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Sunday, June 03, 2012

One human heart

I should like the more serious-minded among my readers to go slowly and carefully through this essay. It would help them understand more clearly an important part (though, admittedly, only a part-) of the goals, ideals and principles I have tried to live by ever since I started to think (and that was a long time ago!)

No one has the full truth, of course, least of all professional philosophers. The contrary position, generally called utilitarianism, has led to much good in this world – from the abolition of slavery and legally sanctioned torture to the spread of democracy and literacy to all the wonders of technology harnessed to capitalism. I am no Luddite; I should be loth to subscribe to a na├»ve ‘revolutionary’ (actually very ancient-) back to Nature/ back to basics zeitgeist. As I often remind people, think of having your teeth pulled out without anesthesia whenever you are feeling too romantic, too peeved with the contemporary world and its ways. And yet, as the poet says, ‘God fulfills Himself in many ways/lest one good custom should corrupt the world’. Much that is wrong or bad about the world today might have been the consequence of utilitarianism pushed to absurd excess in every sphere of life. One begins to suspect as much when one finds that thinkers as disparate as Aristotle and Karl Marx and a Pope have had deep misgivings on the subject.

It all boils down to the question of ‘What is Man?’ or ‘What do we mean by human worth?’ Do read the essay, and get back to me. This is a question on which I should love to hear comments from young and old, male and female, highly educated and barely literate alike.


Sumitha said...


I daresay that the "barely literate" would not be able to make much of the essay, much less comment upon it.

I loved reading the poem that the author has chosen to highlight his concern on mankind's obsession with the utility or futility of human life.

I know many of us are confounded by this generation's penchant for "success" and its trappings, so much so that some people deem others and their existence as an exercise in futility, just because they haven't measured up to some modern standard of success.

But if success is the bane of the modern generation, longevity seems to have been the highlight of some of the elderly folks existence. An elderly gentleman I know, suggested that my mother's efforts to keep her family happy by cooking hearty meals or singing soothing songs or teaching her kids when they were young were all for naught; just because she didn't live a long enough life (by his standards) and wasn't able to share all of her children's joys or sorrows. And so he thinks that her labouring under the sun was all in vain, much like the prophet in Ecclesiastes (a book in the Bible, for those who don't know).

To that gentleman, and to any others who reflect upon the utility of a "wasted life" spent on a sickbed, I would like to cite a story I read in one of the chicken soup for the soul books. It goes like this:

A lady fell sick and was bedridden. She had lived a full life up until then and thus felt very sad at the sudden onset of sickness and confinement. She felt pretty much useless and a burden to her adult daughter who was taking care of her at the time. So her daughter told her not to worry and to take up the task of praying for the people she knew of, who were sick, or suffering or in pain. And so the lady started praying; since she had nothing else to do all day, she spent hours praying for these people. Soon word spread and strangers started sending in prayer requests to the woman's daughter. She continued to pray for the sick, needy, suffering and destitute, until her final days on earth and the recipients of her prayers felt blessed and enriched because of her efforts.

And that I believe, is man's worth... a discerning mind and a caring heart are God's gift to mankind and they are ours to nurture and cherish over a lifetime.

Sumitha Rachel Kurien

Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,
Insignificant though I may be, I have some objections against this ‘Utilitarianism’ theory –
1. If the end of all actions is common good and actions are right/ moral only to the degree they promote the greatest good for the greatest number, then how can one explain capital punishment, which goes against commonsense morality as far as I am concerned, but the theory warrants? Does the theory acknowledge that individual rights can be compromised for the sake of ‘greater good’?

2. Can subjective terms such as pain and pleasure be explained so definitely and quantitatively measured? Hedonistic Calculus I have not studied; and I find the idea rather repulsive. How can one for instance, compare between the pain of the father who has lost a child and that of the writer whose latest work has been destroyed in a fire; or between the epiphanic moment a mathematician enjoys after solving a difficult problem and the simple joy of a breathtaking view of nature?

