‘Call to Service’: Means and Motives

Colorado Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll preached yesterday at the First Baptist Church in Denver, “All of us have a call to service.”

He told the Rocky Mountain News, “I think here I have a lot more freedom to make appeals based on moral grounds. Across the street, I have to couch them in different terms and still try to say the same things.”

This raises three issues: the connection between religion and altruism, the meaning of service, and the difference between voluntary service and involuntary servitude.

The first point needs little elaboration. Christians call for service to God and service to mankind. Collectivists of the 20th Century dropped the first part but kept the second. Modern collectivists increasingly return to their religious roots. But, to make full sense out of this, the second point is essential.

The idea of “service” packages together fundamentally disparate kinds of things. If a father drives his daughter’s Girl Scout troop into the forest and helps to lead a camping expedition, he is performing a service to the group, because he loves his daughter and wants to see her do well. If someone raises funds for a cancer research organization, the person is answering the “call to service” by helping to fund something the donor regards as important. The college student who delivers pizza provides a service to his clients and gets paid for it. A student who drops out of school to move to Africa to care for the poor, thereby sacrificing her favored career for a religious calling, is performing service, too.

Many would split service into the two categories, “for monetary gain” and “not for monetary gain.” However, that’s not really the fundamental division. A father who works so that he can buy his daughter food acts from basically the same motivation as the father who volunteers to take his daughter’s group camping. The motivation is rational self-interest, taking into account the full scope of the father’s interests, which extend far beyond material gain. Rational self-interest routinely involves providing services to others, either for money or on a volunteer basis. The other basic sort of service is self-sacrificial, done against one’s rational self-interest.

Carroll’s case blurs this distinction. An adult who volunteers to tutor children in the community often acts from rational self-interest; the assistance offers the satisfaction of seeing a child do well and contribute positively to the community. But a child who gives up his studies to work constantly at the soup kitchen would be sacrificing his interests and his future.

Craig Biddle explains the difference in the context of business:

[B]ecause pushers of altruism frequently equivocate on the meaning of the concept of “service,” it is crucial for advocates of capitalism to grasp the actual meaning of this concept as it relates to altruism.

Altruism does not call merely for “serving” others; it calls for self-sacrificially serving others. Otherwise, Michael Dell would have to be considered more altruistic than Mother Teresa. Why? Because Michael Dell serves millions more people than Mother Teresa ever did. The difference, of course, is in the way he serves people. Whereas Mother Teresa “served” people by exchanging her time and effort for nothing, Michael Dell serves people by trading with them — by exchanging value for value to mutual advantage — an exchange in which both sides gain.

Trading value for value is not the same thing as giving up values for nothing. There is a black-and-white difference between pursuing values and giving them up, between achieving values and relinquishing them, between exchanging a lesser value for a greater one and vice versa.

Biddle’s article addresses capitalism, so he’s focused on market exchanges, but the same basic point about pursuing one’s greater value applies across the board.

The third point about service is that it matters very much whether it’s voluntary (whether self-interested or self-sacrificing) or forced. When Carroll preaches at church, he cannot force anybody to do anything. He must rely on persuasion. At the state capitol, he is involved in passing laws that are ultimately backed up by men with guns. Service at the point of a gun is not really “service” at all — it is servitude.