Beyond Belief—The Social Responsibility Dimension

Address to the Sea of Faith Conference,
Havelock North, 6-8 October 2000

by Ruth Smithies, former Director of the Office for Justice, Peace and Development, Catholic Archdiocese of Wellington, New Zealand.

Why be socially responsible?

There is a story about a rabbi who sees two of his students looking out of a window during his lesson. "What were you looking at?" he asks one of them. "A bird flying up in the sky." "And what did you think about that bird?". "Of a soul ascending towards its Creator." "Leave my class," says the rabbi, "you are too spiritual to be religious." The rabbi then points to the other student: "and what were you thinking about as you saw that bird?" "I was thinking of who would have the ownership of the corpse, if that bird dropped dead on the hedge which separates those two farms." "Thank God," says the rabbi, "there is someone here who understands what religion is really about."

In the Judeo-Christian tradition the test of true spirituality or religion is not whether we feel we have a relationship with God or not. It is whether we keep God's commandments . True spirituality is not just about 'God and me'—though it is that too, otherwise we would end up turning the Jewish and Christian faith into a philosophy, an ideology, and a moral code.

My spirituality would soon degenerate into mere private therapy, an 'opium of the people' if I made it a privatized matter, cut off from my daily living and interactions with others. It is beyond belief; it moves beyond what I study and hold true. Action not words, walking the talk, or—as Bonnie Robinson's workshop has it—praying with our feet. Of course this is not a new insight: The writer of the letter of St John made it quite clear that we cannot say we love God (whom we cannot see) if we do not love our fellow human beings who are right next to, in front of and behind us. St James was even blunter: when he wrote: Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead .

Arising out of the theme of this conference—Beyond Belief—we can ask: What are the consequences for daily life of the beliefs held by members of the Sea of Faith, by practicing Catholics, by adherents of other religions, and by the non-religious?

In particular, what does it mean to say that all citizens should, as members of the community, have a sense of social responsibility? Can people of quite different beliefs agree on a Code of Social Responsibility or even on new legislation—a Social Responsibility Act? Can the majority of businesses agree on a complementary Code of Business Responsibility?

I will talk to you not as a neutral analyst but as a follower of The Way and as someone who is part of a confessing, worshipping, Catholic community. As a Catholic and social activist I can give answers to those questions, based upon my beliefs. I am aware that many of the principles I hold are shared by others who draw their beliefs from sources different to mine.

Responsibility makes sense if we understand that we are relational beings, not independent but interdependent. To use traditional Christian language: God has created us in his image. That means not only as rational and free beings, but also as relational ones. The Christian dogma of the Trinity is an attempt to state that the fundamental essence of God is relatedness. We are interdependent, not because we like it better that way (often we do not and would rather be left alone) nor because that way we function better. We are interdependent because that is how we were created.

Not all would agree that our nature is essentially relational. Those who hold that the individual is independent, autonomous and free from others, will see social responsibility (that is, living in solidarity with others) as an option rather than an obligation. The influential economist von Hayek held that: the essential basis of the development of modern civilization is to allow people to pursue their own ends on the basis of their own knowledge and not be bound by the aims of others . To me this way of thinking negates the truth that each of us was born into a family, into a community, and into the single human race. These are not associations of individuals which we choose to join. We are irrevocably bound to them through birth—bound but not determined.

Both Judaism and Christianity hold that there is a conscious self, determined by our choices. We are free human beings who are free to make choices—indeed, it is our responsibility to do so. Yet the pursuit of freedom of choice is not an end in itself. What matters is what we do with freedom. Some choices enslave us; other choices liberate; they are life-giving when they are consonant with who we really are: relational beings. Freedom to the fullest extent is not having many options from which to select, but rather about acting responsibly and wisely. In the latest Harry Potter book the wise, old professor Dumbledore, headmaster of his school, tells Harry: It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities. True freedom is not being free from others, but being free for others.

Individual responsibility and social responsibility

What is it to act responsibly, both as an individual and as a group? What is it to act irresponsibly? When I was preparing this talk the main debate in the public arena was on child abuse and its occurrence in Maori families. The Associate Minister of Maori Affairs, Tariana Turia, challenged psychologists at their annual conference to consider the effects of the trauma of colonization when dealing with problems in Maoridom. She came across, at least in the way she was reported, as making excuses for Maori. As a result there were many Letters to the Editor and a number of cartoons. I have no doubt that Maori poverty in all its forms has historical roots. White settlers took over their lands, their institutions and legal rules thus forcing Maori to become a disenfranchised and marginalised group. Yet blaming others, in the present or past, for one's own actions is not valid. It is also not healthy. As Bruno Bettelheim, a concentration camp survivor wrote: If an adult denies responsibility for his own actions, it is another step towards personality disintegration .

