John Macmurray, 1891- 1976.
The principal hypothesis underlying this essay is that the chief end of human life is not thought (or reflection, or meditation), but action. We are here on Earth to do things. All our personal experience arises from action and all personal knowledge arises from consciousness of, and reflection on, the interaction between ourselves and the world and particularly between ourselves and other persons. If you doubt this, try to imagine what your life would be like if there were no other persons in the world.
Thought, word and deed are the three escalating stages of personal interaction with the external world.
Thoughts, while to most practical intents and purposes internal, may (to the extent that they are objective) refer to the external world. They may cause the thinking person to form intentions which may, in turn, cause that person to speak, write, or do something to achieve some desired end.
Words, once uttered or written, may influence the actions of other creatures (particularly persons) to the extent that they understand (or misunderstand) the meanings or implications of the words used and are consequently moved to do something or refrain from doing something.
Deeds directly effect changes in the relationships between entities in the external world.
Persons may be held responsible for their actions to the extent that they know what they are saying, writing, or doing and why.
This points the distinction between persons and non-persons such as animals. Animals may have motives: but motives are felt, not thought. The conscious behaviour of animals seems to involve little or no sense of self-awareness or purpose such as that which necessarily informs the movements of agents when they act. Persons act from knowledge and with intention. This is not to say that persons do not have motives. Motive is implicit in all personal actions, but the end of an action is determined by intention and the form it takes is determined by the imaginative application of knowledge.
Irresponsible behaviour on the part of human beings is not easily distinguishable from animal behaviour.
Responsible action is the ability to act appropriately and spontaneously in the light of inner awareness and appreciation of outer circumstances. It is therefore not an intellectual exercise because, in the exigencies of life, there is often no time for deliberation. Responsibility is a holistic ability which does not come easily: it must be learned, and it is acquired gradually through constant practice followed by reflection.
Subsequent reflection upon what may have been appropriate in any given case entails consideration of purpose (the desired end), the available means, the mode of application of those means, and the feelings of satisfaction or otherwise attendant upon completion of the action.
In the essay on Personal Responsibility, I suggested in a roundabout way that the purpose of Life is to find a purpose in life. At first glance, this seems so tautological that you might be tempted to say to yourself, 'What's the point in going round in circles?' and Exit from this Web site never to return.
But I beg you to delay just one more minute, and reflect upon the subtle distinction between Life and life and between of and in. As an individual, you have a life in which you can try to please yourself alone. As a human being, you are part of Life of whose ultimate purpose you may never be fully conscious but to which you must have some contribution to make simply because you are part of it. To the extent that you are part of Life, you must accept Life's circumstances as they arise. Circumstances almost always include relationships with other people. As a person, you have limited freedom of action whereby you may be able to modify these circumstances to some degree: but your actions may have consequences beyond your ken, both for yourself and for others. You may in any case modify your mental and psychic attitude to circumstances, whether or not you wish, or are able, to actually change them.
I suggest, too, that you have certain innate psychic abilities which, if you pay attention to them, can tell you whether or not your actions, i.e. your practical contributions to Life, are appropriate to whatever circumstances you currently find yourself in.
If it helps, think of your personal life as a spiral whose successive rounds become wider as your consciousness expands and which provides a sense of gradual progress from darkness to Light. As your life spiral progresses and widens, it increasingly intermingles with the life spirals of other individual creatures until you are eventually bound to reach the conclusion that there is only one Life in the Cosmos and that you have a share in that Life. Your personal life spiral forms an integral part of Life's rich tapestry.
If this perspective appeals to you, it provides you with an incentive to test it in action. You will be both inward- and outward-looking, seeking always to find ways of applying your personal attributes effectively to further whatever you perceive to be the best interests of however much of the Cosmos you feel you currently understand. If you have not already done so, you will probably adopt the spiritual advancement of Mankind as your supreme purpose in Life starting with yourself. Adopting such a purpose will make you ambitious albeit in an unselfish sort of way and you will therefore always have the problem of remaining humble enough to keep your activity within the bounds of what little of the Cosmos you really do understand. Remember the sorcerer's apprentice!
