Values and Principles I

by Elias Blum

Advices and Queries, from the Quaker tradition, reminds us to ‘Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national, and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand.’ In the Unitarian tradition in which so much of my intellectual formation took place, we have a covenantal commitment to ‘The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.’

For me, democracy – rightly ordered, constitutional democracy – is not only a demonstrably useful tool for peaceful and inclusive decision making, but is also something that flows from certain core principles. These principles may be secularised and operationalised through documents such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but they are rooted in concepts such as ‘the inherent dignity and worth of each human being’ that are ultimately theological in nature. The distortion and corruption of democracy, and the retreat from human rights which we see around us today, is therefore a problem with theological implications that demands a response that can be articulated in theological terms.

I’m not a theologian, I’m a scholar of constitutions. But if I’ve had any new insight into my work this year, it is this: we have, as a field or discipline of study, paid too much attention to mechanisms, and not enough to values. Mechanisms matter, but Harrington and Madison were wrong to think that the common good could be achieved by constitutional artifice alone, without paying attention to the character and values of both leaders and citizens. Even the best constitutional machine operates on a ‘garbage in, garbage out’ basis – if the citizens are ignorant, apathic and passive, the leaders will be venal, corrupt and arrogant. We need good constitutions, but we also need good citizens and good leaders.

That means, I think, reconsecrating civic and public life, and trying to emphasize that citizenship and civic leadership are vocations with important ethical obligations attached to them. Civic life is no place for the Hobbesian ‘rational egoist’ or the ‘utility maximizer’ of economic theory. Rather, it cries out for people of virtue, people who can provide ethical leadership, people of self-sacrifice who have a strong ethos of public service and public duty. If we want democracy to flourish, we need a renewal of public spirit.