An Education in a Shared Ethic

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An Education in a Shared Ethic

© Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen  (2013)
Pp. 26

Compiled by Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen on behalf of a reference group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars. Comes together with a DVD in which the project is discussed by Jewish, Christian and Muslim communal leaders. What follows below is the text of this booklet (which can purchased in print with the DVD).


The research for, and writing of, this manual of shared values of Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been supported primarily by funding from the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department under its Building Community Resilience Grants Program. At the same time, it has received major funding from Mr John Gandel AO of Gandel Philanthropy and further assistance from Campion College, Sydney in preliminary stages of its preparation. Their support facilitated the conduct and processing of seminars, in which much of the material of this manual was tested for resonance amongst the different faiths.

Whilst many colleagues of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths have been involved in this project, the primary reference group has consisted of Professor Ismail Albayrak (Fethullah Gülen Chair in the Study of Islam and Muslim-Catholic Relations, Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue, Australian Catholic University), myself Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen (Director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization, and Senior Adjunct Research Associate in the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilization, Monash University) and Professor Tracey Rowland (Dean, John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family). I am grateful to Mr Pat Byrne for some corrections to the booklet and thanks are also due to him and to Imam Riad Galil OAM for further practical assistance with the project. Gratitude is due to all others who helped with the project.

For further information and copies of this booklet, please contact Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen at


Executive summary 

The project undertaken in this report is an outline manual of the values shared by traditional Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is the product of much research and consultation, and was finally authorized by a committee of three religious and academic scholars in each of these faiths. Without any doubt, when members of these major faiths see that they share fundamental values, deriving from a common monotheistic source, this builds their sense of unity and solidarity. For this reason – to help build a resiliently cohesive society – it is intended to disseminate this manual amongst the members of these faith groups.

At the same time this report has significance for the education of Australians to good citizenship. A former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard has stated in discussion of the National Curriculum – and this has been echoed by another Prime Minister, Julia Gillard -  that this society was built on a “Judeo-Christian ethic”. Indeed this is a major strand of the Abrahamic faith, with which Islam has major affinities, as set out in this report. The significance of invoking a common faith background for shared values – for those who feel it is relevant to them – is that beliefs actually motivate ethical conduct and internalize values more than rewards and punishments. If our goal is, for example, to get a young person, a future citizen, to purchase a ticket for a train, bus or tram, even though the inspector is not present, appealing to the ethical principle “You shall not steal” as rooted in these faiths is a good way to proceed.

Though “pure” secularists – individuals without religious belief or affiliation – are a minority in our society, an exclusive secularism, which has nothing to do with the separation of religion and state, has captured areas of educational thinking. A genuine educational pluralism will not relativise and so effectively suspend religious beliefs. Rather it will restore (at least to those who want it) representation of the values of the majority of Australians with a faith background, and grant them equal legitimacy within the public square. These values, with their shared Abrahamic faith background, have strong resonance both with “human spirit” – or “soul” or human conscience, as it is variously called – and are also part of the historical social fabric and institutions of our society.

The shared values, which are discussed at greater length in the third section of this booklet and are affirmed by the three Abrahamic faiths, are

(1) the belief in one Creator, Whose providence is sensed in history and Who has provided humanity with a basic moral compass

(2) a respect – for the Creator and religious tradition – which motivates good and integral ethical conduct

(3) an ethic of fidelity to the normative committed sexual union of man and woman, the core of the family, with a guardedness against an over-sexualized culture

(4) an objective system of justice, which combines an expectation of individual social responsibility with fairness in judgment and punishment or correction appropriate to, and effective for, the needs of social cohesion

(5) a prohibition on killing, which has a full sense of the value of life, including that of the terminally ill and opposes abortion on demand

(6) respect for property and persons, which not only prohibits theft and other kinds of material harm, but also encourages positive regard for the property of others (such as duty of care and restoration of lost property) and (7) an ethical relationship to nature, which whilst recognizing human sovereignty over nature, combines this with a requirement to avoid gratuitous pain to animals and needless destruction of natural resources.

