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Ok, here’s what’s wrong with the world

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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.


Photo by Quinn Anya

Avi August 9, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Ha, that neatly describes all my favorite fantasy novels, doesn’t it? The Dresden Files, the Shannara series…not to mention every American superhero comic.

Brian August 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Whoever you are, I love you for mentioning the Dresden Files.

Avi August 11, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Hehe well every book has basically the same conflict. Harry gains access to a great deal of magical power and struggles to use it responsibly and morally instead of selfishly.

Tobi August 10, 2011 at 12:09 am

I asked you in an email recently what you would do if you made a post, then later realized that what you thought at the time was wrong. You said this happens all the time and you just let it go, no worries.

Apparently you haven’t changed your mind on this one when you wrote last time about how our civilization is growing faster than we are, they even mention this in Star Trek! One of the best shows to watch for learning life lessons.

“Our guns evolved faster than we did” – Captain Kirk

Also the line “it developed somewhere between here and “snake.”” made me crack up!! lolz.

David August 10, 2011 at 6:35 am

Haha.. Shatner had it right all this time

Tobi August 10, 2011 at 11:49 am

That’s not the whole quote… I saw it on an episode recently but I couldn’t find it online so that’s all I remember! lolz.

Annemieke Cloosterman August 10, 2011 at 2:41 am

I think it has to be a morality that is based upon global understanding and not just cultural. Which is very difficult as we all have many basic assumptions that we are not even aware of.

And responsibilty can not go far beyond our own actions. It is up to each individual to ‘do the right thing’ in every action. But the decision to ‘do the right thing’ at that moment, might be ‘the wrong thing to do’ at an other moment.

I really think context (and being aware of it) is essential.

David August 10, 2011 at 6:37 am

Yes, for sure. In a lot of the responses I got, the problems cited were often culturally-specific. But I think it’s clear that no culture is free of the problem with the human world. I think the best thing for human evolution is travel.

Tobi August 10, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Unfortunately most people don’t have that kind of money :(

DiscoveredJoys August 10, 2011 at 5:31 am

I think you have identified the need for morality… but there is also a second layer of suffering which is how we feel about being unable to change the suffering of others.

Your post reminded me of SIWOTI (“someone is wrong on the internet”) and the effort people put into correcting the perceived error. I think that there is an equivalent in day to day life – SWIRL (“Something’s Wrong In Real Life”) – but the task of putting the wrongs to right is so huge that people give up and feel diminished because of it.

Perhaps we should learn to settle for a less than perfect solution? Do what you can, feel good about what you have achieved, and let the others in the tribe address the rest.

David August 10, 2011 at 6:39 am

I think you have identified the need for morality… but there is also a second layer of suffering which is how we feel about being unable to change the suffering of others.

That’s a good point and I’ll address it in the second part. Our view of morality is very narrow and part of it must be how we treat ourselves, including how we teach ourselves to respond mentally to suffering.

Antony August 10, 2011 at 5:33 am

I disagree.
Morality is not new to the human race – all of our societies are built on morality.
What is new is the lack of social responsibility that gradual globalisation has created.
There was a time when you would know that you were “out of line” with your peers and the moral majority – you lived in a smallish community and everyone knew each others strengths and weaknesses.
Now, we do not use our gut instinct to “read” another’s motives because we are too caught up struggling with our own.
Our moral compass is not what needs fixing – it is that we no longer pay it much attention in the cacophony of demands.
While this state is not addressed at an individual level, the “Right of Might” will prevail and injustice will be perpetrated upon the majority.

David August 10, 2011 at 6:45 am

By “new” I mean new on the evolutionary scale. It’s really new, but it’s many times older than, say, the pyramids.

Things have changed culturally and they do come with a host of problems we are unprepared fro. I think we often romanticize the olden days, as if we have necessarily slid down the moral scale. That time when you knew you were “out of line” was also a time when it was socially acceptable to beat your wife and children, for example.

