We have one word for many different things. We need more words. There are at least three categories of problems that seem relevant and worth distinguishing from each other. We currently only use one word, “problem”, for all three. I won’t create new words here, but below are the three categories various problems can be separated into.
The Socially Superficial
Idealism. Abortion. Gay marriage. Transgendered people using bathrooms. Polygamy and polyamory. Adultery. Death penalty. Euthanasia. Suicide. Drugs. Religion. Racism. Sexism.
The use of superficial here does not imply that these problems don’t have serious consequences. Instead, I simply mean that they would disappear tomorrow morning if everyone woke up with an agreement to just not participate in them as problems.
Gay marriage is only a problem because some people believe it is a problem due to things like “souls” and “hell”. The same is true for the rest of the issues on the above list, with some nuances here and there.
All of these issues stem primarily from philosophical idealism of the Platonic type. Religion, nationalism, Stalinism, Maoism, and any of a dozen others are forms of idealism. “If we can just get my version of the ideal actualized, the world will be perfect. Now let’s get rid of all the people that are ruining my ideal…” To the extent that a problem arises from some form of idealism or belief, it is a fabrication.
Some of these items, like drugs can obviously be a problem when they contribute to people committing acts of violence and destruction. The same can be said about almost any sex act. Polyamory and adultery can be done violently or under threat of violence, but it’s the violence that is the problem.
The Socially Substantial
Violence. Education. Healthcare. Poverty. Inequality. Trade. Immigration. Climate change. Nuclear war. Artificial intelligence. Psychopathy. Terrorism. War.
This category is contextualized by the issues being related to humans acting and interacting with each other, but could not be solved simply by stopping an action or disbelieving something.
We could all wake up tomorrow and choose not to be anti-homosexual in our actions and speech. We couldn’t solve the issues related to the list of items in this category in the same way. They need genuine effort, systems, and experimentation plus time. In fact, it’s not even clear some of these issues have genuine solutions. The best we may be able to hope for in some cases, such as psychopathy, is containment.
Disease. Natural disasters. Aging. Dying.
The items in this category are unique from the above two in that they don’t result from humans being social. Even if we decided to all play nice and work hard to create systems and institutions to deal with the substantial social problems above, we’d still be left with the asocial problems.
We all get sick, old, and die. These are real problems that would plague us no matter the social utopia we built.
Stop Being Distracted
Yet we find ourselves most often discussing the first category of problems in the news and politics. The world as we know it could potentially end because of above items like A.I., climate change, or nuclear war. These are existential threats to humanity. They affect every single person. Moreover, they are hard problems to solve.
None of the items in the socially superficial list will matter if solutions are not generated to the list of socially substantial problems. I can’t be any clearer, we need priorities. Spend your time, energy, and abilities on the most pressing issues and worry (or don’t) about the superficial ones later.