World Problems Project
Significance: Precedents in history and tradition
World Problems Project
It might easily be assumed that social problems exist since the dawn
of history. However this does not appear to be the case, especially if
it is assumed that for human suffering to qualify as a problem there should
be a recognition that something should be done about it. It has been argued
by Arnold Green (Social Problems: Arena of Conflict, 1975) that
a consciousness of social problems did not arise until the latter part
of the eighteenth century with the emergence of the notions of equality,
humanitarianism, the goodness of human nature, and the modifiability of
social conditions. It may also be argued that the religions of the world
have responded to the condition of personal and collective suffering since
their origin (John Bowker. Problems of Suffering in the Religions of
the World, 1970).
Depending on what is meant by a social problem, the following may be
explored as early examples of recognition of problematic social conditions.
Seemingly, the first deliberate attempt to document problems appears
in the Kautilya's Arthasastra. This classical Indian text on statecraft
was written sometime in the period 321-300 BC. Many of the chapters deal
explicitly with the nature of particular problems, including various forms
of corruption and subversion, robbery, assault, defamation, juvenile delinquency,
sexual intercourse with immature girls, the "calamities" of sovereignty,
the "troubles" of men, etc. The commentary on "national calamities" covers
fire, floods, pestilences, famines, rats, snakes, tigers and demons.
2. Japanese "tsumi"
Traditionally Japanese statecraft and government regulations enumerated
what were termed "tsumi". In modern Japanese this is equivalent to notions
of sin, offence and crime. In much earlier times it was a broad term applied
to actions or conditions causing the degeneration of, or hindering, the
proper growth and development of the life-force. As such it was related
to the notion of ritual impurity. The oldest enumeration, dating from the
10th century is that of the Oharae no Kotoba in the Engi Shiki.
This divided the tsumi into the heavenly tsumi and the earthly tsumi.
Heavenly tsumi included: destroying ridges between fields, burying
irrigation ditches, destroying aqueducts, double planting of seeds, driving
stakes in mud to cause harm, skinning animals alive, skinning animals backwards,
polluting a pure place with excrement.
Earthly tsumi included: injuring the skin and causing blood to
run, desecrating a corpse, irregularities in skin pigmentation, skin eruptions
such as warts or tumours, incest, bestiality, calamities due to noxious
pests, celestial calamities such as lightning and eclipses, calamities
caused by birds, harming draught animals with curses, and placing curses
3. Himsa in the Jain tradition
Within the Jain tradition in India, the concept of "ahimsa" was articulated
in the period 599 to 527 BC and through subsequent development. The term
is subject to a variety of interpretations but includes notions of non-violence,
non-resistance to evil and passive resistance. The converse notion of "himsa"
denotes a wide range of forms of violence of which some 432 have been distinguished
and documented by scholars of that tradition.
4. Afflictions and hindrances (Buddhism)
In various Buddhist traditions considerable importance is attached to
fundamental afflictions as the cause of suffering (and as responsible for
maintaining the cycle of rebirth). All other problems are seen as engendered
by them. In the Visuddhimagga by Bhadantacariya Buddhagosa, prepared
in the 5th century AD, the following detailed checklist is given (followed
there by indications of which forms of knowledge ensure release from them
in each case). The seeming duplication is due to the emphasis on the different
ways a limited set of "problems" act, as indicated by the often metaphoric
(a) Fetters: greed for material benefits, greed for non-material
benefits, conceit/pride, excitement/agitation, ignorance, delusion of selfhood
(false view of individuality), doubt, susceptibility to rites and rituals,
greed for sense desires, and resentment.
5. Sins and vices (Christianity)
(b) Corruptions/Defilements: greed, hatred, delusion, conceit/pride,
false view, uncertainty, mental sloth, excitement/agitation, consciencelessness,
(c) Wrongnesses: wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech (falsehood),
wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness, wrong
concentration, possibly together with wrong understanding of deliverance
and wrong knowledge.
(d) Worldly conditions (despondency/servitude to states): gain,
loss, fame, disgrace, pleasure, pain, blame, praise.
(e) Meannesses (kinds of avarice): avarice about dwellings, families,
gain, dhamma, praise.
(f) Perversions (Reversals): perversion of perception, of consciousness,
and of view (whereby, in each case, the inappropriate is misapprehended
(g) Ties: covetousness, ill will, susceptibility to rites and
rituals, dogmatic misinterpretation of truth.
(h) Tendencies to inappropriate action: partiality (desire/zeal),
hatred, delusion, fear.
(i) Hindrances: sensuous desire, ill-will, sloth/torpor, distraction
(j) Misapprehension/Wrong views: ignoring essentials in favour
(k) Graspings/Clingings: clinging to views, susceptibility to
rites and rituals, clinging to selfhood, desire.
(l) Inherent tendencies/Biases: sensuous passion, resentment,
conceit/pride, false view, doubt, craving for existence, ignorance.
(m) Courses of immoral action: life-taking, theft, sexual misconduct,
lying, slanderous speech, harsh speech, gossip, covetousness, ill-will,
(n) Immoral states of consciousness: eight rooted in greed, two
rooted in hate, two rooted in delusion.
In the Chrisitian approach to sins, some of the earliest listings dating
back to the 4th century, gave eight sins. Eventually the church settled
on seven sins classified in the order: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed,
gluttony, and lust. Occasionally an eighth sin, melancholy, was added.
They have been both personal faults and great social evils, being at the
origin of the multiplicity of other problems, notably the ordinary vices,
such as cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery, betrayal, and misanthropy..
6. Crises and opportunities (Taoism)
The Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching) is a sophisticated
effort to map out the pattern of changes that occur in any psycho-social
system. Implicit in this complex pattern is a recognition that change occurs
once some condition of imbalance or excess has been reached. In these terms
a problem may be seen as a phase in the transition from one condition to
another. A problem is thus the accumulation of imbalance that necessarily
triggers the transition to a new phase within the pattern of possible changes.
The I Ching marries a rigidly ordered binary system with an extremely metaphoric
interpretation of its significance. The ordering could supposedly lead
to categories of problems of different degrees of articulation, from a
set of 2 fundamental categories, through 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64. Amongst the
64 categories there are 384 transformational pathways. Each of these could
be interpreted as a particular kind of crisis or opportunity and could
thus be used as a way of ordering problems.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential