World Philosophy Day: Part 3 – Service for Whom?

by Quentin Wodon

This last post in the 3-part series (see part 1 and part 2) on the occasion of World Philosophy Day discusses the question of who the least advantaged are. For Rawls, the central question for a theory of social justice was whether societies as a whole were organized in such a way as to maximize the socio-economic position of the least advantaged. For Rotarians and members of other service clubs, the question is probably a bit different: it is whether they should aim to reach the least advantaged in their service work. This question of service above self for whom is often not discussed openly in Rotary and other service clubs, but it should be.

The Least Advantaged

Who exactly are the least advantaged? How should we measure whether they benefit from the social contract and the principles of justice suggested by Rawls, including in Justice as Fairness, a book published posthumously based on his teaching notes at Harvard University that summarizes how he ultimately viewed his theory. The question of the identification of the least advantaged is not that easy to answer, as Rawls recognized early on.

Recall that Rawls’ difference principle called for “social and economic inequalities … to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society.” Positions of privilege in society are fine as long as their existence contributes to improving the situation of the least advantaged (for example, by giving incentives for entrepreneurs to create jobs).

The idea is not so much to promote redistribution per se. Instead, the aim is to recognize the dignity of all and therefore to provide to all the basic means – including income, a minimum of wealth, and other so-called primary goods that are necessary to be able to independently pursue a purposeful life. Society as a mechanism of cooperation should be structured in such a way that the least advantaged have the ability to conceive their own life project and pursue it freely. Living a purposeful life should not be the privilege of the few.

Rawls considered different definitions of the least advantaged in his writings over the years. But he ended up defining the group in reference to their endowment of five main “primary goods”, namely i) basic rights and liberties; ii) freedom of movement and free choice of occupation; iii) the powers and prerogatives attached to offices and positions of authority; iv) income and wealth; and v) finally the social bases of self-respect (Rawls also in the end added leisure as another primary good that all individuals should have).

Extreme Poverty

It is beyond the scope of this post to enter into a detailed discussion of whether Rawls succeeded or not in identifying the least advantaged. But in many respects, even if Rawls did not use these terms, it seems fair to say that the least advantaged are today those who live in extreme poverty, whether in developed or developing countries. As argued elsewhere on this blog, extreme poverty does not simply consist of living with very little income or consumption, as suggested by the $1.25 a day definition adopted by the World Bank.

That definition makes sense for an organization like the World Bank for a number of practical reasons, but it must be recognized that extreme poverty results from a lack of multiple basic securities – not just a lack of income, but also a lack of education, employment, housing, health care, and even civil and political rights. Beyond some threshold, the insecurity endured by the poor is such that they fall into extreme destitution. They then become prisoners of a vicious circle. With no security left as a solid foundation to rely upon, they cannot emerge from extreme poverty by themselves. At that stage they lose the means to be able to define and pursue their own life project. Extreme deprivation often results in social exclusion – the extreme poor then also loose what Rawls called the social bases of self-respect.

Implications for Rotary

If the least advantaged are the extreme poor, and if extreme poverty persists in developed and developing countries alike, this poses an important dilemma not only for societies (are societies actually living by the principles of justice of fairness called for by Rawls?), but also for service clubs: are the clubs serving those who need help the most?

Rotary as well as other service clubs are ostensibly about service. Rotary’s motto is “Service above Self”, while Lions’ is “We Serve” and Kiwanis’ is “Serving the Children of the World.” Service clubs do not advocate any specific ideology, nor do they engage in political activity. They are simply meant to serve (… and maybe network!) But to serve whom? As mentioned at the outset of this post, the question of service above self for whom is often not discussed openly in service clubs. Shouldn’t it be?

It seems that the main reason why the question of service for whom is not debated is because Rotarians and members of other service clubs have many different interests. Some may want to implement projects that reach the extreme poor. Others may prefer serving their community in different ways, be it through the arts, education, or other means. At some level, this is perfectly fine, as many groups and worthwhile causes need support. The fact that the membership in service clubs is diverse is a plus, and this leads naturally to diverse service projects, especially in large clubs like mine.

But at another level, one may wonder whether clubs really can succeed in their service mission if they do not build an (overlapping) consensus among members as to what really matters the most, what the priorities should be, and how to achieve the most impact. Let me put it this way. There are two reasons why answering the question of service for whom matters. The first is that some groups simply are more in need than others, even if many groups are indeed in need. I am not advocating here for a unique focus on one particular group – such as the extreme poor, but rather for a serious debate at the club (and district) level about where the valuable resources of Rotarians – in terms of both time and money – should be invested to make a larger difference. This will differ from community to community, but that discussion is healthy and it should take place for the sake of those whom clubs aim to serve.

In addition, even for the clubs themselves, that discussion can bring cohesion and purpose. When clubs are involved in multiple activities led by the enthusiasm of one member for activity A and another member for activity B, this certainly helps the direct beneficiaries of those activities. But it does not necessarily help in building the long term identity of a club, its mission, its purpose, and thereby also its identifiable place and role in the community. Apart from leading to potentially stronger service projects, seriously asking the question of service for whom can lead to stronger clubs, internally and externally in their community. It could be that this is already done in many clubs, but it seems that there are also clubs where this is not yet done.

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