People would like to think that their own way is right. That was what my younger brother concluded in his wisdom when he was just 11 or 12 years old, trying to understand and not write off his friend’s family and their opinion about a hot topic, which was different from the rest of the mainstream opinion of the little Norwegian town.

At the time, we laughed at my brother’s wise conclusion because we thought he was a bit young for such deep insights. He had clear moral principles, derived from my parents’ liberal child- rearing philosophy and the inclusive attitudes in school and community. His thinking about right and wrong was not based as much on concrete knowledge as on a moral foundation.

Let me use this story as a backdrop for a few other stories, or examples, when there is conflict between moral foundation, or it is not solid enough, and the required knowledge on the other hand, which may be shallow too. I argue that we need both moral foundation and solid knowledge to reach the right decisions about current existential and long-term issues.

Example 1 is about war and peace attitudes.

In the autumn of 2001, I was working in UNHCR in Pakistan. Two senior Norwegian officers came on mission to assess what assistance was required in Pakistan and Afghanistan after the 9/11 counter actions here. The elderly women were experienced and kind, but when I said that I thought the extensive bombing of Afghanistan should not have happened and the war was generally wrong, they were both in total disagreement. (I should add that I am certain they did not say so because they wanted business for their humanitarian organisation.) They were simply pro-war and Norway’s participation in it as a Nato member. I was surprised and saddened. How could Norwegians, indeed kind women, want war? I thought they and I came from one of the world’s most peaceful countries, with active peace movements, anti-nuclear weapons groups, and so on. Our country had been occupied by Nazi-Germany during World War II and I though we all believed in the “never again” doctrine. At school and in homes, we had learned that war is wrong, especially offensive war outside our own territory, overstretching the term “defence”. Among elderly Norwegians, there are many pacifists, based on religious and moral grounds. Until 2001, Norway had never engaged in war after World War II, except for being part of the Nato operations in Bosnia in the 1990s, but at that time I worked in an African country without TV, so I did not follow it very well. This time, in November or December 2001, I was shocked to hear such good countrywomen of mine draw such wrong conclusions.

So, if you agree with me that the war in Afghanistan was wrong, and that my countrywomen should also have been against it, especially since they worked for a humanitarian NGO, then the question is: Why did they take the stand they did?

My conclusion: I don’t think their moral foundation was strong enough. Secondly, I think they had gross lack of knowledge about war in general and, indeed, about what ‘positive’ the operation in Afghanistan could bring. But as seen from their humanitarian aid organisation’s side, their attitudes still puzzle me.

Can it be that we many times think we have the right moral foundation and sufficient knowledge, but when we are tested, we come adrift and draw wrong conclusions? If that is so, it is very frightening.

Example 2 is about politics and gender issues.

America’s Republican Party, is currently in the process of finding its candidate to stand against President Barack Obama in the presidential election in November this year. Since Obama is only in his first four-year term and it is common that his party gives the setting President a second chance unopposed, there is no challenger in the Democratic Party. But I shall not go into detail about the election. I’d rather take issue with some of the opinions that the Republican candidates have in certain fields. They seem to have several ideas, which are not based on facts. I shall draw attention to Rick Santorum’s old fashioned opinions in fields, such as women’s issues, including birth control and abortion, homosexuality, religion and state, health and social issues at large, and other fields. He seems to be stuck in his grandparents’ time. Even the other frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has similar views, or at least he has had to adjust his rhetoric to show that he is conservative enough.

What is going on in America? How come issues that we thought were laid to rest in the 1960s, or earlier, somehow crop up again?

The moral foundation is probably good enough, although not without inclusiveness for other opinions. And indeed, the candidates’ knowledge is missing. Santorum’s stand lacks modern knowledge, even logical reasoning. I think that most Americans would agree with me, even conservative Americans. Maybe some would say they agree with Santorum’s principles in theory and in public. In practice, though, they would listen to modern knowledge and pragmatic thinking. They would use preventives, they would not condemn same-sex relations; they would rarely be against women’s equal rights, and so on. Yes, they would support all the major achievements, which not least Americans have championed in recent generations.

In conclusion, this example shows that we need moral foundation combined with knowledge, and we need debate in the “real world” to reach balanced views. If one leg is missing, we cannot stand firmly and draw solid conclusions. Yes, it is shocking that the candidates, who seek the highest office in America, the world’s only superpower, lack simple knowledge and understanding, and still seem to be entirely comfortable.

Let me go back to my home country again. The introduction to the Norwegian primary and lower secondary education act states that children shall learn to be tolerant and ethical human beings. The “scientific way of thinking” shall guide their reasoning. In other words, we need a moral foundation combined with facts and knowledge. We cannot wish away facts and try to win debates by words, and we cannot hammer in arguments if they hurt other people unduly.

Last week, I read an excellent piece by Maureen Dowd in the global edition of The New York Times, entitled Don’t tread on us. Dowd stated: “American women have suddenly realised that their emancipation in the 21st century is not as secure as they had assumed.” I could go further and say the same about a number of other issues, such as the more social or socialist ways of organising our societies that we achieved in the recent generations. We know that the free market conservative system needs regulation and control. Yet, in recent decades and years we somehow bounce back to the crude private sector “solutions”. And when countries such as Greece default and need assistance, we blame it all on that country, not on all those countries and companies that lent money and sold goods to Greece when they must have known that they could not afford it. The austerities are such that the country will never be able to recover. In such instances, we lack moral standards and knowledge. We don’t want to see any of it!

Why does all this happen? Because we don’t have the moral and sometimes also not the ideological foundation required. It is because we don’t want to find the right knowledge and facts; we hide or ignore them if they somehow don’t suit us. We do this also out of selfish motives, to make more money, to free ourselves, because we know when things go astray, but it may be more comfortable to hide our heads in the sand like ostriches.

The moral foundation for the war in Afghanistan, and the shallow knowledge that was applied before and during the invasion, is evidence of the importance of paying more attention to the issues I have discussed in this article. As always, I trust in broader public debate; I don’t always expect our leaders to have neither moral foundation, nor the knowledge required. I appeal to the general public to use their democratic right to debate and draw conclusions. And, by the way, since I used gender issues in my above example: Perhaps, President Obama should appoint Hillary Clinton to be Vice President in America next time? The columnist I quoted (Maureen Daud) suggested that in her article.

n    The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.