3. I am reminded of your essay on selfishness, and I am really, really unsure/ confused as to how exactly does one reconcile self-interest with common, immediate good. Also, if every man pursues his own (sensual?) happiness, how can the happiness of all be guaranteed?

4. If everything is measured in terms of utility, is there anything called value, I ask? What ‘use’ do the child, the unborn, the elderly and the dying have, as the essay rightly asks? Do my family members take care of me when I am ill so that I can provide for them later? A spine chilling thought, Sir. Are we not taught to be kind and loving to all humans, particularly the weak and those who cannot defend themselves? Do we not feel it in our hearts that we should be so? Are we to become robots in the hands of a philosophy (strangely reminiscent of Locke’s who said that conscience itself is derived from the experienced results of actions!) which dictates morality, calculates pain and pleasure in terms of numbers and leaves little room for the individual to think, experiment and come to his/ her own conclusion of right and wrong? Is a reductionist attitude really helpful in understanding man, his nature and his goals? Is Descartes’ view that animals can be explained as automata relevant?

Sir, will it be wrong if I say that certain philosophies (extreme though they may seem) are relevant only in certain ages in certain cultural/ political climates and if over exercised can lead to much more harm than what its proponents had originally set out to rectify?

That’s all I can think of now, Sir. I wish to return to this post after I have read some more, at a later date. I am also eager to listen to what you have to say about being truly human.

Thank you for the post…
Sayan Datta

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

The triumph of human spirit is what us so uniquely human. To be begging and to be blissful consciously is as evolved as a human being can be. The kings of spirit take on challenges which no one else would, and are happy in their failures as well as successes. This article illustrates this very well. Also may be the beliefs of what happens to you after you die, may affect in a large way the way you live. Somehow if there is just one life and one is gone after that, it makes sense to be a utilitarian.

with regards,


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Hmm... a lot of comments, indeed.

But thanks very much for taking time out to write sensibly and at length, Sumitha, Sayan and Navin.

Sumitha, I don't know whether the reference to Ecclesiastes was quite in context. Indeed that grand old teacher in the Old Testament had lamented the world's ways with that terrible condemnation 'All is vanity', and indeed he had said (I'm sure from personal experience!) that 'too much study is a weariness of the flesh', but he had also enjoined upon us to 'Fear God and obey His commandments', so we can neither say he was cynical nor that he was lost. He'd certainly not have said that that sick old woman spent her life in vain: neither would I.

Sayan, yes, that's precisely what I mean; any purely hedonistic calculus, pushed too far, becomes either meaningless or repulsive, if not both at once! And yes, too, to the idea that all philosophies have their day in the sun - maybe utilitarianism has been around too long? Think of education, which both of us know a little about, being reduced to mere utility in getting a job and becoming a lifelong unthinking consumer: could there be a more horrible yet more common example of total corruption? (that, by the way, goes a long way to explain why my hundreds of readers, all of them 'educated' in the contemporary sense, can think of nothing to say here!)

And Navin, you're quite right, maybe much of it hinges on the question of whether most of us believe that it's just one life... only, do you think most people in today's world have consciously and seriously considered the question at all?

Shilpi said...

Awfully sorry for writing so late, but I was pondering and typing elsewhere.

In response to your first question, I'm reminded of that little note on poetry that you'd written in the mid-90s, which starts off with "Ever since men became men..." - and that men have never since then not been able to reflect on the long dark night and the material side of existence, about the hardness and with it the beauty -....and yet there have been the yearnings of the spirit - the call or at least the irresistible tugs that make their way felt within the human soul of something else, of something deep and beautiful and eternal, which lies within and beyond the immediate. Something that can be both sensed and articulated by the poets...and yet felt by even one who is ignorant and uneducated and knows little but still faces the maddening but irresistible soul stirring music..."where do we go from here?..."

