Am I a Good Person?

For the longest time, I had no doubt that I was a good person, a conviction that contributed a great deal to my personal identity and self assurance. Of late though, I’ve come to doubt my own goodness, and in the process, been facing a bit of an identity crisis. This led me to lay down a personal framework for leading a good life.

Why be good?

Why does being good matter so much in the first place? For most people, being good is almost a mental axiom, planted by repeated conditioning by family, society and academic organizations. If these axioms aren’t reinforced with rational explanations soon enough though, they may fall apart at the base during trying times, when our moral inclinations conflict with personal gains. To this end, I think it’s important to clearly understand why we should attempt to be good people:

1. Religion: All religions recommend that its followers lead a moral life and care for the well-being of others. This alone should be sufficient cause as long as a person’s belief in his or her religion is unshakeable. If religious edicts don’t do the job, ideas such as karma and adrsta phala, or perhaps the fear of purgatory and the desire for salvation, might do the trick.

2. Eudaimonia: According to Aristotle, eudaimonia, a life of true happiness and well-being, can best be achieved by being virtuous towards others. In other words, we maximize our own happiness by being good to others. Note that eudaimonia is characterized as true happiness, which is asserted as being superior to hedonistic pleasure seeking. In short, goodness is the only path to happiness.

3. Ethical Frameworks: Utilitarianism is the school of thought that individuals should aim to maximize happiness in this world; if you subscribe to this school, it follows that you should be good to others to maximize global happiness. Deontology, specifically Kant’s categorical imperative, postulates that you should always treat humanity as an end and not as a means. In simpler words, you should respect human dignity and rights; it follows from this that being good to others is the right thing to do.

The next logical question to ask here is why one must be ethical in the first place. There’re many ways to approach this issue, but the argument that puts me at ease is that ethical frameworks are an evolutionary imperative – humankind evolves when humans learn to treat each other through the prism of mutually beneficial sets of logical rules. Thus, in the interest of evolution, we ought to be ethical, and ethics in turn command that we be good.

Evaluating your own goodness

Few, if any, would categorize themselves as bad people, but this surely doesn’t make us all good people by default. How then can we decide if we’ve been rational beings and heeded our calls to goodness? I’ve come to evaluate myself through the lens of six questions, laid out along two distinct spheres of life:

1. Family, Friends and Colleagues: The people with whom we come in contact during the course of our lives. For most of us, our impact on this world is measured by our impact on this small group of people. Here’s my checklist for my interaction with this group:
a. Have I consciously hurt anyone either through my action or inaction?
b. Have I been empathetic enough to recognize when I have unwilling hurt someone through my action or inaction?
c. To those who seek my affection, where appropriate, have I sufficiently obliged?

These points may seem obvious at first read, but I find that they’re an effective reference point for my daily interactions. You may find that a misplaced remark has caused someone grief, or a delay in a long-awaited phone-call has left someone longing. The keyword here is empathy, the ability to look at things from the other person’s perspective.

2. Society/The World: What of the world outside of regular human interactions? In this era of globalization, our actions resonate beyond just a block radius, or a city boundary. The extend to the entire world, including all that’s living, non-living and yet to be born. My checklist for this group:
a. Have I knowingly hurt anyone or anything either through my action or inaction?
b. Do I have sufficient knowledge of the impact of my actions or inactions on society, either upstream or downstream?
c. Have I been proactive in leaving the world a better place than I found it, and rectifying wrong even when I’ve not been the cause?

These may seem obvious too, but chances are you haven’t been mindful of them. For instance:
– When you purchased your last iPhone, did you know that your purchase implicitly involved weighing the impact of your purchase on migrant labourers in China against a potential job-creating boost to the economy? If not, you may have violated the knowledge requirement of #2b.
– In choosing to pick-up a new plastic bag at the supermarket instead of bringing your own, you might’ve contributed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and violated #2a.
– By choosing to binge on the Internet rather than helping out at that homeless shelter next door, you’re probably not doing justice to #2c.

Note the two keywords highlighted in this section – empathy and knowledge. In this suggested framework, becoming more empathetic and actively learning more about the world is a moral imperative. In other words, merely being kind and loving in response to day to day actions is not enough. You’ve got to do more; you’ve got to make an active effort to understand those around you (empathy) and learn more about the wider impact of your actions (knowledge).