It is important to realise that an overall Life Purpose is for the whole of your present life and may hold good for any further lives with which your personality may be favoured. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between purpose and goals (or subsidiary purposes) which constitute stepping stones in your overall progress. These goals will change with circumstances and personal adaptation, and you will from time to time be prompted (or tempted) to abandon old goals and adopt new ones that will enable you to progress from wherever you are now. But if your supreme purpose is the spiritual advancement of mankind, it is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future!
As you go through life, your personal circumstances will keep changing and so will the forms in which opportunities for spiritual advancement present themselves. Your goals must therefore be adapted to your circumstances. Early in life, your main goal may be to improve your personal skills through education and training, both formal and informal.
To be truly responsible, you must at some stage endeavour to become materially self-supporting and personally profitable so that you may contribute to the maintenance of the society that supported you while you were young and to which you look for help if and when you are temporarily incapacitated for any reason. Should you choose to enter the service of an employer as your way of earning your living, your principal goal may be to make the greatest possible personal contribution to the realisation of the employer's objectives as you understand them and can identify with them. Such an attitude is likely to find favour with your employer, and you may be promoted to positions of greater influence: you will have made some progress and your spiral will have widened.
In formal education, training, and employment, your scope for the exercise of personal responsibility will be constrained by the need to conform to prescribed rules and conditions. However, there is one vitally important aspect of living in which your personal ability to act responsibly will start being tested quite early in life and will probably go on being tested for many years. I refer to the procreation and care of children.
Normal relations between the sexes provide an ideal subject for consideration of responsibility in action because they present the relevant considerations in their most personal and most urgent form.
Here we find two persons who are both subject to extreme emotional pressure from a primitive creative impulse to join together in the highest form of ceremonial magic of which animals are capable. Each feels this most powerful of urges in his or her own way, and so the impulse to engage in the sexual act represents on its lowest level an overwhelming desire for personal, selfish, gratification. In the heat of the moment, the potential long-term consequences for both parties are quite likely to receive little or no consideration. Yet, lacking such consideration, 'making love' is very nearly the opposite of Love in action, and it may on balance be more appropriate to refrain from going 'all the way'.
Although the sexual act may in its immediacy seem like fun for the participants, sex obviously has a profoundly serious and significant purpose in a much wider context than the provision of a casual momentary thrill for two individuals. It is what ensures the generation of new individuals to maintain the ongoing continuity of the species. Should the momentary thrill result in conception, it will occupy the thoughts and severely restrict the freedom of action of at least one of the parties for weeks if not years. Pregnancy cannot be ignored. It is a prime example of how we have limited freedom to act but are not free to opt out of the consequences of our actions. Although it may seem to be possible for the male partner to make good his escape from the material consequences of his action during the nine months that normally elapse between conception and birth, the spiritual consequences cannot be avoided even if they can temporarily be ignored.
It is also important to be aware that the practical consequences of pregnancy extend to the community at large. If abortion is contemplated, it will usually be necessary to enlist the aid of one or more third parties. And do we not feel intuitively that arbitrary interference with a vital process merely for selfish personal convenience may have adverse spiritual consequences for the parties concerned? If a child is born, it will require to be supported during its early years not only by the mother but also by the community of which mother and child form part. To that extent, the freedoms of the mother and of the other members of the community are to some extent diminished. Even if mother-and-child constitute a materially self-supporting unit, the need to care for the child will limit the mother's ability to contribute to the community in other ways. This is what accountants might call the 'opportunity cost' of motherhood.
On the male side, the act of rape provides the most intimate and immediate illustration of how the selfish action of one person not only damages the immediate object of lust both physically and spiritually, but also extends to any resultant offspring and to the wider community in which mother and child must relate to each other. For this reason, rape is not far behind murder in the scale of irresponsible action.
