Social responsibility has become one of the buzzwords in business and political discourse in recent years and as such, its meaning has become convoluted by ideology and posturing. Those on the Left tend to deploy this term when they want to confiscate an increased amount of money from the people who earned it, usually to fund ever-expanding bureaucracies and enhance the power of the State. Those in business tend to use the term to assuage the guilt heaped on them by those same ideologues by showing how generous they can be in giving away their profits so that perhaps they will be passed over when the class warfare rhetoric comes. Unfortunately this all misses the point of social responsibility, neglecting the reality of our vast interconnections and interdependence on each other.

Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. To the extent that “society” exists as a stand-alone entity with its own personality, she was perhaps technically correct, but Society is an institution–a highly decentralized institution lacking rigid structure (at least in the West)–but it is an institution, comprised of individuals, who act in and through it to accomplish certain goals. Society is a sort of meta-institution, in that it is a system that contains all of our other institutions, including other meta-institutions like Culture and (in the West) Capitalism. The State is one of the institutions of Society, so is the Church, the family, and the country club. Our participation in all of these institutions forms, in aggregate, our participation in Society.

As I discussed in Becoming and Belonging, our individual process of growth is dependent on others. But in order to free ourselves from internal hindrances, we must reform our external participation in Society. This is pre-requisite for the reform of the institutions of Society themselves, since institutions are not autonomous beings with their own thoughts and actions but are merely the manifestation of the collective wills and actions of their participants. Hence, if we say “Society is sick,” we must first say “I am sick.”

Social responsibility, then, is manifested in the declaration “I am sick, but I am going to get well,” which means making our behavior more healthy, inputting fewer unhealthy influences into our minds, and by determining to take the first step toward reforming Society into a place that is hospitable for all people. Social responsibility also means refraining from pointing to somebody else and saying “he is the problem; he’s the sick one.” Unfortunately, this is the way that the political system has come to operate, and the more vitriolic the rhetoric becomes, the more alienated people feel from each other, which turns into a self-reinforcing cycle that makes reformation improbable at best.

The concept of social responsibility is even more difficult to deal with because we do not, as individuals, participate directly in the institution of Society, but rather through various intermediate institutions like the ones mentioned above. This is perhaps why we are all too often surprised when we look out at Society and think that somebody has made a mess of it. When our actions in the Church, in Capitalism (through our particular place of work), or in the Body Politic are focused on our own narrow view of the world and our own short-term self-interest, they become detached from the reality of this interconnecting system in which we live. This is how the world seems to be in such a shambles and yet we don’t think of ourselves as bad people, having contributed to the creation and perpetuation of the mess.

The trouble is that the awareness of this reality and how to combat it requires a level of deep consciousness about the world around us and the people in it. It requires us to truly get to know other people, which necessitates our creating open spaces for others in our lives. This is the definition of hospitality that Henri Nouwen provides in his book Reaching Out. It is the beginning of a difficult personal process for each of us, but it is required for us to understand our place in the world: how much can we give? how much can we take? are we treating our fellow man with humility or hostility?

This is essential to our survival as a species; it is essential to achieving our spiritual callings; it is essential to leaving the world a better place than we found it.