29 Jan 15

One of the problems about being a real person, an existential self, someone who takes full responsibility for their own life, is that one may not pay sufficient attention to one’s position in society. As social beings, which we all are, we are expected to behave in certain ways: to obey the law, to fulfil our obligations, to keep our promises, to avoid unnecessary offence, to behave with compassion and consideration of others.
One of the main books I recommend to people who are beginning to turn the corner of entry into what Wilber (2000) calls the Centaur realm (the realm of the real self, the existential self, the authentic self, is Will Schutz’ book ‘Profound Simplicity’. This does recommend paying attention to the social milieu, as to everything else, but it does not spend much time on issues like this, and so it seems worthwhile to stick with our issue for a moment or two.
As social beings, we live in a network of social expectations, the most obvious of which are the laws. Every time we enter into some social connection, we enter into the laws covering that connection. If we drive a car, we enter into all the laws covering cars; if we marry, we enter into all the laws covering marriage; if we go shopping, we enter into all the laws covering shopping; and so on. We may only discover this, or become aware of this, when we break the law and get punished, or when someone else in that legal relationship breaks the law and gets punished.
But there are other expectations, not carrying the force of law, but still demanding attention. We are expected to treat family members in certain appropriate ways. We are expected to treat our employers or employees in certain appropriate ways; we are expected to treat our customers or suppliers in certain appropriate ways, and so on. These are all social duties, and we break them at our peril. They are usually quite gentle and appropriate, and we hardly notice them. We take them for granted, and only become aware of them if we, or the others, make a mistake, and get it wrong.
This sense of right and wrong is just as important as the principle of choice which Schutz deals with so well. If we are wise, we shall conform to the expectations of each of the roles which we play. We shall drive on the correct side of the road; we shall pay the bill which is offered; we shall support our families as best we can; we shall not insult our customers – and so on. Some of these are not legal requirements at all; but we disobey them at our peril.
So we are not only in pursuit of our own good: we are also necessarily in pursuit of the common good. As Collingwood says: “The consciousness of duty is thus the agent’s consciousness of his action as a unique individual action relevant to a unique individual situation.” Duty is about the common good, and it really matters to us because we are always social beings in a social milieu.
The philosopher F H Bradley famously wrote an essay on ‘My Station and its Duties’, and this seems to me just as important as the Schutz emphasis on the individual creation of reality. We always create reality – or anything else – in relation to others, and this is our life.
John Rowan 2015

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