The matter of human worth has always bugged my brains. I don't know, would be my honest answer. A basic worth of life, indeed of all sentient life and life-form - what you said your Schweitzer had said 'the reverence for life' - is something that has moved me in some ways...yet what creates "worth" or value?

I can't say that my life has any worth independent of itself, like "an island in the sun", and yet I can feel value in another and very clearly...so maybe your poet's words become just as significant here, "..philosophy don't know...and through a riddle in the end - sagacity must go..." and the other poem too rushes through - "Often among men below/heart cries out to heart, I know/ and one is dust many a year/ child, before the other hears..." (I think that's how it goes).

More later. Thank you for writing this one. One could write a blogpost on this un! - and too much study does at some level lead to weariness of flesh. One can feel it in one's bones even when one hasn't studied so much but is simply studying one who has and does! And yet one cannot stop thinking and reflecting and wondering and yearning for as long as there "is some hope to speak of..."

Suvro Chatterjee said...

...oh, and Sumitha, by barely literate I included the man with an MTech or MBA who has several thousand 'apps' on his iPad but has never read anything (outside comic books and pulp fiction) besides textbooks of his own volition all his life. I actually had many 'bright' ex-students like that in mind when I used the expression.

Sumitha said...


The reference to the verse in Ecclesiastes was for the elderly gentleman's impression about my mom's life; and I meant it literally, rather than the deeper significance that is reflected in that verse and indeed the entire book of Ecclesiastes.


Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you very much for the essay.

I cannot claim to have understood the essay completely but I have a few thoughts to share about it.
This is the topic we must ponder on to understand where all of us went wrong and why our society as a whole degraded to the present extent. We have reduced human value to utility and are teaching our children to do exactly the same thing. The very idea that seemingly ‘useless’ people like the unborn, the infant, the permanently sick, the old and the dying have no worth repels me. This is the reason why the young refuse to take care of the elderly (not just in terms of financial support but also time, warmth and compassion). It is why so many parents get rid of their children who are mentally or physically challenged and so few people express gratitude to their teachers and other benefactors for the good that they have done. It is also why people in general are reluctant to do any charitable work and look after the sick and the dying.

The old Cumberland beggar will remain in my mind’s picture for a long time. The poet’s observation about how the seemingly ‘useless’ beggar helps the villagers to ponder on disconcerting thoughts as old age, sickness, death and mortality set me thinking. The beggar also helps them to connect with their higher selves and helps them realize (if only momentarily) that there is a strange connection between all humans.

I genuinely believe that the greatest gift a man can possess is empathy and the ability to love. Without them, life is empty and devoid of purpose (Dumbledore insisted repeatedly that the incapacity to love is far worse than death) and from what I have learnt, both these qualities are to be cultivated and developed consciously.

Sir, I have been reading and thinking about what you said about utilitarianism (both in this post and in your comment on the post ‘A waking nightmare’) – how this philosophy (overused mindlessly) and the absurd insistence that technology and technical knowledge is the end of all education is responsible for the degeneracy of society (particularly it’s insensitivity). People cannot see any ‘use’ in being kind, charitable and thoughtful , in gaining knowledge about the self and striving to become a better human being when they have cars, gadgets, parties and make-overs to give them instantaneous sensual pleasure.

This indeed teaches us about the dangerous consequences of applying a certain philosophy in every sphere of life mindlessly.
Thank you for introducing us to this line of thought and re-opening the doors of philosophy for me.

As for your questions at the end, I do not know what exactly we mean by human worth but I believe it cannot be measured by one’s utility, race, community or financial standards. It would be edifying to know what your answer would be to the questions.
Thank you for the post, Sir.

Warm regards
Rashmi Datta

Suvro Chatterjee said...

You see how few responses have come in, Rashmi, whether to raise questions or answer some? Keeping in mind that my readership consists of 'highly educated' people by the current definition, that speaks volumes, doesn't it? Today's educated people a) neither know anything beyond technical stuff within very narrow spheres (how to pull a tooth, how to patch a boiler, how to apply a face pack), nor have been trained to think, or indeed wonder whether thinking may at all ever be needed in this lifetime. So, faced with issues like this, they can either yawn and shrug or find nothing at all to say.

