Can you think of anyone who isn’t trying to make the world a better place in his or her own way?
The statement means nothing if everyone says it. And effectively everyone does. Think of the worst people you can. Weren’t they trying to make the world a better place, in their minds at least? You can say how wrong these terrible people were, but in their minds they weren’t wrong, they were right. In their minds you’re wrong and they’re right. And no matter how much you appeal to a foundation they can’t — scripture, your notion of human nature, human life, whatever — they can appeal to some other foundation that for them is equally absolute. They can also claim your absolutes are invalid, or inapplicable.
“Better” means more good. “Good” has meaning only within the context of a purpose, function, or goal. Two people who agree on their purpose can agree on what’s good, but when their purposes differ, their ideas of good differ.
No two people agree completely on their purpose, function, or goals. Is this obvious? It seems so to me, but people often behave otherwise — that is, they assume others have the same values and weight them equally. But everybody has different interests, perspectives, beliefs, abilities. Even if you agree on nearly everything, you disagree on something and you never know when what you consider the smallest difference will affect you most. Some differences you are aware of. Some may be latent.
So saying you’re making the world a better place makes you feel good at the expense of conveying meaning.
If you express your purpose in life through a feel-good but vacuous statement like “I’m making the world a better place” or “to leave the world better than you found it,” you aren’t expressing anything meaningful. It’s a tautology to say you want to do what you want to do. If you want to find meaning, explore what “better” means to you versus others — that is, learn their values, why they have them, and why they weight them the way they do.
If you hope to change the world, you have to enlist others. Otherwise you aren’t changing anything animate. If you want to enlist others to help your cause, implying they making the world worse when they believe they are making it better (and they do just as much as you do) will not persuade them. Of course many people already agree with you on many points. Persuading them probably won’t be as important to you. People who disagree — you’d like to enlist them — get them to stop polluting so much, or invading other countries, or drinking and driving, or whatever.
I guarantee they don’t think of themselves as polluters, invaders, or potential killers. They see themselves as innovators, liberators, and fun lovers who resent busybodies telling them what to do.
So explore what good means to yourself and others. See them as they see themselves. Understanding others from their own perspective can be hard for those you find repugnant, scary, creepy, or whatever. It feels to obvious to say it, but understanding them doesn’t mean agreeing with them. Understanding other people’s perspectives is the heart of expanding your horizons.
EDIT: I referred to and commented on this post in a later post, “What’s counterproductive about ‘making the world a better place’“.
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