Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Ethics an introduction

What is ethics?  How is it different from words like culture, values, principles, morals etc.?

Let’s say that you are traveling in a city bus.  All the seats are full after you take the last seat available.  In the next stop, an elderly person boards.  You offer your seat to the person.  Is it because you are ethical? Or is it in your culture? Or is it because of the values you have? Or is it one of the principles that you learnt? Is it moral? Let’s understand the meaning of these terms as applied to the above incident...

‘Giving respect to elders’ is a VALUE.
It is such a value that is the basis for the rule ‘to give seat to the elder’.  The rule is the PRINCIPLE.
If such a principle is learnt by you from ‘your family or community or any larger social group’, then it is in your CULTURE.
Since it is the right thing to do, it is MORAL.
The act of standing up and giving your seat to the elder, is the ETHICAL BEHAVIOR.
Ethics is the moral principle that governs a person’s behavior.  

In the above situation, you can exhibit different types of behavior based on the same ethic / moral principle.  Say, you can request a younger passenger near you to offer his/her seat.  Or asking the elder politely, if he/she would like to take your seat.  There can be many such acceptable or debatable behaviors based on the same ethic.  What makes you chose a particular behavior is another value or set of values.  Let’s say you hold ‘practicing what you preach’ as a VALUE.  Then you will decide to give up your seat rather than asking another person.  The final behavior hence, is driven by one or more moral principles based on one or more values, as the case may be.  

There can be more than one ethical behavior for any given situation.  Choosing one among them by an individual is dependent on the set of ethics he/she has. It is easier to decide in cases where it is clear what is moral and what is immoral, like female feticide, where in it is easy to categorize it as an unethical behavior.   It is tricky when it comes to ‘gray’ areas where in, some of the values clash, resulting in an ethical dilemma.  For example, euthanasia – ‘compassion’ and ‘right to life’ have a clash.  Abortion – who has the right to the life – child or the parent?  In such cases, what you decide is defined by which value you cherish more than the other.  This can be due to the influence of the personal experiences you had in your life.  Hence the ethical decision in these situation may differ from person to person.

Let’s take another example.  Assume that you are a vegetarian by family culture.  You are traveling in a tour group where the rest all, incidentally, are non vegetarians.  In a particular situation, after a tiring day of tour, you end up in a village where there is only one restaurant that can provide you dinner. But they have only non vegetarian food.  You are dead tired and extremely hungry, as are others.  You have an open mind on food habits as you don’t consider non vegetarianism as immoral.  What will constitute an ethical behavior on your part?

In this situation, there are at least two values which are in play.  One is very explicit in the question and the other is not so explicit.  The value which is explicitly mentioned is that you don’t consider non vegetarianism as immoral.  So having non veg food in such a situation can be an ethical behavior for you.  The other not so explicit value is that you are vegetarian by family culture.  It means that you hold value for following family culture and hence you had continued to avoid non vegetarian even if there is no moral dilemma personally.  The value that you hold for following the family culture is not so explicit.   Nevertheless that is the dilemma you need to tackle to decide on the course of action further.  Say, going ahead with non veg food for one day only.  Or remaining hungry even if it is extremely tough on the body.

The decision here may be easy for you to take.  But situations can be much more complex.  Hope the understanding on what is ‘value’, based on which a rule is made called ‘principle’, which you follow when it the right thing to do (‘ethic’), resulting in an particular behavior will help you to come to a decision on what constitutes the ethical behavior for you.

The values held in the constitution like liberty, equality, secularism, socialism, are binding on a civil servant.  These values are not negotiable when you are deciding as a public servant.  Your personal values if in conflict, take a second seat while you take a decision in such situations in your official capacity.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Why space technology?

Should government spend so much money in space technology?  Especially when there are other crying needs like food, education, health etc. 
Why at all Humans need to go out of earth?  We need more than a lifetime to see all the places on earth – land, let alone oceans and their depths which is more than twice as that of land.   Put together as a whole human race also, we haven’t yet seen the whole earth.
Are we wasting time, money and energy in developing space technology?

These are some of the questions that come to my mind when I think about space technology.  To answer them, I need to go into a hypothetical illustration.  Let us offer a person all the food, cloth, shelter, essential home gadgets including TV, mobile (which are of course using satellites incidentally).  Let’s also allow the person to socialize.  The only condition/rider to that person is that he/she should not do anything new.  After a point of time, it will suffocate the person !!!
Pioneering has always been an integral distinct instinct of Humans.  Inquisitive minds have resulted in discovering new worlds in both micro and macro levels.  We have ripped open matter into elements, atoms, protons, electrons, photons, bosons etc. and still literally continue splitting.  We have understood solar system, galaxy, super galaxy, universe etc. and still expanding the outer boundaries.   Some humans dive deep into the ocean, but others see through microscope and telescope.  There is no doubt that space technology is a natural corollary of the inquisitive human mind.

Now coming to the government spending on space technology… among other things, History shows that war is the time when a group of people come together and spend all that they have in building weapons of attack or protection.  Also, peace and stability happens ironically when one player emerges bigger than all others.  In the post cold war era, in a nuclear world, a country becomes a player when it has Inter Continental Ballistic Missile - ICBM capability.  Cryogenic engines and rocket launching with pay loads have defined that capability.  By investing in these technologies, a country gets the dual benefit of defense as well as space capabilities.

Though nowhere imminent, it also provides us a scope for finding an alternate place to live, in case of any disaster or complete exhaustion of all the resources in the earth.  The stories of Indian spice and el dorado has long attracted discoverers and voyagers.  Though no such stories about space are there as of now, we are trying to hear some such things through the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence – SETI.

