On service, duty and selfishness

December 5, 2020

Somehow the words ‘duty’ and ‘service’ have an old-fashioned ring to them; they do not seem to sit with our world. And yet, they are words I often find myself reflecting on.

Service conjures up something enforced – against our will – like military service, or ill-paid drudgery, like domestic service. And yet, I think the concept is a much wider one, and we ought to be able to see that many of the professions essential in our world are a form of service to the wider community or the nation, even though they are paid, salaried rather than undertaken for nothing or for love. To work in medicine serves the greater good of society, as does working in education: how are citizens of the future to be raised and kept in good health? To work in what seem much more menial jobs perhaps – street-cleaning, waste disposal – is also service to society, though it is less well-paid and perhaps also less sought-after work. The police and the military also serve society, although I may well have quarrels with the kind of tasks they perform at times.

To me, service is about doing necessary work, as opposed to other forms of work which do not have the same vital or necessary function in society. Shops where we can purchase the necessities of life are useful, but do not serve in the same sense: they are almost all out to make a profit for someone. Banks may be useful in certain ways, but are a bane in many others. And I’m afraid I utterly fail to see the point of investment bankers, stockbrokers, hedge-fund managers and their ilk…

I also feel there is a growing culture of disparagement of those whose work serves society in the ways I’ve outlined above. They are generally not as well-paid as workers in other comparable sectors of the economy, and they are easy whipping-boys whenever mistakes are made or inadequacies identified. In the past, lower wages and salaries were compensated by reasonable pension arrangements, hard-won rights fought for by trades unions over the years: these are now envied by others and consequently being dismantled piecemeal. The politics of envy is cheaper and easier than deciding to provide decent conditions for everyone; the idea that workers might band together in solidarity to strive for better wages and conditions has been made to seem quaint and old-fashioned…

Duty is an even more difficult idea to engage with in our world, where we are increasingly taught to view ourselves as isolated individuals with rights and entitlements, which we often demand vociferously, but with no corresponding expectations of us in return: we don’t seem to think we also have duties towards our fellow-citizens. I can’t help feeling there is something wrong here. A society surely involves mutual obligations and duties: we give, and receive in return, according to our need, and this idea fosters the thought that in some ways we should care about our fellow human beings. Once everything is reduced to cost and value, profit and self-interest, we are on a slippery slope, as well as much more easily exploited and taken advantage of.

I’m old enough to date a sea-change in our society triggered by Margaret Thatcher’s government, telling people that there was no such thing as society, and elevating the idea of the private individual as the most important, entitled ruthlessly to ignore or push out of the way anyone who impeded one’s rush to money and profit. She entrenched the notion that paying taxes that were used to further public good is a bad thing: we should be able to keep ‘our’ money. Look where that has got us and our public services over the past decades.

Selfishness is an interesting word, often frowned on, especially by churches, as a moral failing. It’s more complicated than that: selfishness in terms of looking after and caring for oneself so that one has something to live for, and to offer others, is not a bad thing; selfishness as “me, me, me, I’m all that matters and I’m not bothered about what that means for you”, destroys the bonds which should knit us together.

I hope that the pendulum will eventually swing back again, and look forward to that day…

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