Creative Destruction

March 15, 2007

Why Bother With Civic Involvement?

Filed under: Ethics,Navel Gazing — Brutus @ 5:34 pm

In response to comments by nobody.really in a previous post, I’ve been pondering (not very actively, I admit) reasons why I bother to participate in civic affairs. More specifically, I mentioned that I perform in public concerts, usually during the summer months, mostly without remuneration. He offered that I must derive some sort of satisfaction out of the activity, whereas I characterized it as work done at my own expense and sacrifice without much satisfaction.

I’m familiar with the twisted logic that altruism is really a mask for self-interest, but I don’t really want to argue that point. Nor do I want to make mistake of characterizing charitable work done for the public good as backbreaking labor. Both of those approaches are hyperbole. Rather, the question that needs to be addressed, in my view at least, is why bother making any contributions to the greater public good if no tangible reward accrues, be it financial or public esteem or self-esteem or what-have-you? My conclusion is simple: I’m not sure.

Being a musician is frequently a relatively anonymous activity. Whatever hours are spent onstage performing, multiply that by four or more for rehearsal time (in ensemble) and another two or three for practice time (alone in the studio or at home). It’s clearly a financial disincentive to bother unless you’re already among the relatively few superstars who are well paid and adored by the public. Rank and file musicians labor entire careers in nameless obscurity for the art, lost in the sea of faces on stage or hidden in the orchestra pit, and lots of them give away their time and effort to free concerts.

Why do I do it, specifically? I guess I’ve internalized the idea that if I don’t contribute my skills to underfunded (or simply unfunded) activities, and others similarly withhold their participation, then those activities simply won’t exist anymore. It’s already happening, in fact. Lots of municipalities used to approve, say, $100K for a summer park band, and because there are all manner of administrative bills to be paid first, little of that money went to performers. But it’s like sponsoring a parade or a fireworks display on July 4th, which is to say, it’s a public good that creates community and involves citizens in public affairs on some level. Well, lots of municipalities are now running sizeable budget deficits, what with prisons and schools and infrastructure, among other things, gobbling up chunks by the millions. So what goes unfunded? The summer band. Those administrative costs never do go away, so even if people were willing to show up totally for free, the event still won’t happen. The public tends increasingly to stay away, too, huddled in the living room around the TV or in the den at the computer. Live performance can scarcely compete with electronic media, and it’s slowly ebbing away.

In a wider sense, civic involvement is an aspect of being a good citizen. In childhood, I earned Boy Scout merit badges for Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World. I no longer remember much about them, but the ideal has stayed with me, namely, that participation in different levels of the public arena is a worthwhile and necessary part of our being — even when (perhaps especially when) it required some sacrifice. For instance, I also participate in a free speech forum by researching and delivering speeches (topics may be political or merely general public interest). There is some gratitude and appreciation that comes my way, sure, but it’s all out of proportion (underwhelming) compared to the three months of preparation I do to be able to speak knowledgeably and without wasting the audience’s time. To the climbers among us, it’s a futile and quaint notion to bother investing time and effort for others’ enjoyment or edification. The controlling question is always “What’s in it for me?” My answer is “nothing” — at least not directly. The idea of being a community, society, or civilization means collective action toward the public good balanced against individual freedom from burdensome obligation. In my view, we’ve strayed pretty far toward one side of the continuum. My guess is that you can guess which one.



  1. Nicely stated.

    Is altruism is a mask for self-interest? Perhaps, if you share my understanding of “self-interest.” I can’t tell whether Brutus disagrees with my perspective, or simply objects to a negative connotation he associates with “self-interest.” At the risk of enhancing that connotation, let me quote Nietzsche:

    [It is often said that] “Every man has his price.” This is not true. But for every man there exists a bait which he cannot resist swallowing. To win over certain people to something, it is only necessary to give it a gloss of love of humanity, nobility, gentleness, self-sacrifice – and there is nothing you cannot get them to swallow. To their souls, these are the icing, the tidbit; other kinds of souls have others.

    I asked what would motivate Brutus to give concerts for little or no pay, and speculated that he acted for intrinsic rewards. I didn’t think this was a very controversial remark. I understand all motives to be either intrinsic or extrinsic, and because extrinsic motives look a lot like pay, then by definition every other motive falls into the intrinsic category.

    I still hold this view, but I now admit I hadn’t really thought through the variety intrinsic rewards. I understand Brutus to act because he believes it helps others, and he values helping others. That is, in the absence of pay, or in the absence of a belief that his effort helps others COMBINED WITH an interest in helping others, he wouldn’t do it.

    I offer my remarks in an effort to explain, not to judge. I believe that many artistic careers offer little opportunity for extrinsic reward; that does not mean the careers are good or bad, merely that the careers are not lucrative. Similarly, while the Nietzsche quote conveys a sneering tone that people are easily manipulated, I offer it merely to convey the idea that people have multiple intrinsic motivations.

    For what it’s worth, I think Cardinal John Hickey expresses intrinsic motive when he said, “We serve the homeless not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.” In serving the homeless, he indulged his desire to help others, much as I understand Brutus to indulge in his desire to help others. I don’t disparage these motivations; I merely observe that they are intrinsic, not extrinsic. They are not imposed by otheres, but arise from within one’s self – hense, self-interest.

    In short, I understand Brutus to engage in civic activity because 1) he thinks it helps and 2) he values helping. At any point he thinks that either 1) he can no longer help or 2) he no longer cares about helping, I would expect him to stop. Seems perfectly rational to me.

    Comment by nobody.really — March 15, 2007 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

  2. It seems we both got an opportunity to flesh out our ideas a bit, and we’re not really very much in conflict. (I agree with your statements now that I understand them better.) It’s true that I do tend to impart pejorative connotations to “self-interest” in its usual meaning (in contradistinction with “altruism”). If the term is stretched too thinly to cover just about everything, it loses its meaning and usefulness. It’s not unlike how you infer Nietsche’s sneering condescension in the quote you provided.

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    Comment by Brutus — March 17, 2007 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  3. It’s true that I do tend to impart pejorative connotations to “self-interest” in its usual meaning (in contradistinction with “altruism”). If the term is stretched too thinly to cover just about everything, it loses its meaning and usefulness.

    The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest – individual and collective – for the sake of the community.

    Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), American theologian and clergyman

    Comment by nobody.really — March 28, 2007 @ 10:12 am | Reply

  4. […] Why Bother With Civic Involvement? « Creative DestructionIn Dillon County you will find a variety of activities from outdoor recreation to civic involvment. Dillon County offers 9 parks and playgrounds, 20 ballfields and 20 … […]

    Pingback by Civic involvment | Takethedetour — November 11, 2011 @ 10:35 am | Reply

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