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House of Studies

4. Basic consensus on a sustainable society

(126) The ethical perspectives developed in the preceding section on the basis of the biblical message and Christian faith are the basis for the churches' contribution to the development of a social and political order that is humane, free, just and based on solidarity. These perspectives and criteria are not postulates remote from reality but the expression of a long-term common sense that is undeterred by supposed constraints or short-term interests. They can also be accepted by non-Christians in a European culture shaped by Christianity and so contribute to regaining the basic ethical consensus on which politics, business and society depend. This is currently under threat and needs to be rediscovered under changed social conditions. Only such a consensus will allow citizens to agree on the most important prospects of a sustainable society, and reveal ways of coping with pressing economic and social problems.

(127) A basic consensus does not mean harmony - it means an adequate amount of agreement despite residual conflicts. The more complex the social circumstances, the broader the field of open issues, where opinions clash and and are ultimately left up to the majority to decide, or the supreme court. On many questions there is no real consensus in the population; there is just an acceptance of compromises. It is becoming all the more important, however, to reach agreement on certain fundamental elements of the social order, as a basis for developing procedures to balance differing convictions and assessments and enable decisions to be taken which all concerned can live with.

(128) While earlier forms of society were well defined and made up of small, manageable units, modern societies are characterised by the complex interplay of a host of institutional orders of differing scope, which bring forth different actions and make differing demands on the actors. It is not enough here to subject people's actions to ethical appraisal. We also have to consider rules and conditions under which individual action takes place and has certain effects. The extent to which the dignity of all people is respected, social inequalities exist and natural life-support systems are preserved or over-used is not just a question of individual good will. The crucial point is the legal, economic and social conditions in which people live; that is what we should focus on when reflecting on the foundations of a sustainable society.

(129) Modern ideas on human coexistence have opened up the possibility of people with different beliefs, intentions and needs living together peacefully in freedom and tolerance. These ideas underlie the visions of an open, pluralist society, of a constitutional democracy and welfare state, and of a Social Market Economy founded on freedom, competition and social responsibility. They have long characterised western society, and are gaining increasing acceptance worldwide. However historically effective these ideas have been, their realisation still depends on ethical premises which they cannot guarantee themselves. Democracy cannot thrive without moral consensus on universal human rights and recognition of the legal order; the market economy is just as dependent on the reliability and integrity of economic players as on the education of children and young people which should not be based on economic categories. In addition, free individuals do not just need political rights and economic goods - above all they need opportunities to run their own lives in a meaningful way. They must be able to give and receive acts of humanity and to enjoy recognition of their personal qualities. Economic thinking tends to restrict human life to economic dimensions, neglecting its cultural and social sides. By contrast, the social ethical traditions of the churches stress the whole context - the mixed bag of human hopes and all the variety of human rights and privileges.


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