Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

Why do we join with others and offer our time and money to make the world a better place? Participating in the institutions of civil society by volunteering and contributing resources is one of the great rebuttals to the overly narrow, Darwinian conception of self-interest that dominated so much social and economic thinking in the 20th century. If satisfaction depends primarily on accumulating money and power, why do so many people reduce both for the sake of others?

It turns out the fabric of our personal interests are interwoven with strong cords of generosity. Research has shown that babies and toddlers recognize generosity and sociability, and react negatively to their opposite behaviors. Our prosocial tendencies continue into adulthood, but they need consistent encouragement and reinforcement. As public policy researcher Arthur Brooks chronicled in his book, Who Really Cares, we give and volunteer when we feel responsible for others. Responsibility is cultivated at the household and community levels, often through religious engagement. As Brooks writes, people help others through civil society not because they want a tax break, but because they have a sense of duty and feel obligated to give back to their communities.

In addition, the more people feel duty-bound to serve others through civil association, the happier they are, which is important to understand if we hope to get a better sense of how civil society works. It is a cliché to say that money does not make you happy, and even though many of us try to prove the cliché false, we soon discover, paradoxically, that our lives are “fuller” when we let go of our time, money, and energy for people and causes outside ourselves.

Fulfillment: The first and most basic answer, then, to the question of what motivates us to participate in civil society is simply the pursuit of happiness. Or, to be more specific, happiness understood as fulfillment. Happiness, properly understood, has less to do with material gain than teleological gain. Human beings are wired to find purpose and meaning in the pursuit of perfection and improvement. Betterment and fulfillment are about realizing potential. Giving to people in need, fixing problems that hurt or inhibit others, and seeking the good of the communities in which we live all have more to do with taking something from a lesser to a better, or fuller, state. In our quest to find fulfillment, we typically do so not only by trying to fulfill our own potential, but also by helping others and their communities fulfill theirs.

Empathy: Moral sentiment theory, as articulated by Scottish philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, argued that our moral judgments and actions are rooted in sympathetic experiences. We always care more about the troubles of someone close by than someone far away, or someone with whom we can identify compared to someone with whom we cannot. One survey found that low-income people were more likely than high-income people to give money to charity to meet basic needs and help “poor people help themselves.” Other studies have found that the more empathy people feel for someone in pain or distress, the more they will do to help, even if they know the pain or distress will end soon.

Awareness: Higher levels of education predict higher levels of giving and volunteering. People with more education have more exposure to the reasons why socioeconomic problems exist, and to organizations and networks that can help solve those problems. The combination of awareness of both problems and possible solutions prompts engagement in civil society. Completing college has a greater effect on volunteerism among students who are socioeconomically least likely to graduate, suggesting that the expanded horizons afforded by higher education make people more civically minded.

Feeling needed: People who feel like they have something to give and believe their particular skills and abilities can make a difference are more likely to participate in civil society than those who do not. People who like to teach others, feel needed by others, have had people ask them for advice, and believe they have contributed to the well-being of others are more likely to volunteer than people without those attributes. For these reasons, it should be no surprise that one way to increase the likelihood that people will volunteer is simply to ask them to do so. Interestingly, feeling needed is especially strongly associated with giving to secular organizations. Givers to religious organizations tend to be motivated by other reasons.

Faith and transcendence: People who are more religiously engaged—that is, they attend religious services and say their faith is important to them—give more than non-religious people, and they give larger gifts on average compared to all givers. Sometimes religiously motivated giving is aimed at curing a social ill such as poverty, but it is also driven by a sense of giving to something more important than oneself, something transcendent. In western theological traditions, the goal of reflecting the personality of God in the world involves giving, because God is the giver of all good things. Regular tithing is not just a way of keeping the lights on at church. It is also a way of participating in what God is doing in the world, something that transcends any meaning you or I may attach to our giving.

Involvement in religious communities also produces more voluntarism. While popular culture and the media typically portray religious faith as an incubator of bigotry and closemindedness, it would be closer to the truth to regard it as an incubator of community awareness and engagement. In fact, involvement in religious organizations during youth positively predicts multiple forms of voluntary activity during adulthood, such as both formal and informal volunteering, and membership in community-based organizations, even if the individual is non-religious as an adult.

In non-religious contexts, people who experience awe or feelings of elevation are more generous. These feelings of awe can come simply from viewing inspiring photos of nature, but they also result from witnessing people doing morally exemplary acts and good deeds. Also, more than younger givers, who get involved in their communities for personal and professional reasons, older givers contribute because they want to pass on something of value to younger people. This, too, is a kind of transcendence: giving to something that outlasts you.

Moral formation: Woven through the foregoing reasons for participation in civil society is the central importance of moral standards and values. A grounded sense of what is right and wrong, just and unjust, prompts people to join with others to do good in the world. Research has found that people who have internalized a principle of care, or the belief that people in need should receive help regardless of whether or not one feels empathy for them, are most likely to give to organizations that help the poor.

A couple of cross-cutting themes are woven throughout the foregoing sources of civil association. First, getting people involved in the life of civil society at an early age is the best way to raise of generation of civically engaged adults. Being in situations in which generosity is experienced up close and personal has a lasting impact on moral formation, empathy, and the belief that one has something to give. Second, institutions that inculcate moral values, not just principles, are invaluable. Moral values and sentiments prompt action in ways that simply knowing what is morally right does not. For this reason, a combination of embeddedness in religious and spiritual communities, education, and time with friends who actively participate in their communities is the best formula for strengthening a sense of moral elevation that prompts us to leave our homes to go out and help others.