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The Moral Heart of Public Service

The Moral Heart of Public Service

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A sailing boat and her diligent crew, blown by the winds of public opinion and jostled by waves of national and global transitions, steer towards the compass point of ‘the good’. This is the picture Claire Foster–Gilbert, public ethicist, author and editor of The Moral Heart of Public Service, paints of the ‘dynamic and complex’ world of public service.

The Westminster Abbey Institute was founded in 2013, seeking to nurture relations within Parliament Square, to create a space for listening and an opportunity to reconsider moral assumptions about the work of those who serve the public. The Moral Heart of Public Service is comprised of essays and conversations from politicians, priests and public advisors, underlining the importance of an Institute such as this to explore the role of morality in public life.

Echoes of instability across our globe are heard throughout the book. 2016 was a year of shock election results and 2017 has offered a few surprises of its own. The world is ‘becoming systemically less stable’, according to William Hague in his contribution ‘Humanizing Hell’, and not only due to the weird and wonderful workings of democracy. As we embrace a more globalised and interconnected culture, we also embrace increasing vulnerability. Instability anywhere can affect people everywhere. And instability today can appear anywhere.

The moral heart responds with stability. This stability is noted particularly in light of the Rule of Benedict, which Rowan Williams, in his chapter ‘The Staying Power of Benedict in Parliament Square’, describes as ‘all about stability’. Stability is possible through the acknowledged permanence of the Other, through the understanding that there will always be that which is different to the self. With foundations in the diversity and intimate relationality of the Trinity, Vernon White suggests that stability seeks a long–term, communal commitment to wellbeing.

While many position themselves in the ‘i–world’ of selfish ambition, stability requires commitment and faithfulness to the Other. This commitment goes against consumerist tendencies and therefore requires creativity to remain faithful. Creative fidelity is White’s plea, an opportunity to reimagine commitment so that it flourishes, adapting to the changes and fluctuations of time and space. Coined originally by the Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel, creative fidelity is ‘serious, sustained’ and sometimes ‘sacrificial’ and yet able to respond to the ebbs and flows of humanity’s constant shakes and shifts.

In a similar vein, Professor Mary McAleese, former President of the Republic of Ireland, explains that the Peace Process in Ireland required self–reflection. Stepping away from critiquing towards understanding the Other makes a transition from antagonism to appreciation possible, if only the appreciation of the perspective and situation of the Other. Foster–Gilbert attributes such self–reflection to the Sermon on the Mount, encouraging the consideration of our own failings (plank) instead of the failings (speck of sawdust) of others. By standing in another’s shoes, be that the political opposition, the alternative religion, or the foreign nation, we recognise a different field of vision and recognition reveals the road towards reconciliation.   

Alongside the opening illustration of a ship navigating its way through the wind and waves in hope of reaching ‘the good’, another picture appears throughout this book. Loving one’s neighbour is a concept well acquainted with political rhetoric and its use highlights its ongoing relevance in public life. The second great commandment forms a foundational element of moral thought, the acknowledgement and active engagement with the Other, despite differences. This, in turn, reveals our interdependence, that the survival of the universe, Foster–Gilbert’s ‘three–dimensional spider’s web’, relies on the continual association and mutual reliance of delicate threads. Stability is formed through committed connections between people, through creative fidelity towards a fragile world.

In times of instability and uncertainty, a moral heart considers the Other, loves the neighbour (an increasingly global task) and commits to the community. Peter Hennessy describes public service as a profession worth getting out of bed for precisely because of this moral heart. Stability emerges from the pursuit of something worthwhile, something ‘more than the sum of its parts’, and public servants striving for ‘the good’ continue to provide stability in uncertain times.

Throughout the various contributions within The Moral Heart of Public Service the significance of morality in public service is affirmed and validated. Despite cynicism and fear about the implications of moral choices, this book holds up examples of ‘the good’ that the inclusion of morality can do within public service. From peace processes to sexual exploitation in warfare, moral values ground political decisions which affect the lives of ordinary people. ‘Public service’, in its very title, is defined by provision on a communal, national or international level. It is a commitment to give to, to love and to nurture the people. A term and a task that is moral to the core.

Stability is not automatically associated with life in the 21st century. Even our ‘strong and stable’ leadership has been questioned and criticised in recent months. We are aware of our fragility and vulnerability as tower blocks are consumed by flames and as ordinary tools are wielded for acts terror. In times of instability we look for something to direct us forwards, something to inspire us and our public servants out of bed in the morning, a foundation to ground society, a compass to navigate us through these turbulent waters. We look to morality, our moral hearts, to imagine, envisage and pursue a world moving towards ‘the good’. 

The Moral Heart of Public Service edited by Claire Foster–Gilbert is published by Jessice Kingsley Publishers


Imogen Ball is a Research Assistant at Theos @ImogenAdderley

Image by Arbiter Creative from Vimeo under this Creative Commons Licence

Imogen Ball

Imogen Ball

Imogen Ball is Research Assistant at Theos | @ImogenAdderley

Posted 26 June 2017

Ethics, Politics

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