Saturday, June 17, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - V

Many nations and ethnic groups demand apologies for wrongs committed in the distant past. Germany has paid the equivalent of billions of dollars as reparations for the Holocaust. Japan has shown reluctance to apologize for its wartime atrocities in the face of growing international pressure. Debate has raged in Australia over the government's obligation to aborigines over past wrongs. Sashi Tharoor's speech about British colonial rule in India earned him fans even among his political opponents.

Should nations apologize for historical wrongs? There are worries about inflaming old animosities, hardening historic enmities, etc. There is the argument that people in the present generation should not apologize for the wrongs committed by a past generation. This rests on the notion that we are responsible only for our own actions and not for the actions of someone else.But are humans unencumbered beings entirely free to take decisions without outside influences?

If we think of ourselves as unbound by moral ties that we haven't chosen ourselves, we can't make sense of many things like family loyalty, patriotism, religious faith, etc. In Justice, Michael Sandel says that we are storytelling beings who are born in the middle of a continuing narrative. My decisions are influenced by larger life stories of which my life is a part. He quotes from Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue:
We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone's son or daughter, someone's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity.
...the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past, and to try to cut myself from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.
To illustrate this narrative account of a person bound by moral ties that he has not chosen, Sandel gives an example of a communal obligation. During WW II, members of the French resistance conducted bombing raids over Nazi occupied France. Although factories and military installations were targeted, civilian causalities were inevitable. One day a bomber pilot found that his assigned target was his home village. He asked to be excused from the mission because he felt that even in a just cause, he couldn't kill some of his fellow villagers. Sandel writes:
What do you make of the pilot's stance? Do you admire it or consider it a form of weakness? Put aside the broader question of how many civilian causalities are justified in the cause of liberating France.The pilot was not questioning the necessity of the mission or the number of lives that would be lost. His point was that he could not be the one to take these particular lives. Is the pilot's reluctance mere squeamishness, or does it reflect something of moral importance? If we admire the pilot, it is because we see in his stance a recognition of his encumbered identity as a member of his village, and we admire the character that his reluctance reflects.
I saw later this transcript of a speech by Bhikhu Parekh where his explanation of Gandhi's views about the interconnectedness of humans was similar to MactIntyre's quoted above (the entire explanation is in one paragraph but I have split it into three paragraphs for ease of reading):
Gandhi saw more clearly than most other writers both the interdependence of human beings and the ways in which systems of domination were built up and sustained. He argued that all systems of domination rested on a profound misunderstanding of human nature, and wrongly assumed that it was possible for one man or group of men to harm another without also harming themselves. Human beings were necessarily interdependent and formed an organic whole.

An individual owed his existence to his parents without whose countless sacrifices he would neither survive nor grow into a sane human being. He grew and realized his potential in a stable and peaceful society, made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of anonymous men and women. He became a rational, reflective and moral human being only within a rich civilization created by scores of sages, saints, savants and scientists. In short, every human being owned his humanity to others, and benefited from a world to the creation of which he contributed nothing. As Gandhi put it, every man was 'born a debtor', a beneficiary of others' gifts, and his inherited debts were too vast to be repaid.

Even a whole lifetime was not enough to pay back what a man owned to his parents, let alone all others. Furthermore the creditors were by their very nature unspecifiable. Most of them were dead or remained anonymous, and those alive were so numerous and their contributions so varied and complex that it was impossible to decide what one owed to whom. To talk about repaying the debts did not therefore make sense except as a clumsy and metaphorical way of describing one's response to unsolicited but indispensable gifts.
There is a school of thought which says that history is a field of knowledge which is a source of conflicts because it reminds people about episodes in the distant past which are best forgotten. An example is the Ramjanambhoomi movement where constant attempts to historicize a figure who had resided peacefully in myths for centuries unleashed atavistic tendencies in many people which had unfortunate consequences. Gandhi once said, ‘Happy is the country that has no history.'

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - IV

 Our perception of risk is dominated by the emotional part of our brain.  Threats that bring to mind strong images or which are related to us in vivid stories have more influence on our decision making than we imagine. Theories, graphs,  diagrams and data speak to the rational part of our brain but do not spur us to action. Paul Slovic, an expert on the social amplification of risk identifies two drivers of risk perception: 1)a sense of powerlessness and 2) an anxiety that comes from new and unforeseeable dangers. Terrorism involves both criteria. Economists appeal to the rational rider but the emotional elephant often has its way.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about the time when he had gone to Israel when there were frequent incidents of suicide bombings in buses. Even then, the probability that any particular person will die in a terrorist incident is small but that is not how the public used to react. They used to avoid buses as much as they could and when in buses they used to look anxiously at packages or bulky clothes. Kahneman was ashamed to find that despite knowing the probabilities, his behaviour had also been affected. He found that he did not like to stop his car next to a bus at red lights and he moved away more quickly than usual when the light changed. His rational knowledge had no effect on his behaviour. He writes:
The emotion is not only disproportionate to probability, it is also insensitive to the exact level of probability. Suppose that two cities have been warned about the presence of suicide bombers. Residents of one city are told that two bombers are ready to strike. Residents of another city are told of a single bomber. Their risk is lower by half, but do they feel much safer?
Kahneman gives an example where some Americans were offered insurance against their own death in a terrorist attack while on a trip to Europe, while another group were offered insurance that would cover death of any kind on the trip. Even though "death of any kind" includes "death in a terrorist attack", the former group were willing to pay more than the latter. If you imagine a Venn diagram, the subset here is being valued more than the super set. Fear of terrorism for these subjects was stronger than a general fear of dying on a foreign trip. Kahneman suggests that the attribute of fear is being substituted for a calculation of the total risks of travel.

In 2014, the year for  which I heard the data, more people died in the US of gun related violence than in terrorist attacks worldwide. In India, the number of people who die in terrorist attacks is minuscule compared to the number of people who die in road accidents. Yet, people in both counties are more concerned about terrorist attacks. People are more afraid of flying than driving although people are far more likely to die in road accidents.

This anomaly has to do with the availability heuristic which has to do with what people instinctively do when they estimate the frequency of a category. If people can quickly recall instances of a category, that category will be judged to be large. Dramatic events like plane crashes and terrorist attacks are shown again and again on TV making us feel that they occur more frequently than they actually do.

The idea of availability helps explain how people react to various disasters. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, people will be very concerned and buy various insurance policies and take various preventive and mitigation measures. But as memories of the disaster grow dim over time, the worry and diligence shown earlier melt away. In fact, this cycle of problem, concern and growing complacency seems to happen every year in India regarding monsoons.