The snag is in unquestioning assignment of moral value to individual virtues. We praise people for their virtues and condemn them for their lack of virtues, as if they deserved all of the credit or all of the blame. But research shows that virtues like self-control and compassion depend not just on individual choices, but also on genes, childhood nutrition, and upbringing, all variables over which individuals have little control. Virtues themselves are part luck and social context.
For liberals, this doesn't solve the rhetorical challenge, but it allows them to accept the importance of virtues without blaming any victims. It also permits a shift in dialogue, from debating whether individuals or society matter more, to debating which virtues (both individual and societal) are important and how they can best be nurtured.
Getting back to Indian drivers, a non-judgmental account of their virtues might go like this: Most are diligent workers on the one hand, but many lack other virtues such as self-confidence and initiative that could help them in their own dreams for middle-class life. (Their weaknesses could be traced to upbringing and education, as I'll mention in my next post.)
Once in a while, though, a driver is diligent, self-confident, and focused, and does remarkably well. One of them was Narasimha, a taxi driver I met through a dial-up cab service, and whom I came to rely on for trips to the Bangalore airport [photo at left]. Unlike other drivers, Narasimha showed up 10 minutes ahead of time, and he drove safely and steadily. Through bits of English, Hindi, and Kannada, I learned that he came from a village a couple of hours outside of the city. His family farmed, but he had bigger dreams. At the time, he paid a flat fee per day to rent a car from a man who owned a fleet of cabs, but Narasimha wanted to own his own car, and he told me that he was close to saving enough money. As we approached the airport terminal, he handed me a business card and asked me to call him whenever I needed a ride. By calling him directly, I'd dispense with the middleman.
And so I did. I sometimes had flights leaving at 2 a.m. in the morning, but he never once turned me down. If he couldn't come himself, he'd set me up with one of his driver friends. None of them though, were as prompt, safe, or reliable as Narasimha.
One day, Narasimha arrived in a shiny white Ford Icon. I happened to be the first passenger in his new car, and he beamed when I congratulated him. He had purchased the car on a loan, and it meant that he was finally his own master.
I asked him how he managed it all, and here's what I could gather: Narasimha had an uncle who invited him to Bangalore, got him into the taxi business, coached him as a driver, and helped him procure the loan. I couldn't understand everything he said, but by his tone, it was clear he was deeply grateful to his mentor. As hard and as smart as he worked, Narasimha had yet another virtue that helps counter "blaming the victim": humility.
Kentaro Toyama is working on a book tentatively titled A Different Kind of Growth: Wisdom in Global Development. Follow him on Twitter.