Those wishing to bypass the more abstract preliminary discussion of this booklet should proceed directly to the third section on p.19.

An education in a shared ethic

Common values of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

It was in the interests of social harmony and community resilience, that this project to outline and emphasize the shared values or ethic of Judaism, Christianity and Islam received initial support. This manual begins by explaining the value of a believed shared ethic for citizenship in terms of motivating good individual conduct and creating unity around common aspirations and values. It refers secondly to the sources of this ethic, both in the human spirit and in social, historical tradition. Finally it documents the substance of this ethic, as affirmed by the Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

1. Citizenship and a shared ethic

Belief and the motivation of social conduct

What is the role and significance for citizenship of belief in a particular ethic? This can be answered where citizenship begins: in the education of children. The education of children involves imparting skills, but equally or perhaps even importantly it has the goal of producing an individually conscientious good person and good citizen. In terms of the latter goal, the practical question could be asked, How do we educate a child not to steal? The use of a service without payment is theft. How then do we educate a child to pay a train or bus fare with an “honour system”, where it is up to the passenger to purchase his or own ticket – when no conductor or inspector is on board? This is the challenge of providing an education which internalizes values in children and positively motivates good citizenship? The question has been addressed by Emeritus Professor Brian Hill, who was consultant to a Federal Australian Government on values education in schools. His argument is that beliefs and meaning frameworks, rather than the application of some kind of free and critical reason, are the primary source and motivators of desired conduct. At a seminar, he stated:

A school might choose to teach “honesty” for a week and then “resilience” for a week. It may be helping the student to understand what the term means and maybe even to say “That’s a good thing, I like that”. [Yet, t]he question – “So what?” – is still hanging in your actual living, in the way you behave. It doesn’t seem to translate to the playground. Values are not just understandings – they are priorities – which are determined not only by our reason… It seems to me that a lot of talk about values education falls short of recognizing that it must be nested within the project of helping students to understand how people live by frameworks of meaning or life worlds or religious viewpoints. In fact one of the things that seems to be necessary to say is that many who say that they have no religion actually have a religion called “no religion”, that they are in denial of the investigation of spirituality that other people hold so valuable. So for this reason I wholeheartedly support…the necessity of seeing that values do not just hang loose in space but come to us from wider views of what life is about as human beings[1].

The level of internalization and self-motivation to ethical conduct in students can also be measured by its converse – the extent to which students see their behavior as dependent solely on rewards and punishments. Professor Ramon Lewis, a consultant to the Victorian State Government on school classroom management and discipline, reports,

In a survey I conducted in 2010/11 of 4225 students in Victorian schools in years 4 to 10, the majority of students said that if there were no punishments, no rewards, no reports and no teacher (dis)approval, their behaviour  would become worse or  much worse (compared to a little worse, the same or better). Fear of punishment, more than internalized values, tends to mould conduct. School teachers once asserted authority: “We’re the teachers, you’re the students. Do as you are told”. They also had punishments which hurt; but these are no longer available. Both of these kinds of power – authority and punishment – have waned and teachers need to look for something else.  One of the things we aim for is that people will behave well because they understand it is right, not because they are being forced to do it. Now what makes good behaviour right could be that people have rights in a community – and therefore it is right and proper to treat them in certain ways (for example treat them with respect). This would be a belief. Another equally motivating source for such a belief is to say, G-d has stated how people should be treated and valued, and that’s what makes it right[2].

It is true that religion itself also has concepts of reward and punishment, but these are explicitly associated with norms and values, and are part of the one belief-complex: the norms and the rewards and punishments. If our student on the train has no such a world-view or belief, with its embedded norms, he or she has only the possibility of punishment to motivate purchase of a ticket. The same goes for classroom behavior. Ostensibly the teaching of ethical norms in the widest framework of beliefs which children have already inherited, is thus of fundamental importance for this aspect of education. This – sometimes called “bonding social capital” – makes for connected, ethical communities.

