The need for social education in a globalised world: food for thought
How humanity should prepare itself for the existential challenges ahead
Evolution has not prepared people for today’s globalised world, in which their actions can have far-reaching consequences. Our technological capabilities have outrun our institutions, our thinking, and our culture, causing existential global problems like climate change. In order to better deal with these problems as a society and as a world community, we need to improve philosophical, political, and psychological education, because human collective action ultimately depends on the rationality of individuals.
From a material point of view, today’s Western societies are like paradise. The standard of living that prevails for so many of us living in industrialised countries is almost a miracle: Like every other creature in this inhospitable world, until recently humans had to fight for food, brave the cold, and protect themselves from predators day by day. How did we manage to reach this state of material abundance? In industrialised countries, almost nobody is threatened by hunger, cold, or wild animals. The fact that some still are in need would be materially, if not politically, easily avoidable. Humans have conquered nature and overcome its adversities. Now many of us must be careful not to overeat, and wild beasts today are threatened by us, not the other way around. Our intelligence and ability to cooperate have enabled us to completely solve the problem of survival that is the scourge of all living things.
However, evolution has not prepared humankind for the modern problems of a technologically advanced and globalised world. In this world, decisions from daily consumption to voting and career choice affect no longer just a narrow circle of familiar people, but possibly even cattle farmers in the Sahel whose livelihoods are being threatened by climate change. The modern individual’s sphere of influence has expanded far beyond their moral circle as a result of technology and globalisation. Although our moral circle is greater today thanks to modern media and the creation of a broader public sphere through convenient fictions like the ‘nation’, it still struggles to cross national borders and language barriers. Our response to climate change shows how humans are not up to the responsibility that modernity demands. In particular, the quality of political institutions and public debate, as well as the rationality and intelligence of individuals, have not kept pace with technological developments. The intelligence and ingenuity that go into creating the internet or the smartphone are way out of proportion with the stupidity of some of the tweets that are posted on the internet using a smartphone. There is a huge discrepancy between the global threat of nuclear weapons and climate change on the one hand, and our moderate ability to cooperate in the fragmented landscape of nation states that characterises the world order on the other.
Technological and economic development is closely linked to an ideological shift: with the explosion in consumption and the possibilities of human experience, society's view of the individual also changed. Individualistic liberalism has replaced our former bonds and obligations (such as religious commandments and feudal relationships) with new freedoms and rights. The tremendous increase in productive power hasn’t made people less concerned with satisfying their own desires. With our basic needs for food, shelter, and safety met, the consumer industry has domesticated our animal instinct for satisfaction in pursuit of profit. Now, this cash cow is trotting on a hedonistic treadmill. Human intelligence has been cultivated to satisfy and even stoke human desires, rather than to curb them and help us learn to live with them in the changed environment.
Indeed, it seems that inward preoccupation with one’s own desires increases with wealth. When people lived in constant need, they were more receptive to religious dogmas that held the pursuit of some immaterial, moral good above that of material desires, and often even condemned the latter. The culture of affluent societies, on the other hand, revolves around personal needs and ambitions that only modern people can afford, such as professional fulfilment and self-realisation. Back then, passions and desires were evil and needed to be curbed. Today they are to be developed or satisfied. After all, life is about experiences! Even when we act with altruism, personal feelings of satisfaction often take precedence over the good that we do. But growing up in an industrial society, we have little idea of the anguish and hardship that lie within the emotional spectrum of living beings. Our decoupling from the core reality of life is reflected in the superficial culture of pleasure, self-occupation, and self-expression, the bizarre culmination of which is the blatant narcissism of so-called ‘influencers’ on Instagram. This is not some ascetic monk's anti-materialistic tirade – pleasure and self-actualisation are not inherently bad. But in an interconnected world where everyone can share in global problems and their solutions, serious engagement with those problems and solutions should make a broader impact on everyday life.
