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Is the Common Good a Universal Ethic?

Monday, 8 April 2013  | Brian Hill

This paper was delivered at an international seminar on “Opening To The Educational Challenges Of Citizens for the 21st Century” held at Bet Yatziv, Beer Sheva, Israel, May 21-26, 2006.


At the time when I first began, as a young Australian, to study Western philosophy, it wasn’t fashionable to talk about the “Common Good.” Ethics had become a study of moral language meta-ethics – on the assumption, scarcely disguised, that the business of testing truth claims and using descriptive language belonged to science, while morality dealt in human sentiments which had been codified in prescriptive statements – a useful language game, but in no sense embedded in objective reality.[1]

There was no Common Good as such, only a process of judging between private goods according to either intuition or a calculus of the greatest good of the greatest number, or some such. If these courts of appeal failed to convince, then the fall-back position was to endorse a Liberal view of society, which substituted individual rights for the Common Good, permitting any behaviour provided that it didn’t harm any other individual’s pursuit of private satisfaction. 

I’ve now lived through several decades, in which time I’ve seen the liberal society sliding into moral anarchy. Social research is documenting widespread family dysfunction, friction between diverse interest groups and ethnic enclaves, and attempts to replace waning trust with increasing legal regulation. In addition, my country has become part of the global village, from which there’s no escape, thanks to extensive cross-cultural migration, transnational economic ties, and a commercially driven media coverage that blandly bares all. We flounder in a sea of conflicting values and world-views. 

In an attempt to rediscover the convivial society, many recent philosophers, particularly those often called Communitarians, have tried to revive the notion of the Common Good, and the term is beginning to reappear in social and educational theory.[2] On the other hand, many other thinkers are dismissing such moves. Speaking usually from a Relativistic position, they claim that not only did the Common Good in the past fail to be an effective ethical ideal, because the ruling classes defined it to their own advantage; but also, in this present time it’s too late to renegotiate the Common Good because of the value pluralism which now characterises all modern democratic societies. The Liberal ethic, however thin, is all that democracy has left. 

The Appeal to a Universal Ethic
Meanwhile some other thinkers are using a different strategy to revive the Common Good. They appeal to a universal ethic. They claim that empirical inspection of ethical codes across the globe reveals some fundamental principles common to all. 

The strongest claims of this kind come from people with religious viewpoints.[3] Claiming to have received divine revelations, various religious traditions say that they have captured the essence. For example, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism each do so, citing divine enlightenment. The big difficulty is that though there is some significant common ground, there are also some crucial differences in the values they nominate, not to mention even deeper differences in their ultimate visions of reality and human destiny: views which condition how they interpret the relative importance of the principles they put forward. 

The same applies to Christianity. I myself am a committed Christian. I’m prepared to affirm my belief in a self-revealing personal God, and in the biblical passages which teach that at the most basic levels of human existence, our well-being is defined by a universal ethic. I believe that this ethic derives from our creation as animals into whom God has breathed spiritual awareness, which includes a moral sense. Consequently, I find that I can endorse many of the ethical principles espoused by other faiths, and also by many philosophers who reject religion. I welcome, for example, the principle of “respect for persons” which even many atheistic philosophers single out as primary. And I warmly endorse what many Jewish philosophers call the Noahide Laws.[4]  

Those are my beliefs. But I also embrace some ethical principles which derive very specifically from Christian teaching, such as forgiving my enemies: principles which appeal much less to some of my friends who profess no religion or follow other faiths. And secondly, these principles make a great difference to which values are at the core of my value system. So my conclusions about a universal ethic differ from some other people in at least these two respects. 

Some noble attempts have been made in recent times to negotiate agreements between people with diverse world-views, and some projects (like that of “The Parliament of the World’s Religions”)[5] base their hopes on achieving rational agreement at the world-view level. But it’s my conviction that at these ultimate levels of belief, agreement depends not only on rational considerations but on deep-laid cultural conditioning and significant experiences of relationship. 