As distinct from their motivational value, a further essential characteristic of belief – or meaning – frameworks is that they supply a coherence and consistency which a supposedly independent and critical “reasoning between alternatives” by students may not be able to provide. Professor Hill has put it this way:

Sometimes values conflict. In fact a lot of the decisions we have to make regarding values are in dealing with one good thing versus another good thing – but which is the most important in this particular case? And the answer to these questions to get away from this idea of a smorgasbord of values and to recognize that we make judgments over our priorities not just on the basis of individual values like “honesty” and so on but because of where we are coming from as a whole person.

So people have talked of the framework of meaning that individuals have as a self, as a whole person. And basically, however long we live, our life world can be boiled down to those three constituents – (1) with whom do we relate as persons and (2) how do we relate to the natural world, and (3) who do we think we are in our most inner selves[3].

These three dimensions – personal, interpersonal and our relation to nature – are filled out in detail by the comprehensive, shared ethic of the Abrahamic religions, as we shall see[4]. Teaching a shared, inherited ethic analytically and in its entirety supplies an educational ideal of “coherence and consistency”, and fosters the ability of the individual to engage and integrate ethics with life and intellectual experience. Teaching this ethic from the “inside” – for believers (who elect this study) by believers – rather than from the “outside” as a comparative, relativizing study of religion, acknowledges the reality, integrity and strength of belief in this shared religious ethic.


Religion and the unity of cultures

In the realm of citizenship, the consciousness of a shared ethic is important also for social harmony. As the common core of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this shared ethic provides “bridging social capital”[5] – that is, connectedness between those communities and cultures, which together domestically and internationally form the dominant cultural mix in the world today[6]. Not only do they discover that they believe in the same values; but that they are together believers in those values. The spirit which they value in themselves, they find in their fellows in other faiths. What is of most value to the one, is seen to exist also in the other. It is this which forms the deepest bonds of unity. Here the motivational power of belief is actually harnessed to a foundation of this shared ethic itself: the unity and fellowship of the human spirit.

There is an alternative approach to achieving harmony amongst religious groups. Rather than seeking a shared ethic, it wants to teach comparatively about differences and diversity of religions, with the hope of encouraging tolerance. The goal of tolerance is praiseworthy but the prospects of this method may be weaker in the quest for harmony. This is because, in stressing difference and diversity, it tends to relativize religious belief. Where belief is suspended in relativity, the power (and integrity) of religious belief is lost. One of the great secular commentators of our day has himself acknowledged that purely secular concepts of community have failed to motivate individuals and to bond communities[7]. The motivation which comes from the religious belief in a shared ethic lends cohesion and solidarity to the society built on that ethic.

A mistaken argument or assumption of one approach to social harmony has been that religion is itself necessarily a source of social conflict. For this reason it seeks to focus on diversity and to relativize differences and thereby deflect competing claims for truth in different religious groups. The argument of the “clash of civilizations” and the “clash of religions”, to the extent that it does contain truth, relates largely to cases where religion has been politicized. The posturing of chauvinistic, political and other particularistic interests as religion is the opposite of the self-transcending stance of authentic religion. It is generally the work of individuals, who want to make themselves and their dreams – not   G-d – great. Typically, it is ordinary people – “grassroots” – who, without political mobilization or demagogic manipulation, exhibit the true humility of self-transcending spirituality; who want a peaceful, cooperative life. (Intellectuals, albeit challenged by the hubris which tends to be associated with intellectual prowess, are capable of this too!) Mr Aydin Nurhan has expressed this idea with regard to the Muslim masses in his Reflections of a Turkish Diplomat:

… any policy which does not reflect the genuine sentiments of ordinary people is doomed to fail… We wish our leaders, politicians, intellectuals, and media give an ear to the commonsense of our peoples and turn their mutual sentiments into action… I, as a Muslim, believe in the fraternity and cooperation between our innocent, ordinary ummah [nation]…[8]

The authentic heart of religious experience is found in humble self-transcendence, and the sense of personal finitude beside an infinite Creator. In this the “ordinary, innocent” people of world faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam come together in their orientation to a single transcendent source with its moral compass.