I shall not be foolhardy enough to say that a man is precisely this or that, nor can I write an adequate essay in one comment. So let this much suffice for now: firstly, scientific reductionism applied to any description of humankind is both incredibly stupid (man is not just a machine, or just a consumer, or just a political animal, or just an artist, or even just a spiritual being with an unquenchable urge to transcend his limitations) and incredibly dangerous - because men in the large are all too flexible and vulnerable to brainwashing, so you can indeed make them believe they are just this or just that, and persuade them to live dull, shallow, meaningless, routine-bound and ultimately insignificant lives by being wholly moulded by one glib, simple, soul destroying doctrine: any doctrine will do! So while trying to answer 'What is man?' or 'what is a human being worth?' we ought both to take into account the greatest heights that men have conquered in all possible spheres, and to keep in mind the mildest stirrings in the humblest, simplest soul (and, in the current atmosphere, absolutely refuse to believe that the market does a good job in assigning values to either billionaire geniuses or to coolies...)

aranibanerjee said...

As I read the lines which follow, I get goosebums. In the midst of a professional cauldron, the over-eager ways of changing the lives of the old guards and to replace the word with the digit, they miss the counterpoint to utilitarianism.

Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye
Who have a broom still ready in your hands
To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,
Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate
Your talents, power, or wisdom, deem him not
A burthen of the earth!

There are so many things which cannot be quantified: sincerity, intelligence, emotional strength and yet the harbingers of change in on organization after another, in one country after another, proceed to usher in the 'scientific method'. In effect, one kind of bias is replaced by another, the country fop is replaced by the semi-literate technocrat. But, the same principles of exploitation continues.
I had a black sheep in my family--an uncle who once rode horses, drove American cars and who did nothing to earn all of these. Throughout my life, my father supported him. Himself a man of modest means, my father never responded to our protestations. One day, he told Mother that just as she would not have left a disabled son or daughter in the dumps, he or for that matter all of us cannot move at the same pace and yet cannot absolve ourselves of the need to care for those who have not moved on. The pace of men are various. The purpose of good politics and economics is to accommodate all of it. If we cannot distribute wealth equitable, how do we dare to expect progress and speed in an equal manner? But we do. And, that is the bad economics of Liberalism and the pitfall of utilitarianism.
With warm regards,

ananya mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,
I can relate this essay to the book 'Hard Times' where Dickens has successfully portrayed the morality of the utilitarian industrialist (Mr Gradgrind) and its impact on the possibilities of human happiness or intellectual development. Mr Gradgrind simply takes pride on his earthly or material achievements and goes on to destroy the lives of his children by giving them a rather repressed childhood-a childhood devoid of imagination, fantasy or wonder and hence treats them no better than mere automatons.There is also an instance of supreme irony in the novel where the little girl Cissy Jupe is almost compelled to acknowledge her ignorance about horses just bacause she cannot define it in strict dictionary terms though she has lived and worked with horses all her life.We also get a glimpse of the sullen socialism of London through the plight of the poor man Stephen Blackpool.It is very true that when we equate good or happiness with utility we simply barter our souls away by our material concerns. Similarly a man who has throughout his life done nothing worthwhile except for earning lots and lots of money is likely to be despised by all his acquaintances when he can no longer do so, so that ultimately only bitter and base associations of the past become the sole food of his memory during the last few days of his life. Therefore I too believe wholeheartedly that Humanity entirely depends on individual worth rather than what an individual can do and the rare ability to empathize with human beings, deal with our less fortunate fellow beings with understanding and compassion or fathom the suffering of the human soul are some of the things that really matter.
Well, I couldn't properly comprehend the entire essay but I will definitely ponder over it and come back to it again. Thank you for the post Sir.
Warm regards,