So, is your author a good person?

I think I’ve done decent job on the family and friends front, but not so on the society front. Yes I’ve turned vegan out of concern for animal welfare, minimized my wastage of plastic and electricity, and contributed towards job creation through my startup, but I haven’t yet done enough. Considering the tools that the Internet and my education have given me, I know far too less about the goods I consume. For all my desire to do something about poverty and hunger, I still walk past hungry homeless people every night on my way back from work feeling helpless. Even though I’m a well-paid engineer in Silicon Valley, I contribute far too little to causes I believe in.

Having said this, do I think lesser of myself? What of my identity crisis? Now that I’ve laid down my thoughts clearly, I find that I’m less concerned about fears of self-inadequacy, and more concerned that by failing to be a better person, I’m acting irrationally, jeopardizing my eudaimonic well-being and violating my evolutionary imperative. That’s a scary thought if ever there was one.

Govind’s Digest #2

World

It wasn’t too long ago that US troops left Iraq, an indication that the country was ready for self management. Just a couple of years later, the country is falling apart at its seams. ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) took over Iraq’s second city, Mosul, with troops numbering just 15,000 (as compared to 270,000 Iraq army soldiers). Footage of inhumane and arbitrary executions of Iraqi soldiers are particularly shocking. While on the one hand hundreds of thousands of people have fled their cities, many have returned claiming that the militants are doing a better job of providing for the people. All of this raises a lot of questions of the US + UK, including whether they left Iraq too soon, and whether they are to be blamed for not foreseeing the Shia/Sunni rifts that’ve emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein. As always, oil interests of the West are just a media backstory, as the rest of us look on with concern at the apparent barbarity.
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Taliban militants attacked Karachi airport, leaving 28 people dead. In retaliation, the government/army has initiated efforts to snuff out militants in Waziristan. This sets back the possibility of a peaceful negotiation between Pakistan and the Taliban. As an outsider, I’m also quite concerned by the brazenness with which these militants were able to target such a key centre of Pakistani operations.
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In India, Narendra Modi took a few steps in the right direction last week:
1. Announced that private sector talent will be considered to run state-run companies. The public sector could do with competition and efficiency. Link
2. Indicated that tough economic measures, that might pinch citizens in the short run, will be taken. While we don’t know what these measures are yet, the government’s willingness to look beyond re-election prospects and appeasement is encouraging. Link
3. Gave his first speech in the parliament, in which he extended a hand of friendship to the Congress and others, talked up remote learning in villages, talked of valuing ability over degrees and more. Link

Tech

Tesla gave up rights on all of its patents. Great news for the world in general, ofcourse. What’s in this for Tesla? For one, this might attract more talent and goodwill. The killer reason here, however, might just be that more competition for Tesla will help grow the electric car market, and in turn, allow its suppliers to deliver better range, cost and quality through economies of scale. Competition from other companies is the least of Tesla’s concerns at the moment; growing the electric car market, even at a cost, is the bigger concern.
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Talk about founder depression doing the rounds, TechInAsia -> Sam Altman -> TechCrunch. In my ~2.5 years as a startup founder, I’ve learned to internalize a few key points, which I think also apply to all highly motivated individuals:
1. Don’t derive self-worth from external factors. If revenue, fund-raising, publicity or for that matter, others’ opinions of you, are what make you tick, you might find it difficult when the going gets tough. On the other hand, if your happiness is tied to the process of building and disseminating your work, you’ll never be left emotionally susceptible.
2. Doing a startup is no reason to forego the psychological, emotional or physical aspects of life. Find time to exercise and keep in touch with the people you love no matter what. In fact, I’d say doing a startup is no reason to forego your avocations either; your alternate interests needn’t hinder your contribution to your startup. After all, your happiness and health is in the best interests of your company.
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Anti-Uber protests in several parts of Europe, most recently in the UK. My first inclination was to label these protests as misguided in the larger picture since they’re anti-competitive, but an understanding of the history of regulation of taxis to maintain supply and reasonable wages does help understand the opposing narrative.
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Sport

