First world privilege makes it hard for us to see real problems

Is there such a thing as a “first world problem?”

There are many world challenges: decades long civil wars in Africa, global poverty, malaria, etc. What I wonder is if there are any that are unique to life in the first world.

This is separate from whether there are issues in the first world. An earthquake and tsunami have given Japan — a first world country if there is one — plenty of problems. But they are not problems because Japan is rich: if it had been any poorer, the casualties would have been in the hundreds of thousands, not tens.

We’re privileged because our problems are a product of the reality we create for ourselves. Our friends may be terrible people, but we choose them; you don’t choose your family, but you can choose to deal with them. Homework’s a pain, sure: Quit your belly-aching.

Minority groups have a claim to real problems. You can’t change your ethnicity, and despite what some may claim, homosexuality is clearly not a choice. Those with mental disorders or chronic illness can’t choose their reality either. They have to deal with the one that is imposed upon them.

But what I’m looking for is problems that result directly from sheltered, affluent lives. What if you’re like me: middle class, white, straight, in no danger of poverty and in moderately good health. What then? Do we have any real problems?

It seems to me that, yes we do. Two, in fact, which feed off each other and interact in interesting ways: fighting boredom and becoming moral.

I’ll pause for your outrage.

We have to fight boredom because we have been given the choice of what to do with our time. We’re free from almost every bodily need or threat: The hardest decision I’ve recently had to face was whether I should get up or wait another 30 minutes (like usual, I slept in). And it seems that often, bereft of real challenges, we create our own to occupy our time.

This is where morality comes in, because with that free time, we can choose to be good and giving or choose to become wrapped up in our own little problems. Even though they are small and in a sense illusory, it’s hard to step outside of them and see the person suffering next to you. Moreover, our affluence opens up new vices and virtues. Gluttony is only possible in a life free of want, and munificence is only possible when you have something to give.

And it’s hard. The reason why ethics exists is because what we want to do and what we are supposed to do come apart so easily. We aren’t born good; it’s a struggle to become it. And that’s what ensures that it will always be a challenge, no matter what kind of world we live in.

Nathan is a senior in LAS.