The same Muslim writer expresses in his Reflections the hope that the concept of a “Judeo-Islamo-Christian culture” would replace the narrower concept of a Judeo-Christian ethic. With this, he is intimating the concept of the shared fundamental values of the world religions, in which these world religions manifest not conflict but in fact a deep unity. The common values making up this shared ethic are found in the Abrahamic stem of the world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They in turn take root in the concept (and the reality) of the human spirit, and in continuous social and historical tradition.


2. The sources of the shared ethic

The human spirit as source of a shared ethic.

The world religions and cultures – and certainly the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have always known that the human being is a composite of body, mind and soul. The third element, the soul, is today a much ignored, repressed or ridiculed aspect of the human being. The soul has traditionally been understood as the “mirror of G-d” within the human being. The significance of this is that the human soul naturally resonates with and “models” G-dly qualities. “Just as G-d is called gracious, so should you be merciful, just as G-d is merciful, so should you be merciful” and so with all the Divine attributes. This occurs when the human soul emerges to become conscious of itself and is informed and energized by its attachment to religious experience and tradition. The soul’s imitation of these Divine qualities translates concretely into objective and eternal – Divine – laws of good and right conduct. These form the shared ethic at the root of the world religions.

Within the human complex of body, mind and soul, the soul has traditionally been regarded as the highest faculty. It “has” at its disposal the faculties or “vehicles” of body and mind[9]. In the body resides the whole instinctual and emotional personality of the human being. The mind, on the other hand, reasons, analyzes and strategizes. It has the ability to check and control the body and its impulses. But mind does not and cannot supply the first principles of its reasoning. It can only work with, and produce from, first principles – values and basic axioms, which come to it from somewhere else. Because these are prior to reason and are simply accepted by reason, they are called beliefs. These beliefs may originate in the soul’s knowledge and religious experience, or they may come from attitudes and dispositions which do not have a spiritual source. In the traditional view, the soul exercises its sovereignty by guiding mind and body. The mind is subordinate to the soul in the sense that it works with the soul’s first principles; and then the body is subordinate to the mind which guides it with the principles it has received, organized and developed from the soul.

There is another potentiality which the human has by virtue of possession of a soul, “the mirror of G-d”. It has to do with a freedom to create and transform: to actualize within oneself and one’s surroundings goodness by the Divine standard. Only a human being can grasp, and choose between, good and evil[10]. In religious perspective, this freedom flows from the tension of body and soul – with the mind in between the two and potentially able to act on behalf of either body or soul. If I had no soul, I would have no freedom. I would simply follow the dictates of bodily impulses as an animal follows its instincts. Mind would function simply to organize the fulfillment of my desires. If, like an angel (a spiritual being), I had no body, I would also have no freedom. For as something which mirrors G-d, the soul wants only to imitate G-d, and to follow the eternal and objective values of the life prescribed by G-d. Mind would translate that into the unswerving service of G-d. The human – as body, mind and soul – has the power and the choice to actualize the good or to actualize something other than the good.

These two concepts of the human spirit or soul, namely as “knowing” good and being “free” to actualize the good, translate into a religious educational ideal. This is an education which elevates mind and body to become true vehicles of the spirit. For the mind, that means (in addition to a general skills base) a religious education which makes the soul’s knowledge intellectually literate. That is, it makes spiritual belief and experience conscious and rigorous and able to engage intellectually with all the questions which come to it from the society, culture and science. For the body – emotion and feeling – it means a development of character, training impulse and emotion in accordance with spiritually informed ethical virtues. Spiritual literacy and character development are the actualization of the common human spirit, which the world religions know the human being to possess. It is the foundation of their realized shared ethical humanity.

