Politics and Universal Ethics Tasmanian launch

Rev Professor Michael Tate, former Federal Minister for Justice, Hawke-Keating Government

It is a great pleasure for me to have been invited to help with the Tasmanian launch of Politics and Universal Ethics…We are all aware of the desire of many in politics to relegate spiritual traditions and religions to the private sphere, to keep it atomized and in the private abode, either in the home, or the confines of church or synagogue or mosque. It’s a private idiosyncrasy which should be kept out of the public sphere and those speaking from consciously from religious or spiritual traditions should not try to influence the public sphere. This is something which has been attempted, I think, by many politicians and not only politicians but also the media, because that conveniently leaves the public square to political ideologies and rampant consumerism of one sort or another, which politicians and the media love to have as their uncontested domain. But this little book by Rabbi Cowen directly challenges that idea.

The marginalization of the voice of the citizen who is speaking from his or her spiritual tradition is something which he protests against very vigorously in this book. There is no doubt that this voice should be heard. It is the voice of a citizen. And not only that; it is the voice of some considerable number of citizens as you point out in some statistics in one of the chapters.

As you can imagine Rabbi Cowen makes this protest and claim for the voice to be heard, from within his own Jewish spiritual tradition and he taps into great capacity for Jewish story telling which informs that first book of the Hebrew scriptures, which the Christians have also adopted as the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, and he taps into the story of Noah. As we know, after the great Flood, G-d promised to Noah that He would not unleash destructive forces on humankind again. But in return as part of the covenant which was signalled by the rainbow – the covenant of Noah – humanity had itself to live up to certain precepts in response. Those seven principles, the Noahide laws, are the basis of what Rabbi Cowen calls universal ethics. These are Divinely sanctioned ethical principles which any society, not just Jewish society or people in that tradition, need to observe in order to fulfill their humanity, the covenant with the L-rd. And this leads directly to the Rabbi combating many of the norms, which are trying to shape our society. The Rabbi calls these hedonistic materialism, which he calls “Hedonomat” – which I do not know if it will actually catch on as a term. Hedonistic materialism is something which we all understand as being a big prevailing force in our society, which the Rabbi contests by going back to his own tradition.

I say he directly contests it because the very early chapters of the book go through not only his particular writings but the contest of many spiritual traditions against some proposals particularly in the Victorian jurisdiction for euthanasia, the endorsement of relationships which goes beyond the consequences of simply recognizing interdependence generally and the provision of IVF beyond helping a married couple to conceive a child. And we are indebted to Rabbi Cowen for providing a model of how religious tradition can generate the values which can be used in controversy in political life, and should be. Certainly from my own point of view as a Catholic Christian , we have a strong tradition of universal ethics. Thomas Aquinas was a great exponent of natural law precepts. And he would include the nurture and universal education of the young, and this includes what you would call, spiritual education and spiritual literacy of a generation of Australians, who seem to have lost that. Not killing the innocent of course is basic to both our codes. Truth telling is also another one which is very important for a society. And in the middle of his text there is a very densely written segment of political-philosophical analysis. I can’t go into it at this short time. I think the contrast is perhaps a bit too severe, but there is a Catholic social justice principle of subsidiarity, which says that a higher organization is subsidiary and can only take on a function when a lower entity, such as the family or local company or local government or partnership can’t deal with the situation. That principle mediates between socially dominant structures and the individual. In Australia, as you well point out. some people try to collapse the American understanding of the protection of religion and say that it is the same as here. Superficially the language is the same in our constitutions, but here it is quite clear that all the Federal Constitution prevents is the establishing of religion, making one’s job or whatever dependent on adherence to an established religion. There is plenty of scope for those of religious persuasion to get into the public sphere and have their voice heard, and it’s not constitutionally in question.

I am in fact quite optimistic about the resurgence and claims of universal ethics, as legitimate foundations for political life, both locally and internationally. I think of the euthanasia debate which will erupt here in Tasmania again, where the Australian Medical Association actually in its terminology of its principles and policies speaks in what you might call universal ethical terms, not consciously adverting to any religious or spiritual tradition and yet it says almost enough for us all to agree on those ethical principles which ought to govern the ending of life and the terminally ill. So we have already got the local expression of universal ethics in the AMA principles relating to euthanasia and we can make common cause with them. Of course, we have different impetus from our own tradition. But there’s an example where we can collaborate, across a wide range of groups and it comes about because indeed our religious ethics are not peculiar. They are universal. And one can find amazing allies.

Finally my own area of interest. I was in The Hague last week at the international Criminal Court. There it is quite clear that with the issue of warrants and arrests against the Ghaddafis, which has now lapsed, and against Al-Bashir of the Sudan, and the references were given by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court. The Security Council – America, Russia, China France and the United Kingdom and other countries from many different cultures and civilizations, some spiritual traditions and some avowedly atheistic, mostly secular, nevertheless recognized that certain principles such as massacre of innocents, aptly called a crime against humanity. There are universal moral principles which are recognized by the Security Council and they set up juridic structures to attempt to deal with them – the International Criminal Court. So I am optimistic and I think that Rabbi Cowen has done a great job in bringing forward a text which is very timely. It adds to the recognition that the ethical sphere is not just one of competing subjectivities. But there are objective moral values, virtues and things which are evil in themselves, recognized from the Security Council to the local scene down here in Hobart. Insofar as he reinforces that conviction, this book is certainly to be welcomed. It is a Jewish voice when you read it. Definitely a very Jewish voice, but it adds to the harmony of the different religious traditions competing against the cacophony of voices in the market place of contemporary politics. We are indebted to the Rabbi for this work of scholarship and political pamphleteering. They are not opposites. It is a work of scholarship and combat and I certainly commend the book.

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