A Decent Society

December 2018 Pulse

In his erudite and captivating book, Conscience and Its Enemies (2013), Robert George discusses the essential features of a decent society. According to the Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, the three pillars on which a decent society rests are (1) respect for the human person, (2) the institution of the family, and (3) a fair and effective system of government and law.

As a Roman Catholic, George established these foundations of a decent society on the basis of Catholic social doctrine (rooted in the teachings of the Bible and Christian tradition) as well as natural law.

The first pillar has to do with taking seriously the inviolable dignity of every human being. The Bible distinguishes the human creature from the rest of God’s creation by emphasising that it alone is the bearer of the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27).

‘The divine image is present in every man’, declares the Catechism of the Catholic Church. ‘It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons themselves’.

When a society recognises, values and respects the human person, writes George, its institutions ‘and the beliefs and practices of the people, will be such that every member of the human family, irrespective not only of race, sex, or ethnicity but also of age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency, is treated as a person – that is, as a subject bearing profound, inherent, and equal worth and dignity’.

A society that fails or refuses to nurture respect for the human person and acknowledge the sanctity of human life will embrace an inhumane utilitarianism that tramples upon the dignity of the individual for the sake of some nebulous ‘greater good’.

The second pillar is the institution of the family. With characteristic perceptiveness and clarity, George writes: ‘The family, based on the marital commitment of husband and wife, is the original and best ministry of health, education and welfare’.

For Pope John Paul II, the family is fashioned in such a way that it reflects the triune God himself. In his Letter to Families (1994), the late pontiff states that ‘the primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery’. The family as a ‘communion of persons’ (communio personarum) is grounded in the triune God, who is Being-in-Communion.

So foundational and important are families to society that where they fail to form or where too many break down, writes George, ‘the effective transmission of the virtues of honesty, civility, self-restraint, concern for the welfare of others, justice compassion, and personal responsibility are imperiled’.

The third pillar of a decent society, according to George, is a fair and effective system of government. Based on the biblical revelation of the sinfulness of our fallen humanity, George provides an argument for the need for law and government that is consistent with Scripture (Romans 13) and the Christian tradition.

Law and government are necessary, he writes quite plainly, ‘because none of us is perfectly virtuous all the time, and some people will be deterred from wrongdoing only by the threat of punishment’.

Together with conservatives, past and present – e.g. Edmund Burke (in the 18th century) and Roger Scruton (in ours) – George believes that law and government are meant to protect the safety and morals of society and advance general welfare.

It should be quite obvious to many that we live in the world in which each of these pillars has come under assault – sometimes by totalitarian regimes and their dehumanising ideologies, and sometimes in the name of the ideals of modern liberal democracy, such as autonomy and rights.

In countless clinics across the world, foetuses are being routinely killed because women want to exercise autonomy over their bodies and parents want to exert their rights.

Take, for example, the routine abortion of foetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Iceland could boast that no babies with Down are born there. This is not due to the ‘genetic exceptionalism’ of Icelanders, but the policy of prenatal screening and abortion. It is reported that in the United States, 90 percent of babies diagnosed with Down are aborted because genetic counsellors having been pushing this option very hard.

Canada legalised euthanasia in June 2016. Since then, over 1,029 patients have been euthanized. The Canadian Paediatric Society reported that doctors and paediatricians are increasingly asked by parents to euthanize their disabled or dying children or infants. Pro-life doctors who refuse to be party to this are required by law to refer their patients to other doctors who would provide the service.

Abortion and euthanasia are just two of many examples of the assault on the human person that we witness in modern civilised society.

Marriage and family have also been subjected to severe battery in our time.

The growing acceptance and legalisation of same-sex marriage has radically redefined marriage and altered the structure of the family. In fact, such legislations have in effect resulted in the abolition of marriage.

Science and technology have also contributed to the assault on the family. One example is assisted reproductive technologies that ‘create’ a child with the genetic contribution from a third party – through the use of donor gametes.

 Attacks on the family are also not uncommon in the academy, especially in the West.

George explains: ‘The line here is that the family, at least as traditionally constituted and understood, is a patriarchal and exploitative institution that oppresses women and imposes on people forms of sexual restraint that are psychologically damaging and that inhibit free expression of personality’.

The assault on government and law is seen most acutely in the totalitarian governments in modern history. Within regimes like Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, all power is located in the particular leader or group that controls everything, from politics to culture. In such regimes, the only form of power is the political.

But the rule of law has come under assault even in democratic countries, not just in totalitarian ones. This happens when ideology is allowed to shape the law, and the rule of law is manipulated and bent according to the ideological whims of the powerful. When this occurs, the rule of law is nothing but the rule of politics.

Christians in different vocations – teachers, doctors, civil servants, politicians, policy-makers, lawyers, judges, etc – must strenuously resist and oppose the forces that would destroy the moral and social fabric of society.

They must do their best to promote the three pillars of a good society – respect for the human person, preservation of the family and a fair and effective system of government and law – and prevent society from coming into the grips of the new barbarism.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.