It follows that we are unlikely to achieve agreement in the foreseeable future on what constitutes the Ultimate Good. Our chances of averting the collapse of society into moral chaos and civil war – such as some modern societies are experiencing – depend on our being able to agree that the fairest political compromise is democracy – which is what I’ve called the Liberal fall-back position. But can we build on this a more positive and benevolent vision of community as well?  

The “Middle Ground” Argument
In some of my own writings[6] I’ve tried to develop a more modest proposal, based on the notion of the middle ground in a democratic society. As an alternative to societies in which a dominant minority group enforces its will on the general populace – something we’ve seen too often in history and in modern times – the democratic ideal is one where a society allows individuals and close-knit sub-cultures the freedom to pursue and even advocate their own particular visions and values, subject to an agreement to respect the equal rights of all citizens to legal protection and freedom from poverty or persecution.  

Thus far the Liberal ideal takes us. But beyond this, such a society necessarily involves people in many situations of sharing resources and engaging in common political, legal, economic and welfare provision. One thinks of health, education, the market economy, and so on. Beyond basic services of this kind, there are many other arenas of possible interaction, of a more convivial and enriching kind. In a healthy democracy, people from many different backgrounds can mingle and share in a diversity of cultural, sporting, and compassionate activities.  

Such activities also pave the way for mutual trust to develop, opening up the possibility of dialogue about each other’s ultimate visions and values, pursued freely within a bond of 3 mutual respect and friendship. This doesn’t mean that we must all agree on everything, or endorse a common world-view, or even a universal ethic, before such sharing can take root. What is required is an agreed minimum, a value consensus which encourages us to promote each other’s well-being: in short, a negotiated Common Good. 

Some Helpful Procedural Rules
On one occasion I was involved in a structured negotiation of this kind. A consortium was brought together representing the Anglican, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim schools in my home city.[7] A curriculum had been formulated at national government level, which put considerable emphasis on the use of performance outcome statements in school assessment. In the opinion of my colleague Dr Tom Wallace and myself, these statements were woefully lacking in the identification of values outcomes. All the emphasis was on learning facts and skills.  

Our consortium was formed to bid for a financial grant from the Commonwealth Government, which was funding a teacher development program. The money came through. We felt that a necessary first step would be to see if we could negotiate a working agreement between the consortium partners on the values they held in common. Certain procedural rules evolved as we attempted, through a modified form of the “Delphi” research technique, to develop what we came to call an “Agreed Minimum Values Framework.” Let me briefly share with you some of these rules.[8]  

1. Initially, we asked each participating group to describe its own core visions and ethical values.

We did this, not in order to collapse them all into one world-view and ethic to which all would be expected to conform, but in recognition of the fact that the values a person lives by gain both their ultimate justification and their motivating effect from the degree to which they are compatible with the person’s own ultimate framework of meaning. This was something we needed, non-judgmentally, to understand about the other.  

2. We then looked for potential agreements on shared visions and values which could also be justified at a practical level in terms of what is needed to sustain democratic life.

3. We asked participants to nominate not only the values they thought were minimally required for the maintenance of a democratic society, but also their ultimate visions and core values.  

Our reasoning here was that education would be impoverished if its raison d'être were confined to the minimal conditions for democratic co-existence. We were trying to identify the shared aspirations and common goods which could enrich our interactions. 

4. We agreed that if we encountered points of serious disagreement, we would, if possible, put them on hold and focus at this stage on our agreements.  

This was not to be taken as a way of dismissing areas of disagreement, as though they were unimportant. Participants were still left free to pursue goals of their own, provided that these were compatible with whatever middle-ground values we agreed on. We hoped that no disagreement would arise that was so incorrigible that we could not continue the consensus process. Admittedly, that was an act of faith, or shall I say of growing trust in each other as people of good will.  

5. We accepted that just as democracy is a procedural notion, not an ultimate vision for living, so the values framework we derived from this consultation would be a provisional minimal agreement.  

