by Andreas Saugstad
When I started my academic journey I was a pretty self-centered young man. Not that I did much evil, I started to study because I loved academics and wanted to pursue philosophy – the search for truth and wisdom. I come from an academic background, and have for many years enjoyed the university world. When I, after three semesters, entered the philosophical community in Oslo, I was thrilled. We had many discussions, we read some of the greatest texts in the history of thinking, and I was captured by questions relating to the nature of knowledge, language and metaphysics.
I still love these questions. I cannot imagine a life without pondering the great issues of human life. To think and do philosophy is a kind of form of life for me, it is my life’s passion. But some years ago, I discovered that the world was more than me, some academics and certain intellectual problems. I had been traveling around in Europe a little. When I was 20, I went to Holland with my father, when I was 21 I went to Vienna and Budapest, Israel and Jordan (4 hours!), and when I was 22 I spent a week in Paris. So in a sense I wasn’t locked up in my own world. I had books from abroad and I had been seeing a little of the world around me. I also met Americans during my trips in Europe.
Every summer, Europe is full of Americans. But the average American I met was a college student, spending a little part of the summer abroad. You typically meet someone from Berkeley or Columbia, or some intellectual person traveling in Europe as a part of his excellent education. My friends from the University of Oslo so often travel in Europe, and it is exciting to meet Americans and others abroad. When you meet these Americans, you may be tempted to think that this is America, what you meet is representative for America.
But that is far from the truth. Excellent schools and educational institutions are only the top of the American layer cake. Those American stars Europeans see on TV, are only a tiny group of the American population and the global picture in total. The fact is that is that the world is full of suffering and injustice, something we all have heard of, but seldom really understand in our hearts. The truth is that 30 million people in the USA live below the poverty line, 10 percent of the Americans get their food from soup kitchens. The truth is that 2 million Americans are in jail, and that 45 percent of these are black.
The United States has 6 percent of the world’s total population, but consumes 25 percent or more of the world’s resources, but still many are poor in the country. Globally, the situation is even worse. Only one percent of the world’s population has a computer, and only one percent has a college education. About 50 percent of the world’s population suffers from malnutrition, just to mention some facts. In Azerbaijan it is not uncommon for a Taxi driver to have a PhD. The differences between people with regards to standard of living are simply enormous. While the American TV series “Sex in the City” describes young females in New York searching for men and prestige, living the egotistical life par excellence, those who grow up in Afghanistan may be happy if they have windows in their house.
Suffering because of social inequality may be closer to you than you think. I have been spending time online chatting, and the picture I get (after chatting with people from different parts of the world) is that a few people in this world have all the privileges humans can have. These people are typically students at universities in USA, Europe and certain other parts of the world, or some well-educated person with a well-paid job. When you confront such people with inequalities, you typically get such answers as:
(1) this is OK,
(2) there is nothing we can do about it, or
(3) this is really bad, we must do whatever we can to change it.
The shame here is not that people have different opinions and that some actually are concerned about this, the shame is that obviously all should give answer number (3). I met a person online and confronted him with Nike’s exploitation of workers in Asia.
It is a well-known fact that the factories Nike uses in Asia sometimes exploit workers, paying them like 2 dollars a day, which forces workers in Vietnam and Thailand to eat only 2 meals a day at the worst. This person I spoke to was a PhD student in political science at an American university, and he defended the practice of paying only 2 dollars a day to workers in Asia. He said I had no education in economics, thus I wasn’t qualified to evaluate this situation. Talk about lousy reasoning! I said that just like I don’t need education in sociology in order to understand that the Holocaust was wrong, I don’t need any education in economics in order to understand that it is wrong to pay the laborers in Thailand 2 dollars a day. I don’t need any education in order to understand that when someone can only afford two meals a day, something is wrong. He then said “well, it helps to take some courses in economics.” However, it didn’t help him, so I don’t know.
I’ll give this student I met online the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he just wanted to have a good argument, which sometimes can be interesting. But the episode illustrates an important point: That many people are ignorant, or completely unwilling to change the present-day political and economical situation. People are too much caught up in themselves, they are as Luther said, incurvatis in se. As my supervisor at the University of Oslo, Arne Johan Vetlesen, emphasises, empathy is essential to morality. It is when we have empathy and are willing to act upon this compassion for other people, that we have a true morality. There is, as the title of Vetlesen’s doctoral dissertation indicates, a link between perception, empathy and moral judgment (Arne Johan Vetlesen: Perception, Empathy and Judgment, Pennsylvania University Press is available from amazon.com) The Western culture is to a large extent a culture of narcissism, as Christopher Lasch said. The pathology of egoism is widespread, but perhaps more in the West than other places. It is a culture where people think merely about themselves, and where the elites have betrayed the poor and the lower classes.
Here are some cases. The Americans my father has invited home are mostly scientists. They have their own problems, and may suffer like anyone else. But they have their Ph.D.s, their M.D.s and their houses and privileges. But although the internet sometimes lies, in my case I think it has told me a more true story about America. Here I have met people who wonder if they can go to college at all. There is no salvation in college, but when someone has a deep wish to attend a good educational institution and have the skills to do it, I think they should be given the opportunities.
One person I know was accepted to Notre Dame, Princeton and Cornell, but had to choose another university because she couldn’t pay the 22,000 dollars per year that they require. Others can tell more dramatic stories. I met a female who wondered if she could go to college at all. Her mother had been raped and this resulted in her birth. She had signed up for her SAT too late, and because of this she wouldn’t be able to get the scholarships she needed through her high school in order to attend the university or college she wanted. Her father said that unless she got a scholarship she couldn’t attend college. I was filled with deep empathy. For Americans these kinds of problems probably belong to everyday social reality, but for me living in a social democracy in Scandinavia, this is quite shocking. The social democracy in Scandinavia is something in between capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other. This system gives people pretty much the same opportunities. A student loan and scholarship system makes it possible for everyone who is qualified to study at the best educational institution that my country offers.
