Tuesday 25. January 2022
#222- January-February 2019

Ethics and society

Herman Van Rompuy, former president of the European Council offered the following reflections at a conference on “Rediscovering the european common good” in the Chapel for Europe on 8th of november 2018.


Different societies can live peacefully alongside and with each other but inside every society one needs a common base. Harmony is the result of this consensus on basic values. It is a long but necessary process. We are not there yet. But our unique civilisation need a permanent feed back by interpersonal values. No society can survive without respect for every human person and love. Public values are not lasting without private values.

Absolute unity in a society shouldn’t be an objective. It necessitates force or violence. We are different and we want to express it. A plural society around common values and institutions is more lasting than an artificial unity.


The time is over that Europe tries to impose its “civilisation” on other nations, outside its borders. It is the idea of a superior civilisation. Even inside Europe some countries proclaimed in the past that their race was superior. But “Make Europe great again” wouldn’t be a popular slogan in Europe today. Humanity and Europe paid a high price for this perverse idea. Reconversion and repentance started on the graves of tens of millions of innocent deaths. The Union was built on this tragic failure. In times of rising nationalism we have to recall this hard lesson of history. It can always repeat itself although never in the same way.


The need of strong communities


A society is composed of human beings. Often there is a difference between on the one hand the official proclamation of values and behaviours and daily life on the other hand. In today’s world, in Asia as well as in Europe, one cannot deny the rise of individualism and materialism. The consumption society is a reality. Money matters. Enjoying is a frequently used verb. This mentality can turn longstanding values upside down such as, solidarity, sense of the common good, long term thinking, social and family capital etc. The source of this growing individualism are the market economy with its competition model and to some extent the size of the modern State with the decrease of individual responsibility it entails.


The community is more than the sum of the individuals. The common good is more than the fulfilment of everyone’s desires. Society is different from community. The root of harmony is the respect for every person, incl. compassion for the weakest. Without respect you cannot expect people to be interested in the common good, in the common good life for all.


This is less naïve than some are thinking. After all, I believe that history is not condemned to make the same mistakes. Progress was possible the last decades in many respects. Less wars and less poverty. But we need also humane progress. The big challenge is to keep the acquit and to reinvigorate our societies in order to avoid fragmentation, isolation and polarisation. Only strong communities can work for the good. Conversation is key. It leads to moderation. The latter brings respect for each human being. Fanaticism forgets that we are brothers and sisters. The extremists don’t see in every individual a person, but a “part of the main”, even a possible enemy. Terrorism and extremism is not the monopoly of jihadism. Don’t forget the 3000 people killed in Northern Ireland by terrorists from home.


The European Common Good


The founding fathers of the United Nations had personalism in mind. The UN is not a form of world government. It is an intergovernmental body that tries to set up cooperation in a variety of domains and to avoid the worst. It depends on the good will of the nations and more in particular of the most important among them. If such a common endeavour for the common good, transcending national interests, isn’t present, the UN is powerless. It is the second time in human history that such an institution was created. In any case, the UN contributes to world stability via dialogue. The only alternative for dialogue is war, the opposite of every human value and the worst enemy of mankind.


Bridging differences on a global scale implies more than bringing the West and the East closer together. But it would be a major step. People-to-people contacts are the royal way to better understanding, especially among youngsters. The human face is the strongest enabler of respect and love. We learned that from E. Lévinas. Culture is manmade. Cultures change when people meet. This dialogue is crucial. But we have to work against common threats to our societies such as rising nationalism and individualism. An exclusive focus on material goods prevent people to establish stronger links among each other. More than ever christian personalism and humanism matter. Embodied by persons with authenticity and credibility. We need both. We really need those people.


Herman Van Rompuy

President Emeritus of the European Council


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Editors-in-Chief: Martin Maier SJ

Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.