On service.

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Essays

As the year draws to a close, it’s time for resolutions and reflections. Mine has to do with service. These questions about service have been hanging over me a lot this year, and I would like to share some of my explorations on this forum.**

What does it mean to serve?
“To help those in need.”

That sounds good, right? It seems to encompass volunteering and economic development and political activism, all usually associated with service. But if I’m a relatively poor young person helping a rich old man with his taxes, is that service? What if I’m a depressed and lonely person volunteering at a soup kitchen, serving a close, loving, homeless family? Which of us is in need, there? Who is doing the serving, and who is being served? In obvious ways, we are all in need. So is service then all thoughtful interactions between two people? That feels too big, too easy.

Some of my more morally attentive friends define service in terms of motivations. They find themselves discomfited when community service is only done for college applications; when community members publicly tithe to keep up with the Joneses; when peers visit South Asian orphanages to make themselves feel good (and look good on Instagram); when colleagues ask for charity:water donations for their birthday, to increase their Twitter following. According to the logic, if volunteering and development and activism make me feel good about myself, primarily, there is surely some twisted lack of regard for those in need. They suggest that service should have a certain motivational characteristic – one of proper altruism – for it to be the ‘right’ kind of service. Assuming altruism is possible, is selfless motivation the only circumstance for service? Is wanting to feel good about myself on Christmas the wrong reason to spend it at a soup kitchen?

The etymology of the word “serve” comes from the Latin servus, which means ‘slave’. A slave is someone who works for no pay, or nothing in return. So perhaps the altruism – expecting nothing in return – is indeed the ‘right’ kind of service. But that feels too hard.

Why do we serve?
Thomas Aquinas, the famous Christian theologian, says we serve (do charity) as a way to spiritual happiness. It is one of the virtues, and it is an act of friendship not between the giver and the recipient, but between the giver and God. Jesus says, after all, that to “love thy neighbor” is, along with “love God”, the greatest of the commandments. The third pillar of Islam, zakat, proclaims mandatory almsgiving, or charity, and is well-documented in the Koran, and other hadith law. Maimonides, the famous medieval Torah scholar, describes tzedakah as a necessary religious obligation for faithful Jews. Buddhism and Hinduism affirm almsgiving as a way of practicing virtue. As an act of faith, service seems necessarily self-directed. But there’s a problem here. After all, the most morally attentive of us intuitively dismiss selfishly-motivated service. So surely the purpose isn’t just to make oneself better.

Some of the wonkier among my friends and colleagues judge service according to the market. According to them, the sum of transaction-based actions we can take (where I give something in exchange for receiving something equivalent) insufficiently meets the complex and evolving demands of society. In other words: markets are inherently imperfect. Service is what makes up the difference. Service brings us to social equilibrium. This argument works from a few political angles. On the activist left: that’s why we need government and NGO’s. We must pay taxes and support non-profit to help those who can’t help themselves. On the religious right: government-edited markets are imperfect. Give people back their money; encourage them to fill the gaps through local churches (mosques, synagogues, temples, etc). But it’s still massively wide-scope. Paul Ryan and Barack Obama might both agree here, but on none of the implementation.

(I wonder what libertarians think.)

What makes for effective service?
On implementation, how do we measure service?

Consequentialists measure it with math: how many wells built, how many shoes donated, how many dollars loaned (and repaid), how much world food redistributed. This is supremely hard. First, macroeconomics is impossibly abtruse. Unified theory about how to improve people’s lives at scale is like string theory. It must exist, but god knows how we’ll find it. I’ve heard eloquent arguments about TOMS shoes fucking up local economies by overwhelming the supply and pricing out local shoemakers. I’ve heard elegant concerns about the World Bank holding back emerging market development, because the stipulations around low-income loans preclude debt-fueled stimulus in recipient countries. Stiglitz and Sachs can’t both be right, but they both are, in layman’s discourse.
Second, the math is so complex. If I spend an hour at a soup kitchen feeding the homeless, am I making the world better? Would that hour not have been better spent working for affordable housing legislation, so that thousands of homeless could have homes, rather than hundreds of homeless having one meal?

“Bang for you buck” service gets confusing quick.

Others just choose one metric of human achievement, and are zealots in tracking it. If I choose “life expectancy”, then surely I’m winning, right? And what about GDP per capita? It’s a fact that the world is getting healthier, so the world is getting better, right? People who think this way can rationalize pretty much any economic action as a public good. I’m not one of these people.

And if I’m not a consequentialist, then is Aquinas right? Is service most effective when it makes us all holy? I’m into that, in theory. But in practice, humility seems harder to grasp when I’m only trying to ready myself for Heaven. Is service most effective when we are all just helpful with no expectation of reward? That sounds pretty good, but pretty damn idealistic.

So what am I?
Gosh, I dunno. It’s complicated: I am at any moment all of these things. But, I admit, I am too often none of these things. My resolution is the same as it was last year, and probably will be next year: to serve more.

What about you?

**Martha Muña, Alex Magnin, Tania Mitchell, Tom Dougherty, Robert Reich, Will Kymlicka, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill all deserve thanks for keeping this top of mind for me this year.

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