A New Social Covenant…requires virtuous individuals

The ‘New Social Covenant’ document produced by the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council (WEFGAC) was recently discussed in Stellenbosch. This event, which was co-hosted by WEFGAC and Stellenbosch University, is part of a series of global gatherings seen as reflective opportunities through which a new, global Social Covenant can be developed. The series of difficult challenges the world is currently facing is ascribed to a “broken social contract”. It is described as a “time of crisis”, largely due to a “loss of trust” among individuals and groups.

I will not be able to give a full account of the discussion and did only attend the two public sessions, namely ‘A New Social Covenant – a philosophical perspective’ and ‘A New Social Covenant’. My aim, as per usual, was to establish which questions or obstacles lie at the bottom of what was being discussed.

The ‘New Social Covenant’ document produced by the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council (WEFGAC) was recently discussed in Stellenbosch. This event, which was co-hosted by WEFGAC and Stellenbosch University, is part of a series of global gatherings seen as reflective opportunities through which a new, global Social Covenant can be developed. The series of difficult challenges the world is currently facing is ascribed to a “broken social contract”. It is described as a “time of crisis”, largely due to a “loss of trust” among individuals and groups.

                                                                                 Photo (l-r): Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, Derek Yach, Trevor Manuel, Jim Wallis, Bronwyn Nielsen (moderator)

I will not be able to give a full account of the discussion and did only attend the two public sessions, namely ‘A New Social Covenant – a philosophical perspective’ and ‘A New Social Covenant’. My aim, as per usual, was to establish which questions or obstacles lie at the bottom of what was being discussed.

The core values, and proposed application thereof, was the first section of the provided seminar booklet I noticed as a positive starting point to this ‘journey’ towards a new social covenant. It is acknowledged that previous attempts at a social contract/covenant (terms which were used interchangeably during the seminar) had a ‘too strong’, although necessary, emphasis on individual rights. Along with the dignity of the human person being central to such a covenant, the importance of a common good that transcends individual interests, and a concern not just for ourselves but also future generations, was highlighted. Jim Wallis referred to the selfie as the ‘symbol’ of modern individualism within a society which, as suggested by research, acts rather with instant and self-gratification than posterity in mind.

‘Covenant’, as explained by Tom Donaldson during the philosophical perspective session, differs from a contract in the sense that it is not merely transactional but has a moral dimension. The main areas of concern: the broken social contract, (economical) inequality, loss of trust, and the implementation of a working stakeholder economy. The first question then: which moral vision would inform the development of the new social covenant? Some speakers suggested a removal of metanarratives followed by the discovery of “shared values”. Do we then create a new metanarrative? Can any person or group continue to move forward intellectually apart from an existing metanarrative or is this a case of “you lay down your narrative and operate along mine”? Or was it simply another way of saying, “let’s listen to one another”?

Donaldson suggests many micro social covenants, as one grand covenant is too idealistic. His co-panellist, Gayatri Spivak, broke it down to the individual, stating that individuals will have to adopt these required values. Thought-leaders are given the responsibility to “rearrange desires”, such as the desire for social justice, and then only thinking and behaving in an ethical manner can, very importantly, become habits. Donaldson adds that formulated concepts such as laws can never influence behaviour; moral paradigms – what people believe is right – ultimately influence behaviour. Then again, which moral vision would thought-leaders employ to rearrange desires? Which guiding worldview best creates ethically thinking and behaving individuals? Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, in the second session, shared her concern about the destruction of societal values and suggested that mentoring, whether in a parent-child or other relationship, is the only way through which values are preserved.

This was the great, untouched question for me: how do we develop rational, self-governing, society-serving, ethically thinking and functioning, individuals?

Apart from the abovementioned summit, philosopher John Gray suggests that, “the unique status of humans is hard to defend, or even understand, when it is cut off from any idea of transcendence”. Considering an aim to develop covenants hinged on the concept of human dignity, requiring a moral responsibility towards ‘equal others’ in generations present and future, under a shared historical narrative; is this ideal fathomable apart from any reference to God? Especially, considering that the moral element typically associated with a covenant requires involvement from a higher moral agent. Nick Spencer believes that, in America, because Christianity was not part of the initial federal structure it could never end up being a coercive power such as it had been in Europe. Os Guinness, in addition, states that although Christianity, in the case of the United States, was not initially their officially established faith, it was welcomed because it was a faith that provided a “thick” notion of virtue.  Faith, he deducts, acts as the inspiration of virtue, the content which tells people what virtue actually is. In other words, although the “constitution excluded any mention of God” (Spencer), faith was allowed to act as the source from which individual virtue is cultivated.

WEFGAC’s vision invites engagement and collaboration from various stakeholders, including faith groups, and I would suggest voices from faith communities are indispensable in the development of social covenants which requires virtuous individuals in order to function.

 

 

Serv.

 

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About Servaas Hofmeyr

For life through Truth.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, Human Behaviour, Politics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

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