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Is the State of the World Too Terrible to Confront? – Part 1 of the Café Series

This series of the Modern Socratic Dialogues, the “Café Series”, takes us from a simple starting place to the question whether, and if so, how human existence nowadays can be justified, given how destructive man is to oneself and his surroundings. This is installment number one of that series, where modern day Socrates meets four young students who are wrestling with exactly that question, though for now with its more surface-level implications.

Socrates walks into a lively café in Berlin and orders a cappuccino and some water. He sits down with his drinks, observing the room as well as the people in it.

After a while, his attention is drawn to a table in the corner of the room, for he overhears a conversation of four young people. Sitting in a circle, they have their phones on their laps and Iced Lattes in front of them.

Young woman 1: I just can’t stand it anymore. Every time I turn on the news or look at my twitter feed, there’s nothing but catastrophe! All we do is destroy this planet or each other! I’m just going to delete all my social media and news apps!

Young man 1: We do terrible things to this planet, yes! But do you really think it would be better if we stopped paying attention to what was going on?

Young woman 1: Yes, I am starting to believe that!

Young woman 2: She’s right, you know. It’s just so unhealthy to constantly see all the pain and suffering and misery we’re all responsible for. Not to speak of all the negativity online, the harassment against women or people who speak out about anything slightly controversial whatsoever.

Socrates, intrigued, gets up to head over to the group, his cappuccino and water on a little tray.

Socrates: Excuse me, guys, I overheard your conversation, and something you said [smiling at young woman 1] caught my attention. Would you mind if I joined you?

Young man 1: Not at all, sit down. We’re always open to new perspectives!

Young woman 1 and 2 nod in agreement, and make room on the worn-out couch.

Socrates [sitting down]: Sweet, thank you guys. My name’s Socrates. I know, it’s quite the unusual name, but my parents just loved Greek philosophy a little too much. What are your names?

Young man 1: I’m Tommy.

Young woman 1: Emmelie. [lifts two fingers from her thigh]

Young woman 2: Ann, short for Annabelle.

Socrates: And you? [turning to the fourth, a slim young man who quietly lays back in the corner of the couch]

Tommy: That’s Hugh.

Emmelie: You don’t need to answer for your brother all the time, Tommy.

Hugh [hesitantly]: It’s fine, Em.

Tommy: He doesn’t like to talk much, and his head is in the clouds all the time, anyways.

Em: So, what I was saying before Mr. Greece here showed up, I just can’t consume all this bad news anymore. [throws down her phone on the couch] It’s nothing but toxic b.s.!

Tommy: Em, I get that, but what about important events? Like, don’t you want to know if something of relevance happens? Wouldn’t it be weird if you, for example, didn’t know last year that Russia invaded Ukraine?

Em: Yes, granted, that would have been weird. But I’m sure someone would have told me about it. You certainly can’t keep your eyes off your phone, so certainly, you would’ve told me.

Socrates: That’s the part I found so intriguing that I came over here, Emmelie. Can I ask you a question about what you just said?

Em: Sure, old man, go ahead.

Socrates: When you find an action to be good, and by that I mean generally, would you not want that everyone would act that way?

Em: Well, obviously, yes, though I am not sure that there really is such a thing as a good action.

Socrates: Alright, but, for arguments sake, if there were something truly good you could do – and you just proposed one, not paying attention to the news anymore – would you not want everyone to do said good thing?

Em: If there was something truly good, I guess so, yes. But what does that have to do with quitting the news?

Socrates: Here it comes. Let’s take an example of an action we all can agree on is good, or rather, one that is bad that should be avoided, for such examples are easier to find. For all intents and purposes, would you agree that one should not kill others without cause?

Em: Obviously, yes. [Ann and Tommy nod in agreement]

Socrates: And would you want everyone to adhere to that principle? Like, would you be ok with a few people killing, while everyone else didn’t?

Em: Certainly not. [chuckling]

Socrates: We’re almost there, then. So far, we have established that if we find a good action, we want everyone to do so, and not just a few people, right?

Em: I guess so, yes. Presuming there are actions that are actually good.