Satellites are the most used products of space technology as of now.  If a satellite remains static vis a vis the earth’s rotation, they are called geo stationary satellites. With three such satellites, we can cover the entire earth and can triangulate any reference point in the earth.  That is called the GPS – global positioning system. In order to achieve stationary positioning and coverage, they need to be at a particular height where there is little or no effect of earth’s gravity.  Hence, these satellites are farther from earth surface and launching them needs higher capacity rockets like the GSLV – Geo stationary Satellite Launch Vehicles.
There are other satellites which are launched to orbit at lower heights.  Though these are predecessor for the geo stationary satellites, they are required even now, to get data about the atmosphere and earth surface.  They are generally used in weather forecasting and remote sensing.  Such satellites are called polar satellites, launched by lesser capacity rockets like the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles – PSLV.  Since they are in lower heights, they are subject to pull of earth’s gravity.  They continuously fall towards earth in a spiraling orbit and finally get burnt in space.

The most visible positive impact of space technology is the quantum improvement in the speed of communication.  While the first marathon runner had to physically run the distance to deliver the news about enemy movement, we can now share the distance run by us with our fellow marathoners around the world on a real time basis.  The world indeed has become a global village !!!

Introducing the subject of Economics

In order to really learn about something, it is desirable to understand it’s relevance to our life.  In other words, it is easier to understand a thing if we know how it helps in our daily life.

When it comes to ‘subjects’, I used to wonder what is ‘Economics’?  It is not a natural one like Physics, where one can see the effect of gravity on a jumping ball, or like Biology, where there are living things that grow and multiply.  It is not a primary tool like Language which is used to communicate with others, or Mathematics which is used to count and count faster.

‘Economics’ hence appeared to be a man-made subject. But things like money, prices of goods, savings etc. have been directly affecting our lives and we can ignore them only at our own peril.

I think the best way to understand economics is to see it as a language we use to communicate regarding ‘how much we value things or acts’.  Some communications are understood only by the giver and the receiver – say a birthday card.  The same item does not present the same value for a third person – you cant pass on the card to other person.  So the language that will be common to all will be a ‘currency’ or ‘money’. 

When someone sells a product for say Rs.100/- they communicate that it holds a value of Rs.100/- in their perception.  When a buyer declares that the thing is cheaper/costlier than its worth, the perception changes.  If the seller sticks to the value he/she thinks it is worth, and doesn’t change the price, it is termed cost/supply driven.  If the seller changes the price based on what the buyer thinks it is worth, then it is termed market/demand driven.

In other words, in a cost driven scenario, if a person sells a product for Rs.100/-, he/she communicates that X (say Rs.80/-) is the cost incurred and Rs.20/- is the value that he/she thinks has been added by making the product.  In a market driven scenario, if a person buys a product for Rs.100/- he/she thinks that the product is worth that much, immaterial of the cost incurred.  In such a scenario, the seller has to find ways and means to bring down the cost to Rs.80/- in order to get the value he/she thinks is deserved.

Either way… ’Economics’ should have helped the Humans to achieve lesser cost of living… so that poor people can afford at least the basic necessities of life.  But we commonly hear our elders saying something like… in our days, 1kg of tomato was Re.1 !!!  For all the fancy terms, definitions that this subject has, it has never brought down the price of the products apart from few exceptions and that too mostly items of luxuries.  ‘Economics’ as a subject appears to favor the rich rather than the poor ?!?

Theoretically, it is possible for every one to bring down their prices resulting in products becoming cheaper than what it was.  A person with Rs.1000/- could then be equivalent to a millionaire of today.  Such a thing is not happening because it requires each and every one to do it and even if one person does otherwise, the scheme falls off.  Also, it is not easily understood by all.  While the reverse is easy to understand !!!  A person spending 10 out of 100 rupees for food can continue spending 100 out of 1000 rupees for food.  Inflation is hence naturally sought after.

Okay, but see what the government is doing? Prudence says that one should not spend more than one’s income.  We do need to save or keep some money for unforeseen emergencies.  But the government is always spending more than what it has !!!  some fancy term ‘deficit financing’.  At the same time people cry that ‘fiscal deficit’ should be under control.  Why should government spend more at all?  Let it keep a ‘fiscal excess’ !!!  The country’s credibility will grow ?!?

To understand this, one needs to see where does the government spend the money.  If it spends on infrastructure or public goods where no private investment is coming up, but the projects will help many businesses to grow, then it is okay to do ‘deficit financing’.  The government also expects people to bring in new products or services to the market and people will need more money to buy those things.  The government then can ‘print’ more money and ensure that the prices don’t soar.  Thereby the government can bridge the deficit too.  Two birds in a stone !!!
However the following two questions come in mind….
1, Why doesn’t the government print money and give it to the poor directly?
2, Inflation is good but why government doesn’t want the prices to soar? 

The most likely reasons are…. If the government needs to give money directly to the poor, the mechanism of identifying the poor has to be water tight.  Even then, it will be counter intuitive, as there will be reward for being poor and doing nothing.  In a country like ours, with large population of poor, the total amount required will be humongous.  With regard to inflation, a little bit of inflation is okay but if prices soar, the poor are likely to be the worst affected persons.

And like the Chinese proverb, it is better to teach a man about fishing rather than giving him a fish.  So expenditure in improving the skill set of the people is a good place for the government to invest even with ‘deficit financing’.

(This is an attempt to open up the subject ‘Economics’ and understanding how it affects daily life and governance.  Feedback is most welcome <ravichanderirts@gmail.com>)