Moral Communities and The State: A rejoinder to Russell Blackford

Tom Frame; The Quadrant (Sept 2004); p38 – 43

The following are extracts for the purpose of a research paper relation got the Christian role in politics and the public square. 

Tom Frame is the Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force. The piece is a reply in a debate between Frame and Blackford concerning commercial surrogacy legislation. As useful as it would be to follow up the previous articles in the debate, one will not find them lost if the piece was read in isolation. In fact, for my purposes, this piece was particularly insightful around the topics of how a Christian, in the context of belonging to a moral community, seek to engage with the public square. It shows that when contestation does arise between, say, public policy and Christian belief, one can take comfort in knowing they belong to a moral community and can live in a “manner consistent with our core beliefs and enjoy a quality of life that might inspire outsiders to ask the reason why.”

From the work that I have read of Frame, he always provides wholesome, and well-researched comments. They leave a Christian reader with the feeling like they can actually do something and outwork their values, despite how abstract the argument.

Quick word on Homosexuality
As an aside, I should declare that my religious convictions lead me to insist on the commissioning couple being heterosexual and married. Those same convictions do not permit me to advocate or promote what Blackford refers to as “non-traditional” families, such as those involving homosexual parents. p 38.

Surrogacy // but could be applied to other controversial legislation
My position is not about prohibitions but provisions… Should our society provide someone or a service to undertake an activity that a majority in our society believes is either generally unwise or definitely wrong? p 39.

The Layman and Paternalism
It is unreasonable for us to expect an individual tone fully acquainted with the moral arguments for and against  course of action. Individuals can, of course, be manipulated and misled by malevolent guide of entrenched prejudice. My point is only that ordinary peopler sometimes paralysed by both the depth and breadth of the issues faced in making serious moral decision. Some people are not up to the challenge. This is where paternalism – chosen or imposed – must be admitted. But on what basis?

I suspect that Blackford would share my belief that our society if throughly over-governed… We seem to have grasped state regulation as the remedy for most social woes and ethical dilemmas without realising that state intervention is a blunt instrument that can also diminish personal liberty. p 39.

But rather than trying to overcome the problem of where we place the acceptable limits of paternalism – something that is potentially intractable – I believe we ought to be asking a prior and more important question… What kind of people do we want to be? This means confronting the question of whether we view life and liberty, and the point and purpose of human existence, from an individual or a communitarian perspective. p 40.

Frame on Hobbes and Individualism
Individuals must surrender some of their discretion to a supreme authority – the great Leviathan of the state – which can ensure that competing or conflicting ambitions are harmonised or, at least, reconciled. In Hobbes’ worldview, there is not attempt to identify what is good or bad nor to encourage virtue and discourage vice. What we call god or virtuous, according to H, is little more than preference or prejudice.

Many Australians unreservedly accept the Hobbesian account. Individualism – the belief that the individual alone and unaided is entitled ti determine what is good or bad and to separate truth or falsehood- is a prevailing attitude.

Vision posited by Hobbes was to intended to displace the Biblical account of humanity’s origins and destiny derived from the opening narrative of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created… and it was good.” The universe unfolds according to a plan in which humanity finds meaning conveyed through two linked propositions.
1) Affirms the sanctity of the human individual as individual – made in the Image of God.
2) Asserts the incompleteness of the individual as individual: “It is not good to be alone”. Hence, the need for relationships and stable structures within these formative and definitive relationships can be sustained.
The individual is therefore to be understaff in relation to others and hence, to derive identity from them. p 40.

Quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Hope:
…the crucial distinction between the story offered in Leviathan and the Book of Genesis is the central figure. For Hobbes, it is “I” over and against everyone else; in the Bible it is the “we” of which I am a part: marriage, the family, the nation understood as an extended family, and ultimately humanity itself. In this account, or affiliations and associations and attachments are not irrelevant, but essential, to the structure and obligations we form. We owe duties to other because that are a part of who we are. The driving force is not self-interest but a series of covenantal obligations that include the duties and responsibilities that flow from identification and belonging. p 41.

A covenant is more binding because it is not predicated on interest, but instead on loyalty, fidelity and holding together… it is not surprising that so many embrace individualism.

As Australians, our common life is sustained by a number of social, political and economic contracts… But more important than contracts in terms of human fulfilment is the need for covenants and the values and virtues undergirding and fulfilling them.

We must insist on talking about values and virtues more than rights and entitlements, in order to preserve and protect the covenants that allow our meaning-imparting and identity-giving relationships to be maintained and to mature. We must talk about the kind of people we are and how we want others to see us. Laws and more laws regulating your attitudes and actions are manifestly not the answer. 