That is, this is work in progress, coupled with the hope that, without infringing on the ultimate visions of any, we may progressively enlarge each other’s perception of the Common Good. I’ve no time to spell this out any further, except to say that a robust values framework did emerge from this consultation,[9] which even moved the State Education Department to embark on a similar exercise. The result, as it turned out, was significantly indebted to the Framework our consortium had earlier developed.

So then, with regard to my topic – “Is the Common Good a Universal Ethic?” I conclude that many people, myself included, believe that ultimately it is. But in the interests of democratic co-existence, I believe that our best hope lies not in seeking to obtain agreement to this proposition up front, but in attempting to identify and enlarge the areas of agreement that may already exist in relation to shared visions and values. This can be done while honouring the right of all people to live by their ultimate meaning frameworks, and in the meantime encouraging mutual dialogue about them.

Such a process does not belong only to the philosophers, remorselessly correcting each other’s logic, but also to ordinary people who value community life and in good faith seek reconciling relationships with those who hold different views of reality from themselves. For a person like myself who believes in a universal ethic grounded in the nature God has given us, there’s a reasonable expectation that such a process of negotiating the Common Good will in fact draw us closer to that ethic.

[1] The doyen of mid-century was R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952)

[2] Notable recent works are Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) and Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[3] This is well demonstrated in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991)

[4] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noahide_Laws

[5] See Hans Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel, eds., A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (London: SCM Press, 1993). The World's Parliament of Religions was founded in 1893 by Unitarians and Universalists of the Free Religious Association, and continues to attract wide participation. Its 2004 meeting in Barcelona, Spain, had over 8,900 participants from over 75 countries.

[6] Most recently in Brian V. Hill, Exploring Religion in School (Adelaide: OpenBook Publishers, 2004)

[7] This work is described more fully in Brian V. Hill, “Seeking a Value Consensus for Education” in Education, Culture and Values – Vol. II: Institutional Issues: Pupils, Schools and Teacher Education, ed. Mal Leicester, Celia Modgil and Sohan Modgil (London: Falmer, 2000), pp. 198-207. Also Brian V. Hill (2001). “Educating for Moral Responsibility”, in Creating Our Common Future, ed. Jack Campbell (Paris/Oxford: UNESCO/Berghahn Books, 2001), pp. 61-78.

[8] These procedural rules were more fully spelled out in Hill (2001).

[9] Values Review Project (1995). Agreed Minimum Values Framework, Perth, Western Australia: National Professional Development Program. The Framework itself is reproduced in the Appendix downloadable with this paper here.


Will Jones
April 17, 2013, 1:30AM
The overall approach here is markedly liberal and Rawlsian. To identify democracy with a commitment to individual rights and allowing people to express their fundamental values, and to seek consensus by beginning from a minimal set of values held in common, is a very liberal conception of democracy. In fact, what's being described is not really democracy but liberalism, which is essentially an ideology imposed on a society by a liberal elite notwithstanding popular feeling. Not that that makes it wrong, but it isn't strictly democracy, which is about popular ideas of right and wrong holding sway, underpinned by ideas of equality, especially with respect to government and power.

Many confuse liberalism with democracy, and while these two ideas can with some success be fused in the notion of liberal democracy, the marriage between liberal principles and democratic principles is never the most tranquil of partnerships. Witness the sustained refusal (for better or worse) in recent decades of the liberal elite in the UK to give regard to popular sentiment about capital punishment, immigration, European integration, and protecting bankers in a way they refused to protect industry. I'm not saying the right thing to do would have been to follow popular opinion on these issues in all respects. I'm simply highlighting that, as much as liberals might like to maintain otherwise, and bend the meanings of words to suit their purposes, liberalism is not to be identified with democracy.