It is because irresponsible sexual activity has such far-reaching social consequences that societies down the ages have attempted to regulate it in various ways with the aim of ensuring that the male partner participates in the material, as well as the spiritual, consequences of irresponsibility. A common method of regulation is marriage, whereby one man and one woman enter into a lifelong contract to refrain from sexual congress with anyone but each other and are jointly responsible for raising any and all children of the marriage. Like all human institutions, marriage has its problems. In the case of marriage, the main problem may be reluctance on the part of one or both parties to sacrifice their selfish interests and desires on the altar of practical loving service to each other, to their children, and thus to the community at large.
While material considerations obviously arise in connection with feeding, clothing, sheltering, and educating children, these do not of themselves cause marriages to fail. A mutually supportive spirit and responsible management will normally surmount such difficulties, and it is when these are lacking that marriages generally founder. In modern Western society where families tend to be isolated anonymously in self-contained houses and flats, it is little wonder that couples who marry or cohabit before they are sufficiently mature in spirit find continual enforced intimacy irksome and stultifying. Whereas in former times, community spirit and neighbourliness would have provided interests outside their immediate problems, afforded practical advice and help in time of need, and fostered a sense of social worth, now there is often nothing but the telly to provide a distraction. Welfare States may provide adequate support for continued physical existence through impersonal official channels: they can do nothing to supply the spiritual nourishment which could be obtained through communion with a circle of personal friends.
Should you marry and begin to raise a family, your principal goal may be to keep your immediate dependants fed and clothed and healthy in mind and body until they have reached the stage at which they can accept responsibility for themselves. There is a tendency, particularly for mothers, to adopt the rearing of children as their purpose in life: but in so far as they are successful, the children will eventually leave home to launch out on their own individual lives. So mothers with several decades of potentially active life still remaining often have to find a new purpose to give meaning to their existence. The more intently they have focussed on their own families, the more difficult this will be. Rearing a family is therefore perhaps best viewed not as a purpose in itself but as a goal which contributes to the more comprehensive purpose of serving the greater family of mankind to the best of one's ability.
Viewed in that light, marriage is not something to be embarked upon as a light-hearted adventure without due consideration for the foreseeable consequences. It is a solemn undertaking which is normally intended to last until the death of one of the parties and it is irresponsible to treat it as if it were only a temporary expedient. To abandon a marriage compounds the irresponsibility because the wider community will have to pick up the pieces. The birth of a child outside wedlock may be preferable to a marriage founded on no stronger grounds than an unintended pregnancy.
In Western society, there seems to be a romantic presumption that everybody will eventually marry, and in some quarters there is still a social stigma attached to being 'left on the shelf'. In addition to its avowed purpose, marriage has acquired subtle overtones as a sign of maturity and a status symbol. But there have down the ages been many fine persons who have never married or had children but who have rendered great service to mankind in other ways. If you are still unmarried, many other worthwhile alternatives are open to you. If you have already found a satisfying purpose in your life, why marry and thereby restrict your freedom to pursue your greater purpose wholeheartedly?
The second hypothesis I wish to put forward in this essay is that the ideal of responsible action is some form of service. Service is anything one person (the servant) can do to help another person or persons (the beneficiary) at the request, or with the agreement, of the beneficiary and with due consideration for the interests of third parties who may be affected thereby. In service, the focus for concentration shifts from the self to the relationship between the self and the other.
There is no limit to the number of ways in which any person can serve. For an ordinarily social person, innumerable opportunities for performing small services arise in the course of an ordinary day. A cheerful smile or a friendly wave can alleviate a sense of loneliness and lift the spirits of a stranger who may be feeling low. So will holding a door open for someone who is pushing a pram or laden with luggage. Picking up a piece of rubbish and putting it in a suitable container will make a positive, if infinitesimal, contribution to the general ambience. Even tiny, apparently insignificant, acts like these not only reach out and affect other people in beneficial ways: they reflect back on the spirit of the actor and make him or her feel better. Try it and see!
