We constantly feel the need to take action, but what action?
Every day, and in every direction, we can look around and see a lot of things that need to be done, many actions that need to be taken. A suffering child, a mother without means to protect her children, an impoverished man or woman on the street, teachers without adequate classrooms and students without books, working men and women without health insurance sitting in crowed hospital emergency rooms, elderly people without the warmth of a stove or the warmth of human caring– all this and so much more demands our attention. So many things in our immediate community, in our country, on our earth urgently demand our action. The focus is on action, but what action. There must always be acts of choice which determine the paths we follow.
The FOUR-WAY-TEST is a set of rules that illuminates action, action that is supposed to be good and wise. One might say that the FOUR-WAY-TEST constitutes the rules that join action to wisdom. Wisdom’s first rule is seek the truth. I might say to you, alternatively, test for truth. Before you can act wisely, you must test the truth of the proposition that requires your action.
Is it true that the children for whom you collect christmas gifts need toys? Perhaps they urgently need food, or do they need shelter from violence in their community, even their own homes. And not only must you test for truth, you must follow wisdom’s second rule which is test for fairness. Action must lead to equity. Balance must be recognized. Is it fair to offer a scholarship without providing and following the rules of competition? To reward capriciously is to risk violating fairness. Equal opportunity is the path of fairness.
So, we must test for fairness as well as truth. We need to know if the action will be fair to all concerned. And this leads to the third rule of wisdom which is test for benefit. Is there benefit to all concerned? Moral benefit, economic benefit, cultural benefit?
We must not only test for truth and fairness, but who will benefit from the consequences of the action? What of fair selection, given equal opportunity? How far do concern and involvement reach if all who of those who are concerned are to benefit? The number of people who benefit theoretically from a school play production far exceeds the number of young people who can realistically try out for the school basketball team and benefit from participation in this sport. I enjoy sports, but one can point out that atheltics is by and large a vicarious experience. Life is not a vicarious experience. The test for benefit must consider whether or not the benefit is real or substitute.
And finally, the fourth rule of wisdom addresses the sense of community. Does the action lead to a common ground of being? Do we all feel part of the community after the action is complete. Have we practiced exclusive principles, or have we practiced inclusive principles.
Perhaps you recognize that what we are talking about is a lot like sportsmanlike conduct. Players of the Game are expected to agree on the rules, that is, agree to the truth; players expect to be treated fairly, that is, the rules are applied with equity; players expect to benefit from fair and honest competition according to their abilities; and players are on the same ground of being, that is ,they are all competitors in the same game. Too bad the pageants of our professional sports spectaculars aren’t good examples of exemplary human beings.
If this sounds like a complete guide to wisdom, let me remind you of what the Nazis believed to be true: it was fair that all Germans should benefit from being members of the community of the Master Race.
I think you will agree that there is another condition, another rule which we must apply; a fifth rule which must guide all of our considerations, one which we have to use before we can apply the FOUR-WAY-TEST successfully. We must exchange places with the other person. That is, we must be able to recognize their truth as our own, their fairness, their benefit, their sense of community. We must be able to do all of this without necessarily adopting their point of view.
That recognition of “other truth” is essential, also, in drafting a definition of “service above self”. I can’t imagine needing to say this to an audience of women. Women may not know all about the four way test of truth, fairness, benefit, and community, but they do know about service above self. Being a partner to the creation of new life out of one’s own material self is certainly service above self.