Socrates: That’s fine, we can do with that condition, for now. Additionally, you do think that quitting the news is a good idea, don’t you?

Em: Yes, I do…

Socrates: So if quitting the news really is a good idea, wouldn’t you have to want everyone to act that way?

Em: Well, technically, yes.

Socrates: So you would want Tommy and Annabelle and Carlos here to quit right with you, right?

Em: I guess.

Socrates: If that is the case, tell me: Who would tell you what happened if everyone around you quit the news alongside yourself?

Em: Well, yeah, nobody could, that’s true. But I didn’t say it’s bad for everyone, did I? I guess I just feel like it’s bad for me, right now. So everyone else could still check the news and let me know if something of importance happened, right?

Socrates: Alright, noted. Let me ask you this, besides stating that you seem to be comfortable with others deciding what is of importance to you and what is not: How could something be bad for you but good for another person, Emmelie?

Em: I don’t know, you tell me, for you act like you have all the answers. And I’m not the one named after the founding father of philosophy, after all! [laughs]

Socrates [joining her laughter]: When you are being serious, though, what do you think?

Em: I guess it just is different for everyone how things affect us, for we are all unique.

Socrates: Fair enough. But answer me this: Is meat good food for cows?

Em: What?

Socrates: Would you recommend to cows, if they could listen to you, to eat meat?

Em: No, but I wouldn’t recommend eating meat to anyone! [laughs again]

Socrates: Alright. In all seriousness though, is meat good food for cows?

Em: No, it’s not.

Socrates: Tell me, what is, then?

Em: I don’t know, hay, I guess?

Socrates: Okay, so grass it is, or some plant or green. Would you agree with me that grass is good for any cow there is? Or do cows exist for whom the consumption of grass would be disadvantageous?

Em: Old man, you really should take a lesson in common speech. But, to satisfy your incessant need for answers, yes, of course grass is good for all cows. You really ask the most basic questions, dude.

Socrates: Don’t worry, you will soon see their purpose. For humans such as ourselves, is grass good food?

Em: I don’t know, haven’t tried it. [laughing again]

Ann [eagerly jumping in]: No, it’s not. We literally don’t have the stomachs to digest grass.

Socrates: Well said. Would you, Emmelie, presuming you agree with Annabelle about grass being bad food for us, go along with saying that what essentially constitutes good food for each species is different, precisely because the species differ? And would you also agree that said food is then good for every individual of that species?

Em: I agree with both, yeah.

Socrates: And are the news not similar to food we consume? For I remember that earlier you yourself spoke of it in that way.

Em: Yes, I agree. We consume both food for the body and the mind.

Socrates: And are you and Tommy not of the same species, the same kind?

Em: We are both human, if that’s what you mean, yes.

Socrates: How then could the same food be good for him and at the same time be harmful to you? For we have agreed that for each kind, there is food that is good, and that said food necessarily is good for all individuals of the same species.

Em: Well, it seems so. [shrugs] I don’t know what I should think anymore. It feels like you’ve simply twisted the words in my mouth! All I know is that this – picks up her phone, shakes it violently – is doing some major harm to my mind!

Hugh: [quietly] Hey, guys, I do know what to think. Quitting the news just doesn’t conform to Kant’s categorical imperative! You simply can’t reasonably wish that everyone quit consuming news. Nobody would know what was going on. Therefore, you should not do it yourself.

Ann: Granted, smarty-pants, maybe that is the case. But that doesn’t solve her problem. I see it every day: It makes her literally sick to constantly see the destruction of the rain forest by humanity, replays of the atrocities of Kiev last year, victims of the latest heat wave in southern Europe and India, starved children from droughts in central Africa or the bombing of Helsinki just last week! And honestly, she’s right, for goodness’ sake – it makes me miserable, too, and Tommy and all of our friends and family alongside us!

Tommy [pondering]: Well, you might be right. But, what is it, then – is quitting the news good for us or bad? Now I want to know, also! Should we turn our attention away from the world? And what would that mean?

At this point, we leave the conversation for now, just as Socrates takes a first sip from his cup of cappuccino.



Thank you for your interest!

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