“But why does responsibility matter so much? What if we just imagine ourselves as responsible– isn’t that the same?”

Last night a group of folks from across Seattle met at the invitation of Veritas Cities to think about “Designing Experiences for the Common Good.” I spoke for awhile, then interviewed my friend Uli Chi, Chairman of Computer Human Interaction LLC, whose work has served the world, and finally the two of us answered questions for the next two hours.

While not everyone there was someone from “the technological society” that dominates the economy of Seattle, with giants like Microsoft and Amazon, every person I met worked some place where software is the coin of the realm.

I began with a story of Mr. Mars and his first tries at chocolate in Tacoma, WA– mixing and mixing again, not able to sell enough to stay in the Pacific Northwest. Bankrupt, he moved back to Minneapolis, where he kept mixing batches of chocolate until he finally got it right. The Mars bar was born, and then Snickers, and then M&Ms, and then… and then, hundreds of billions dollars later, it is hard to imagine a world without Mars chocolate.

But then I pressed into the work I have done with Mars most of a century later, as a Fellow for the Catalyst group– Mars’ internal think tank –being part of an effort to reimagine the very way business is done, reframing the meaning of “the bottom line” through its ground-breaking paradigm named “the economics of mutuality””– a million miles and a hundred years from Mr. Mars and his first chocolates in Tacoma.

And as must be, we wondered with Wired magazine, in its current cover, whether “Facebook can save the world?” with its apocalyptic and eschatological weight-of-sorts… serious but not so.

What is entrepreneurial imagination? What is entrepreneurial vocation? It is always some unique-in-history twining together of creativity and responsibility– knowing why they matter to us and to our societies was the question of the evening.

For a few minutes I lingered over the stories of locals who tried and tried again, Frederick Weyerhaeuser and Bill Gates, in timber and technology creating economic empires that shape the world, as well as Seattle.

But then I drew in several of my friends who in their different ways bring both creativity and responsibility together in the marketplace– Hans Hess with his healthier hamburgers and taxis, and Jason Ballard and Evan Loomis in their efforts to rethink what and why and how we buy building supplies, Elevation Burger, EnviroCab and TreeHouse respectively.

I didn’t have hours, so then I simply sketched the story of Vaclav Havel, in his profoundly-formed argument that “the secret of man is the secret of his responsibility,” immersed as he was in the wounded world of post-communist Czechoslovakia, a people that had lost any sense of responsibility, and therefore possibility, for their future as a society.

But then I drew in the essay from the Atlantic last summer, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will,” an ironic argument if there ever was one. While showing that every social science indicator proves that human beings in families and neighborhoods, cities and societies, flourish more fully when we assume responsibility, now we know it is a fiction, a fantasy born of out-of-date beliefs about the human condition. “Now we know,” of course, that we are our DNA, first and last, always and evermore, the evolutionary products of time plus chance plus matter, we can leave “responsibility” behind, intellectual impossibility that it is.

Sort of. The problem is that we cannot have our cake and eat it too, the essayist’s longing in the last paragraph to the contrary. How strange it is that advanced capitalist societies would insist on giving up on responsibility in the very same generation that brought about the implosion of communism with its terribly dehumanizing destruction of responsibility. I called this “the challenge of our age,” because it is, with deep and far-reaching consequences.

And yes, Mumford and Sons’ song “Timshel” found its way in too, poetically reminding us that it is our responsibility that “makes us great…. our ladder to the stars,” a riff off of Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, which beginning to end is a story about responsibility, “Do we get to choose, or not?”

Before all was said and done, we wondered, with Nietzsche, what God has to do with all of this? Do we, as he insisted, no longer speak about meaning and morality, if God is gone? Havel thought so, and I do too.

More was said, especially in the two hours of questions, each one probing the perplexity of the human heart, each one wondering what it means to see ourselves as responsible and creative, visions and virtues that are the very heart of vocations that serve the common good.

At the end of the night, and the end of every night, what we believe about the most important things matters, for you, for me, for all of us.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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