What is good and what is bad?

Robert Aumann at IISc
Dr. Robert Aumann at IISc.

This week, I went to listen to Dr. Robert Aumann, the Nobel Prize Winner for Economics in 2005, for his theory based on Game Theory. In short, the thing for which he got the Nobel Prize is:

In an infinitely repeated game, the players tend to reach cooperative outcomes.

Aumann's Nobel Lecture
Dr. Aumann’s Nobel Lecture

Using this theory, he also explained that to avoid war in the long run, countries should arm themselves. I don’t remember the exact process, but I was pretty convinced by the proof then. (Like you care…)

Anyway, the point is, that I had never heard such profound philosophy in such simplified language. And that got me and Aiyush ( or, Aiyush and I 🙂 ) thinking about the more basic things in life. At some point it went too far, and I caught myself arguing that if I was in Sri Lanka, I was in the Pacific Ocean also (Actually at this point my logical brain was swatting my philosophical brain with a newspaper to shut up, to stop making a fool of myself. By the way, I still stand by my argument.)

Anyway, just before we parted for our siesta, Aiyush left me with a thought. What is good? Is it a subjective societal definition? Or is there an absolute gold-standard to which we all should be abiding with? His comments:

I think society follows an algorithm: Whenever an activity takes place that reduces the comfort-level of any one person, then that activity is deemed to be bad.

To which, I said, Don’t you mean the comfort-level of the society as a whole?

He replied:

No. For example, when a pick-pocket picks a millionaire’s pocket, it is bad, even though it hurt the millionaire much less than it helped the pick-pocket, and in a sense, picking the millionaire’s pocket raised the comfort-level of the society.

It is using this very argument that war is justified as good. Hurting the society as a whole is ok.

The algorithm works in most cases e.g. the US took notice when Cindy Sheehan started protesting outside Bush’s ranch. That’s when a lot of people took notice of the fact that the Iraq War was bad.

Is that the only definition of good and bad? For a person, who has lived most of his life, playing by the rules in a religious text, this is kind of hard to reconcile. But, I am a reasonable man. I must allow for all possibilities.

Could there be any exceptions to this rule? My mind darts to Robinhood and his Merry Men and The Great Depression.

In both cases, the rich were robbed to give to the poor, (in the crudest sense, that’s what I think the New Deal was all about, by imposing restrictions on all industries.) But both Robinhood and FDR were and are still acclaimed as heroes. Am I missing something?

What about the slum-clearing movements that happen routinely in Delhi?

All this clouds my judgement. All of them had a goal they had to achieve. And the goal was decidedly good. Robinhood – equality; The New Deal – macroeconomic stabilisation; Slum-clearing – Good for the city.

So, does a good action have to have a good goal at the end? So I could invert the definition for bad, to reach to another definition for bad.

If a person carries out an action, that is decidedly in his benefit only, apart from the basic action that is required for his sustenance, then that is bad.

So an ideal society, would be where everybody works for everybody else? The ideal state for communism? But as it is now known, that is untenable.

But since, that is one of the societal definitions of bad, people want society in that state. So people would generally tend to judge bad and good by that definition, but a reasonable assumption would be that given the choice, a person would tend to follow this standard only when it suits him; which could explain why there is so much ambiguity about good and bad.

[contd.]

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