Politics and Universal Ethics NSW Launch

Hon Luke Foley (Labor), Opposition Leader, Upper House, Parliament of NSW

Rocky Mimmo[1] gave me a copy of Rabbi Cowen’s book, Politics and Universal Ethics, two weeks ago. I read it and it then led me to the document of the international theological commission of the Vatican entitled “The search for Universal Ethics. A new look at the natural law” – which led me to the writings of S Thomas Aquinas and to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. So Government members will be delighted to learn that I have spent the last two weeks immersed in reading about universal ethics and natural law at the expense of the books I planned to read to learn more about my shadow ministerial responsibilities. But I don’t regret it at all because the whole question of universal ethics covered so well by the Rabbi in his book, is one that should concern all of us in public life. I would like briefly to explore three issues with you.

The first is the role of religion in the public square. The idea of the separation of church or religion and state is that religion shall not be prescribed by the State. Yet – and this is often forgotten or indeed challenged today, as the Rabbi tells us in this book, “religion, just like other values, may well up within the body politic – the public – to influence the policies of state” (p. 13). Religion as a source of values within the public square is entirely legitimate. Now, that notion is under great challenge today and on page 13 of the book, the Rabbi writes,

The idea that state institutions – parliamentary, educational or other – must not in their legislation, policy or other content express religion or religious values or views…has nothing to do with the separation of religion and state. [That idea] is a covert ideology of secularism, which proscribes [ – banishes -] the embodiment in public policy of ethical values based on the authority of religious teachings.

Which brings us to the covert ideology of which the Rabbi speaks, a philosophy of contemporary materialistic secularism. I think “hedonistic materialism” is about the best term I can find and to amalgamate these terms, the Rabbi coins a word “Hedonomat”, which is essentially the ideology of hedonistic materialism. Now I think that the ideology is driven by a quite strident – …militant – individualism and there is that hedonistic driver, that would have us believe that the individual’s pursuit of pleasure is the fundamental characteristic of the human being.

I want to hear the voices of religion and the religious tradition in the public square. I want to hear religious voices contributing to our public policy debates, speaking about the relentless commodification and materialism in today’s world; about the rapaciousness of unchecked market economy, which is destructive of family and community life; about the dignity of labour; about the obligations we owe each other; about parental responsibility and the dangerous consequences of a shortage of male role models today; about the excesses of our celebrity drenched culture. These are all important political policy debates to which the religious tradition in our society can contribute so much.

I want to talk, secondly, about the intersection of politics… and the search for universal ethics. The political environment derives from the imperfect order in which we live. We do live in a secularized society. As S Augustine wrote in the Earthly City, the believers and unbelievers are intermingled. They must live together according to the requirements of their nature and the capacity of their reason. And this is where the Catholics come to what we call natural law. Rabbi Cowen speaks of universal ethics. I think really it’s the same thing.

Natural law is called natural because the reason that promulgates it is proper to human nature. It’s universal, it extends to all people insofar as it is established by reason. You don’t have to be a religious believer to delve into the question of the natural law. As parents, we teach our children some fundamental rights and wrongs: You shall not kill, You shall not steal. Now, when our children have gone through their moral apprenticeship and come out as adults with fully formed conscience and reason, we would hope as parents that they believe that killing is wrong, or that stealing is wrong not simply because the Attorney points to a criminal code, which says that it is outlawed, but because they they can distinguish between right and wrong and they have some sense, based on reason, that murder or theft is objectively wrong. This is the realm of universal ethics, with which this book concerns itself. Natural law – or universal ethics – lays the moral foundation for building the human community, for regulating the individual in his or her personal life, but also for regulating our interaction with one another as members of the human community.

Now in his search for the enduring, authentic values which law must enshrine, Rabbi Cowen tells us about the covenant which G-d established with the entire human race. G-d gave Noah seven moral imperatives for all men. The seven Noahide laws are addressed to all men and then the six hundred other laws are addressed to the Jewish people. Rabbi Cowen writes of the written law given to Moses at Sinai. Now that written law, he teaches us, is a prior, even transcendent, law, which exists prior to any human subject, society or state. So once again we are in a philosophical realm where there is a capacity for man and woman, through reason, to arrive at certain universal truths, universal ethics, that govern the moral conduct of human beings, both as individuals and in their interaction with the other members of humanity. Rabbi Cowen writes,

The shared root of the major religious traditions consciously supplies a moral compass to most of humanity… Religion is the source of explicit values which acknowledge revelation as their source. Paradoxically, it is the source, in secular humanist movements, of the concept of social justice, of charity. These values of religious origin are carried forth by secularist movements which now reject or forget the religious origins of these values (pp. 105-106)


Think about that. Many of the people on the political landscape today, who agitate and campaign for what they call social justice or for certain rights or for some sort of reordering of society may be unaware that the source of this whole notion of social justice actually stems from the religious traditions. Yet many of these people are the same who would seek to banish the voices of religion from the public arena.

The third point I want to touch on, and which I found the most educative chapter (chapter 3) of the book for me, is the question, can a natural political diversity be accommodated within a shared universal ethics? You can’t read about Greg Smith in the newspaper without him being referred to as being from the right wing of the Liberal Party. You can’t read about me without my being described as from the left wing of the Labor party. These of course are generalizations which journalists love to make without going really into what people believe and stand for. The Rabbi examines the difference between two schools of Jewish thought, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel and says they constitute a legitimate diversity within Divine law. And he argues that right and left as a natural human diversity in temperament are legitimate – but they are legitimate where they express themselves within the parameters of universal ethics. So the two great political parties in our polity – the Labor party, representing social democratic ideals and the Liberal party representing the liberal and conservative tradition – are both legitimate expressions of a human diversity of temperament. But the Rabbi would argue that members of both should express themselves within the parameters of universal ethics.

I grew up in a household that was Catholic and Labor. Mum indoctrinated us in Catholic social teaching, although we didn’t know that it was that. We were taught about the dignity of the worker, about the dignity of labour. I certainly don’t claim G-d only for the Labor Party, but I want the Labor Party to rediscover its soul. I always thought there was a moral basis to Labor policy. And I don’t think that it is a coincidence that in the colony of New South Wales, the Labor Electoral League came into being in the same year as the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891, which dealt with the rights of the worker. Both that encyclical and the growth of the Labor party were a reaction to industrialization, the rise of capitalism and what relentless commodification was doing to the dignity of the human being. So I want to see my party to rediscover the language of, or start talking again about the duties we owe to each other, about solidarity, about reciprocity. I’ve always thought that there is a moral basis to Labor policy and it disturbs me that we have lost much of that language…

Friends, when we seek, in common, the rules for living together in justice and peace we arrive at a universal ethics that seeks to derive from the observation of, and reflection on, our common human nature. The natural law, universal ethics, is above all philosophical and answers to the search of a humanity that always endeavours to give itself rules for both personal and communitarian life. These universal ethics are the fundamental values for our common humanity. Rabbi Cowen has made a great contribution to that discussion, to that search. It gives me great pleasure to join with Greg Smith in launching the book and congratulating Rabbi Shimon Cowen on his work.

(Published in the Journal of Judaism and Civilization, Vol 9, 2012)

[1] Director of the Abrose Centre for Religious Liberty.