Martin Rich was asked the question “Why Does Meaning Matter?” Below is his response.
Why does meaning matter? Because without meaning, nothing matters.
To put it another way, meaning drives the purpose of everything we do. Without that meaning, without purpose, why does it matter what we do?
If nothing – and by inference no-one – matters, then the consequences of my actions are irrelevant beyond how they affect me. Of course, such a path quickly leads one to an extremely selfish existence – but so what? My lifestyle is environmentally unsustainable? So what – it doesn’t matter. My actions directly or indirectly hurt people? So what – they don’t matter. Live life for number one and forget the rest.
But is that so far from reality for many people today? Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face is that so many people wander through life without any real meaning – reflected in the social apathy that sadly is so familiar in the UK and, presumably, elsewhere. Maybe the majority haven’t consciously decided to follow the above extreme example, but it’s not so far from the truth of how an insular, purpose-less life will work out. Even “enlightened self interest” is, by definition, only slightly less selfish and still revolves around “me”.
So how do we help put meaning back into society so that people and actions start to matter again? How do we persuade individuals to put others before self – or at least on an even footing? How do we make the story relevant to the single mother and the out-of-work craftsman struggling to put food on the table for their families?
Pleasingly, I believe there is hope. I believe most people do care about society more broadly, whether driven by faith, community values or what we might call innate humanity, and do want to live good, meaningful lives that matter. It is a rare individual who is not inspired in any way by one of society’s great purpose-driven achievers – be they philanthropist, politician or Olympian – and who dreams of doing “more”. Our role is to give people the tools to help them.
The root of the problem lies in the fact that despite living in an ever more connected global society, business has become ever more immune from the broader impact of its activities and individuals have become ever more disconnected from their impact as both investor and consumer.
Our first goal must therefore be to burst these non-information bubbles and help inform society of the true impact of its actions. Reconnect business activity with its impact upon society and the environment. Inform the individual similarly. Much has already been done in this regard, but there is a long way still to go.
Our second goal must be to create the tools that translate improved understanding into action. Business needs help to understand, reduce / mitigate and price the true cost of its activities. Individuals need to be offered the products by which they can actively choose to make a difference.
If we can deliver on these goals, just maybe we can help society find some meaning.
And that matters.
By Martin Rich, Director at Social Finance
This post originally appeared on the website for Socap 12