But semantics aside, the problem with Hill's approach is that it seeks a liberal Rawlsian common good in which the emphasis is placed on political consensus between different ultimate meaning frameworks. Rather than on a crucial distinction between a dominant, Christian, liberal democratic framework, and other frameworks which that overarching framework makes room for and is hospitable towards. Our culture is at once liberal, Christian and democratic, and because of that we make space for other cultures, within appropriate bounds. This is not an idea of the common good which arises from consensus between ultimate meaning frameworks, but from our Christian, liberal democratic heritage. If we lose sight of that we risk losing sight of what it is that sustains our culture and the values which underpin it.

Hill appears already to be conceding that sustaining our Christian liberal heritage is a lost cause, and is searching for an alternative that will avert a slide into moral anarchy and social collapse. But that is to concede too much. Much better I would say to bolster what is left of our culture and seek to restore it. But this will mean not pretending that we are seeking some kind of common ground between our culture and all the other cultures of the world, but rather respectfully asserting the values of our own - not least because it is hospitable to people of all different backgrounds and cultures.

If the day does finally come when we must abandon the defence of our Christian, liberal democratic culture and sue for peace with those other forces in our society then I am sure Hill's methods will prove helpful. But be under no illusions what a tragedy that will be, and how jarring to us and our way of life. I know that I, for one, pray that it will never come.

In the meantime, let us keep the faith, and keep reminding the more secular-minded among us that our civilisation was built much more on the Bible than it ever was on Voltaire or Marx.
Brian Hill
April 18, 2013, 6:26PM
I’m grateful for Will Jones’s thoughtful reflections. At the same time I’m bewildered by his quick definition of “democracy” as being “about popular ideas of right and wrong holding sway …” (popular with which minority group, given that nowadays there’s no unified majority group?)
I’m also surprised that he infers from my statement that Millsian liberalism and the Rawlsian calculus sit comfortably with me.

I was trying to say that liberal democracy as they perceived it is too thin to sustain equality and justice in society, much less fraternity. Rawls in particular, having lost his Christian faith as a result of what he experienced during World War 2, relied heavily on the suasive power of rationality to clean up human affairs. A pity, because that faith could have reminded him of the need to factor original sin more directly into the “original position” he set up as the starting point of his theory of justice.

I certainly didn’t equate the concepts of liberalism and democracy – and don’t. I was trying to argue for a more fraternal view of democracy than the one traditional liberalism has to offer; one which, besides guaranteeing basic freedoms, valorises efforts to encourage interpersonal sharing and minimise enclavism.

Jones grants “our culture” the adjective “Christian”. I agree it owes a lot to the influence of traditions variously indebted to the original Gospel of Christ. But this has never added up historically to a unified framework. Competing frameworks, from Anabaptist to Episcopal, and everything in between, have contended for the high ground throughout, validating political structures as various as “direct” democracy, autocracy, clerical oligarchy, patriarchy, and anarchy. There has been no golden age, not even in Australia before the 1960s. Out of which Christian political tradition is Jones speaking?

My suggested strategy for negotiation of the common good arises from a conviction that the ambivalent legacy of Christendom, during which time Classical, Judaic, Christian, Teutonic, etc. values variously strove to dominate the public domain, is now in tatters, and we operate in a contested public space where rational calculus alone will be powerless against human hubris.

Meanwhile the outcome of secularisation has been not a liberal paradise but a place where each person does what is right in their own eyes. The day, Will, has come.

There is now no framework dominating the public domain which we must “defend”, as you put it (if there ever was – which previous era would you prefer to live in?); only a continuing contested space where the secularists are not often enough challenged to be up-front about their own substantive values, instead of hiding behind the putative neutralism of the secular state. But how? Would you have us pull rank on those who disagree with biblical Christianity, on the grounds that we were here first?

The attack which must be mounted is to advocate truly biblical values in the public domain through open dialogue with all parties, compassionate ministries, political involvement especially at community level, and civil disobedience (along with the penalties it may invoke) if necessary.

As indicated in the heading, my statement began life as an invited address to an audience of mainly Jewish academics. In what way was it not “keeping faith” with the Jesus of Scripture?

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