Robert Pirsig, the author of 1970s cult-book, ‘Zen and the art of motor cycle maintenance’, gave a quirky description for metaphysics. He said metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty thousand page menu but no food. One of my colleagues during my PG days, have an even outlandish description of philosophy. He said philosophy is something (this was around 2002, when there were not many professional private educational institutions) which people who do not get admission in professional courses or in any meaningful courses like commerce or science take for getting a bachelors degree!
While Pirsig was in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek humor, my friend was just reflecting the popular impressions of the laity on philosophy as a meaningless, fruitless discourse, far removed from reality and not necessary for the making a living.
However, a few centuries ago this was not the case. Higher education was indeed learning philosophy- and many of the early treatises of sciences were embedded in philosophy. Indeed, science developed out of what was termed as ‘natural philosophy’. Issac Newton considered his main discourses as part of ‘natural philosophy’. Pioneering physicist Robert Boyle called his work on controlled experiments on properties of vacuum pump as ‘experimental philosophy’.
But as science started to roll out of the methods of ‘experimental philosophy’, what was left in philosophy was the issues that could not be addressed by the available methodological gaze of the sciences.
But is philosophy important or relevant?
I would say almost all the discourse which we in media and public places have philosophical footprints in it. I would say that children generally develop philosophical positions as they grow. They may maintain, reform or revise their philosophical disposition throughout their life. And they die after having lived a life epitomizing one or another philosophical position.
Every piece of media debates, political controversies, social discourse, economic reforms have philosophical positions embedded in it. People agree or disagree with that view, again based on their preformed philosophical views.
Let take the example cited by Amartya Sen in his book ‘The idea of justice’. Three children- Anne, Bob, and Carla- fight for a flute.
Anne claims the flute because she is the only one who knows to play it. Bob wants it because he says he is the poorest of them with no toys for him at all. Carla wants the flute because it was she who made it after working on it diligently for many months.
The reasons cited by the children claiming the flute are all true, and they do not disagree with it. The issue is whether whose reason is good enough to make a choice.
Sen says that the dispute here is between utilitarians ( who feel that those who can utilize the object best should get the item), economic egalitarians ( who believe that the poor should get the priority no matter who can utilize it best or who have invented it in the first place) and libertarians ( who believe that those who put in the labour should get the benefit too).
Thus, Anne advances a utilitarian argument- a device/object should be distributed to a person who can best use it, irrespective of the fact that who created it or who is deprived of it. Bob advances an egalitarian argument- a device/object should be distributed to those who are deprived of it, irrespective of the fact that who created it or who knows to operate it. Carla puts forth a libertarian argument- the device should be left to those who created it. The creator of the object should be allowed to decide how to use it, irrespective of the fact that there are people who are deprived of the device or there are people who can put it for best use.
Now, let’s substitute the Anne, Bob, and Carla fight in the context of two political and economic issues. The issue of taxing the superrich and the issuing of price regulation of novel anticancer medicines.
Scenario 1: It is estimated that by the most conservative estimate that it cost about 100 million dollars to bring about a new drug. The industry estimate for this is $ 800 million. That is each new drug cost anything between Rs.500 crore to Rs. 4400 crore. Within a year or two of the release of the new drug into the market, Indian drug companies replicate it within a fraction of the cost of its presumed cost and market it with a 50-75% margin of its Indian production costs, but about 25% of the price of its Western original. Now, suppose Indian government wants to regulate the price further and clamps down on the Indian pharma companies to make the drug available with say 10-20% of the manufacturing cost. But the politicians who make the new regulation state that if such a regulation is not enacted vast majority of Indian patients would never be able to buy the new drugs and would die without treatment.
