Buddhist philosophers like to talk about “two truths”, where one level of truth is conventional and provisional and the other level is absolute.

I find that distinction useful when thinking about utilitarianism.

There are many formulations of utilitarianism in the realm of ethics, but all of them have an optimization principle built into them: maximize something such as pleasure or happiness or alternately, minimize something else such as pain or suffering. Both of these can be subsumed into a general principle: act in a manner that maximizes utility (which is equivalent, mathematically, to acts that minimize negative utility).

All other things being equal, once we agree on a path of action, we would want to do so in a manner that maximizes utility. For example, all other things being equal, if I am hungry and craving chicken soup, I eat chicken soup.

Unfortunately, all other things aren't equal. My pleasure in eating chicken soup causes some pain to the chicken that the soup comes from. Is my pleasure greater than the chicken's pain? I would think not, for I can probably find pleasure and nourishment in eating something else, but killing the chicken is an irreversible process. There's an alternative to eating chicken soup but no alternative to being alive.

In other words, utilitarianism helps us reason in contingent circumstances but is unlikely to deliver ultimate grounds for comparison. There's an obvious rejoinder: are there any ultimate grounds for moral judgment?

One answer lies in the historical trajectory of ethics, which mostly passes through religious communities. If one's a member of a religious or moral community which considers certain entities sacred (eg: do not kill) then that tradition delivers ultimate grounds: if I am a member of that tradition, I maximize utility subject to the constraint that I do not kill.

Utilitarianism itself can't tell me where those ultimate principles come from. A bigger worry might be that there's no ultimate ground outside of a religious community, that all ethical principles are grounded in community specific ideals that can't be defended as absolute truths.

If I think that eating chicken is bad because I am a vegan and you think eating chicken is central to living a religious life in your community, we have no grounds for agreement. Until lab grown meat becomes good enough as a replacement for slaughtered meat, when we our differences become those of taste rather than morals.

There's a deeper point lurking in the background: the tension between exploiting uncertainty and ensuring certainty. When it comes to sacred values we want to ensure certainty – killing is bad with exceptions only in exceptional situations such as capital punishment (I don't agree with that one) or war (which I can imagine is unavoidable, especially if it's foisted on you).

Certainty oriented reasoning doesn't do well with optimization and can't be modeled probabilistically. In contrast, uncertain reasoning is eminently suited to optimization and can be modeled probabilistically. If privacy is a sacred value, we don't want systems implementing them to be probabilistically secure. We want them to be provably secure. In contrast, if I am trying to sell a widget, I want to learn how to maximize my sales percentage and probabilistic prediction is a perfectly sound way to reason.

Flourishing requires both forms of reasoning. Certainty is crucial as a bedrock – that's why human rights or animal rights are the right principles to adopt in foundational documents such as constitutions. At the same time, certainty is expensive and sucks up resources that could be used to benefit more beings.

Even if every tree is sacred, it might be better to water the forest from the air everyday instead of watering a hundred trees by hand daily and killing the forest because every tree gets watered only once a year on average.


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If you're Indian you know this already and if you aren't you may not care, but in this essay, I want to pay some attention to a new innovation in the annals of violence: the Whatsapp driven lynchings of muslims accused of being rustlers of cows, though like every other innovation, it's spread to lynchings of men and women accused of stealing children. We are having our Salem Witch Trial via social media moment.

TLDR Why lynchings now?

My take is that they are a cheap and targeted way of sowing terror in the Muslim community. In fact, they are better at achieving that goal than the previous innovation in the annals of violence, i.e., riots.

In comparison with riots, lynchings are less expected, more sharable and cause more helplessness in the minds of the victims.

In other words, truly shameful and disgusting and evil but with a malevolent logic that suits the times we are in.

Indiaspend recently released a visualization of all the cow related violence in India since 2010. Note how they are all concentrated around Delhi and almost all of them are in North India. We'll come back to that later.

Yes, it's the 21st century and it's an abomination that lynchings are even happening. Of course they have to end and of course everything about them is about terrorizing Muslims. Especially when you read that the police are doing absolutely nothing to save the victims.

Nevertheless, there's a gruesome logic to lynchings; one might argue that they are better than riots, for the latter kill people wholesale while the former are retail murders. They might also be more effective in achieving the political goals behind them. For that reason, they are the perfect terrorist acts. In fact, they might be the quintessential acts of terror in the age of social media.


Let's answer that by asking what an act of terror must accomplish:

  1. It must strike fear into the enemy.
  2. It should cost you little.
  3. It should make maximal use of media.

Now consider this headline:

What does this tell an Indian muslim? It says that your life is utterly unimportant (as a vegan, I am not inclined to say “your life is less important than an animal's”) that you can be assaulted out of the blue and when help arrives in the form of the police, they might do nothing or side with the oppressor.

At least you can prepare for riots. But if you can be picked out of the blue, assaulted and your beating is broadcast on a thousand Whatsapp channels, you are being told that all resistance is futile and that you have no power whatsoever.

Now to speculate on their political objective, we have known for a while that the emasculation of Indian muslims serves the current dispensation. The message that's being broadcast is that you can vote as an individual but you can't vote as a muslim, i.e., your community's interests don't matter and we will actively discourage you from voting as a community.

How might one accomplish the emasculation of an entire community? By facilitating a form of learned helplessness and what better way to accomplish that than to encourage small but targeted acts of extreme violence so that you lose all will to articulate and defend your political goals.

If riots constitute an industrial form of violence, lynchings are the violence of the information age. Quite similar to drone attacks, which too track their victims from far away and the bomb arrives out of the skies. It's the marriage of video-games, predictive analytics, social media spectacle and communal hatred. We'll see more of them for sure.

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