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Thursday, March 26, 2009

A very good read...

See Shilpi's recent blogpost: click here.

All those who really love to think are sure to relish this.

You are welcome to comment here and/or on Shilpi's blog.


Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Thanks for the link. I really enjoyed reading Shilpi's essay.

Harman said...

Shilpi's blog kept me up a few hours last night, as I pondered upon
her interpretation of the word, sacrifice.

I enjoyed how she systematically dissected out its meaning through a
series of examples.

Personally, I think that the word "sacrifice" can never be used in the
first person, e.g, I sacrificed my life for my country. It is
antithetical to human nature. From an evolutionary standpoint, every
living creature, human or otherwise, acts in its own best self
interest. We cannot do otherwise.

The only difference is, over time, the definition of "best self
interest" has changed, although it still remains unique to each
individual. Thousand years ago, "best self interest" might have meant
physical survival of the individual. In todays world, when the basic
needs of food and security are met, "best self interest" evolves to
meet a persons intellectual, spiritual, or moral needs.

As Shilpi deftly points out, that does not mean that we are incapable
of doing good deeds and living a virtuous life by meeting our "best
self interest," it only means that now our actions serve to fulfill a
different kind of need. Instead of craving wealth, someone might seek
intellectual fullfillment, instead of pursuing fame, someone might
yearn to be of service to others, only because he finds
emotional/moral fullfillment from doing so. Nothing wrong with that.
We are all defined by our priorities.

By the same token, I have to respectfully disagree with Shilpi that
sacrifice is made out of guilt. Quite the contrary!

A person who acts out of guilt always acts in his own "best self
interest." He has, in fact, no other choice. Guilt is a heavy bag of
bricks to carry around everyday, and it can be psychologically
exhausting. That person will "sacrifice" almost anything to lessen
that load. But he is not doing it out of benevolence, he is acting out
of his "best self interest," self preservation of his psyche.

Darwin's evolutionary principles hold true in all of the above
circumstances. Survival of the fittest is just another way of saying,
in order to have a competitive advantage, one always has to act in
ones best self-interest. For who else is more interested in your
survival than you, yourself.

So what is the purpose of having a word, sacrifice, in our language if
it has no correct usage? I think that it can only be rightfully used
in the second or third person.

For example, you turned down some lucrative offers in the US to go
back to India and teach. I am sure you had your own personal reasons
for doing so, and you found your fulfillment in that decision. You
don't consider it to be a sacrifice, because to you the joy of
teaching was far superior than some monetary benefit. Noble indeed,
but still acted out of "self best interest."

Now if I had that same choice, I might have chosen differently,
because my value system is different, and to me a luxurious life is
more important than helping some poor kid out in India (hypothetical).

So, for me to say that you sacrificed your bright future in the US to
help drill some sense into the students at St. Xaviers, Durgapur, is
completely acceptable, I think. I am judging your actions against my
value-system, and to me your actions spell "sacrifice" because I
wouldn't have done the same thing.

Therefore, in my opinion, its ok to use the word "sacrifice" from a
second or third person perspective, but doesn't make much sense in the
first person.

Just my two cents. :)

Shilpi said...

I am not sure what your name is – but thank you for your comment. I’m glad you gave the essay a read, and I am very glad that you had an enjoyable time doing so.
I have read your comments with interest and with care, and would like to respond to some of the points that you have raised, and in the end, we can agree to disagree.

1. I gave some reasons in relation to some examples as to why it doesn’t make sense to me to use the word “sacrifice” in instances where an individual gives his/her life to a cause even though I may never do the same. My point was that a by-stander cannot label another human being’s action as a “sacrifice” precisely because such a label takes away something positive and noble from an individual and his actions.

2. Guilt can take more than many forms and can be of varying levels (and one can write a lengthy treatise on the subject and what it means). I would even go so far as to say that in some cases guilt can motivate some people into doing great good or that a “benevolent” form (almost akin to remorse or maybe a preceding stage) or a profound sense of guilt can actually induce one to not just feel the pain, suffering, and injustice meted out to others but can help them to act in a manner that relieves the misery of others (I am in this instance reminded of Emperor Ashoka, although there may be countless other examples of similar or dissimilar nature). Of course such forms of guilt would not necessarily lead to making any sacrifices but may on the contrary help one reconnect with one’s value-system.

I would even (with great caution) say that both ‘fear’ and ‘guilt’ do have some functions (positive ones). But when these elements dominate an individual’s life – that is when a life becomes a shadow of what it can be, especially when corrosive fear and guilt take control of a human life.

3. However my own point was that sacrifices are made out of terrible guilt and fear. This is not merely a matter of choosing between feeling guiltless and something else. Of course you’re absolutely right in that guilt can be an exceptionally heavy load to carry. Then why should I view guilt and/or fear leading to making sacrifices?
a) Avoiding guilt cannot be a psychologically healthy human being’s highest ideal/goal/value. This is my basic assumption.
b) When corrosive guilt becomes the motivator of all or very important actions and an individual chooses to engage in actions that contradict her own higher values to simply get rid of the guilt or fear – what is the outcome?
c) The choice still remains between two different courses of action. It remains a choice between two things of comparable value (for the individual in question).
To take a very common example (which manifests itself in different ways):
Hari, who is a brilliant artist, ends up being a doctor because that is what his parents want him to be. He feels guilty doing otherwise. He knows that being an artist would hurt his parents and he would feel terribly guilty to bring so much hurt to his parents this way. Moreover what if his parents don’t talk with him or cut off all bonds with him once he goes his own way to be an artist? No, no. Hari knows he can be a fairly good doctor, and he easily convinces himself that his parents are right. He can paint on the side. He can keep it as a hobby. Hari wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt if his father stopped talking with him (as his father has threatened to do) …Hari decides to avoid the feeling of that terrible guilt. He goes on to be a doctor.

And what is this? Sacrifice or not? Is Hari preserving what he values? Are his own highest values guiding his actions? Or is he betraying his highest values in order to minimise his guilt? Sure he’s acting to avoid guilt (which might be a highly valuable state for him to be in) – but is he making a sacrifice in the process according to my definition? He absolutely is, if deep in his heart being an artist matters to him and matters a great deal to him.
And if many years later Hari, now grown-up, mutters how he sacrificed his deepest dreams because of his parents, what is one supposed to do but snort…

4. And finally, for the nonce at any rate, I don’t think the question of “self-interest” can be answered from a Rational Choice perspective (self-interest is extremely narrowly defined as is “rational action”), or from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective (human life is not about gaining competitive advantage – is it? Nor does human social life revolve around the principle of “survival of the best/fittest”: premature and/or sick babies would then be killed or left to die, and so would elderly folk and the seriously ill) – as these perspectives are currently employed and understood.

Once again – thank you for commenting!