Tag Archives: welfare

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.

What’s Wrong with Human Rights

One of the great achievements of the previous century is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Declaration was composed soon after the end of the Second World War when experiences of the horrific carnage are still fresh in the collective memories of its crafters.

Translated into at least 375 languages and dialects, the UDHR is established on the philosophical premise that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). It emphasises that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2). As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties accepting the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR because they enjoy broad scriptural warrant and endorsement.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the language of rights alone is not sufficient to encourage civility in modern society. The right to freedom of expression is a case in point. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

That the insistence on such rights alone is unable to foster social cohesion and ensure civility in our multicultural societies is brought to our attention by the furore over the publication in 2006 of the notorious cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Amidst protests and criticisms by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the paper staunchly defends his decision with this terse statement: ‘We do not apologise for printing the cartoons. It was our right to do so’.

A very different and more recent incident brings to the fore the same problem concerning the inadequacies of the exclusive use of the language of rights in society. It concerns the proposal to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. Critics of the project argue that building an Islamic Centre just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, the site of the 9/11 attacks is a blatant insult to the victims of the terror attacks that were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama defended the project by appealing to the rights of Muslims to practise their religion: ‘But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.’ Obama’s statement is supported by Article 18 of the UDHR that deals with the question of religious freedom.

Both these examples illustrate the fact that rights alone are insufficient for civilising societies. This is especially true in modern liberal societies where the language of rights is often embedded in a cultural ethos shaped by secularism and individualism. If human rights are to be properly understood, other values must also be brought into the picture. Put differently, human rights discourse must be located within a broader and more robust ethical matrix. It is my view that an account of human rights must be anchored by an ethics of obligation. Any human right, it must be pointed out, has as its counterpart some obligation. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the history of moral philosophy, theories of obligations antedate theories of rights.

It is therefore useful to think of the priority of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil has put it so perceptively in her book, The Need for Roots: ‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinated and relative to the former.’  It is perhaps beneficial for society to provide a counter-balance to its excessive appeal to the language and rhetoric of human rights by giving more attention to moral obligations.

Moral obligation is in fact stressed in Article 10 of the UDHR which states that the exercise of freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities. The sense of moral obligation introduces sanity to the modern emphasis on rights. In the case of the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the emphasis on moral obligation would mean that the rights of free speech and expression must be limited and constrained by other important considerations, not least the obligation to respect other rights and the rights of others. The sense of moral obligation would keep the emphasis on the freedom of speech sane and civil by insisting that freedom does not confer an unconditional licence to intimidate, insult or incite hatred.

The ethics of obligation also brings with it an important corrective to the stark individualism that frames modern human rights discourse. The concept of obligation implies relationality and community – the relationship between the ‘obligation bearers’ and their ‘beneficiaries’, so to speak. And it is precisely on this critical issue that Obama’s White House speech disappoints.

Although Obama did allude to the sensitive nature of the proposed Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, the emphasis of his speech was mainly on the rights of Muslims. Even when he made a swift but clumsy about-turn later (which his office roundly denies) due to mounting criticisms of his endorsement of the project, his emphasis is still misplaced: ‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.’  The weight is still placed on rights when it should be placed on moral obligations.

The Christian ethic of love requires that concern for one’s moral obligations towards others (i.e., their interests and the rights) be given priority over one’s own interests and rights. It is on the basis of the Christian ethic of love that we should understand Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: ‘Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil 2:4). For it is only in serving one another in this way that the interests, rights and welfare of everyone are taken seriously and respected.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Trumpet (TTC).