Scenario 2: Vast swathes of Indian rural hinterland is ridden with poverty and squalor. There are people who do not have money to buy one square meal per day. Most of their children are malnourished. Many of them die young. As many children die young, couples in these regions of India would like to have 5-6 children before completing their family. They aspire for larger families because they expect high childhood mortality rate. But if these children indeed survive, parents are not able to feed them properly or give them proper education or sanitation. Many of them will be underfed and undereducated. Most of the families will be living on daily wages jobs with uncertain job availability. A significant number of the earning men will be into alcoholism. These create social stressors primarily because of the unpredictability of the future. Because of poor psychosocial, nutritional and educational exposures majority of the children will be socially and cognitively underperforming as adults- a significant number of them will be trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and malnourishment. The government wants to help these people. It wants to give free food entitlement to these people. It requires a huge amount of money. But the government does not have enough fund. It tends to borrow huge sum from foreign agencies under a loan whose tenure lasts 15-20 years. The government plans to reclaim the remaining fund by taxing the superrich.
Superrich include the industrialist who has enough money to invest in manufacturing units to pirate the drugs developed from the West. The business margin of 50-75% is what prompts the industrialists to keep ready infrastructure necessary to reverse engineer drugs developed in the West. As the Government is already financially strained it cannot invest any more than providing for two square meal for the poor. It clearly has no money to set correct the rural infrastructure necessary to provide education to all the poor. It would like just to make sure that everyone is fed three times a day.
As the tenure of the loan is 15-20 years, the Government needn’t worry of repaying it immediately. It needs to worry only if it stays in power for the next three terms. But the industrialist needs to worry about the regulation that would cut into his profit in the drug business. He thinks if the Government want to keep the cost of the marketed cancer drugs to less than 20% of the profit, there is no point in maintaining his infrastructure in anticipation of drug release in the West. Furthermore, if the Government increases its tax on him, he would not have the reserve to tide over lean periods. So he thinks the best option is to give some donation to the party of the legislator who wishes to bring about the legislation on the price regulation of the drug and save his industry. His compeers also sense this, and they in unison compensates the major political parties who are desperately needed funds for the upcoming elections.
As the political parties are not government funded, they need money to run their offices and campaign for election. The money they collect as donations from the grassroots is barely enough to sustain their organization. Besides many people in the poverty-struck areas of the electorate demands incentives to cast their vote. As the volumes are enormous this would require vast sums of money. Therefore, the organizational-sensed ( rather than ideologically sensed) politician would not mind taking the donation whenever it is readily forthcoming. He would just need to stagger the process of the new drug regulation for some time until it gets deluged in the issues that rage during the election time.
As there is supposed poverty elevation program of free-food supply to the poor would garner the support of the voters, and yet its financial pinch would be felt only 1-2 decades later, the Government can easily be relaxed. In other words, the two piece of legislation described in scenario 1 and scenario 2 would be win-win for the Government, and the amendment of the scenario 1 action would be a win-win for Government and the superrich pharma companies as well.
In both these issues, the Indian opposition parties would be with the Government. No one would be against the legislation. If at all there is any dissent, it will be on the methods and means of the legislation, or on the extend of benefit that needs to give to the poor.
But had similar scenarios had unfolded in the United States, the situation would be quite the contrary. There will be strong opposition against regulating the prices of medicines. There will be even more uproar against taxing the superrich. There will also murmurs against cross-subsiding poor from the pockets of the rich. While the latter dissent may not be very vocal, the dissent on the first two points would be made so shrill that the real dissent on the latter issue would be implicitly addressed. Most likely than not the bill will be stalled or staggered.
The essential difference between the two approaches in two different countries is the difference between the philosophical disposition of the two nations. While Indians would have greater sympathy for Bob, Americans would have greater sympathy for Carla. If the children were in China, and the flute playing is an avenue that could get the nation an Olympic gold ( so as to say), the flute will land up in the hands of Anne, for the very reason that Anne alone will be able to put it for the best use ( and maybe get the nation an Olympic gold) The difference would be marked if the object of contention is an essential commodity like a food item rather than an item of entertainment. Indian political parties zeal in giving freebies to the poor is a reflection of such an approach- All such efforts involve cross-taxation of the well-to-do or borrowing from aid organizations. The Indian bias is that of egalitarianism, while that American is that of libertinism. The Chinese position will be that of utilitarianism.