Climate change will probably not be the end of humankind. But climate change may just be the first in a series of problems of its kind that technology will confront us with. But as technological advances continue, the gap between human possibility and wisdom will pose an existential risk to the survival of civilisation in the long run. If we want to master the threats of the present and future that we ourselves have created, we, the people of developed societies, must develop a sense of responsibility. People are not condemned to immaturity, and most people today probably possess more maturity and sense of responsibility than in earlier times. The reason for this is education. Education can keep in check those urges and instincts that are no longer necessary for survival in affluent societies, while nurturing the tendencies that make human societies thrive.
When we think about education here, it is not about memorising cell-biological processes or interpreting poems. I mean social education, i.e. politics, philosophy, psychology and practical skills like debating. Most high school students graduate without ever having heard of deontology and consequentialism, the two conflicting streams of ethics. Most people never ask themselves the question of all questions: the question of the right action, or of which general principles should guide our actions independently of spontaneous impulses and vague intuitions. This, however, does not prevent them from acting! In a world in which the consequences of action or inaction reach far beyond our everyday environment, behaviour should not be determined by evolutionary urges. Therefore, governments should shift the focus of high school education to philosophy, and other social education.
People currently live according to selfish principles with some limitations, which largely boil down to not directly harming others through our actions. However, the potential for helping others by making the right decisions far exceeds the potential for harming others. With the right career choice, you can probably help far more people in the course of your life than you could harm people through malicious actions. Some moral currents would deny that our moral duties reach so far – however, such questions should at least receive much more attention in school. Many people might be open to the idea of making more room for altruism in their way of life, but this thought does not occur to them. They simply follow the path that the norms dictate. But philosophy can also benefit society by helping individuals directly. Many social problems are due to destructive urges such as greed and the desire for recognition or fame. Examples include nationalism and racism. Philosophy can help people to better deal with such urges. Stoicism seeks to help us appreciate our destiny. Meditation promises to help us stop over-emphasising our worries and problems and get back to our real priorities. Such approaches can lead to less preoccupation with ourselves and more concern for others.
Next, epistemic philosophy, psychology, debate, and some statistics could be introduced into the curriculum, as human reasoning is also subject to temptations and norms. In a world where the actions of individuals have such far-reaching implications, the manner in which knowledge is obtained should be responsible – especially in democracies where collective action is decided by the majority. Epistemic philosophy teaches how to derive insights from observations and conclusions from premises through proper reasoning. Psychological education can create an awareness of the pitfalls of thinking, such as overconfidence bias or any of the 300 other biases identified by psychologists. On the one hand, the skill of debating teaches us to objectively examine the views and arguments of others. On the other, the audience can learn to recognise unfair conversational tactics such as ad hominem attacks, generalisations, and tit-for-tat responses, whose aim is to alienate the debate from its purpose of finding truth. Statistics teaches us how to deal with uncertainty, for which intuition is often an unreliable guide. Everything in the world is uncertain, so absolute certainty is not a practical standard for the information upon which we must act (or not). But, as in psychology and when arguing, we fall victim to fallacies and wrong turns in probabilistic thinking.
All of these tools, as they become more widespread among the general public, can shape habits of thought that will increase the quality of public debate, and lead to wiser politics and more responsible choices about our way of living. Society must place higher demands on its members. Of course, rationality is not sufficient for a constitution of society oriented towards the common good. Motives and interests play at least an equally important role, and dealing with moral philosophy at school won’t make a Mother Theresa out of everyone. Rationality alone can also be used to bad ends. But perhaps the majority of people would live more altruistic lives in a society where the majority of others do the same. Perhaps philosophical education at the heart of school education can help set this norm – and perhaps societal and rationalistic education can give people the tools that goodwill needs to bear fruit. With maturity and the right standards, we have the prospect of a future in which technology will bring prosperity to all of humanity without jeopardising the prosperity, or even the livelihood, of future generations.