Friday, January 26, 2007

Dharma- Individual Collectivism

The cold war conflict between capitalism represented by US and communism represented by Russia may be a twentieth century phenomenon, but the conflict of the ideas each were representing was not. The conflict between individualism and collectivism is probably as old as the human history.

On one side is the extreme form of individualism where an individual’s interests hold supreme even at the cost of others in the society; where an individual can amass as much resources as he can just coz he is more capable/lucky than others. On the other side is the extreme form of collectivism where the individual is nothing but a social animal; where the individual has to blindly follow the whims of the mob.

On one side the challenge is excessive selfishness which will lead in constant conflict between various groups. On the other side the challenge is how to motivate the person to aspire for excellence when the returns he gets are anyway the same and when you are pulled down when you try to raise above the mediocre.

Which one of these should we then choose. The answer everyone will give is balance both of them. True, the secret is the balance. But the thousand dollar question is how to strike it. How to create a model where these two aspects of individual good and collective good are accommodated in harmony with each other?

It is in this context the eastern concept of Dharma comes to our rescue. The simplest definition is “Dharma is that which connects, relates effectively and harmoniously an individual to the collectivities” (like family, community, society, nation, humanity and the whole world and beyond). Thus bringing harmony with all others around is Dharma. Dharma holds things together. As Kumari Nivedita in a talk observes “When I think of others' rights, it is Dharma. See the beauty, we did not start by asserting our rights. Rather we started by talking about duties. If each starts asserting rights, there will be only fights as we are seeing now. So each one is told to follow his/her Dharma. The husband’s Dharma becomes the right of the wife and wife's Dharma becomes the right of the husband. The mother's Dharma becomes the right of the children. The children's Dharma becomes the right of the parents.”

The motive is internal, not external; therefore we need extraneous stimuli. Unlike the communist nations, we did not need an external state to force us to be responsible towards the society. At the same, the collective has been made part of the individuals thinking.

Let me illustrate my point further by using Prisoner’s dilemma situation. The classical prisoner's dilemma (PD) is as follows (I am reproducing the wikipedia article on PD here): Two suspects, A and B, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both stay silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a two-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. However, neither prisoner knows for sure what choice the other prisoner will make. So this dilemma poses the question: How should the prisoners act?

The dilemma can be summarized thus:

Prisoner B Stays Silent

Prisoner B Betrays

Prisoner A Stays Silent

Both serve six months

Prisoner A serves ten years
Prisoner B goes free

Prisoner A Betrays

Prisoner A goes free
Prisoner B serves ten years

Both serve two years

Let's assume the protagonist prisoner is working out his best move. If his partner stays quiet, his best move is to betray as he then walks free instead of receiving the minor sentence. If his partner betrays, his best move is still to betray, as by doing it he receives a relatively lesser sentence than staying silent. At the same time, the other prisoner's thinking would also have arrived at the same conclusion and would therefore also betray.

If reasoned from the perspective of the optimal outcome for the group (of two prisoners), the correct choice would be for both prisoners to cooperate with each other, as this would reduce the total jail time served by the group to one year total. Any other decision would be worse for the two prisoners considered together. When the prisoners both betray each other, each prisoner achieves a worse outcome than if they had cooperated.

We can observe that the apparent rational path (ie., to betray) and the real rational path (ie., not to betray) are different. The basic structure of the game is reflected better in situations that larger groups, perhaps entire societies, face. A common view is that a multi-player PD structure of Garret Hardin. Each member of a group of neighboring farmers prefers to allow his cow to graze on the commons, rather than keeping it on his own inadequate land, but the commons will be rendered unsuitable for grazing if it is used by more than some threshold number use it. More generally, there is some social benefit B that each member can achieve if sufficiently many pay a cost C. We might represent the payoff matrix as follows:

n or fewer choose C more than n choose C
D 0 B
The cost C is assumed to be a negative number. The "temptation" here is to get the benefit without the cost, the reward is the benefit with the cost, the punishment is to get neither and the sucker payoff is to pay the cost without realizing the benefit. So the payoffs are ordered B > (B+C) > 0 > C. As in the two-player game, it appears that D weakly dominates C for all players, and so rational players would choose D and achieve 0, while preferring that everyone would choose C and obtain C+B.

Unlike the more straightforward generalization, this matrix does reflect common social choices -- between depleting and conserving a scarce resource, between using polluting and non-polluting means of manufacture or disposal, and between participating and not participating in a group effort towards some common goal. When n is small, it represents a version of what has been called the "volunteer dilemma". A group needs a few volunteers, but each member is better off if others volunteer.

The multiple PD game diagramed above has a somewhat different character than the two-player PD. First, even if each player's moves are entirely independent of the others, the alternatives represented by the columns in the commons matrix above are no longer independent of the alternatives represented by the rows. My choosing C necessarily increases the chances that more than n people will choose C.

This demonstrates very elegantly the moral dilemmas we face everyday- whether to stick to the rules even though they may some times be “apparently” unfavorable, or seek the path of immediate self-interest. How can we make the individuals align their individual good with collective good without any special effort? It is here that the concept of duty-centric dharma comes in. In the above multiple PD my choosing of C necessarily increases the chances that more than n people will choose C. In the same manner each individual sticking to Dharma also increases the chance of overall people sticking to it thus ensuring order.

There is a famous dialogue which comes in Mahabharata. Draupadi, obviously fed up with her suffering, once asked Yudhishthira, “What have you got by following Dharma? You have been only suffering in your life.” Yudhishthira replies, “Draupadi, I know you say this not because you really mean it but because of the extreme sufferings and humiliations you underwent. I follow Dharma not because by following it I get something. I follow it because it is to be followed.”

We are no longer bothered whether others follow a righteous path or not. Hundred people may not follow their dharma, but that is no reason for me to be unrighteous. I follow the right path, for its own sake, immaterial of what others do.

Thus the focus shifts from “are others following right path?” to “am I following the right path?” …And to the Hindus, thanks to the concept of Karma this line of thinking comes much easily as concept of Karma ensures that no good or bad action ever goes waste without producing the results. If I follow the path of Dharma, I may not be able to get the results immediately or in a way I expected them, but it is bound to give good results.

Let me conclude by quoting Pirsig in a book on Hindu-Buddhist Dharma “Dharma is duty. It is not external duty which is arbitrarily imposed by others. It is not any artificial set of conventions which can be amended or repealed by legislation. Neither is it internal duty which is arbitrarily decided by one's own conscience. Dharma is beyond all questions of what is internal and what is external. Dharma is Quality itself, the principle of "rightness" which gives structure and purpose to the evolution of all life and to the evolving understanding of the universe which life has created."

This will be the ancient Hindu response to the challenges thrown up by the 19th and 20th century ideologies.

PS: My approach here was based on utilitarian grounds. However, lemme clarify that utility is not the test of truth. The path of Dharma has to be followed, irrespective of the considerations whether it is beneficial or not. My only idea was to point out that even on the utilitarian grounds following one’s Dharma makes sense.