A couple of posts ago I asked the readers what’s wrong with the world, only I didn’t mean it as the rhetorical question it usually is. If you were going to answer that question at face value, what would you say?
There were so many wise and thoughtful responses. I’d love to address each of them but then this post would be 50,000 words. I also don’t really want to favor a particular camp and dismiss the opposing ones, so I’ll just give my take on it and you can do what you like with it.
It’s really hard to identify a cause for the problems in the human world, because all causes have their own causes. For example, “bad parenting” was a pretty common one, but it implies that the problem begins with the failing of a particular individual. What causes bad parenting? Usually, it’s bad parenting. So where did it start?
With each answer I’m trying to dig a bit deeper and find out if there isn’t something more fundamental that might be at the root of everything in your newspaper.
The most common answer
I’m not going to go through all the responses because there are just too many, but I do want to look at one of them in particular. The most common response was that there’s nothing wrong with the world, except that we look at it in terms of what’s wrong with it.
It’s a nice thought that I’ve expressed myself sometimes. I can’t really argue that whether there is something wrong or not depends on your disposition. Wrongness does seem to be a relative matter, and that is the way I happen to see it.
When a fish is getting eaten by a shark, I’m sure he thinks everything is going wrong, and the shark thinks everything is going right. Both are relatively correct and neither is absolutely correct. Fair enough.
But as humans we do share values, some of them pretty much across the board. So I don’t know who could argue in any meaningful sense that child abuse or irreversible pollution has nothing wrong about it aside from how we each regard it personally.
If it really is just a matter of relative values (and maybe it is) then it’s still fair to say there is something wrong with the world in that humans are consistently interfering with their own values. We are creating enormous amounts suffering for ourselves and others, we are ravaging the surface of the earth, and we are rapidly destroying the things we cherish. We are wrecking the place and hurting each other, and for the purposes of this discussion let’s just presume that there is something wrong with that.
If there’s nobody having a hard time, there’s no right or wrong
When I asked what’s wrong, I was just looking for whatever came to mind, so different people had different ideas about what wrongness means. But we all have a similar idea, and that’s enough for our purposes here.
I think we can sidestep a dead-end semantics debate by agreeing upfront on one thing: that the only thing that can be problematic is some form of suffering happening to someone able to experience suffering. Make sense?
And by “suffering” I don’t necessarily mean something extreme. Let’s let that term encompass any experience that is difficult to bear, from being self-conscious about your hair, to losing a family member.
Picture a world just like ours, but with no life in it, just rocks and water. In that world could there really be anything you could describe as wrong? There can be no exploitation, no victims, and no suffering if there is no sentient life.
So, for anything to be considered wrong in any meaningful sense, there has to be suffering. No sentient life, no suffering. No suffering, no problem, no right or wrong. Right?
Back to the real world. Of course there is suffering, and of course much of it is caused by human behavior. Again, we’re talking violence, exploitation, and neglect, and nobody denies that these things are not happening or that they are not problems.
The M Word
If you added a bucket of snakes to that rocks-and-water world we were picturing a second ago, would we suddenly have right and wrong then? I’d say no, not really. There would still be violence and suffering, because the snakes wouldn’t all like each other, but ideas like injustice, fairness, and what’s “right” would not be present. Unless you were standing there, judging the snakes on their conduct. But you’re not.
Snakes are certainly sentient, they can feel and suffer, but they’re missing something we humans have. Somewhere along the line, humans developed the ability to understand that others suffer. This is a big game-changer, because now we have to take that into consideration when we act. Damn.
So if we’re talking about the things people do that cause harm, and whether they should do them or not, I guess the word we’re supposed to use is morality. I don’t like that word but I don’t have a better one. All morality is ultimately about is the harm your actions cause to others, isn’t it?
What else makes something right or wrong (by anyone’s description) except what grief it causes somebody?
Our sensitivity to the suffering of others is something we can’t deny (or get rid of), and it developed somewhere between here and “snake.” This sensitivity comes with a big can of worms called morality.
We’ve evolved to a point where we recognize a need to act morally, that we as a civilization (and as individuals) have something to gain from it. In fact, we need it really badly right now. Again, look in your newspaper.
After twenty years now of actively working on tempering my bad impulses, why do I still get swearing mad while I’m driving sometimes? Why can’t I rope that simple one in? Probably because my brain has tuned itself for hundreds of millions of years to be reactive and self-justifying, and has only tuned itself for a few thousand years to freaking relax and try to make life better for everyone.
Morality is so, so new to us, and it’s in conflict with most of our impulses.
That’s what I think is wrong with the world, we’re caught in an extremely painful window of time in which
a) we’re advanced enough to recognize how crucial morality is, yet
b) we’re so unaccustomed to it, and worse
c) we have reached a horrific level of power over the environment and over weaker people
…and now we have to learn to make responsible use of that power. Quick.
I think what’s wrong with the world right now is that we don’t recognize how hard that really is.
In an effort to keep big topics down to digestible post sizes, this is part one of a two-part post. The second part will be posted tomorrow.