Self-interest is not the way to serve others: faith & reason

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, writes this week about the importance of shared values in maintaining communities, and the part that the churches can play.
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The Independent Online
In our modern world, tastes have splintered. Any one individual may identify with a wide variety of different kinds of geographical, institutional and interest-based communities at any one time. The gap between these different groups and sub-cultures can yawn widely.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Close-knit and homogeneous communities have their limitations and frustrations as well as strengths, especially those which form in a defensive way over and against a threat from other people or mainstream society. I much prefer churches which are outward- looking and see themselves as part of the society to which they belong rather than inward-looking communities, seeing themselves as separate and maintaining their own purity by keeping the outside world at arm's length. More generally, we can surely find great richness in the diversity of human beings and indeed of the diversities, cultural and natural, in different parts of the country.

But diversity can bring dangers. If our society in all its diversity is not in an important sense a moral community, we are in big trouble. I do not mean that everybody should be expected to agree on all kinds of contentious moral and ethical issues - how could I be an Archbishop in the Church of England if I believed such a thing? But however complex people's different community networks may have become, it is essential that there remains a robust level of commitment to the common good. You will know that "to seek the common good" has been an injunction at the heart of the Book of Common Prayer down the centuries.

This is shared by other churches too. The social teaching of successive Popes is a most impressive exposition of fundamental Christian beliefs as they translate themselves into the way in which we order our society and behave towards other human beings.

In the Christian tradition, we can only fulfil ourselves as people by loving our neighbours as ourselves, by recognising the inter-dependence of individuals within the wider human society, and taking our responsibilities towards other people at least as seriously as our responsibilities towards ourselves.

By far the most important place where these basic human and civic values are taught is in the family where the strong and grown-up live out their responsibilities to the young and inexperienced and weak; where children learn that the human love on which the psychological security of the child can be based involves faithfulness, reliability, self-giving as well as self-fulfilment. The family is where love is bound up with the making of moral choices for the good of others and where inter-dependence is cherished. Discipline and love are not opposites, but allies in the common task of healthy human nurture in a context of inter-dependence.

I know that in some cases the family unit may become a prison for those subjected to abuse and tyranny. But, for the most part, it is hard to overstate the pain and hurt and psychological damage which is inflicted on people who are close to family break-up. Common sense and experience tell us that in general children need the love and guidance of both father and mother, that they are wounded by family conflict and divorce. I know that the causes of family breakdown are many and complex. But I believe they include much greater sexual licence and a philosophical tendency to place self-fulfilment and pleasurable consumption above moral responsibility to others and faithfulness to one's family obligations.

For this reason, the cult of the "individual" has to be challenged sharply. During the Eighties, some versions of morality tended to equate morality with individualism. Self-interest was put forward as the way to serve others.

The churches were not alone in distrusting this assumption but they were prominent in doing so. That is why the Church of England report Faith in the City incorporated a fundamental challenge to laissez-faire and individualistic philosophy. It insisted upon the recognition of inter- dependence, and on reaching out to the large numbers of people being marginalised and excluded from mainstream society in the deprived areas of our cities. And that is why the Roman Catholic Bishops' confident reassertion of the central concept of the common good is so thoroughly welcome.