However pleasant and helpful one can be in small ways on a day-to-day basis, most people will wish to find a more definite avenue for service that will fully engage their talents and enable them to realise their own unique potential in ways that will not only benefit mankind at large but also satisfy their natural desire for enjoyment and enhance their sense of social worth. Finding such an avenue may not be easy, particularly for multi-talented people who are confronted with a wide range of possibilities in their choice of career. Whilst it is eminently desirable for everybody to find some means of becoming economically viable as quickly as possible, there is no such need for haste in making a commitment to any particular career unless financial security weighs more heavily than personal satisfaction. In the rapidly-changing modern world, it is not uncommon for individuals to have two or more satisfying careers in a lifetime.
The implication of this is that you may experiment and try several possible candidates until you find some occupation that gives you pleasure for its own sake. You may do whatever you feel necessary to rearrange your personal world to your liking as long as it doesn't harm another person or creature a consideration that is not generally accorded sufficient importance in today's popular world. Of course, the more selfish you are, the less you will care about the consequences of your actions for other people: but I assume that if you are still with me, you have already achieved a degree of responsible selflessness. If that is the case, anything that you find gives you pleasure is more than likely also to give some kind of satisfaction to other people and so provide an opportunity for service.
Service is always personal because it is responsible action, and only persons can be responsible. Service may be rendered anonymously, as when making a donation to a charity, simply in order to avoid the temptations attendant upon social adulation. But would it be unduly cynical to suggest that by far the most prevalent reason for seeking anonymity is desire to avoid loss of social approbation as a consequence of performing actions from essentially selfish motives regardless of whatever harm they may do?
Service may be rendered in many ways, either directly or indirectly. There is no validity in the often-used argument that service industries would not exist were there no manufacturing industries for them to serve. The distinction is a false one. Manufactured products are of no value except to the extent that they are considered serviceable, i.e. they make a contribution to the well-being of the people who buy and use them, just as direct services do.
Thus you can serve by operating a lathe in an engineering works just as you can serve by being a plumber or a teacher or an artist as long as the products you help to turn out are intended for the benefit of mankind. Thus intent enters into responsibility, and it is often necessary to exercise judgment in one's choice of employer. The products of a factory that makes, for example, hammers, could be used to kill people and smash shop windows: but they are clearly intended for more constructive uses. The same cannot be said for a plant that manufactures land mines.
Large organisations such as national or multinational companies, whose principal objectives seem to be to provide wealthy lifestyles for their directors and acceptable dividends for their shareholders, may undertake activities some of which are generally beneficial and others of which are harmful. Similar considerations arise in connection with government departments, both local and national. Personal judgment will again be necessary in deciding whether or not to enter into employment with such amorphous organisations lest one unwittingly acquiesce in doing more harm than good.
If you are in the employ of another organisation, you are at the service first of the organisation itself and second at the service of whatever community that organisation supplies: your scope for the exercise of personal responsibility is thus restricted. In general, the larger the organisation, the less responsible the individual employee. Even the Chief Executive of a corporation and the chief Minister of a government can have no direct knowledge of many of the things that their subordinates may be doing under their umbrellas: after all, they are only human. So any talk of the Chief Executive being "ultimately responsible" or of the "collective responsibility" of the members of a Cabinet is just talk. All it means is that the Chief Executive and the members of a Cabinest just happen to be at or near one end of a chain of relationships each of whose links is personally responsible for performing certain functions. Should a link fail to perform as expected, there is nothing the person at the top of the chain can do about it until after (often long after) the event.
