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"Dear Lord,
May we always be mindful of your teaching: Love God & love your neighbour."

Conversations : 24 May : Liberty and equality's forgotten sibling

Conversations : 24 May : Liberty and equality's forgotten sibling

Liberty and equality's forgotten sibling

Many people become uncomfortable when conversation turns to social justice. That may reflect their experience of being buttonholed by unrelentingly serious people on the wrongs of the world and the need to change them. But their discomfort may also reflect a long history that goes back as far as the French Revolution with its slogan, 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity'. Social Justice Week offers an opportunity to tease out the connections implied by this slogan.

Of the three revolutionary aspirations, liberty has come to dominate our contemporary world, particularly in its form of negative liberty – freedom from oppression and from regulations that limit personal choice, especially economic choice. The desire for individual liberty is often opposed to the desire for equality, which usually advocates some constraints on liberty. Social justice has commonly been identified with the desire for equality. So when someone raises issues of social justice their hearers fear that their individual freedom will soon be crimped in the name of state control or of the redistribution of wealth. They naturally become uncomfortable.

Missing in this tension between equality and liberty is any serious consideration of fraternity. It is usually reduced to sentiment, a generous feeling that softens the hard edge of the pursuit of equality or liberty. But fraternity lies at the heart of social justice. It counteracts a one-sided attention to equality or liberty, and is expressed in the ordering of society.

Liberty, equality and fraternity all name values that are must be respected if human beings are to flourish.  Liberty protects the human desire to take responsibility for one’s life and to develop personal gifts. Equality recognises that each human being is of unique value and that no one is of more value than others. Both these values should be recognised and promoted in the regulations, practices and symbols that form the ordering of society. 

Fraternity names the inescapable interdependence of human beings. No one is self-sufficient. We depend on one another at each point of our lives for shelter, for what we eat, whether we are educated, the peace and security we enjoy, for our mobility and for a market in which we can buy and sell.

Fraternity dictates that each person must attend to how their own actions affect the welfare of others, and that society must encourage the development and welfare of each human being in a way that enables the growth of all. 

The test of fraternity is the care that a society has for the most disadvantaged. As with the values of liberty and equality, fraternity needs also to be built into the practices, regulations and symbols that shape society. It cannot be left to sentiment. That is particularly important in a culture like ours that makes individual liberty central. Without strong traditions and institutions that embody fraternity, it will inevitably breed unfairness.

It is easy to think of our society as selfish, competitive and preoccupied with individual economic gain. Those values are constantly commended in treatments of the economy that leave no room for fraternity. But most people see an unrestricted emphasis on economic freedom and on gain as psychopathic. They place a high value on fraternity, both in giving a high priority to their connections with other people and to decency in the treatment of the disadvantaged. They react strongly to what they perceive as institutionalised unfairness. 

The instinct for fraternity among Australians, and the lack of feel for it among politicians whose guiding value is liberty in economic matters, can be seen in the popular response to the Federal Budget. People were outraged less by the impact of the budget on themselves than on the effect measures such as the medical co-payment and the withdrawal of benefits from unemployed young people would have on the disadvantaged. These were seen as unfair, an affront to fraternity. The proposals to weaken legislation on racial discrimination had earlier also been widely rejected for their perceived breach of fraternity.

The way to a better society does not lie simply in defending either liberty or equality, still less in the victory of one of these values over the other. It lies in bringing together a passion both for liberty and for equality and holding them together with a personal and institutional commitment to fraternity.  

When social justice is associated with fraternity it brings challenge and encouragement for all of us and not simply for activists. 

By Andrew Hamiltonsj: reproduced courtesy of eurekastreet.com.au

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