However, the identification and inculcation of virtues is not something that states do well. Covenants arise from moral communities able to teach values. p 41.

Moral Communities
Recognises that the Christian Church has been a strong moral community since Australia’s inception, but there has been a drift towards agnosticism.

Laws based on specific Christian beliefs have been challenged and repealed because they allegedly reflected religious convictions that not everyone held nor was argued that non-believers should not be subject to them. Examples of laws heavily influenced by Christian teaching include restrictions on the availability of abortion, closure of public facilities on the Sabbath and reluctance to extend grounds for divorce.

Since 1965, Australians have agreed less endless on more and more.

Drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre:
The notion that issues can be resolved by rational argument by well-intentioned people is an illusion according to M. In a pluralistic world with a fragmented culture, we simply cannot achieve moral consensus of the kind needed to justify legislating for certain attitude or actions and against others. Moral agreement is the dream of a lost common culture… moral questions can only be answered in a satisfactory way from within moral communities.

But how do these moral communities, particularly those founded on religious principles, interact with the rest of society and the state? One would have to reply: actively and with integrity.

There is nothing to restrain the members of moral communities from participating fully in social and political life. They need, however, to remain mindful of those beliefs and customs that give shape and substance to the particular community that is the chief source of their identity and belonging.

Frame shares that the Constitutional provisions for religion sit comfortably with the Christian view if the state and responsible citizenship.

Christianity teaches that the state despite its imperfections, is part of  the divine ordering of temporal affairs. It is authorised and empowered to exercise power by God, to whom it remains responsible. Individuals are to acknowledge the state’s mandate while realising that God will bring to nothing any state or rule that claims ultimate authority or demands absolute obedience. Governments are implored in the Christian Scriptures to use their power, and sometimes this includes coercive power, to reflect the divine purpose for humanity: that people should enjoy the fruits of the earth fairly and equitably and that he powerful and wealthy should not exploit the weak and poor. p42.

Christian Residency
…because the state could be motivated by evil intents and seek to thwart of resist the purposes and will of God, the Christian was to be more of a resident than a citizen… they live in this world but their citizenship is elsewhere. What marks them out as distinct also separates them from their neighbours. Elsewhere  in the NT, Christians are referred to as ambassadors of a foreign power who are warned to remain unstained by”the world” and its deception. p 42.

The Christian State v Modern State
Really feeds into Sandel’s use of Aristotle’s telos. (see previous blog posts)

In Christian theology, the state is, then, a moral entity with ethical responsibilities… But having shrugged off any sense of its religious responsibilities (and thereby losing any cli to spiritual and moral authority), the modern stat refuses to be the guardian of certain beliefs and values in its presence for lesser tasks. p. 42-3.

Any sense of higher vocations for the state is nor abandoned in favour of bureaucratic collectivism. States now make no pretension at offering any moral basis for their authority other than majority consent.

As a Christian in the Modern State

My beliefs and affiliations inevitable shape my social and political outlook. Having said that they ought to be declared in the same way that social and political commentators are expected to disclose their ideological commitments and political connections. I do not believe the cause of religion or the health of the body politic is well served by attempts to smuggle religious doctrine into public policy or election campaigns. It is better than religious organisations be open about their participation in public life to ensure they avoid the temptation of pursuing spiritual objectives by purely political means. It is for this reason that I am concerned about “Christian” political parties or legislative programs that seem designed to make the world safe for the Church.

As an Anglican Christian, I want to influence the kind of society that Australia is and might become as a function of being part of a moral community with certain specific beliefs and customs. But I am not seeking to have my moral outlook accepted by society without its religious basis being embraced as well. My views only make sense because I ant to be like Jesus and to live his teaching about the Kingdom of God. 

I do not have the same expectations of the undifferentiated society. p 43.

Limits on Paternalism
Ought to be placed where our elected legislators decide to put them.. of what they perceive to be the wishes and the wellbeing of the people they represent. Whatever paternalism parliament prescribes will in any event be interpreted by the public service in its enforcement and moderated by teh courts if challenged by those subject to it.

If an individual is still unhappy about state intervention, democracy offers them a powerful means of gaining satisfaction – the ballot box.

This is not, of course, the ideal solution. Some people will be left unsatisfied and their liberty will be curtailed. But these processes are the best we can achieve… I would not want to live in a society where individuals claim the authority, wisdom, and discretion I believe resides only in God.

I am certain the resulting public policy outcomes will not satisfy Russell Blackford. They will not satisfy me either. But at least I can fall back on the discipline of the Anglican Church knowing that the authority of the state is not ultimate or its power absolute. 

As members of a moral community we can still live in a manner consistent with out core beliefs and enjoy a quality of life that might inspire outsiders to ask the reason why. 




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