“Without a vocation, man’s existence would be meaningless.” – Anwar al-Sadat, 1978 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate



We return today to societal purpose, the third tier of purpose in a meaningful life – the first two being internal (for oneself) and proximate (towards others directly). We have already investigated five areas regarding societal purpose – clarification of the purpose of culture for the individual, the nature of purpose at the level of cultural reality, types of roles for consideration, factors in our decision, and success factors. Our next task is an analysis of the benefits of societal purpose.

Now on the face of it, the benefits of one’s particular purpose at the level of community or humanity appears to be instantiated in that specific selection, but in reality, all societal purposes involve at least the potential of four orders of benefit: subsistence of self and dependents, self-fulfillment, value to others, and legacy. In other words, although the arena of cultural purpose is society, its rewards are multidimensional.

For most of us, our chosen occupation, profession, or mission originates as the primary means of sustenance. In the absence of inherited wealth, our first social purpose functions, at a minimum, to meet our needs for food, clothing, shelter, and other basic requirements for survival  – typically in the form of a paycheck or reliable source of income.  The practical philosopher should not ignore this motivation underlying social roles nor its place in a properly functioning society. Two comments worth noting here: financial compensation alone is a poor criterion for the type of work we choose, and higher salary or profit, when virtuously obtained, serves as a quantifiable, if inexact, measure of the value of one’s exertions for society. This latter point illuminates the lower compensation of the college professor compared to the university football coach.

The second dimension of benefit of a well-chosen social role is its deeper personal rewards (in rough order of depth): identity, control, creativity, virtue, satisfaction, contentment, understanding, and authenticity. Starting with identity, many social purposes serve to define one’s image of oneself in society – for example as teacher, pastor, tradesman, merchant, judge, artist, and so forth. For myself, I know that one of the greatest challenges I face in retiring is the loss of my identity as a physician or healer. It is as if my social role is integral to my very sense of self. In a similar vein, we develop a competence in our work we often lack in other areas of life because of the control and order within our professional sphere and our occupational virtuosity (Lao Tze’s wu-wei) we wish we had in every theatre of existence.

(continued next post)

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