There are those who, who do not steadily – or at all – experience what religious people spiritually know and feel. We could call them “secularists”. Within the secularists are those who do not determinedly reject religious belief. These are “non-doctrinaire secularists”, and as we shall later discuss, religious beliefs and ethics may not necessarily be a “closed book” for them.  Then there are “doctrinaire secularists”, who not only do not experience religious belief, but also reject the claim to truth of religious belief. It is important to note however that the “first principles”, which underlie their alternative view of reality, and upon which their reason builds, are also beliefs. They believe, as do religious people, but not in the human soul, a Divine Creator and a Divine ethics. Rather their purportedly “critical reasoning” is simply based on an axiomatic acceptance of a metaphysics of materialism, in one variant or another. On intellectual and educational grounds, the “religion of no religion”, as some have called it, has no greater claim or right to displace the common religious ethic passed on by tradition by the great majority of humanity. Some seventy percent of Australians profess an affiliation with one of the great world religions. It is not unreasonable that an Australian education should permit and facilitate (at least for those who want it) an education in their shared religious ethic, especially where it also serves the ends of citizenship: social harmony and good human conduct.


History and society as transmitters of a shared ethic

That which expresses itself naturally in the human spirit has also historically found expression in our society. It has been pointed out that our society is founded on a “Judeo-Christian” ethic. The interaction of Islamic culture with the Judeo-Christian culture, both in Australia and globally, has now made it desirable to seek a deeper common denominator, which we have here called the Abrahamic values. The former Prime Minister of Australia, Ms Julia Gillard, describing herself not as a religious but rather as a secular person, is reported as having referred to the biblical strand of this legacy as an underpinning of this society:

I think that there are some important things from our past that need to continue to be part of our present and part of our future… I’m on the record as saying things like I think it’s important for people to understand their Bible stories, […because] what comes from the Bible has formed such an important part of our culture.[11]

The Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, has also spoken about the ethical principles, which cut across all cultures, and seem clearly to have roots in the religious traditions which formed those cultures. In a condolence motion on the passing of a former Governor General of Australia, Sir Zelman Cowen, he said,

Perhaps one way in which we could further honour his memory is by seeking the ethical principles which might be regarded as common to all cultures and to all people – principles such as keeping commitments, respecting human life and caring for the vulnerable[12].

The universal ethics, shared by these great world religions do not have to be invented or discovered. They are present to, and transmitted within, an historical ethical heritage. But they are also ratifiable by the human spirit or soul at all times which naturally resonates with them.

A set of laws, representing a pristine covenant between humanity and its Creator was completed with Noah, the biblical survivor of the flood. They were practised by Abraham, ten generations after Noah. Abraham, as known, is the progenitor of the great world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the adherents of which account for the majority of humanity. These Abrahamic laws, known also as the Noahide laws (after Noah), also appear in the early modern secular tradition of the Renaissance, when the great jurists and founders of modern law, both international and domestic (or municipal, as it is called) – the Dutchman Hugo Grotius and the Englishman John Selden – referred to them as foundations of law. In recent times the United States Congress in 1991 in its preamble to an Education Day Bill referred to them as the foundation of American society and the “bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization”[13]. In 2001, then Australian Governor General Michael Jeffrey stated that they “apply to all contemporary issues and therefore play an important role in our day-to-day lives”[14].

The major world religions, which have grown upon the Abrahamic stem of these basic principles, have added and elaborated further theological concepts and practical precepts. When, as would make sense, this shared matrix of ethical principles were taught by Jews to Jewish students, Christians to Christian students, Muslims to Muslims, these additions would no doubt be discussed.

These differences – the way cultures have developed around beyond this stem – do not detract from the educational template of this shared ethic and do not disturb it. Thus, for example, included in the precept of belief in G-d within this ethic, is a concept of redemption. Redemption is often associated with the notion of a Messiah. As to the identity of the Messiah, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have differences. Yet as a Christian theologian, Victor Styrsky, profoundly interested in the unity of the faiths wisely responded to this difference, “it is G-d’s business”. Each of the world faiths, with their own answers to this question, can “live with” this answer and keep it as “their” and “G-d’s business”. It has been noted that the religious language of United States Presidents has been largely that of a neutral (i.e. a non-denominational) ethical monotheism[15].

