Sunday, August 14, 2011

Stewardship Part I.

The moral concept of "stewardship" is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Today, it is used primarily as a set of moral obligations that are associated with the responsible use of something that belongs to someone else. Or as Merriam Webster puts it: "...the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care." In light of my recent rants on intergenerational justice, I thought I'd deconstruct that slippery concept a bit.

First of all, today "stewardship" is most often encountered in the context of the sustainable management of resources. A "steward" is someone that takes care of someone else's property, hence the notion of ownership plays a key role. A "responsible steward," therefore, preserves or "sustains" the value of that property while an "irresponsible steward" does not. Stewards are not entrusted to sustain something of no value. And there's also a temporal component to stewardship; that is to say, the steward's "sustenance" of something valuable extends over a period of time.Therefore, stewardship has two moral components: the goal (or motive) of sustaining valuable something and knowledge of the means of sustaining that value. Thus, a responsible steward must be motivated to sustain something and know how to do it. An irresponsible steward (or a non-steward) either lacks the motivation to sustain something, or doesn't know how to do it. Thus, stewardship involves both knowing the Good and being able to do the Good.

Suppose, I agree to loan you one of my guitars for a week. Naturally, I expect you to be a responsible steward of it. At a bare minimum, I would expect it to be as returned without loss of value. A responsible steward might return it to me in better condition: maybe polish the finish and change the strings. You might replace the pickups or refinish it, which might or might not meet my approval. WARNING: Do not repaint my orange guitar with black spray paint. So responsible stewardship implies knowledge of the interests of the owner.

Stewardship also shares common ground with the concept of "agency," where one person serves as an "agent" for another person (or "principal"). A responsible agent, who possesses specific knowledge or skills is expected to serve the interests of the principal. Thus, the common ground is the expectation that another person will serve the interests of someone else. But there is also an underlying expectation that the steward or agent will benefit from serving as a steward or an agent. Today, we generally pay agents (insurance agents, financial advisors, and physicians) to serve our interests while stewards benefit by using what they are entrusted to sustain.

So far, the idea of stewardship between individuals seems fairly clear cut, and hardly worthy of a philosophical diatribe. But when stewardship is applied in the context of collective ownership, and/or collective stewardship the waters get muddy fast! I'll dive into that morass next.               


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