The right of might existed long before humans and long before morality. There was no time in human history where it did not play a dominant role in people’s lives, and I think it’s exactly what we’re beginning (just beginning) to grow out of.

Katie August 10, 2011 at 9:07 am

I really like the idea behind this. That morality is relatively new to our species and we are working it out as we evolve. Great concept which offers some hope at the back end, that we are capable of growth and deeper understanding. But I have a question: Would you say, as a species, we have become more or less moral as time as passed? I imagine the lesser morals of the Roman empire and I think, yes, I think we have become more moral. But then I imagine the prairie days of a brand new and expanding North America and I think such “simple folk” were starkly moral in their communities. Repressively some may say. Is that morality? Perhaps not. Perhaps I am thinking of integrity more than morality as you described and integrity can be extremely relative to the individual.

I see morality, as you describe it, as a very deeply internal drive coupled with the personal choice to follow this drive. Something related to our psychological and even spiritual evolution over time. Shouldn’t this sort of morality stemming from our cores withstand exterior influences? I think it is important to acknowledge that humans learn from and mimic the behaviors of those who surround our lives; parents, teachers, peers, etc. I do not agree that bad parenting is the problem in the world, but I think the “examples” of loose morals which saturate our society (mainly in media/entertainment) are having a very obvious and drastic impact on the morals of society as a whole, particularly here in the ego-saturated West. The acceptable actions in society when compared to those of the “prairie days” are truly abhorrent. Are “good” and “moral” people being reprogrammed to choose their own interests over others just by repetitive exposure to exterior influences which justify self-based behaviors? Or were these individuals already selfish on that deeper level? I am unsure. To return to the Romans, the decline in their civilization as a whole parallels their moral decline, or so my limited knowledge of the era tells me. So I must ask…with Rome & the modern Western culture as two simple examples: Are we becoming more or less moral?

David August 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm

“But I have a question: Would you say, as a species, we have become more or less moral as time as passed?”

I think (very generally) we are becoming more moral as time passes, of course it varies by culture. If you look at what has happened over the past hundred years, it’s hard to deny progress has not been made. Human slavery has been abolished in North America, though we’re a little behind when it comes to enslaving other species. It would have been unthinkable for, say, a woman to travel alone, not many decades ago. You can watch episodes of I Love Lucy where they take for granted that it is normal for men to beat their wives. Today bigotry against gays and other social minorities is rapidly becoming unacceptable.

Now, is this necessarily moral progress, or just a shift in what is socially acceptable? It’s undeniable that technology has made it much easier for us to be exposed to different lifestyles and viewpoints, and this can only make us more able to find points of view that really resonate with us on a deep moral level. This brings us closer to living our values and finding people who share those values makes it less intimidating to live how we really think we ought to.

Brad August 10, 2011 at 9:11 am

Everyone thinks that their own moral compass is straighter then everyone elses. If only we had some master compass that laid the ground rules for what morality really meant….and killed everyone that didn’t follow it. lol.

Derek D. August 10, 2011 at 9:44 am

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I am not sure how useful the question is of, “What is wrong with the world?” A couple of things that it brings up for me:

1. We are living in a time where the full oppression of people on this earth is the least it has ever been. The Arab Spring is the most hopeful sign of our current progress. The entire world once lived under the fist of despots. At least this appears true from my view of history. Also, I don’t think that western civilization was devoid of people that got “out of line”. I just don’t think that every one of them was sensationalized in the media the way they are today. I think abuse was more of a societal norm in the past than it is today, they just didn’t talk about it in those terms.

2. Suffering and struggle are important to the human experience. It brings appreciation. It binds people together in solidarity. Do I like to suffer? No. But much of the great things in my life have come out of suffering and struggle. We don’t celebrate people in history because of all the happiness that they endured. At least I can’t think of an example…

3. Part of the wonder AND difficulty of life is that people live within a wide range on everything. We have right wing and left wing extremists (and whole range in between). We have tortured rich and elated poor. This is good because people should be able to have their free self-expression (right?) But as long as people are free to have self-expression, you are going to have those outliers that do the kind of damage that makes us cry out in despair.

