans abortions altogether which will again (hopefully) reestablish the gender ratio.

I believe that a wide preference for a particular gender at birth is the symptom of a sick and crippled society.  But this crippling condition cannot be cured by forcing people to walk straight or be sent to jail.

Rich educated parents do not seem to have much of a preference.  For them, bringing up a boy or a girl is more about the boy or the girl than about the ramifications of their gender and property rights.  But that is not a luxury that poorer or more socially dependent people can exercise.

There are no easy responses to this phenomenon.  Affluent and educated cultures do not have this problem, so perhaps education and social security will solve it.  But those cultures have "other" problems: of emotional vacuums, of not wanting children at all, of loneliness and breakdown of family structures.  To want kids to fulfill your expectations introduces one kind of problems, to want them to live their own lives introduces others.

Perhaps it is the wider structures of capital and culture which puts these stresses on families, and given this modern environment of economic insecurity and emotional neuroses, there is no real solution but to just live with this suffering.