Personal and public objectives

Most individuals have personal objectives which they plan to reach in different stages of their life. Many personal objectives are completely private. They may relate to activities which the individual pursues for his own amusement and enjoyment, such as hobbies or voluntary charity. Or they may relate to serving his own needs or the needs of family members who require care. The success or lack of success that a given person meets in such leisurely pursuits is not of much interest to anyone else, except perhaps his closest circle of friends and family who share their private life with that person. People outside of this intimate circle will be not be affected by the pursuit of private personal objectives.

Other personal objectives have a broader social context and the outcome of such pursuits may affect other people. These personal objectives include, for example, social achievements such as passing tests, obtaining qualifications or winning victories. Social achievements usually involve an element of competition because the purpose of a test or a qualification is typically to rank or group people. Those who pass the test gain permission to drive a car, while those who fail the test do not. Those who gain the qualification of medical doctor become legally entitled to practice medicine, while those who fail to gain the qualification do not.

Other socially conditioned personal objectives involve a more indirect competitive element. These include the pursuit of wealth and other resources, such as social influence and power. One person’s pursuit of valuable resources does not always hinder others from pursuing the same resource. But if the resource in question is valuable due to its scarcity, the pursuit will have an exclusive character.

Although the pursuit of personal objectives with social and competitive elements sometimes involves ramifications for those who participate in the same competitive setting, the group of people affected by the pursuit is usually very small. It does not matter much to me which pupils gain the qualification to practice medicine and which do not, or which people gain wealth and power and which do not – at least until that power touches areas where I have personal interests at stake.

Group objectives

If an individual shares some personal objectives with other individuals, they can together form groups where these shared personal objectives are adapted as group objectives. The members of the group may agree upon group tasks which they should jointly accomplish to bring them closer to the group objective. Small groups can form spontaneously, without any authorities who coordinate group activities and actively inform prospective members about what is to be done. The group objective is usually quite simple in such spontaneous groups. Groups can for example form spontaneously to push a bus up a hill so the journey can be continued, or to work for their mutual protection in a state of emergency.

Groups which aim to achieve more complex group objectives require agents who actively organize the group. Many such groups have a history and a tradition, and new group members may voluntarily want to become a part of that tradition. One reason for wanting to join a successful group tradition may be the personal pursuit of wealth or other resources. Business corporations are traditional groups where people work together to reach common group objectives. Corporate success leads to individual rewards.

Sometimes group formation may occur through authoritative persuasion. The authority which persuades other people to join needs to have some degree of legitimacy to be persuasive. That legitimacy may stem from superior knowledge, experience, a selection process, or just personal charisma. When an individual is persuaded by an authority figure to espouse a group objective, that group objective may not initially be aligned with any specific personal objective which the individual harbours. But the individual may eventually identify with the group objective so strongly that it diffuses into his personal objectives as well.

The pursuit of group objectives typically has much wider social ramifications for outsiders than the pursuit of personal objectives because a group objective can have a much larger scope and more momentum. Groups may compete with each other for wealth, influence and power just like individuals, and a much broader circle of people will typically be affected by group competition than by personal competition.

Each individual knows her own personal objectives intimately, as well as her own interpretation of the group objectives which she espouses. She may be less certain about how other members of the group interpret its objectives, or how strongly various factions within the group disagree about the group objective. Even so, in case the prevailing group objectives gradually change to something which the individual cannot espouse, she can usually be reasonably certain that she would notice this change just by continuing to be a participant in the group. People receive information about group objectives from the leaders of the group and other member and can usually check the veracity of this information by direct observation or participation. They can understand both group objectives and personal objectives, and based on that understanding they can freely decide whether to espouse them or not.

Public objectives

But there are some objectives which can be attributed to every individual even if everyone may not understand them or know anything about them. These objectives may be called public objectives. A typical example of a public objective is the provision of public services, such as security, streets, and schools, funded from a common tax pool. Most public objectives fall into two categories: (1) the provision of public services which no individual or group would have an incentive to provide on their own and (2) the prevention of deleterious consequences that follow from the pursuit of some personal and group objectives.

Public objectives are not spontaneously adopted by one individual, and then another, and then another, like a group objective with increasing popularity might be. Individuals can rarely discover public objectives through their own personal objectives, nor can they find self-regarding reasons for espousing a public objective. Instead, they only come to understand and espouse public objectives through theoretical reflection or instruction in societal affairs. The perspective in a public objective is, if not altruistic, at least egalitarian. The objective is to achieve something which is good for everyone, and an individual must think philosophically to be able to adopt this perspective.

However, the philosophical nature of public objectives does not necessarily mean that it would be very complicated or difficult to understand public objectives. It doesn’t take much reflection to reach the conclusion that better security will be provided by a public organization for everyone than by competing organizations for selected individuals or by each individual for himself. But it does require a fundamental shift to an egalitarian perspective where everyone’s interests are taken into account equally.

Egalitarian thinking does not come naturally to most people, so public objectives would be of little importance if they weren’t mandated by law. They are brought into being in laws enacted by a state. The tasks required for pursuing a public objective are undertaken by state functionaries, not by private individuals or groups. The benefits gained by individuals and groups from the successful pursuit of public objectives can easily be taken for granted until they are lost, because they don’t require the active involvement of all members of society.



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