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The ethics of giving service


Raised hands with love hearts on their palmsIn a contemporary society where the focus lies amid a whirlpool of egocentricity, self-gain and self-improvement, one must question where the true motive for giving service lies, and as a result what defines ethical service giving. Service giving in the interest of personal gain has become an increasingly popular outlook on assisting the needy in contemporary society. Conversely, Immanuel Kant might have approached the issue through the paradigm of the ethic of duty, quoting 'duty for duty's sake'. While the 'ethic of duty' is the ethic of the social gospel movements, Kant believed that religion was only valuable as it caused one to lead a good moral life. Thus it is possible to argue that the habit of giving true service lies in the 'ethic of love', which is more in line with Christian humanist values than the former.

'Determining Volunteer Motivations — A Key to Success', a study conducted by Michigan State University, sought to determine the motivations of volunteers, producing eight categorised sources of motivation. In a disparate study, when questioned as to their motivations for participation in international volunteer projects, an overwhelming majority of respondents' motivations lay within the categories of 'to achieve personal growth and enhanced self-esteem, to gain professional experience' and, finally, 'to give something back'. A shifted purpose becomes evident within contemporary volunteering. More frequently individuals seek to involve themselves in volunteer opportunities because of the personal gain, rather than the fundamental 'to help others'.

An article in the May 1988 issue of American Health magazine described a study in Michigan that showed that regular volunteer work increases life expectancy. Adam Jamal and Harvey McKinnon's 'The Power of Giving' discusses how 'giving back enriches us all', explaining the individual benefits of volunteering in terms of self-fulfilment and assisting others. While the study balances both interests, many modern day investigations do not, pushing motivations to the self-centred end of the spectrum, where volunteers now expect to receive new friendships, improved health and a feeling of security from service giving. Author Hugh Mackay explored this concept in The Good Life, stating, 'as soon as you start wondering if you are going to benefit from being ... kind at some cost to yourself, the whole idea ... has slipped from your grasp'. Mackay explains that giving only in order to receive is not ethical service giving, promoting the close study of what defines ethical volunteering and what ethics apply to giving service in the contemporary era.

Kant's ethics of duty can be applied to service to produce the statement: it is the duty of the privileged in society to assist the underprivileged through giving service. This philosophy utilises duty as the primary motivation for giving service. For Kant, the morally important factor was not the consequences of an action but the thoughts that preceded it. His philosophy placed emphasis on the 'good will,' where the will was the immaterial and uniquely human power of rational moral choice. The Stanford University study, 'The Good Will', by Allen Wood, reveals that Kant believed a good action is truly good if performed 'solely from the thought that duty requires it' and not from inclination. Applying this to service learning suggests that service carried out only through duty is true service. In the Metaphysics of Morals Kant discusses this belief in the context of the duty citizens have towards their fellow citizens, which expresses an individual's sense of justice. The model suggests that service should be carried out because of an awareness that is a necessary occurrence which allows society to function as a successful community.

While Kantian moral theory can foster an understanding of ethical service giving, Christian values argue that this is neither a holistic view nor the morally correct approach to assisting the needy. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount could be considered a preview of Christian living within the new creation, identifying the ways in which followers of Jesus should behave as a result of their acceptance of God. Through the Beatitudes Jesus explained that truly fortunate people are those who are not materially rich, but rather spiritually rich. In Matthew 5:7, 'blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy', Jesus stresses that the quest for material prosperity is misguided, and human fulfilment is found in being responsive to the needs of others just as Jesus was. He goes on to radically redefine Christian morals in Matthew 5:44 with 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' and Mark 12:31, 'love your neighbour as yourself'.

Showing mercy to others includes both forgiveness and compassion, and occurs in the lives of Christians as a result of the mercy they have received from God; they learned to show mercy to others because they were shown mercy. It is important to respond accurately to this aspect of the Christian values system, as explained by Australian theologian Bruce Kaye, 'Christianity is about following Jesus Christ as a disciple and that implies some clear patterns of behaviour.' Charitable works, as a result, should not be carried out simply because you believe that God will reward you for your good behaviour, as this model of personal philosophy holds the core belief that 'it is by grace you have been saved, through faith ... not by works', (Ephesians 2:8-9) in ignorance and instead regresses back toward Medieval archetypes. Nor can service giving cannot be regarded as the purpose of the Christian faith, but rather a by-product that occurs when one fully adopts the Christian system of ethics.

Ethical Volunteering is an organisation that seeks to preserve the integrity of international volunteering by connecting individuals with organisations that carry out volunteering with honest intentions and protecting them from those that exploit both the volunteer and the recipient's expectations. The organisation, started by Dr Kate Simpson in 1998, is an example of one of many groups recognising the importance of maintaining ethical volunteering in an era where society most needs the influence of charitable works. Service based on an inaccurate or negative ethical system of thought results in the exploitation of volunteer organisations and even those they are working to assist, as people strive to benefit only themselves through the experience.

The value of the Christian ethical system is proven in one aspect when applied practically to volunteering. Following the Christian ethic of love defined by Mark 12:31, 'love your neighbour as you love yourself', service becomes an act carried out through the belief that all people are deserving of what the affluent in society have. Volunteers motivated in this manner are deemed to hold humane values at the core of their actions, through a strong concern for the welfare of others. Rather than a selfish or misguided motivation for service giving, the Christian humanist tradition of caring for the needy promotes ethical service giving which has love for one's neighbours at its heart. As a result, ethical service giving could be redefined by Christian tradition as service carried out primarily, if not solely, for the benefit of others, rather than with concern for the benefit of or the costs to oneself.