The presence of a program or a study of the shared ethic of the Abrahamic religions does not challenge the concept of “pluralism” or open discussion and enquiry in a state sponsored and supervised education. For just as the “religious” individual has to form a response to a secular syllabus, so equally might a “non-religious” individual be invited to respond to a religious study. For the non-doctrinaire secularist, the question is then open: can one conceive and accept the same objective, eternal historical and cross-cultural values? The question has been addressed by the philosopher and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. Frankl argues that once one begins to transcend beyond particular personal emotional stakes and material interests, one can come to the sense of an objective higher good and set of values. Such a person, in Frankl’s methodology, will be ready to respond to the question, is there something – other than what I want, or to which I feel driven – which is asked of me by life (or G-d)? When then presented with the Noahide laws, such a secularist might then say “yes, that is it” (for the Divine image is discoverable in all persons). Or he or she might not. But, whether or not they are joined from the ranks of secularists, the many whose faiths have borne them in the tradition of this shared ethic in this society should surely be granted the right to an education in it.

3. The substance of the shared ethic

The shared values of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as Abrahamic religions are the moral rules by which Abraham lived before these religions developed. These religions absorbed, elaborated and added to these stem Abrahamic values, but have continued to acknowledge them as central. At the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, of which the Ten Commandments are the centrepiece, these pre-existing universal laws were reiterated by Moses. Judaism, Christianity and Islam acknowledge Moses as a genuine transmitter of these values to their own prophetic traditions. These ethical laws (as indicated above) bear upon (1) personal identity (2) interpersonal relations and (3) the relationship to nature.

Ethics and personal identity 


G-d and the human soul The Abrahamic faith was monotheistic and this is the common legacy of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This means that not only is there one G-d, who is the Author and Sustainer of creation, but that this G-d can also in some way be known by human beings. Whilst prophets and revelation may have been the way G-d was made known to humanity, it is the human soul – characterized sometimes as the “mirror of G-d”– which individually resonates with and personally ratifies the knowledge and values communicated through revelation and prophetic tradition.

Monotheism The Abrahamic faiths all share the ideal of monotheism. The simple meaning of monotheism is understood in terms of the relationship of G-d to the creation. Everything in it is brought into existence by   G-d, and even the greatest powers within creation, be these physical or spiritual, are all subordinate to G-d. This ultimate source of all being is one, a unity.

G-d’s dominion over the creation There are three classical dimensions of theology, or knowledge of G-d’s relationship to the world, in which the Abrahamic faiths concur. The first is that G-d is its Creator and Sustainer, and that the creation is wholly dependent on G-d. The second is that G-d has revealed a moral code or compass to humanity, with norms which are eternal. This Divine teaching has been indicated in Scripture and elaborated in religious tradition. Finally there is a process, guided by  G-d, aimed at a reconstituted creation freed from evil and imperfection. This is accomplished through an interaction of Divine providence or intervention and ethical human conduct (informed by Divine teaching), through which creation is brought into alignment with the Divine.

Reverence for the Divine

The respect for the Divine Not only belief in, and knowledge of, G-d is required to produce a civilization based G-dly values, but also a respect or reverence for  G-d. It is this which actually motivates the moral conduct communicated through revelation. The service of G-d by Abraham in fact was based not only on reverence or awe, but also upon the love, of G-d. The reverence for G-d expresses itself initially in avoiding forms of disrespect for G-d, for Divine teaching and for those who teach and guide in relation to it.

Reverence as a foundation for the integrity of human relationships The respect due to human beings is significantly associated with the respect due to G-d. Thus, the respect due to parents is associated with, though subordinate to that for, G-d. The respect due to fellow human beings stems from the fact that each person has a soul, with its special affinity with the Divine. Finally, the respect for G-d is the foundation of the keeping of an oath, which invokes G-d’s Name. By extension, keeping one’s word and fulfilling promises means not profaning the G-d-given power of speech.

The service of G-d Respect (and love) for G-d translates the knowledge of G-d as Creator and Sustainer of the world, into prayer. In prayer one seeks the help of G-d, and active acknowledgment of what G-d has given one, such as one’s food and sustenance. It translates the knowledge of G-d, as a Revealer of Divine norms, into the active study of the moral law communicated by G-d. Finally, it activates the knowledge of Divine redemption into concrete moral conduct; and the desire to return to G-d, which means to repent and alter those aspects of our conduct, which need to be rectified in the light of the moral code.