If you need to advocate a contrarian position to that particular social milieu ( libertinism in India, and egalitarianism in America), you need to have a firm grip of your central convictions- and that conviction is provided by philosophical reasoning. Generally, good political leaders have such rigorous insights, and that greatly determine their success in their campaigns. India’s founding leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and post-war European leaders like Clement Atlee and Willy Brandt showed such impressive understanding of the political canvas that their rules are still benchmarked generations later. Success can happen without it too- but generally to undertake a contrarian direction when the instincts of culture tell something else, one needs to have a strong understanding of the central arguments of philosophy.
But this writer doubts that philosophy alone can do the job. If it was the case, philosophy would have still rooted in our higher education curriculum. The outcomes of the empirical sciences can give inputs to clarify many of the contentious questions of philosophical nature, and provide a more-or-less closure to the debates that have been raging for centuries. Thus, philosophy and empirical sciences can go back and forth to clarify issues that are fundamental to a debate. This generally happens implicitly in most of the occasions, but only that people are not aware that they are engaging in one or another philosophical position. Here we need to differentiate philosophical reasoning from philosophology. While philosophical reasoning is concerned with empirical problems which we face day in and day out, ‘philosophology’ is the study of philosophy as what the philosophers of yore had said. Just as in science, we don’t study what scientists said in various ages, in the study of philosophical reasoning we need only to learn the basics of an argument without excessive refrain to the historical details of the positions philosophers.
Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn has used the empirical information on the sociological behavior of scientific communities at different junctures in the history of science to come up with a new conception of the manner in which science operates. This could not have happened in the era of Aristotle or Plato when the empirical information that was available to Kuhn was not existent. Similarly, empirical social and economic outcomes can validate the relative merits of philosophical positions and can arbitrate their relative popularity. For instance, it would have been difficult to ascertain the relative merits of libertine, egalitarian or utilitarian positions for social and political decision making until about 10-20 years ago. This was when the Western block that mainly represented libertine considerations stood against an equally impressive record of egalitarian and utilitarian policies of the Soviet bloc countries.
We will examine these issues later. But for the two scenarios we posed, are the legislation in the right direction?
From our native stand-which is essentially a philosophical disposition of a national character ( I would examine the evolution of this ‘national character’ in a subsequent chapter)-YES. It is always better to help people who cannot themselves provide for the basic requirement of food. There is no doubt about it. And it is important that prices of essential medications like anticancer drugs be kept below a limit. Both are actions in the right direction. And the price of the free-food bill can be borne by the higher tax to the super-rich. Right?
The answer is a big NO.
Why? Let’s examine.
Let’s start by examining what is at stake. There are three propositions.
One, it is better to redistribute wealth so that everyone has an equal amount of what is available. While this is an extreme position of a philosophical disposition, we see variations of it in different shades. For instance, it is okay to cut down the wealth of those who earn a lot, to provide for the basic requirements of those who don’t have enough for sustenance. Now, here there is a question of what is ‘basic requirement’. Is it food alone? or is it food and shelter? or food, shelter, and healthcare? or food, shelter, and education? Or food, shelter, healthcare and education of their children? Or food, shelter, healthcare, education of the children and a sustenance pension? Or food, shelter, healthcare, education, sustenance pension and old age care?
This philosophical disposition is, as we discussed previously, egalitarianism, and is fundamental to the political beliefs of communism and socialism. The spectrum of the extremity of its espousal indicates the spectrum ranging from communism at one hand to socialism and social democratic beliefs on the other hand. We saw its extreme interpretation in the erstwhile Soviet Union and sees its variations in the systems seen in Scandinavian countries and perhaps in China, especially in its original conception.
