There are no right or wrong answers, just questions that are, hopefully, also stimulating

Writing a column is an act of hubris. When you present a column to the world, you are essentially saying, before whatever you say in the column: ‘Listen to me, my opinions have value.’ This is both arrogant and delusional, but we choose to be in denial of this, for if we were not how could we write, in the same way that we choose to be in denial of our mortality, for if we were not how could we live?

Anyway, in today’s column, I shall not present my views before you. Instead, I will ask you a few questions, to which there are no right or wrong answers. These are just difficult questions, even if some of them have seemingly simple answers, and I present them in the hope that you might find some of them stimulating. I have just one request to make: Instead of just skimming over the piece, please pause at the end of every question and formulate an answer in your mind.

Q1: Do you support the rights of two consenting adults to do whatever they wish with each other provided they don’t infringe on the rights of anyone else? Q2: Why? Q3: Do you support gay rights? Q4: Do you believe in free markets?

Q3 and Q4 are related to Q1: If you believe that no one should interfere in what two consenting adults choose to get up to with each other, as long as they mess with no one else, then that should apply to both sex in a bedroom and commercial transactions. The moral case for not interfering with free markets and homosexuality is, thus, exactly the same. If you support gay rights because you believe in freedom, it would seem hypocritical to then condemn free markets. Or vice versa. If you support either of these because of a reason not based on your support for individual freedom, then that’s okay. But Q5: If so, what is that first principle you draw from?

Now, you might say that you support gay rights but not free markets, because much as you love freedom, you also have to look at the consequences of actions, and ‘unfettered’ free markets can have adverse consequences. (The same argument could be made from the other side about homosexuality and its impact on society.) Q6: Do you believe that freedom should be subordinate to utility? That our attitude towards a particular behaviour should depend on the consequences of that behaviour? Q7: If so, who determines what the likely consequences of anything could be, and how we should therefore treat that act? A democratically elected government? Q8: If so, can you think of examples where a democratically elected government f***ed up spectacularly? Q9: If so, might it make sense to instead enshrine certain principles in the Constitution that even a democratically elected government cannot mess with? Q10: If so, should these include freedom? Q11: If so, what kind of freedoms should be included? Personal freedom? Freedom of speech? Freedom of sexual orientation and carnal intercourse? Economic freedom? Q12: If you value some of these over others, why so?

(To deviate a moment from questions and actually make an observation, allow me to point out that none of these are actually protected by the Indian Constitution, although it pays lip service to a couple of them. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Moving further along the subject of freedom and consequences, here’s Q13: Do you believe that women should have the right to choose whether or not to abort a baby? I’m guessing that’s an easy one to answer, so here’s another easy one Q14: Do you support the ban on female foeticide?

If your answer to both these questions is ‘yes’, then Q15: How can you resolve the contradiction inherent in supporting a woman’s right to choose whether to abort and being against female foeticide? If a woman has the right to choose to abort, aren’t her reasons behind this decision irrelevant to that right, and an examination of those reasons invasive to her privacy? You might personally find her reason for it repugnant, but should your feelings affect her rights? And as a general practice, should the feelings of some people be an excuse to abrogate the rights of some others?

Of course, if you are into consequences, you could argue that female foeticide should be banned purely because it skews the sex ratio, which is bad for society. But, to consider a thought experiment, what if in the natural course of things, 11 girls were born for every 10 boys, and the prevalent rate of female foeticide actually corrected this imbalance? Q16: Would it be okay then? If not, why not? (Apart from the rights of the foetus, which you already agree are subordinate to the rights of the mother if you answer ‘yes’ to Q13.)

I haven’t asked the questions above to show the absurdity in this position or that, or to bring you round to any particular way of thinking. These are thorny issues with many nuances. I’m a libertarian and a freedom fundamentalist, and I support both gay rights and free markets, with my support for the latter, though it stems from principle, being bolstered by the benefits of economic freedom. (Contrast the two Koreas.) But the first principles I draw upon are not the only ones you can construct a worldview from. And there are situations where even those first principles don’t lead me to a coherent answer. At times, one is left with more questions than answers. And that’s okay. We are feeble creatures, and don’t have to know everything.

Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at indiauncut.com

Follow him on twitter @amitvarma

(This article was published on June 13, 2014)
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