Some people have a strong sense of right and wrong. They feel like they have to fight for a better and more equal world. If you are one of those people, then you must have noticed that not everyone feels the same way. Many people live much smaller lives. They go to work, spend time with their families and friends, and do not think about the bigger picture very much. They shop at Zara and H&M without considering who made those clothes, shop for groceries without thinking of the amount of waste ending up in landfills because of it, and never seem to consider their roles in climate change, inequality, poverty or the landfills of plastics and other sorts of waste that their purchases are contributing to. They are unaware of racism, sexism and fundamental injustice in their own communities.

You might sometimes feel jealous towards these people, as being oblivious to these problems must mean that they are much happier than us. It seems that ignorance really is bliss sometimes. This makes me wonder. Do we have some sort of moral obligation to think of the bigger picture? To make choices that contribute to a better world?

Do we have some sort of moral obligation to think of the bigger picture? To make choices that contribute to a better world?

What does reality tell us?

If we look at the day-to-day life around us, the obvious answer is no. Everywhere around us, people are either unaware of the griefs of the world, or are aware but do not do anything about it. They do not care or do not know what they can do about it. There are even people who profit from injustice, inequality and the exploitation of our planet. These are often people who have the resources needed to understand and maybe even solve the significant problems of our time.

However, their scale often seems to tip to profits rather than justice or a healthy climate for all. To make matters worse, companies actively create confusion to prevent solving of the problem. Examples are the sugar and tobacco industry, which willfully withhold or contest evidence and publish biased research to muddy the waters of scientific evidence.

Except for the occasional lawsuit, there are nearly no direct consequences for those who mess up our climate or take advantage of vulnerable groups. Of course, the long-term implications of these decisions are pretty severe. Climate change and the pollution of our planet will make life much more difficult for the next generations. The consequences for vulnerable groups and developing countries are even much more severe and are taking place right now; our choices cause suffering in third world countries every day. However, this does not seem to motivate us to do better.

For some people, the problem is just too far away. We watch reports of natural disasters, child labour, and human rights violations on the news, but it does not feel like it is really happening. We all know that driving a car or taking long showers affects our environment. But when we take a shorter shower or cycle to work, we do not see its positive effects. It is often easier to ignore confronting information and just focus on day-to-day-life. Or we are aware of problems, but do not know what to do about it. We can feel powerless and as if it will not make a difference if we put the heating a few degrees colder or avoid using plastics, because we are just one single person.

However, the effects of such actions often go further than we think. Our actions and stories often inspire others to make a move. As Luvvie Ajayi writes in her book, I’m Judging You; ‘When you speak out, someone else might be encouraged to do the same. Do not be silent’. Moreover, being neutral or silent contributes to the status quo. As Luvvie writes: ‘For me, [speaking up for what you believe in] is the simple acknowledgement of injustice. It is the act of stating that you see it and you do not condone it. It is the refusal to ignore the world’s shenanigans in an effort to be neutral. Neutrality is for suckers, and it does nothing but indicate that you are alright with bad things happening.’ Or as Einstein said: ‘The world will not be destroyed by those that do evil, but by those who watch them and do nothing.’

‘When you speak out, someone else might be encouraged to do the same. Do not be silent.’

Luvvie Ajayi

Then there is a group of people who have opposite beliefs of us and wholeheartedly stand behind these beliefs. Think of white supremacists, who believe that they are responsible for protecting the white race. Or those thinking that they have to keep refugees away to defend their countries and their loved ones. In their stories, they are the good guys, fighting for a better world, just as we are in ours. No one sees himself as the bad guy in the story. A great example is Meghan Phelps-Roper. She grew up in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church that amongst others advocates for hate against LGBT+, jews and U.S. soldiers. Contact with outsiders made her doubt this lifestyle and eventually she decides to leave the church.

In various religions, we find that followers are told to do good for others. In Buddhism and Hinduism, there is the concept of karma; every action has a matching consequence. Being selfless, altruistic, compassionate causes good karma, while causing harm to others creates bad karma. This should motivate believers to do good for others. But what does this mean? Are we just not to harm each other? Or does it go further than that, meaning that we should be active to improve the situation of other people? And does this just apply to people in our own community, town or country?

And what about religion, and popular culture?

Or are we also responsible for helping people in across the world? Many religious organisations deliver developmental aid in nations far from home. This suggests that our religious responsibility runs globally. But then again, there are also many religious people that are not concerned with charity at all. Moreover, these holy books were written in a time when one’s world was confined to his own community. In modern times we are much more connected with the rest of the world through (social) media and technology. There are now many more people to do good for. But we are also becoming immune to injustice. We are faced with so many images of hunger, violence and inequality through the media all day long. How can society comply with these ancient commandments in modern times of information overflow and fatigue?

When looking at popular cultural or doing some research on the internet, one finds many opinions about our responsibilities. Michael Jackson told us to start with the ‘man in the mirror’. John Lennon asked us to imagine a world where all people shared all the world. And the Black Eyed Peas sang about injustice and inequality in their hit Where is the Love.

Moreover, there are also plenty of quotes on our responsibilities to change the word. As Toni Morrison said ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’ Gandhi told us to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’. And Audrey Hepburn told us that as we get older, we will discover that we have two hands; one for helping ourselves, the other for helping others.

These are just a few of many opinions about our responsibility to others. However, these opinions are from those who pay attention to the issues in the world. They feel that they have a responsibility to change the world. People who are not aware of these problems or who do not think it is our responsibility will not be the ones to sing a song about it or to be quoted on it.

The Talmud told us: ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it’. This tells us that we are responsible for changing the world, and we cannot abandon the work to decrease the world’s grief. However, ‘not to be daunted by the world’s grief’ implies being aware of it. Are we still responsible for changing the world if we do not know about the existence of these problems? Can you do better if you are not aware of doing wrong to others and the world? The answer probably is no, awareness is crucial to doing better.

The key for people to feel responsible and take action seems to be awareness and information. We should all have access to info about the simple things that we all can do to contribute to a better world.

Whatever your opinion on our responsibility for improving the world, it is hard to deny that a healthier climate, greater justice and more equality would be in (almost) everyone’s benefit. Therefore, it seems to be a worthy goal to get more people to join the cause for a fairer world. The key for people to feel responsible and take action seems to be awareness and information. We should all have access to info about the simple things that we all can do to contribute to a better world. Think of a platform where you can find information about sustainable and fair products. Or information about simple ways to be more environmental-friendly in daily life.

Want to learn more about the small things you can do to change the world? Check out this article about the UN’s Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World!