Catholic teaching holds that individuals are not the only ones who have responsibilities. Organizations or structures have them too. Structures and organizations can and do develop a life, a culture, a morality of their own, which—while introduced by individuals—has consolidated and is subsequently difficult to change or remove by individuals. Catholics talk therefore not only of personal sin but also acknowledge the existence of structural or social sin.

Is there a difference between individual and social responsibility? After all, people understand social responsibility to mean different things . For example, my 23 year old daughter said it refers to "the way I have a job, pay my taxes, obey the road rules (more or less), do not steal and so on." It seems to me she was talking only about my responsibility to society and ignored my responsibility for society, for how it is shaped, its policies and rules. In the last few years there have been some interesting developments in exploring not only what social responsibility for individuals would entail, but also what social responsibility for business and government could mean. I am referring to three initiatives in particular: the draft Code of Social and Family Responsibility, the advocacy for the introduction of a Social Responsibility Act, and the launch of the Businesses for Social Responsibility. I would now like to deal with each one of these in more detail.

The draft Code of Social and Family Responsibility

All individuals have responsibility, but not all of it is in the private or family realm. Yet it was on the responsibilities in those areas that the National Government focussed in their 1998 Towards a Code of Social and Family Responsibility. The draft Code spelled out eleven expectations of responsible behavior in the private realm, to oneself and one's children. It generated the biggest discussion of its type initiated in this country and had no parallels internationally either. What were those expectations and did they advance our understanding of what our private and family responsibilities are? Seven expectations described responsibilities of parents and four were general. Their full text is appended to my paper . To give you a sense of their flavor, the first and the last one were:
1 Parents should love, care for, support and protect their children.
11 People will do all they can to keep themselves physically and mentally healthy.

To understand the controversy that the draft Code generated, it is important to realize that the Code had its genesis in worries about increased budget spending . The June 1997 budget speech expressed concern that welfare dependency remained too high. It gave notice of the Government's intent to provide beneficiaries with a plan that details what the Government expects of them in exchange of the help they receive from taxpayers.

The draft Code was sent with a questionnaire to 1.3 million households in February 1998. There was immediately controversy over the proposal for a Code. Critics denounced it as individualistic, hypocritical and unfairly targeting people on benefits. They pointed out that much of the so-called dependency that the government was railing against had been caused by their policies. In the face of fierce criticism the Government was at pains to explain that, admittedly, it would not be a statistically valid survey (a point made by the New Zealand Statistical Association), and that it had no intention of targeting beneficiaries (a shift in their position from the Budget statement) but that it would raise a debate on important social issues. By the closing date in May 94,303 responses had been received. Roger Sowry, the Minister of Social Services, Work and Income declared the exercise a success because it had promoted vigorous debate within the community. The vigorous debate Sowry refers to was not so much on the eleven expectations or values in the Code. Ian Hassall, a former Commissioner for Children, reminded the Government that New Zealand—as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child—had already given explicit approval to most of the expectations that were up for debate in the Code.

Sometimes the verse from St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians: if anyone is unwilling to work, neither shall he eat, is quoted to show that attempts to reinforce reciprocity are nothing new. It is an example of lifting a Bible verse out of its historical context. As the rest of the Paul's letter makes clear, some members of the community in Thessalonica regarded the parousia (the second coming of Christ) as imminent and had therefore ceased to work for a living. This was a distortion of Paul's teaching. Their behavior was causing disciplinary and doctrinal problems. Paul therefore tells the community to shun anyone who conducts himself in such a disorderly way.

Not surprisingly, when all was over the Government tried to justify the $1,5 million initiative. It declared that it had been a useful brainstorming exercise with the purpose of soliciting new ideas on how to support social and family responsibilities. As for the draft Code, it was quietly buried without lament. As I will discuss later, I believe that generating debate on values is healthy for a society. But the expectations as spelled out by the Government required little debate—they were rather uncontroversial. The exercise was also a failure, I believe, because many rejected the Code's original purpose, which was to arrive at a form of contract between a welfare recipient and the State. The draft Code of Social Responsibility was highly selective even if we would accept it is limited to personal responsibility in the private and family realm. For example, it was silent over what social responsibility we have as consumers and the impact of our consumption patterns on others and on our environment.

