2013-04-16

How To Make The World A Better Place

The question arises: With all the carnage, political instability, depravity, and dishonesty out there, how in the world could we ever turn things around? How do we make the world a better place?

Some double-down on their commitment to acting lovingly and charitably, and I suppose that is a good way to start. We always hear that "charity begins at home," or that we should "think globally, act locally." There are dozens of slogans along these lines, designed to make the point that if we all go home tonight and commit to being better people, then the world will be a better place.

This is a comforting statement, and it is literally true. But it is also somewhat of a Shotgun Theory in that such a thing has always been true throughout history, and yet human suffering continues. Naturally, if we all went home tonight and committed to the idea of behaving as angels then nothing bad would ever happen, ever again. I, too, could encourage you to do that, swear that I am going to do that myself, and thump the pulpit for a little while, extolling the virtues of... well, virtue.

But that is vapid commentary. It's not as though there would be no North Korea problem or Boston bombing if people had just previously committed to good behavior. It's not as though would-be trouble makers would stop making trouble if they had simply considered the notion of using their powers for good instead of evil. And it is likewise untrue to suggest that if 50 million of your closest friends commit to making the world a better place, a dozen despots will choose to turn over a new leaf and send their countries on the path toward representative democracy.

So if not that, what are we supposed to do?

First, I think we need to come to terms with the fact that bad things happen. I know that sounds cavalier, but I really don't mean it to be. Bad things do happen in life, horrible things, unpreventable things. It is not fair, but it is nonetheless true. The sooner we realize that suffering is a part of being alive, the sooner we will stop seeking false solutions in gods, governments, and rosy-posy self-delusions. Accepting that human suffering is often a roll of the dice, an unfortunate amalgamation of random circumstances, helps us gain peace without being moved to place blame on people that could not possibly have acted differently.

Second, I think we all need to explore and articulate our most deeply held beliefs. It is not sufficient to merely believe something; one must be able to articulate exactly why one believes X rather than Y. Why will this make the world a better place? Because there are a great many people out there who live their entire lives in a self-imposed, deluded micro-bubble, content to believe things that simply aren't true, and never being forced to confront the extent to which they are deluded. A very small subset of those individuals go on to commit heinous acts that cause the rest of us to suffer. At least some of that subset could never get away with that nonsense if they were encouraged from an early age to own up to their beliefs, to answer for them, and to revise them when necessary.

Note that this second thing implies that one's views must be called into judgement from time to time. Yes, that rubs many people the wrong way. No, I don't care. We do no one favors by allowing them to live out mindless fantasies. In fact, we may be doing them and others harm in the long run. This judgement need not take an ugly form. But the fact of the matter is that you cannot live your whole life just in your own head. Your thoughts must be extracted from time to time and submitted to public opinion. Those who refuse to do this are always the ones most guilty of suffering from self-delusion. We must call them out, not to make them feel badly but to force them to participate in society, for the sake of their mental health.

Finally - and this is a tall order - I think philosophy, even academic philosophy, needs to come back into favor again. Philosophy needs to be hip, cool, trendy in the same sense that climate science and marine biology and women's studies are hip, cool and trendy. There is no one thing that any person can do to make that happen, except perhaps exploring the topic on Wikipedia for a while until you find something that speaks to you. Once you find it, make sure your children know about it, and think about it, and most importantly talk about it.

None of these things are particularly easy. You won't finish reading this blog post and then form an action plan. That's not the, nor is it my intention to leave you with yet another feel-good delusion. These problems are hard. Humans have been struggling with them for 10,000 years or more. Perhaps in some crude sense our evolutionary predecessors also struggled with them. But across the eons we have managed to solve several important problems. If we keep chipping away at them for another 10,000 then someone in some far-away age may actually be able to live a better life.

It is the only way.