Politics and Universal Ethics Victorian Launch

Hon Christine Campbell MP (Labor), Parliament of Victoria

There are a number of things I want to say about the specifics of this book, but I particularly want to comment upon the political application of the content of the book. We can all be as well informed and have as many intellectual and spiritual arguments that will convince anyone else who shares the same spiritual value system. But we must have the ability to communicate and be able to articulate the reasons in a way that is understandable to members of Parliament.

   I presume that you are acutely aware of the political landscape of 2008, peppered with its bioethical legislation, that tested the Victorian community and Victorian Parliamentarians thoughtfully to assess their moral and political frameworks. It was around this time that Shimon and I met and I have to say that he is the master of understatement, when he describes that time as “a deeply turbulent period”. For those living it inside and outside the Parliament it was perhaps, another “t”-word: tortuous. From the 2007 introduction of the private member’s bill by Candy Broad to legalize abortion, Shimon’s writing and explanation of the Noahide laws has been available for the elucidation of interested members of Parliament, their advisors and the wider electorate. No doubt many of our guests here tonight have had the opportunity to share many discussions and papers on universal ethics long before Victorian MPs thought it was important to give some fairly conscientious and concentrated effort to that topic. This book is outstanding in terms of outlining what is involved in objective and universal ethics and moral standards in political practice.

   I want to take it to the next step and highlight the kind of task that Shimon has in articulating these arguments to Victorian MPs. I liken this to a debate held with an audience of about this size, during the Parliamentary abortion debate. The people present were asked to stand up and then they were asked to sit down along the following lines. Sit down if you are a woman. Sit down if you are the third child in a family. Sit down if you have a disability. Sit down if you have a genetic disposition for a particular disease that would develop as you get older. You can see where I am going. Gradually there were very few people who were permitted to be born alive. So think of yourselves as the Victorian MPs – 88 in the Lower House – and our Upper House Colleagues – and of one who goes to them and says, “There is an objective universal ethic, which is universally applicable”. How many do you think you would have with you at the end of that sentence? Then consider were the next sentence to be, “That ethic was set by the Creator more than 3000 years ago at Mt Sinai and before that to Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as(, as Shimon claims,) Hinduism and Buddhism, in accordance with tradition”. If you still have any MPs in the room, then try engaging them on what brings these laws and moral standards into political practice. So think again of the number of people who would be standing with the first list of questions on abortion.  I think you would have even less if you went through those questions on universal ethics at Parliament House in the Dining Room or on the back balcony.

   Recently I had the opportunity to go with 10 other State MPs to commemorate the battle of Greece in Crete. Part of learning about the fantastic efforts of the Greek people during the Second World War and their support for our soldiers. I had the opportunity, reading so many of the stories of Greek mythology, and I have got to say that it was probably one of the most profound things which occurred to me during that trip to Greece because you realized going back thousands and thousands and thousands of years, so many of the lessons that are so crisply put in this book have been a tradition in Europe and are very well understood by the Greek people. The universal truths found also in Greek mythology I think highlighted to many of the Christians who were on that trip that there are such things as universal truths and they are centuries old. The kinds of things taught were honesty, dedication, family, fidelity to a significant other, particularly your spouse.

   It struck me that whilst so many people understand universal truths based on their spiritual understanding, there are many others – and there is one MP that comes to mind immediately who have an understanding in their humanness of what it is to be a human being and what are the universal truths. During one of the bioethical debates I was astounded that she came to our side. She said, The reason I am on this side and I am voting against this particular part of the legislation is that science has to serve man, not man to be disposable for scientific ends. A little later she was speaking to me and saying, Good is good and bad is bad, and you should never do something wrong to achieve something good. And that I thought for one MP was a very crisp way of understanding what Shimon has put in his book. So I am posing another question: that for all those who know and understand universal ethics based upon a spiritual understanding of Creator – and I would think that the vast majority of those present tonight think that we are made in the image and likeness of G-d – it is worth considering that there are some MPs who do not have what they consider a sense of love or knowledge or understanding of G-d, but they do have a sense and love and understanding of what is truthful and what gives the human being the best opportunity to flourish, which happens to be exactly the same things which you have outlined in your book.

   In summary, the contention presented in the book is that the tradition of universal ethics is consciously a spiritual tradition, something more than reason. The human soul recognizes universal ethics and its recognition of them frees the person to self-actualization. What I am posing is that…, it is possible in my view, amongst the members of Parliament for them to reach the same conclusion but from a different route. Shimon goes on to say that after the human soul recognizes universal ethics, this frees the person to self-actualization, and in turn the world becomes the residence not just for the person to self-actualize, but for the manifestation of the Divine and that brings “peace, happiness, goodness and human self-transcendence”. That I think is something we could dwell on, contemplate and put in simple and perhaps layperson’s terms when you are next talking to a politician.

