This summer my 2-year-old daughter and I were looking at a world map together. I would have liked to tell her something about the different continents and countries (about all the different languages, the food, music, local customs), but wasn’t able to because the sight of the map prompted only thoughts such as “There is war here, there are people starving there, refugees drowning here…” So I remained silent. We are currently overwhelmed by negative news. Almost everywhere things seem to go awfully wrong: more than 65 million refugees worldwide, 470000 deaths in Syria, the terror of ISIS, right-wing populists gaining more votes everywhere, Donald Trump for president, the Brexit, growing child poverty in Europe’s strongest economy (Germany), burning asylum seeker centres… (I could go on and on). Of course, the news we get through the media has always been mainly negative, but now it seems to have reached a new dimension. Whether this impression is accurate or not, it is certainly unsettling, raising perturbing questions: How long will we still be able to live in peace and with our basic human rights protected? Will the fear of terrorist attacks soon be part of our daily lives? Have all attempts after 1945 to create a more peaceful world been in vain? What kind of world will my children find themselves in? To what extent do our governments and we carry responsibility for what is going on? What does justice require from us as individuals? Is there a moral justification for focusing on one’s own comparatively small problems and not trying to help solving the big, global ones? How many resources are we allowed to spend on our own children? These kinds of questions are far from new, but they currently pose themselves with particular urgency.
Many of us, I believe, are bothered by such questions at one moment, and return to their daily routines in the next. Walking through the beautiful city centre of Utrecht on a sunny day, I can temporarily forget about the suffering of refugees and the citizens of Aleppo. But then I suddenly remember how much misery there is outside of my own comfort zone. I feel like living in a bubble, turning around trivialities, pretending that the renovation of our new house and my grant application are the biggest things to worry about. And I have the impression that everyone around me is doing the same. People go to work, meet for lunch, chat about the weather and their last holiday, complain about the high workload. As if the refugees and the increasing temperature of the earth had nothing to do with them. Of course it cannot be morally required of people to stop taking interest in their personal affairs and devote themselves to the global challenges, or can it? It must be justifiable to live on normally, no? Well, this seems to depend on the extent to which our own way of life, and our own luck, are related to, and dependent on, the negative developments and events that are taking place in so many parts of the world. And on our role in the causal chain of events. To what extent does our high standard of living depend on arms exports, exploitation of immigrant workers, production of clothes in low-wage countries, child labour, and high CO2 emissions? To what extent have our governments and we contributed to the rise of Isis, e.g. by supporting the U.S. intervention in Iraq? What would the situation in Syria look like if countries like Germany weren’t producing and exporting so many weapons? These questions make one feel highly uncomfortable, and they remind me on what Nietzsche wrote in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”: “And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and then suspect that man is sustained in the indifference of his ignorance by that which is pitiless, greedy, insatiable, and murderous – as if hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger.” We might try to continue dreaming, but we are likely to be woken up at some point. The threats are entering our small island of peace.