Human sexuality

Sexuality and human identity Even though human sexuality involves an individual with others, it is still within the compass of personal identity. This is because the normative heterosexual union of marriage (of permitted partners) is deeply tied to the identity of the individual. It has a procreative potential: the individual came from such a union, and from it he or she has an extension in the future through children. The individual participates and is defined through the union of a man and a woman. Because sexuality relates to personal human identity (before G-d), the sexual norm cannot be modified by “consent”, as in certain interpersonal relations where consent would remove “harm”.

The normative sexual union The sexual union which the Abrahamic faiths view as normative is the heterosexual union of man and woman. Properly this should be in the context of marriage, which represents a public commitment of the two to an enduring relationship. Adultery, incest and bestiality are forbidden unions. So also is homosexual practice. Whilst acknowledging with compassion a variety of challenges which individuals may face in limiting sexuality to a committed heterosexual union, the Abrahamic code sanctions this union alone is the only permissible, and Divinely normative union.

Modesty and guardedness against promiscuity Human sexuality has the ability to be destructive when di channeled improperly (whether as a factor leading to marriage breakdown, “unwanted pregnancy” outside marriage, dangers to health), aside from moral considerations. Accordingly a sexualized culture, with high commercial exploitation and promiscuity, is not desirable. Modesty is a virtue in all persons.


Ethics and interpersonal relations


A system of justice A society must necessarily have a system of justice, which brings society into alignment with its laws and moral principles. The task of justice is to hear evidence as to whether travesty of the law (incorporating also universal Abrahamic ethics) has occurred; judge the evidence; and to hand out appropriate sanctions and remedies for the injustice. The most fundamental characteristic of justice must be its objectivity and its impartiality.

Testimony A witness, as one of the agents of the process of justice, needs to understand the importance of coming forward to testify; to know the prohibition of testifying falsely, to have basic qualities of character, integrity and maturity such as to make testimony that is reliable; and to be untainted by personal interest. Testimony must of course be subjected to examination.

Judges Judges must themselves be learned and observant of the law, both conventional and of the universal ethics constituting the Abrahamic faith. They must resist any bribery. They must strive to treat litigants equally and remove disadvantages from parties in presenting their cases, and should apply adequate standards of proof.

Punishment Punishment can only be applied to persons, who possess responsibility for their actions. A child or individual of diminished mental capacity is not subject to normal punishment. Ignorance of law is a mitigating factor only in special circumstances. Ignorance of fact is, in most cases. Compulsion or duress can also be a mitigating factor except in compulsion by another to kill. A differentiated liability attaches to the accessory to a crime vis-a-vis the principal. The kinds of punishment used by a society reflect the severity of the crime and their utility and appropriateness to restoring social order.



The severity of killing The prohibition on murder is one of the most fundamental ethical rules of social order taught by the Abrahamic religions and its strictures are the highest. The prohibition against destroying life applies not only to the life of the viable human being, but also the incurably ill person and the dying person. The foetus is also a life which cannot be taken at will. Similarly both the premeditated direct act of killing and indirect causation of death are both regarded as forms of murder. There is liability also for unintended killing – manslaughter.

Suicide, self-injury and self-sacrifice A person’s life is not considered as his or own “property” to dispose of at will. The same applies to self-harm.  A person’s body is given in trust by G-d, and it may not be subjected to suffering or pain except where this has legitimate therapeutic value for the person. The permissibility of self-sacrifice is limited primarily to a circumstance where rather than transgress a moral law, an individual surrenders his or her own life, such as where one is forced to kill or be killed.

Permissible killing exists in the case of individual self-defence, or collective self-defence and this is the justification for war. Not only in self-defence, but also in the defence of a third party it is permissible to kill the pursuer-assailant, if that is the only way to stop the danger to the life of the third party.


