The balance between individual and civic action

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Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

In 300 BC, Athenian youth about to become citizens took an oath to strive to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty and to leave their city a
better place than that which they had inherited. For the citizens of ancient Athens, community was everything; the individual was only to serve and

Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

In 300 BC, Athenian youth about to become citizens took an oath to strive to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty and to leave their city a
better place than that which they had inherited. For the citizens of ancient Athens, community was everything; the individual was only to serve and
better its purpose. Around 1760 AD, Adam Smith was proposing a different approach to civic engagement. His famous quote maintained that “It’s not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. The interests of the individual had become the driving forces of society.
These two seemingly different approaches to community raise a significant question about how to participate in, and show our attachment to our community. Do we actively contribute to the betterment of our society or
do we rely on the invisible hand of enlightened self-interest to ensure the
viability of our neighbourhood?
The answer may be found in the very nature of what it means to be human. Each human being is very aware of his or her needs, aspirations, and desires
for betterment. These require individual, “selfish” responses. But humans are also social animals; we more completely realize our full potential inside a community, in cooperation with fellow humans and we have the unique capability of empathy – the ability to imagine and feel the pain and troubles of others, even strangers.
There are several possible approaches to the question of individual
versus societal action. One is simply to pay a little more taxes and let the
government handle the problems. However, government social assistance is a blunt instrument and does not always meet the needs of special members of society. So, some community action by individual volunteers becomes necessary. This immediately leads to the question of what activities require individual volunteers. There are many (perhaps too many) opportunities for volunteers, but start by deciding what and where you can be effective. This does not have to be spectacular nor revolutionary. The act can be a simple kindness and aid to a fellow member of the community or a simple civic undertaking for the good of
the community. The one requirement is that our community and its
members are better for the deed.
Our society is complex and there’s room for several different approaches to the relationship between society and the individual. Each person must find the balance between individual and civic action. This is not an impossible task and only requires that we look carefully at ourselves and our society. If we are to live in a meaningful, free society, some civic volunteerism is necessary.