To draw perspective, the scenario one is our Government’s limited espousal of this doctrine- with the ‘basic requirement’ defined in this particular instance as ‘food’.
Two, it is important that businessman should not make huge profits on drugs which are essential. ‘Essential drugs’ here are those drugs whose absence will deleteriously affect the health of the concerned patients in a significant manner. Now, do all drugs satisfying the above-mentioned definition falls under the category of ‘essential drugs’? What about drugs ( that are yet to be manufactured or even innovated? What about ‘drugs’ that is ‘in the’ mind of the innovator? What about drugs that have been released into the market by the Western companies, but the Indian re-engineering specialist has only ‘thought’ of manufacturing it? Or what about those drugs which are released in western markets ( but which no Indian patient can buy because of its cost) that the Indian reengineering specialist has not even thought of re-engineering it, but probably have the capacity to do it? In the latter two situations, will the Indian government force the Industrialist to make the drug that could be immediately branded as ‘essential’ and regulated to be sold with under 10-20% profit margin? If the Government do the last stated option, it will become so illiberal as to be called ‘totalitarian’, and this is an unlikely state of affairs (If it indeed choose to be so, there are itself own series of downstream effect on the ‘thought’ or ‘capacity’ of reengineering itself- I shall discuss it on another occasion). If on the contrary, the government stops short of applying its regulation on marketed drugs, the immediate downstream effect is that the industrialist stops thinking of reengineering the drugs anymore, for the ultimate motive of the industrialist is not to charity, but his balance sheet. If he thinks that 10-20% profit per drug would not be enough to maintain his future capacity to reengineer new drugs, and make a comfortable profit, then it would be better he refrain from reengineerring anymore. The results would be our list of essential drugs, will stop at the year the new regulation was enacted.
The reason why the industrialist should be allowed to keep a handsome profit is that ‘reengineering’ is not a healthy practice that needs to be continued endlessly. But we do not have an alternative because the infrastructural and intellectual capital ( this include Universities and academic research groups doing extensive fundamental research, and developing biomedical formulations and biomedical companies to promote their research outcome as there in the western world) needed for developing a newer drug is just not there in the country. If only the industrialist garners enough capital to fund such high risk, return unpredictable investment, can he think of ( even think of) making original ‘essential drugs’. Also, if only he keeps a handsome profit will he continue to pledge his money in this thankless, ‘priceless’ process of reengineering ( in other words called as ‘piracy’)
So the government cannot just favour Bob and Anne ( be egalitarian and utilitarian) and think that Clare will continue to make devices like flute, so that Bobs being poor, and Annes, being proficient in flute playing ( and thus can make the best use of it- much like our cancer patients), can continue to get their supply of flutes. ( flute being used in a metaphor for innovation)
In other words, egalitarian and utilitarian positions, although appealing to our immediate instincts ( that are nothing but the implicit philosophical dispositions we have cultivated), are not, by itself, viable for their own perpetuation.
But is it okay to have a vast hinterland of poverty and squalor as described at the beginning of this essay? Definitely not.
Their need to be definite action to tackle these issue. But it should not be by resorting to egalitarianism. Not by making superrich less rich, as a general principle. Then what is the solution?
The solution is a massive limited-term investment that could help poor people to get out of their ‘poverty traps’. This is not by giving them sustenance means like food or limited cash, but by investing heavenly in making them by themselves get out of the poverty trap- by giving good quality basic education- this includes literacy and awareness campaign directed at the adults and compulsory 12-year education for their children. Food and sustenance dole should be to motivate the poor people to participate in the primary campaign of literacy and education drive. For instance, schemes and innovations like the mid-day meal scheme can be initiated to capture children in the education stream. Incremental and long-term incentives like providing free-houses for poor people who have to send children for at least 7 years of education can be initiated. Such appropriately attractive incentives can be linked to all poverty-ejecting measures like immunization schemes, family planning measures and health care complying behaviour.