Humane values could be characterised by a strong concern for human welfare. The moral path of giving service out of duty popularised by Immanuel Kant is not aligned with humane values as it promotes charity only through the mandate of one's duty in society. Similarly, service carried out for personal benefit is not aligned with humane values, as it concerned only with personal gain, regardless of any exploitation of others that may ensue. This practice promotes service as a mechanism for amassing personal wealth, status and success and could even be said to contradict the original purpose of service, and could be likened with becoming a doctor with only the possibility of great personal wealth in mind and no concern for the healing of others. In contrast, the paradigm of human values allows the conclusion that the most ethical way to give service is out of love, a practice defined most clearly in history by Christian humanist traditions and the ministry of Jesus. Author Hugh Mackay explained this moral outlook in The Good Life as 'the good life is one defined by our capacity for selflessness, the quality of our relationships and our willingness to connect with others in a useful way'. In his ministry for Jesus, Saint Ignatius of Loyola defined this principle, 'teach us to give and not to count the cost'. Perhaps the concerns of contemporary society would have him redefine this as 'teach us to give and not to count the cost, or the gain'.

Alice Johnson is a year 10 student at Abbotsleigh, NSW. In 2012–13 she travelled to Nepal as part of a service learning immersion. She is interested in journalism, medicine and psychology, and in 2012 achieved first place in the secondary category of the CJ Dennis Poetry Competition. Alice won Third Prize in the 2013 Margaret Dooley Awards for Young Writers for the above essay.

Judge's citation:

This article explores motivation for volunteering. It presents evidence that nowadays the majority of volunteers do so primarily to benefit themselves in one way or another. It contrasts this with the Kantian motivation of duty and the Christian motivation of love. It argues that Christianity alone calls us to service 'primarily, if not solely, for the benefit of others,' and therefore that this is the most ethical paradigm for volunteering.

This is a very interesting issue. While the ideal is surely that we volunteer so as to contribute selflessly to a worthy cause, I suspect that many of us have at least some level of mixed motivation. When we do volunteer, we also hope to benefit in some way ourselves through our volunteering.

There is real potential here for conflict. Our desire for personal benefit might greatly diminish our contribution to a worthy cause. In the worst case scenario, selfish motivation may even cause us to do actual harm to those whom we set out to help.

All that being said, I am not entirely convinced that we can meaningfully compare the three motivations identified in this article. The first of these is actual motivation for volunteering. The other two are the Kantian ideal and the Christian ideal.

Is it meaningful to compare the actual with the ideal, and then to argue that the ideal is better than the actual?

Remember too that the studies of actual volunteers are not exclusively of non-religious or secularised people. Some of these actual volunteers would be committed Christians. Sadly, the Christian ideal does not in practice guarantee selfless service.

Whether we are Christian or not, the real challenge is to continue to refine our motivation – to move as much as we can from self-interest to genuine altruism. I do believe that Christianity provides real resources for doing this. But it would be nonsense to suggest that people who are not Christian cannot achieve genuine altruism.

This article alerted me to an interesting and very relevant ethical issue. It also helped me to think about this matter. It calls us all to be self-critical and to refine our motivation when we do volunteer. For all these contributions, it merits Third Prize in the 2013 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers.

Hands and hearts image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Alice Johnson, volunteering



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Existing comments

I'm privileged to be able to do some voluntary work for my community and in reflecting on my motivations I would agree that some selfishness would be in the mix - I receive a lot from people I'm attempting to help, from the people I volunteer with and from organisers of our activities. So I'm enjoying the interaction with others. Of all the people who are my fellow volunteers I know that many are not Christians. I doubt whether the people we help think about this question much. None of us are perfect - just trying to make our community a better place for all of us.

Pam | 08 October 2013  

A thoughtful article which causes some self-examination as to motive for, and adequacy of, one's voluntary 'services' to others. The Christian perspective is of course based on a loving God Creator motivated entirely by love, and the human response of loving God and all God's creation. Christ's Sermon on the Mount makes that very clear. Perhaps we are all motivated to some extent by the voice of God within us regardless of the range of ostensible reasons we identify for our voluntary 'services'?

Peter Johnstone | 09 October 2013  

Giving is inside of us all. This essay also brings up the topic of suffering. Christian ethics are written large about caring for our neighbour. That is for all of us. "On the last day, Jesus will say to those on His right hand, 'Come enter the Kingdom. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was sick and you visited me.' Then Jesus will turn to those on His left hand and say, 'Depart from me because I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink, I was sick and you did not visit me.' These will ask Him, 'When did we see You hungry, or thirsty or sick and did not come to Your help?'. And Jesus will answer then, 'Whatever you neglected to do unto one of the least of these, you neglected to do unto Me!' On the last day, Jesus will say to those on His right hand, It is not an optional extra to volunteer, as a Christian. It is a deep held belief to give to those who are suffering. However much of life is seemingly taken up with earning to cover the basics. The basics in the western world are all mod cons. It is a privilege to serve others. Volunteering ones time as a Christian is not meted out for the kick back of ‘feeling good’. In fact volunteering can be confronting and challenging. Along way from the ideals presented as ‘self serving and self promoting’. Australia has one of the highest rates of volunteering in the world. Apparently we also rate very high as the least corrupt society. The motivations of volunteering are various. Altruistic values are not a tick box category that you manufacture. It is from the heart. There are personal gains to volunteering. Research backs up the gains of interpersonal relationships, less isolation and the development of confidence and skill sets. There are also moves to make it mandatory in some countries for anyone receiving a benefit to volunteer their time back. This really makes the onus as an ultimatum. A final quote on volunteering, from a new convert, working in a childcare centre. ‘I feel alive again’. Giving is inside of us all. With thanks to Alice Johnson for this timely essay.

Jenny Esots | 09 October 2013