Rafael Nadal wins his 9th French Open in ten years, unprecedented to say the least. He’s just three grand slams behind Federer, and in my books, odds on to become the greatest of all time.
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Corruption allegations against the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and Sepp Blatter’s potential re-election to the post of FIFA president have brought the mess that is FIFA to light. A non-profit with a billion dollars in cash reserves run in an opaque and corrupt manner, headed by a septuagenarian with a possible Napoleon complex, governing the most loved sport in the world.
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The world cup has already proved a hit with upsets (Uruguay-Costa Rica, Spain-Netherlands), refereeing controversies (Brazil-Croatia) and goals galore. Amidst all the news and analysis, there’s one site I recommend all football fans read – Zonal Marking. Following the trajectory of the ball is one way to enjoy a football game; understanding the strategies and formations involved makes it even more compelling.
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Other

Starbucks announces that it will provide free online education to all of its full-time employees. The job of a barista is just the sort that might become redundant in 30 or so years, and the economy stands to benefit if the baristas of today gain the skills to help them perform the jobs of tomorrow. Private initiatives like this that embrace online education might just help remedy America’s broken education system.
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Govind’s Digest #1

This post is the first of my “digests”, collections of memorable articles that I’ve come across, tagged with my thoughts on the subject matter. For many months now, I’ve been a regular reader of Mattermark Daily and Benedict Evans’ newsletter, among others; this idea is inspired by these well-curated collections. I haven’t yet settled on a theme for my digests, so for now, I’m going to cover tech, world affairs, sport and pretty much anything that piques my interest.

World

President Obama announced plans to reduce carbon pollution from power plans by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. This is massive for a few reasons:
a. Power plants contribute ~40% of the emissions that cause climate change, so this is not just a token gesture. This ruling will have significant tangible impact.
b. China and India have often pointed to the US’s inaction to justify the limited measures that they’ve taken themselves; this ruling could spur these future behemoths into action.
It’s heartening to see Obama take such measures, even if they may come at a political cost in the near-term.
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Shashi Tharoor, ex-minister and prominent opposition party member in India, penned words of praise for prime minister Narendra Modi. This is another another indication of a shift from ideological bias to rational discourse in Indian politics. Onwards.
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Tech

Zenefits raised a $66.5MM Series B round at a valuation of $500MM, just months after the announcement of its Series A raise. A little over a year back, Parker and Laks were, just like us, plotting world conquering plans from the halls of YCombinator; the breakneck speed of their growth since then is quite something. They’ve done the basics so well – found the right recipe, confirmed that a large market exists for their product, and gone for growth all guns blazing.
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Apple introduces Swift, a new language of development to supplant Objective C. Apple’s promised compatibility with Objective C, but an app born of two programming languages doesn’t sound ideal. Early reviews are not too negative, but its too soon to call how this changes the ecosystem. A lot of developers set in their ways will have to learn a new language now, so this will send waves.
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Uber raises $1.2 billion from Fidelity Investments and others at a valuation of $17 billion. 20,000 jobs, average income of $90K/driver (NYC), 128 cities and 37 countries in 4 years. While these numbers may have seemed inconceivable to me a couple of years ago, having since moved to Silicon Valley, I now get how this possible; the standard ingredients: a) find product-market fit, b) make sure the market is big enough, and c) use capital as a tool to launch your rocket. I’ve had a few people ask me how running a startup in Asia differs from running one in the Valley … in the Valley, “b” and “c” are very much part of the plan.
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Sport

Luis Suarez. That name inspires mixed emotions in a lot of football fans. He’s not just one of the best football players in the world (just behind Messi and Ronaldo in my opinion), he has a very interesting story to boot. A loving family man, who occasionally bites opponents and might just be racist. This article explores the human side of Luis Suarez. Stories explored include how Suarez might indirectly have been responsible for an attempted murder.
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The football world cup is just around the corner. Can’t wait, but I’m concerned that some of its charm will be reduced by the (potential) absence of top players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Radamel Falcao, Franck Ribery, Marco Reus, Diego Costa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samir Nasri and Gareth Bale, due to injury / non-selection / non-qualification.
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Other

Psy’s Gangnam style Youtube video crossed 2 billion views!
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Women are biologically wired to outlive men. Perhaps its time to reconsider Asian/Indian cultural norms which dictate that the wife be younger.
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In India, wearing seatbelts is laughed at, at times frowned upon. Perhaps the preventable death of Gopinath Munde, a prominent BJP leader, will stir some change.
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