Consumers' International, the umbrella organization of all consumer groups world-wide, issued at the threshold of the new millennium a Declaration of Social Responsibility for Consumers. The Declaration makes it clear that it is not concerned only with value for money. It places the rights and choices of individual consumers in the context of social and economic justice for all. It holds that consumers should take responsibility for establishing policies that help promote patterns of consumption that are sustainable and ethical .. Our social responsibility as consumers extends to the choices we make in buying from, or investing in, companies whose social and environmental behavior we support.

The social responsibility of business

The draft Code for Social and Family Responsibility came out in February 1998. In that same year the organization Businesses for Social Responsibility was established.

Dick Hubbard, the cereal manufacturer in Auckland, had been a champion, all through the 1990s, for businesses to understand and accept their social responsibility. In August 1998 he launched his Businesses for Social Responsibility. It currently has more than 200 businesses, both small and large, throughout New Zealand as its members. Some years ago I had the pleasure of talking with Hubbard. He explained that social responsibility means that businesses recognize that they are a moral entity with a soul, not simply a legal entity; that not only shareholders' but also stakeholders's interests and perspectives are taken into account- the workers, the suppliers, the customers, the community in which the business operates, and even the physical environment. Businesses do not exist exclusively to make a profit but to serve society and ought to look at the social consequences of their actions.

The Businesses for Social Responsibility is a result of a new understanding of what business ethics is about. Business ethics today, as a quick search on the World Wide Web will tell you, goes beyond ethical behavior of individuals. It looks at the morality of the organizational policy and culture of the business. It even scrutinizes the systemic values that define capitalism itself. It holds that not only should people in business act morally, but that businesses as such have a social responsibility.

One of the reasons for this development in business ethics is the emergence of an anti-mechanical, post-modern world view. People have started to question the portrayal that markets operate according to natural laws which are like nature's law immutable. People have started to question that corporations are mechanical models made up of tools, materials and capital which have no choice but to follow the market laws. Remember the 1980s with its 'there is no alternative'? The TINA school was a genuine bid to alter both the distribution of economic power and the perception in public culture of market institutions. The goal was not only to deregulate markets, but to convince the public that markets were in their very nature beyond political control. In the 1990s a more aware and wary citizenry has realized that economic theory is not a natural science like mathematics. It has realized that the assumptions of perfect competition and perfect knowledge on which the so-called laws of the market are based, are unsustainable theories.

The view has become mainstream that markets are cultural and political institutions that depend for their success on harnessing forces of trust and solidarity as well as competition. An organization of particular interest to me is the Institute of Business Ethics in the United Kingdom. It was established in 1986 and its patrons are the leaders of all the main Churches, and of the Jewish and Muslim congregations. It commissions research and surveys, organizes forums and conferences, initiates consultations on business ethics and brings out publications. It interests me because it shows that members of different religions can agree on the consequences of their beliefs in daily life.

A Social Responsibility Act

The draft Code of Social and Family Responsibility did not deal with the social responsibility of government itself. What responsibilities does the Government have? What do New Zealanders think it has? For example, is it the responsibility of government to even consider introducing what amounted to a moral code? As mentioned, there was heated debate over the Code proposed. Others though felt that governments should not even engender such debates. A number of leading philosophers (for example, R. Dworkin, R. Nozick and J. Rawls) have argued that the state's role is that of umpire to ensure that its citizens play by the rules of the game. They hold that the state should protect the rights and liberties of citizens rather than seek to encourage, let alone impose, any specific conception of the morally good. They make a distinction between what is 'right' and what is 'good', that is between principles of justice and right conduct on the one hand and conceptions of the good life on the other.

Other philosophers argue that it is more reasonable to hold that the right and the good are logically connected. Already the claim that all citizens are worthy of equal respect is to make a moral judgement. The question then is how we can reach consensus on ethical viewpoints in pluralistic societies such as ours. Traditional sources of moral teaching have lost much of their public standing. No generally accepted alternative sources of guidance have as yet emerged.

Some believe that this apparent ethical vacuum is of no concern. But a well-ordered, peaceful and stable society needs a shared moral understanding or at least a sufficient degree of common ground about the basic values that should guide human behavior. In this respect it can be argued that the state has a vital role to play in fostering public morality. This being the case, there was in my view nothing inappropriate in the Code's concept if indeed it was genuinely aiming to generate public debate.

The debate, as mentioned earlier, was not meant to cover what the responsibility of government itself would be. Many of the responses however described just that. Would it be possible for New Zealanders to agree on what social responsibility for government would entail? Would their views change over time?