In Denmark they even pay you a little to study! It is quite strange for me that USA does not give everyone equal opportunities for education. I have heard that sometimes Americans cannot afford studying for a Master’s degree. While the States give better opportunities for Ph.D. studies than in Norway, most people will be able to study for a Master’s degree because of public financial support.
But Europe has its own problems. In Norway we have a good social security system. But some people are still living in the streets. This can be seen many places in Europe: Poor and homeless people in cultures with prosperity.
This summer I was on vacation, and at a certain point I came to Oxford in England. I was going to be a reader at the university library in this beautiful English city. One day at my hostel I got a copy of Job Watch, a magazine with job offers, many in the Oxford area. The colleges at Oxford University had several job opportunities. St. John’s College needed a cleaner. 20 hours a week, and the salary was set to £ 4.50 per hour. Another college, St. Hilda’s, offered the same kind of job. The ad said: “Good rates of pay, an annual bonus and an excellent staff pension available…” Hmmm… I wonder — given what John’s College offered — whether St. Hilda’s really offers a “good rate of pay.”
Unless St. Hilda’s is some kind of English socialist college, I doubt they pay much more than St. John’s. And Trinity College required a Night Porter. The job is 42 hours a week, and the annual pay is £ 11,000. Given the fact that a professor often receives £ 47,000 plus income from potential books, I think the situation is unfair. The cleaning job is perhaps boring, while the professorship is very interesting (although hard work). What this implies is simply that the professor’s kids will be able to travel, get a first class expensive education, while the kids of the cleaning maid or porter will most likely not have the same privileges. While I don’t think everyone should earn exactly the same, I think it is unfair that some should make more than four times as much as others. Besides, many of those who work within business in London may make £ 100,000 or more, which leads to the brutal situation: some people can do whatever they want in life, others can not.
If you think this is right, especially that some can earn 100,000 or more while others about 10,000, I think you should question if your emotional responses are working as they should. Is your moral psychology working appropriately? Do you look at homeless people with the same respect as well-educated professionals? Do you think every person has the right to a certain part of the prosperity the world is experiencing today? Do you think every person has the same right to education?
In Norway we have a rich man called Kjell Inge Røkke. He owns about a billion dollars.
He has no education, he is a self-made man, the kind some people admire. I don’t think he likes taxes. He says he wants to have a “special” life-style (i.e. spend money). One of his businesses has been listed as one of the 100 most dangerous for the environment in the world. For some reason, people think that this is ok. Røkke has 1 billion dollars, while others have nothing. How on earth can this be right? I wish he could spend his spare time supporting the homeless, but one of his favourite hobbies is to participate in boat races. These boat races are polluting and give young people a model saying that its ok to spend much money on boats, and pollute the environment. (They also make a lot of noise. When Røkke and his friends have boat races in the Oslo fjord I can hear the noises at home, even though I live about 3 miles from the sea.)
Some of the sufferings we face as humans are not created by us humans. This goes for many kinds of diseases and natural disasters. But other problems like poverty, inequality and social injustice are often stemming from human-made structures. We may call this “structural violence”, i.e. violence which is not direct or physical, but cases of humans suffering because they are suppressed through social, economical and political structures. Systems where people are doomed to poverty may kill just like direct physical violence. Those who have power and enormous amounts of money, but don’t help those who suffer, are they not guilty of immorality and crimes against humanity?
When it comes to America, many good things can be found there. USA has some of the best scientists, idealists and human rights workers. USA has so much interesting going on. America has one of the most progressive societies in the world. But at the same time some critical points should be raised in relation to the American society. A while ago I interviewed one of the most famous philosophers in the USA. When I asked him why he does philosophy, he said that he does it simply because it is interesting. He had no sign of intending to help someone by using his excellent intellectual skills. He exemplified the ignorant attitude we all so often have in the West. I like Al Gore’s slogan “prosperity for all,” I think he really means something by saying that. But it seems to me that the only one of the presidential candidates from the USA 2000 election that is really willing to fight for social justice is Ralph Nader. Nader got only 3 percent, and Bush might become president, which seems to indicate that people are little concerned about radical reforms in the American society.
Unfortunately, the European colonial authorities also have their faults. Why are there so many homeless people in Europe? Why have the Scandinavian countries decided to apply for the Summer Olympics in 2012, when they haven’t developed a strategy to help the homeless?
I said in the beginning that I started out my academic career being caught up in theoretical issues. I was a kind of philosophical nerd, albeit perhaps an interesting one. As I said, I still love these issues, and discussion on existential and theoretical questions gives so much joy. The best thing I know, apart from other humans and true love, is philosophy. But I have gone through an awakening, I have seen that the skills I may have must be used for the benefit of others, if I get an such an opportunity. If I have any talents, I want to use them for the benefits of others and I hope many young people will think in the same way. What we all need is an awakening, to experience a “dawning of an aspect” to use Wittgenstein’s words. We need to see the Other, and whenever we have the chance try to be beneficial for our fellow humans, we must act.
If this is socialism, then so be it. But I don’t regard myself as a socialist. I don’t see why this should be associated with any kind of extreme ideology or any political party at all. Basically, what I say rests upon a simple principle: Empathy. The ability to feel empathy with others, and being willing to act upon that compassion. When you understand that fellow human beings are suffering and that you and I can help them in their sufferings, passivity becomes a brutal idea. Empathy, when we really experience that we are co-sufferers with others in this world, will eventually force us to act.
When act upon our empathy and ability to identify with others, we may fight for the social justice which is so deeply needed, wherever we are.