   I would also add one other point that is worth considering when you are talking to politicians and that is the dimension of love. The spiritual tradition is based on love and one thing politicians know and understand is love – or being unloved. Look at the latest list of those politicians who are considered most trustworthy. Everyone likes to be loved and if we are talking with a politician, I think there is a real challenge to try to get them to understand universal ethics and the importance of travelling radical solidarity with another person in love.

   Finally, I think the book presents us with some challenges and interesting concepts. “We need to return to true discussion of values and this can only be achieved when the elites, usually publically funded, are personally forced to have social moral accountability”. Murray mentioned one of them, the media; Shimon mentions the law reform commission. He and I might disagree on the examples, but it is a fair point and it is a challenge for all of us, that when there are self-appointed elites, who constantly talk about the right of everyone to have autonomy so long as their autonomy is exercised in an identical fashion with the publically funded elites. There is a good opportunity there for you to challenge them about their right to pursue an elitist view that dismisses anyone other than themselves and those that are clones of their view.

   Shimon also in terms of discussion of values challenges us: he says, the public grass roots need to reclaim concrete values out of their position of retreat. He gives concrete examples in terms of marriage. I think that’s a good example, but I think we have to be really clear to highlight why it is that there is a difference between marriage and de facto relationships and we need to be able to articulate reasons for those who are immensely troubled, and I would suggest rightly troubled, about marriages that are very, very imperfect and who do not live their marriage in a way that I think you would feel comfortable. If we just say, collectively, marriage is right and de facto relationships are wrong, it’s not enough for politicians.

   He also challenges us on the deprivatisation and demarginalisation of religion, religious life and he asks us to look at the ideological stance that religion is acceptable so long as it has no impact and does not intrude into political life. It was really interesting in the abortion debate. I didn’t mention the word “G-d” in my speech on abortion. And someone said to me afterwards, “You’re a Christian. Why didn’t you say you were a Christian and everyone would then have understood the prism in which you presented your case?” I said, there is a whole range of people here who have a whole range of reasons why they say and do what they say and do on the floor of the Parliament. People don’t always say I’m one of four children, I’m one of five children, I’m one of six children. I have got a son or daughter with a disability. People give reasoned arguments why they have come to the conclusion they have and in some cases it is a conclusion which is identical with those whose view is premised on G-d and universal ethics, as Shimon would say. But there is also a true argument which can be followed: that the human person “flourishes”, in this view, when they live in way consistent with universal ethics

   I loved the part in chapter 4 where you talked about universal law, natural law and you went back and mentioned the Greeks, Romans, Augustine and Aquinas and Aristotle who is my absolute favourite. The final thing I want to conclude with, other than saying it was very enjoyable and I loved particularly that historical aspect, is that I loved the challenge of knowing and understanding arguments – which we believe to be valid – to be put to politicians. But I’ll throw a challenge back. That is to understand the audience, the political audience. If you want to talk about universal ethics and you want to engage a politician you need to be able to put it into a seven-second news grab. You need to be able to engage him or her when it is “uncool” to be considered religious. You need to be able to present your case during a political debate in Twitter and for the younger ones here I think it is 120 letters I am allowed – 140. My daughter reprimanded me the other night, “I told you you’ve got to twitter every day”. The person who has been teaching me has been doing uni exams. So I have been out of action for three weeks. The point is, once you decide you’re going to engage with politicians, you can either give them this book or talk/tweet regularly with them. I would hazard a guess that if you tweet regularly you are going to have more success than if you hand them a copy of the book. The challenge is to get the book’s message down into 140 characters!

   So, to summarize. It is important we know and understand politicians. It is important that we engage with them in a way that resonates with them. It is important that we engage in a form that keeps them engaged and it is important to say in a group like this that it is not just a matter of teaching. It’s about bringing people on board with what they know and understand. And the final point with a politician is that they actually have to have the courage of their convictions. For a group like we have here tonight, that’s where a whole lot of prayer groups come in. You can win the intellectual argument with a person, but when they know that if they vote a particular way they are going to lose their parliamentary secretary’s position of if they are a minister, they will lose favour with the Premier or if you’ve got awards that are given to those who talk others into doing things against their conscience, this democracy has a significant problem, because we have to be free to exercise our conscience. And sometimes and quite often – we are humans – we fail to follow our conscience. The strength of prayer banks and prayer groups that meet around Parliament and in other people’s homes should never ever be underestimated. You can give them intellectual arguments, you can dilute it to 140 letters, you can do it on a daily basis, but unless that politician knows that it is worth the political pain to vote a particular way that is loyal to their conscience, all of our work is not yet fully over the line. So thank you for the opportunity to be with you tonight. Congratulations on this fabulous piece of work and collectively I think we will need to work together to further an understanding of universal ethics and convey it in a way that is understandable to those whose lives are dictated by seven-second news grabs or 140 letters.

(Published in the Journal of Judaism and Civilization, Vol 9)