In the old days, “in small and relatively self-contained communities with a low degree of division of labor, “ it was easy “to see how one’s work contributed to the good of the community,” observes Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit.
But in modern days, that’s gotten much harder.
To start, the society has become so “highly complex” and “the interrelations between individuals and social groups” so “unintelligible” that a person often “does not even understand how her work relates to the final product and is also at a loss to know how her product serves the common good after it enters complex national and international markets.”
On top of that, people nowadays perceive themselves as “autonomous individual[s] interacting economically with other autonomous individuals.” He owes “nothing to the society” which is “only an agglomeration of individuals.”
Finally, there is an enormous “stress on the pursuit of self-interest.” And such “economic self-centeredness leaves little place for concern for the common good in one’s work.”
As a result, even when people work together, we do not see such cooperation as “an association of people whose wills and energies are directed towards a common purpose.” Instead, we see it as “an interlinking and interworking of people who are indifferent to the goal of the common action…[and who work] exclusively for the benefit cooperation delivers to them as individuals.”
I see this often at my own work. Building a power plant takes the coordination of multiple parties – a developer and a lender at its core, plus various strategic investors on top of that, plus multiple advisors in numerous disciplines (including financial, engineering, environmental, legal, insurance and the like). And each party consists of multiple individuals. While some people in a deal of this sort do work towards the common goal intentionally, many others are not so invested in the goal as such: they are invested in the goal only because it brings some benefit to them in the form of recognition and money.
So what are we to do about it, Mr. Volf?