Theft and material harm

Direct or criminal theft This is the deprivation of another person’s property or body without that other’s consent. This can be theft of the body, abduction; or of another’s property or money. Theft is also incurred by withholding wages, or fees due for a service. It can also be through exceeding entitlements and benefits permitted by the workplace. Even where a person knowingly parts with his or her property but does so under compulsion or, as in the case of fraud, is deceived into parting with it, this is theft. Theft is subject not only to punishment but also restitution.

Harm to persons or property This is commonly called civil wrong or tort, and it is often monetary remedy or damages, rather than punishment (though punishment may also be applied), which rectify this harm. This applies to harm done either to another’s body or property. The harm caused may direct or indirect, but in both cases carries a liability. It can also extend to a failure of duty of care for the other.

Regard for others and their property. Not only should one desist from theft of, or harm to, the property or person of another. There is also a moral norm of regard and care for one’s fellow human being. Exploitative overcharging is something which on this account should be avoided. In a positive vein, regard for another entails restoration of lost property to its owner. The attitudes of greed and coveting, even without an act theft, are reprehensible. Examples of positive, normative regard for another is charity and fellow love.


The ethical relationship to nature

The human appropriation of nature The human being’s use of nature is something clearly granted by Abrahamic belief. Human beings were granted dominion over nature for constructive purposes. Thus the “consumption” of nature is permitted where there is a legitimate human benefit. The human being can cause pain to animals, only where this is necessary for a useful purpose for human beings, such as in their slaughter for human consumption, other utilization and medical research.

The minimization of pain and destruction of natural resources Notwithstanding that pain may be caused to animals, for the above reasons, it must still be minimized; to cause gratuitous suffering is forbidden. The goals for which pain may be caused to animals must be substantial and proportionate to the pain inflicted. The pollution or contamination of natural habitats for mere convenience in disposal of waste is not warranted.

The prohibition of gratuitous pain to animals and purposeless destruction of natural resources An ancient prohibition on consuming part of a living animal is a foundation for prohibiting cruelty and causing various kinds of gratuitous pain to animals, inasmuch as the animal could first have been slaughtered before parts of it were consumed. Similarly a prohibition on the destruction of useful resources, which serves no useful or constructive purpose, is found at the root of Abrahamic belief.

[1] Interface, Vol. 2, 2008, pp. 13-14.

[2] Interface, July 2011 (to be reprinted in Interface, Vol. 4, 2012 [forthcoming]).

[3] Ibid., p. 13

[4] See the last section, “The substance of a shared ethic”, in which the key shared values of the Abrahamic religions are set out in each of these categories.

[5] On the concepts of “bridging social capital” and “bonding social capital” (mentioned above), see Professor B. McGaw, “Education and Social Connectedness”, Debate (2008), Issue 2, 16–19.

[6] Liberal democracy, in order to “work” needs an underlying motivational ethic. Professor Hill notes: “The Judaic and Christian traditions have together brought cultural development to the point where people felt safe in such a society such as to propound the theory of liberal democracy. And that coheres with what Rabbi Cowen was saying about the idea of common values that pop up when you look comparatively at traditions.” Op. cit., p. 14

[7] Jürgen Habermas in J. Habermas and Cardinal J. Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Dialectics of Secularization, San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005, p. 46.

[8] Self published, p. 180.

[9] See the references to the work of Viktor Frankl for this concept in “The soul: the human being in the image of G-d” in S. D. Cowen,Perspectives on the Noahide Laws – Universal Ethics, Melbourne: Institute for Judaism and Civilization, 3rd edition, 2008, p. 13.

[10] Here the Biblical verse states that the human being has “become like one of us [i.e. like G-d] knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22).


[11] The Daily TelegraphMarch 21, 2011

[12] Hansard, Reps, Tuesday 7 February 2012, p. 2.

[13] US Congress, H.J Res. 104.

[14] Interface, Vol. 2, 2008, p. 4.

[15] See here Dissent of Justice Antonin Scalia on the verdict of the Supreme Court of the USA, in McCreary County, Kentucky, et al. v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky et al. (2005).