Maybe the more important question is, “How do I want to be in the world?” Frankly, all of the judgement we hold against each other and these ideas of fairness, suffering, and morality are things that we learned. Some of that learning needs to be examined. What sides of things do we want to be on? What do we know about suffering? Eradicating suffering is a fruitless pursuit, but the battle is what brings out greatness.

Trisha Rainsford August 10, 2011 at 10:09 am

Good question – the main problem may be not so much what’s wrong with the world but that we are struggling to agreed on a common, workable morality. This –


– is a lecture by Jordan Peterson and it gives a very good overview of our historical – and current – struggle to find where we all meet on these issues. It’s all very interesting but just in case you don’t have 28 minutes to give to the whole clip try watching from c. 20 minutes into it.

vaevictus August 10, 2011 at 12:47 pm

‘The more connected we feel towards others, the desire to harm them literally disappears’. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s a line I read from a book on self-compassion that’s always stuck with me. Because thats what it really comes down to, feeling like were TRULY in all of this together; God knows we don’t act like it. And even if I do harm you, and vice versa, how immediately the damage is lessened when we admit our wrongdoings and try to repair those connections.

Ethan August 10, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Hey Dave, great post as usual! I think you’ve come very close to the conclusion I’ve come to, but with one twist. I think you’re right that morality is the key here, but I think the problem does have cultural aspects as well. Written law, to me, is essentially legislated morality. This does not mean all legislation is ‘good’ or ‘just’ or ‘morally right’, because obviously bad laws can be implemented that have adverse effects on society. Furthermore, different societies have different traditions and needs, complicating things even more. Different traditions, different values, different world views, there are borders everywhere to being human – especially so if you’ve learned growing up that being different is bad/wrong – and instead of being human, we’re Americans or Catholics or some other group label we assign ourselves. This immediately erects a barrier to the people of the world who do not share their world view or nationalistic pride. We should be human, first and foremost, and understand that life and the universe itself are all about variety.
That being said, on a personal level I think we need to learn to be our own masters and control our own destiny, yet on a societal level I think we need to learn how to properly elect leaders and govern ourselves properly. The uprisings around the world give me hope, but America seems pretty screwed unless we do some serious electoral reform and break up the control the two major parties have over our government. Things like publicly funded elections, proportional representation, IRV or condorcet voting, govt transparency etc, are seriously needed right now because it seems that almost nobody is able to be held accountable for what’s going on. Disaster capitalism is running on all cylinders.
Anyway, back to the personal level. You talk about it a lot, and I think a lot of people could learn from the things that you’ve written. I know I have. It seems to come down to your attitude in the end, no matter the situation. Whatever happens, you can either do something about it, or you can’t. In either case, there isn’t any reason to worry or stress yourself. But then you get to morality, and as I was saying I think we need to realize that we are all humans first and foremost. We all suffer somehow, and yet we erect those barriers and cut off compassion for the ‘them’ and save our empathy for the ‘us’ – whomever your ‘them’ may be.
To sum it up, I guess, I think the various moralities that have developed in a huge time of uncertainty have resulted in poor governance, barriers to empathy, and an increasing feeling that our lives are not in our own control. We can still get it together, but I think we really need the right leaders in place around the world in order to have a chance of living long enough for that empathy to matter. Sorry if this jumped around a bit lol, your posts always get my mind going and its hard to put it to words sometimes. Keep up the great work!

helen August 20, 2011 at 12:24 am

Just like what Unlce Ben said..”with great power comes great responsibility”.. I never though that morality is just a latest arsenal of our evolution, but this is a great idea that can give some meaning to our suffering. Thanks a lot

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