For more than a decade the New Zealand Study of Values has been monitoring political and economic values, as well as spiritual and ethical ones held by New Zealanders . In its 1998 survey over 1200 people answered more than 300 questions. One of the questions was: What should be the responsibility of government? The vast majority of the public responded "yes" that government should:

  • provide a decent standard of living for the old (95%)
  • force industry to do less damage to the environment (94%)
  • provide industry with the help it needs to grow (91%)
  • provide decent housing for those who cannot afford it (87%)
  • keep prices under control (87%)
  • provide a job for everyone who wants one (71%);
  • reduce income differences between the rich and the poor (60%).

Brian Easton compared the survey results with the figures of ten years before; he concluded that the neo-liberals have largely failed to capture the hearts and minds of New Zealanders.

How could we ensure that governments would act socially responsibly—irrespective of which Government is in power? In the second half of the 1990's community groups and Church social justice workers lobbied for the introduction of a Social Responsibility Act. The model for such legislation would be the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1994. The Fiscal Responsibility Act was introduced to improve the conduct of fiscal policy. It does this by specifying principles of responsible fiscal management and by strengthening the reporting requirements of the Crown. Its counterpart would be a Social Responsibility Act. The Act would require governments to produce regular social policy statements, identify their social objectives and strategies and monitor their performance. The principles and criteria should have at least as much meaning, content and specificity as those in the Fiscal Responsibility Act for fiscal management. Some work was done before the 1996 general elections as part of the United Party's coalition deal with National. Nothing came of it.

One of the main advocates of a Social Responsibility Act is Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy at Victoria University. He offers two possible sets of principles .. The second set gives seven principles together with their measurable consequences. The full list is appended to the printed version of my talk . The first two of the seven, which are also the shortest, read:

  1. Respect human life and dignity—so that all citizens are able to satisfy their basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, education and health care.
  2. Enhance equity—so that poverty is eradicated and the least advantaged and most vulnerable citizens are adequately protected and have reasonable equality of access to the resources of society.

While the principles may sound vague, the describing of measurable consequences for each of them gives them specificity. They describe the social responsibilities of government as clearly as the Fiscal Responsibility Act describes the government's fiscal responsibilities. Community and Church social justice advocates still hope that this or a future Government will consider introducing a Social Responsibility Act.

Social responsibility for society

Government is not of course the only structure with social responsibilities. Society is a complex organism made up of a variety of intermediary groups. In Catholic social teaching the human person, operating in family and other social groupings, is prior to the State. The relations between these intermediate groups and the State is governed by two key principles. The first principle is that of subsidiarity where the State enables intermediate groups to get on with what they are doing in contributing to the common good. The second principle is that of solidarity where the State acts directly on its own responsibility for the common good.

The principle of subsidiarity ("an entity of a higher order should not take over what an entity of a lower order can do for itself") ensures that the family and intermediate groups do not end up being absorbed by the State. The word subsidiarity comes from the Latin subsidium. They were the troops held in reserve but used when needed in the battle. The principle holds that the State supplements, helps out when lesser and subordinate groups are unable to solve problems that undermine the common good. When doing so, it still operates within the principle of subsidiarity because it does not attempt to take over what intermediate groups can do.

As mentioned earlier, the draft Code of Social Responsibility was narrow in describing individual and family responsibility. It also ignored the social responsibility of voluntary organizations and institutions. The reality is that individuals do not act exclusively in their private capacity. As social beings they develop a network of intermediate structures that help bind society together.

There are people who would like to limit social responsibility to personal involvement in private organisations. Some go so far as to suggest that the government should get out of welfare and leave poor people to private charities. If we left it to communities and individuals to take over welfare we would, in effect, largely abandon poor people. Charity can alleviate poverty. It cannot eliminate it. Voluntary groups do not have the capacity or resources to eradicate poverty, nor can they deal with many of its causes. Private charities as a way of dealing with poverty was tried during Victorian England—resulting in the development of institutions like workhouses. It was the failure of private charity to deal with the widespread urban poverty that led to the development of social welfare systems.

As another aside, a quotation from the Bible, the poor you will always have with you, is sometimes used as an excuse for inaction. Again, it needs to be read in the context of the story and the time. Jesus' comment: you always have the poor with you but you do not always have me, reflects the rabbinical discussion in his time of what was the greatest act of mercy: almsgiving or burying the dead. Those who favored proper burial of the dead thought it an essential condition for sharing in the resurrection. Jesus and his disciples believed in a resurrection. Jesus knows he is going to die and wants his disciples to understand this. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 15, 11 which says: There will always be some Israelites who are poor and in need, so I command you to be generous to them. The quotation is a call to be generous, not an excuse for inaction.