We have empirical evidence that such measures will create a virtuous cycle helping the whole community to evolve into an economically viable self-perpetuating situation. The case of Kerala and to less extend that of Tamil Nadu are historical examples to cite. Developmental economists Abijith Banerjee and Esther Duflo have provided controlled experimental data to the same point.
Where will the government get enough to fund to initiate such a project?
This is a tricky issue. We cannot make sweeping statements on this without knowing about the exact figures. But what we can definitely do is to restructure the subsidies the government is already giving according to the ‘credits’ that people will gain when they comply to the requirements of the ‘poverty-ejecting’ programs. Thus there can be credits for participating in literacy and general awareness campaign, credits for sending children for education up to 7-8 years, complying with immunization program, maintain regular attendance in community health centres, complying with the lifestyle adjustment recommendation of the health care providers ( quitting/reducing smoking. Quitting/reducing alcohol intake, take regular medication for treatable disease with health consequences like hypertension and diabetics). These credits can be linked to the incentives through smartcard like the aadhar card ( incentive like petrol subsidy, public distribution system, subsidy in rail fares, subsidy for property tax etc). Such initiative can help the government to link the massive subsidies it is already giving ( in petroleum products, rail fare tariff, fertilizer, and electricity subsidy etc) to tangible public benefits. An excess money that is needed can be borrowed from Aid agencies. NGOs can be encouraged ( with incentives again) to work in tandem with flagship government project on poverty-ejecting measures. The external debt that government incurs in funding such a project should be considered as the ‘essential’ debt that the government HAS to incur.
It is expected that such a debt will translate to self-perpetuating benefits as seen in states like Kerala and Tamilnadu.
Even with all these efforts, however, a certain group of people may not still benefit themselves. In Kerala for instance, where benefits have been evident in almost all levels of the population, the only group of people where we encountered poor response to the overall societal upliftment is the Adivasi communities who dwells in the periphery of the Western Ghat ranges. There can be many reasons for this, the most important of which is the absence of cultural receptiveness for change. However, without tangible evidence, we cannot state that the Adivasi communities in Kerala were culturally non-receptive, although there are many anecdotal accounts to this ( which, of course, cannot be taken as evidence). The establishment of participatory credit linked incentive system, again with help of empirical sciences and technology innovation, would help the government to track the relationship between participatory credits and the social upliftment. If, indeed, there is a relationship between credits and social upliftment in both direction ( significant correlation between credits and social upward mobility and between the absence of credits and social stagnation), then the government should take a policy proposal that is essentially philosophical.
The question will be, Is it okay that the government continues to cross-subsidize individuals who are not receptive to any of the programs the government have initiated for their own benefit, provided it is proven that the lack of compliance is not due to lack of accessibility?
Generally, when such question is asked, the second part of the proposition, of the proof of non-compliance despite accessibility, will not available, and egalitarians will continue to argue for Universal subsidies. This is a situation when philosophical questions are asked without empirical support. But if the credit-rating system monitors compliance vis a vis accessibility and usage, and provides empirical evidence to this effect, that part of the argument will be silenced. There is a possibility that egalitarians being egalitarians will continue to maintain their position citing some other fancy argument.
The position before an ‘empirically constructed philosophy’ would be to reframe those questions as testable hypotheses for the next set of investigations.
The fact of the matter is that Universal subsidy is not economically viable. Beyond this, there is also philosophical untenability of the whole demand which can be clarified by the analysis of empirical foundation of human progress. This analysis is not straightforward because the empirical data that influence philosophers are generally contaminated by historical and cultural asymmetry that make it difficult for it to be used to approve or disapprove a particular line of reasoning.
You need philosophical reasoning to clarify these issues. It helps you to get over your instinctive tribal biases and provide a balanced view of the world that would ultimately help in sustaining progress. It will help in avoiding entangled in meaningless conflicts. It provides clarity of thoughts when you are beset with dilemmas of immediacy and expectancy.