On the contrary, war, economic injustice, and pollution arise because we have not yet learned to make use of our most civilizing capacities: the creativity and wisdom we all have as our birthright. When even one person comes into full possession of these capacities, our problems are shown in their true light: they are simply the results of avoidable—though deadly—errors of judgment.
Gandhi formulated a series of diagnoses of the modern world’s seemingly perpetual state of crisis, which he called “the seven social sins.” I prefer to think of them as seven social ailments, since the problems they address are not crimes calling for punishment but crippling diseases that are punishment enough in themselves. The first—and the one we will focus on here—is knowledge without character. It traces all our difficulties to a simple lack of connection between what we know is good for us and our ability to act on that knowledge.
Knowledge Without Character
To me, the central paradox of our time is that despite our powerful intellectual skills and our ingenious engineering and medical achievements, we still lack the ability to live wisely. We send sophisticated satellites into space that beam us startling information about the destruction of the environment, yet we do little, if anything, to stop that destruction.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, we live in a world of “guided missiles and misguided men,” where few technical problems are too complex to solve but we find it impossible to cope with the most basic of life’s challenges: how to live together in peace and health. In our lucid moments we see that we are doing great harm to ourselves and our planet, but somehow, for all our intellectual understanding, we cannot seem to change the way we think and live.
This is not to say we are bad people. The problem is simply that we have not yet completed our education. When Gandhi speaks of knowledge without character, he is not implying that we know too much for our own good. He is saying that because we do not understand what our real needs are, we are unable to use our tremendous technical expertise in a way that might make our lives more secure and fulfilling. Instead, we treat every problem as if it were a matter for technology, or chemistry, or economics, even when it has nothing to do with these things.
Every day, for example, dozens of new products appear, promising to satisfy our deepest desires. We are barraged with messages—subliminal and otherwise—on billboards and in magazines, on television and in the movies, telling us that everything we are looking for in life can be found in a car or a bowl of ice cream or a cigarette.
The hidden message is that what we own or eat or smoke has the power to endow us with self-respect. Actually, I would say it is the other way around. Your car may be useful and comfortable, it may have a wet bar and a cellular phone, but that is not why it is dignified. You, a human being, are the one who gives dignity to your car by driving it. If it were not for you, that car would be only a hunk of metal.
Over the past fifty years, the automobile, like so many of our appliances and machines, has sped down the now-familiar psychological highway from desirable luxury to basic necessity to tyrannical master. We no longer choose to drive a car—we have to: there are so many things to do, so little time to do them, and so far to travel in between. We rush about from place to place, caught in a perilous game of catch-up, and the price is high: nearly fifty thousand Americans lose their lives in traffic accidents every year. The irony is, we are often in such a hurry that we can’t get anywhere. I have read that commute time in Tokyo and London now is often less by bicycle than by car; and to judge by rush hour on our freeways, our situation is not much different.
Worse than the loss of time, of course, is the threat to our health. In each of those cars, according to recent research conducted in Los Angeles, commuters are exposed to two to four times the levels of cancer-causing toxic chemicals found outdoors. And as it idles there on the freeway, the average American car makes a significant contribution to the greenhouse effect, pumping its own weight in carbon into the atmosphere each year.
These things are not secrets. We have all heard them many times before, but we find it hard to do anything about them. Our cities and towns have grown in such a way that we feel helpless without a car. And as our cities expand ever farther into the surrounding countryside, the situation promises to get even worse.
The problem is that the roots of our dependence on the auto go deeper than the desire for a convenient mode of transportation. There is a much more powerful force at work here—a force that characterizes almost every activity in industrial society: profit. Under the relentless domination of the profit motive, we have remade our country in the image of the automobile. As the political historian Richard Barnet writes, describing America in the middle decades of this century,
Buying highways meant buying motels, quick food eateries,…and the culture of suburbia….The highway system was the nation’s only physical plan, and more than anything else it determined the appearance of cities and the stretches in between. In choosing the automobile as the engine of growth, the highway and automotive planners scrapped mass transit.
Oil shortages and higher gasoline prices have led us to regret turning a blind eye toward such practices, yet we go on driving more and more, drilling new oil wells, making and buying more and bigger cars. In just one hundred years, urged on by the profit motive and the media conditioning that driving is entertainment and our car is an extension of our personality, we have used up nearly half of the world’s known petroleum reserves, fouled our air, and put our oceans and beaches at continual risk from oil spills.
Now, I have nothing against automobiles. I have a car, and I appreciate its utility. All I would say is, it is important to remember who is serving whom. If we were the masters of our machines—and our lives—we would have good, well-made cars and good roads on which to drive, but wouldn’t we also use them sparingly, so our children and our children’s children would have enough oil left to heat their homes?
Nor am I suggesting that there is anything wrong in a businessperson making enough profit to support his or her family in comfort—everyone should have this opportunity. But we have exaggerated the importance of profit out of all proportion to its natural place in business. We have become addicted to it, and that is a very dangerous situation.
Most addictions begin innocently enough. “Just one more helping, one more bowl of ice cream, one more cigarette, one more drink for the road.” That is how it starts—just one more: “Let’s sell just one more new car, make one more dollar, pump one more gallon of gas.”
When we give in to that desire repeatedly, with a second helping, a second smoke, a second drink, or a second sniff, it becomes a habit—not just one more but one every day: “The stockholders want to see this quarter’s profits rising above last quarter’s. Get the general manager on the phone and tell him to increase production, bolster demand, and heat up consumption. And do it yesterday.”
With a habit we still have a choice whether to give in or not, but when a habit continues long enough, we lose our power to choose. Our feeling of security becomes so closely attached to the thing we crave that we must have it, whatever the cost. The habit has become a compulsion, and we have become its servant. We will do anything for a profit, even if it means sacrificing our children’s precious seas, air, and earth. This is what Gandhi means by knowledge without character—a lack of connection between what we know to be in everyone’s long-range best interest and our ability to act on that knowledge. It has become the cornerstone of much of our business and our lives.