One way in which you can exercise personal responsibility to the greatest possible extent is to set up in business on your own account. You may, of course, do this with the essentially selfish intention of making as much profit as possible as quickly as possible. But even if you do, you will not make any profit at all unless you provide services that your intended customers will buy from you on terms that are acceptable to them. As Peter Drucker succinctly put it, "profit is your reward for doing something right".
So if you must provide services anyway, it will enormously simplify your life and help you to be successful in the long term if you concentrate on providing the best possible service as your paramount business objective. In business, you will have many decisions to make regarding the deployment of the resources available to you. Making the provision of the best possible service your over-riding decision-making criterion will give you a focus for concentration and a clarity of thought that comparison of alternative courses of action on the basis of their likely profitability never could.
For example, if someone asks you for a service not currently in your repertoire, your eyes may light up at the thought of having found another means of turning a profit and you may re-deploy your resources to provide it. But you may well find that embarking on a new and unfamiliar venture, no matter how attractive from the point of view of making a profit, reveals unforeseen snags in practice, and anything that upsets the smooth running of your existing organisation will probably have an adverse effect on the efficiency of the services you already provide. So if you know of some other trustworthy supplier of the required service who could meet the requirement immediately, it may be that the best service you can render is to refer the enquiry to that supplier. You will then have provided your would-be customer with the best available service and you will not have been distracted from your current main business. Thus you compete with other businesses not by trying to attract business away from them but by doing everything you can to ensure that your customers get the best possible service by whatever means even if it implies referring them to someone else. In the long run, it will pay you both materially and spiritually if you co-operate with other traders in order to contribute more successfully to the betterment of your community.
Concentrating on constantly improving your business services and your network of trusted collaborators naturally benefits your customers as well as your collaborators, and their appreciation of your good will and efficiency will help you to grow not only in a business sense but also in personal development. Harnessing all your faculties to one over-riding purpose will naturally tend to produce an integrated personality and save you from being seduced by the many distractions which might otherwise waste your time and thus your life. Communication with your customers, suppliers, and colleagues will increase your understanding of personal and communal needs and enable you to identify opportunities for further service.
By starting small, you are able to develop personal responsibility at a rate appropriate to yourself. Once you have demonstrated to yourself and others that you are trustworthy in small things, greater things will naturally come your way. As your business grows, you will be able to offer opportunities for service to other people and help them to become responsible too.
Every large business started small. Every large business will eventually perish. The cycle of birth and death cannot be avoided on the material plane. So the impulse towards service that gives birth to the small business is the only long-term guarantee of continued advance in civilisation. As the multi-national corporation slims down for the sake of greater financial profit for the few, the thousands who are thereby apparently 'thrown on the scrap heap' suddenly find themselves with personal opportunities to become more responsible and more serviceable. Their best hope of finding alternative meaningful employment may be either to cast their lots in with an existing small growing business or to start up on their own. They will find these opportunities not in the large global markets in which they may have played as employees of the big corporation, but in the little nooks and crannies of the local economy where people live and move and have their beings and individually require services of various kinds.
The activities of large organisations are inevitably impersonal. They are performed by individuals who may be motivated as much by fear of losing their jobs and the associated financial and social benefits as by desire to help the people they purport to serve. Indeed, some business practices betray a disregard for customer convenience that amounts to contempt.
The small business cannot afford such attitudes on the part either of its owners or its employees. If it is to survive, let alone thrive, personal commitment to service offers the best hope for success. Personal service is Love in action. It presupposes acceptance of personal responsibility and respect for the personal responsibility of the people it seeks to serve.
Although personal responsibility can only be exercised in a personal context and persons are limited in their capabilities, Love is universal. Thus the owners and employees of even the smallest business can interact personally with their equivalents anywhere in the world. Personal networking along these lines is now greatly facilitated by the Internet. It means you can provide personal service wherever your trusted friend provides personal service. This opens up the exciting possibility of replacing impersonal bureaucratic organisations dominated by fear with personal networks motivated by Love. Is that not a worthy goal for you and me to strive towards at this moment in history?