We are each conscious of our own sensations, thoughts and feelings. My thoughts are my own thoughts and yours are yours. Having this sense of individual consciousness we each feel separate from others. I live from and for myself and you live from and for yourself. It has been suggested that this sense of individuality naturally results in self-orientation, and a consequent risk of falling into an illusion of self-sufficiency. The argument goes that the trouble with relying on oneself is this can result in egoism and a lack of social responsibility. But is this true?
Lack of social responsibility
I’m reminded of a story about a young man who left his family and friends to travel abroad alone. He asked his father for what he felt he deserved and thought he could be happy spending this money only on himself. He used up all his cash wasting it on trivia, mistakenly assuming this would make him happy.
He made himself destitute and suffered hardship. Only then did he realise his mistake in assuming one can be independent of other people in one’s life. He took this lesson on the chin and went home with his tail between his legs. Those familiar with the Gospels will recognise this parable about repentance and forgiveness. But is it not also about the need for community and a sense of social responsibility?
Personal rights and social responsibility
The young man in the story insisted on what he regarded as his rights and only later realised he had duties of social responsibility. This insight is echoed in the words of an American President.
” We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defence.” (Barack Obama)
Difficulty exercising social responsibility
Obama’s sentiments are those with which most of us can readily agree. But how do we put them into action?
Many non-religious people see the importance of altruism and mutual interdependence rather than egoism and selfishness. Many atheists and agnostics value compassion and forgiveness.
“Be kind to people on the way up – you’ll meet them again on your way down.” (Jimmy Durante)
Nevertheless putting such principles into practice can be very hard. It is one thing to be interested in others and their needs when one can benefit oneself from any formed relationship. It is another thing to be genuinely caring when there is no chance of meeting someone again and no chance of getting anything back for oneself.
Religion and social responsibility
Being a member of many types of group such as one’s family, offers a sense of identity and encourages conformity to ethical conduct. This is also true for example for sports, professional, and political groups: I’m thinking of the ethics of sportsmanship and professional confidentiality. However, it might be argued that none of these groups provide the feeling of belonging & social responsibility one can gain through membership of a religious group. Such an association can provide its members with a notion of eternal group membership, and promote the highest principles of integrity and compassion.
Arguably it is religion – through its provision of community support and moral teachings – that has the best claim to encourage us to learn about genuine care for others. It is Christian scripture that talks about ‘love to the neighbour’. And this idea of ‘neighbour’ is taken as more than the person who happens to reside next door. We are invited to sympathetically consider the needs not just of a person with whom we have daily contact but also those of our community, country and for that matter the whole human race.
Religious groups provide a distinctive world-view. They do this through fostering transcendent experience linked to moral education & encouragement for forgiveness, self-control and service to others. I have been to several Christian churches which I have felt have succeeded to a large extent in fostering an atmosphere of friendly care and social responsibility. It doesn’t always happen, and small congregational numbers can greatly reduce a church’s community presence. However, when a congregation is spiritually alive and strong, it is able to address the needs of lonely individuals as well those needing comfort and relief from distress. It also offers hope in a God who is the source of love.
Conclusion about social responsibility
All good people, whatever their beliefs are united because there is an infinite creative force for all that is humane in the world. I believe this force is the underlying God of Love and Wisdom at work in the world who inspires mutual help and the spirit of care.
We all can have a connection with this Divine Humanity through connecting well with other people.
Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author Heart, Head & Hands