Some argue that we only act freely as individuals and that the moment we act collectively, as citizens through a government, this is no longer our free choice, and therefore it is no longer a moral act. The argument assumes that our economic, social and political structures are not of our making—as if they are predetermined or inevitable. Democratic government is not an institution that is external to personal responsibility. As citizens we elect the government to make corporate decisions on our behalf. One of the requirements of social responsibility is that we bother to vote and make sure that we vote on an informed basis.

In the lead-up to the 1993 general election, the leaders of the ten main Churches brought out a Social Justice Statement to promote that form of social responsibility . They urged their members to become informed on current issues, assess candidates' positions, join with others in asserting moral values and to vote in good conscience. Our ten churches, they wrote, have combined in this election year to reflect deep concern for one of the values taught in the Scriptures: social justice. They then explained five principles that lie behind concern for social justice. They applied the principles to various aspects of economic and social life. The Statement did not give fully worked out policies though it did draw out 20 policy implications and gave eight specific recommendations. It had enough specificity to be heavily attacked by Members of Parliament and business leaders. The Statement did not only expect socially responsible action by government. It linked personal with social responsibility in its very first section when it asked its readers: Do you experience New Zealand society as a fair one and does your way of life contribute to the development of a just society? Good question. Do you? How fair do you think our society is? In the United Kingdom of Margaret Thatcher the expression "thirty, thirty, forty society" was coined—
a society composed of thirty percent of disadvantaged, thirty percent of chronically insecure, and forty percent of privileged people . We have seen a similar pattern emerge in New Zealand. A recently published atlas, Degree of Deprivation in New Zealand, puts poverty on the map . Rather than hills, roads and rivers, the atlas shows the poorest areas in dark red and the richest in dark green— with eight paler shades of poverty or affluence in between.

The top ten percent of households are much better off now than ten years ago, the next twenty percent are just holding their own, and the "bottom" seventy percent are worse off. Half of all children live in the poorest households. Although unemployment figures are currently low by New Zealand standards, an increased number of jobs is part-time, casual, low-paid. Last year Statistics New Zealand wrote that: despite improved labour market conditions between 1991 - 1996, the increased inequality in the distribution of personal market income did not change correspondingly. Many studies have documented the changes over the last 15 years, all telling the same story. At long last, in June this year a Treasury-commissioned report takes seriously that New Zealand has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the OECD and the author of the report states that the overall picture should be a concern for policy makers . Throughout the 1990s I was involved with others in bringing report after report to the attention of politicians, policy-makers, and the public. The reports documented the extent of what was termed the 'social deficit'. Following the 1993 attempt by the mainstream Churches to promote social justice, they issued with the help of the New Zealand Christian Council of Social Services the Open Letter on Poverty in 1996—another election year . It was signed by 150 prominent Christians. Again, not much changed and the social deficit kept mounting. In 1998 many had had enough and decided to "walk for change" in a Hikoi of Hope. Initiated by the Anglican Church, but supported by the other Churches and community groups, the Hikoi was even more specific in the changes it sought to bring about. Chris Trotter describes it as 'the last gasp of the Christian Left'.. I disagree. Christianity is neither Left nor Right. Those who walked in the Hikoi of Hope—and not all of them were Christians—were moving beyond belief. They acted on their belief that as human beings we are interdependent. Conclusion In conclusion let me first summarize the points I have made:

  1. true spirituality leads to action
  2. as relational beings we have a social responsibility
  3. we remain personally responsible for what we do
  4. over the last few years three quite different initiatives in New Zealand have explored what social responsibility would mean: the draft Code of Social and Family Responsibility, the Businesses for Social Responsibility, and a Social Responsibility Act.
  5. social responsibility has many dimensions, including being a socially responsible consumer and investor
  6. we need to take collective responsibility for New Zealand's 'social deficit'
  7. Churches have drawn attention to the social deficit through the Social Justice Statement, the Open Letter on Poverty and the Hikoi of Hope. They have called on people to take their social responsibility seriously.
Let me conclude. For over ten years I have been involved in work for social justice. I was a member of the Commission for Justice, Peace and Development of the Catholic Archdiocese of Wellington. Other Catholic dioceses in New Zealand have similar commissions; so have other mainstream Churches. The purpose of these commissions is to put our belief in a just and merciful God in practice and to speak out. This morning I am standing at the Sea of Faith. I have told you how I put my beliefs into practice: I invite you to do the same.