Politics and Universal Ethics Victorian Launch

Murray Thompson MP (Liberal), Parliament of Victoria

In the contest of ideas we see a struggle between values which have guided civilizations for three thousand years and a secular post-modern atheism. Dr Cowen notes wisely, “A great mass of people look on not really knowing what to think or what to teach their children”. Dr Cowen speaks with logic and wisdom in this debate, earnestly speaking truth into the face of power. Dr Cowen stands as one of a small group of men and women in Victoria who have sought to apply their intellect, their faith and reason to articulate a vision of a better world, grounded importantly in a spiritual literacy. And I think that it is a very important term which he has employed, the notion of a “spiritual literacy”, which can guide the development of laws in Western world legislatures.

On a personal level, Dr Cowen is engagingly reflective. He thinks keenly; he seeks virtue. He values, stores and draws down on ideas. He shares his ideas and thoughts with engagement and enthusiasm. He does not judge, but has sought through his writing to illumine and teach a better way. Rabbi Cowen has brought to this understanding clarity of thought and keen minded insight; his use of research and study as a student, philosopher, academic, teacher and Rabbi; his knowledge of history; and his heart for people, not only of this state but of other nations.

There is a book called Profiles in Courage written by the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It poses a question as to what the obligations of a legislator might be. There is the duty to the Parliament. There is the duty to one’s political party. There is a duty to one’s constituency and a duty to one’s conscience. In Victoria, when a conscience vote[1] about to take place, the division bells ring for three minutes and as members make their way into the chamber, they need to know on which side of the chamber they are going to take their seat. There are complex issues with which we have wrestled. I have one former federal colleague, who once remarked, I wish there were some issues about which I didn’t have to have an opinion. But sitting on the fence is not a luxury afforded to members of Parliament. So we need to arrive at positions which are well thought out and well thought through.

Dr Cowen has outlined a value system framework which has undergirded much of Western Civilization’s decision-making for 3000 years. In the Victorian Parliament and in the Victorian Parliament we have wrestled with questions of euthanasia…,  an Abortion  bill which redefined permission to take human life, the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Bill which redefined parenthood, the Infertility Treatment Amendment Bill, same sex relationship rights and adoption and surrogacy rights for same sex couples. These debates have reflected contemporary legislative challenges facing many Parliaments in which fundamental anchor prohibitions in society are being overturned. From what vantage point do we evaluate these issues? Is it from the vantage point of an atheist or agnostic or from a position of religious faith? The Victorian and National Parliaments have had members and even Prime Ministers representing the breadth of these perspectives.

In Dr Cowen’s Introduction, he notes that

…there is right and there is wrong, and right is basically always right and wrong is basically always wrong (“objectively”) – under all times and circumstances (“universally”). (p. 3)

Dr Cowen has presented that the moral covenant between humanity and its Creator consists of a number of basic laws with many details, known as the laws of Noah or the Noahide laws after the Biblical survivor of the Flood, the father of humanity, Noah.

Charles Colson was a Presidential aide who had some life-transforming moments following Watergate. In a book entitled Kingdoms in Conflict, he noted “All law implicitly involves morality. The popular idea that you cannot legislate morality is a myth. Morality is legislated every day from the vantage point of one value system or another. The question is not whether we legislate morality but rather, whose morality do we legislate?” Dr Cowen has sought to present transcendent first principles, derived from the ethical tradition of Sinai. He speaks about a

…higher moral template properly arbitrating our human response to pain, suffering and passion…The orientation to a G-d-given universal ethics does not make the human being an automaton. It makes the human being aware of his or her spiritual identity as made in the image of G-d with its normative map. This strengthens and frees a person to the task of carrying out a Divine moral agency which brings with it self-actualization, autonomy and creativity. The agency is via an ethical practice to make the world into a residence for the manifestation of the Divine. Peace, happiness, goodness and human self-transcendence all coalesce in this purpose and goal. (p.8)

Dr Cowen has argued that recent law changes have represented a great rupture with thousands of years of shared human values. In his book we are taken on a journey. We contemplate the moral issues of our day. We meet Noah, Moses, Aristotle, Plato, Popper, Marx, Hegel, Aquinas, Augustine and Maimonides. Dr Cowen evaluates right and left, individualism and collectivism, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. He develops a new word “Hedonomat”, which is a combination of hedonism and materialism to describe the culture of contemporary secularism and atheism. I came across an interesting cross reference in the book and in my research for tonight chanced upon a quote from Freud in his psycho-analytic book Moses and Monotheism where he stated that belief in a single G-d is delusional. I found later through some of the work of Dr Cowen that this viewpoint might in fact be contrasted with words of the former President of the College of Psychiatrists in the 1990s who noted that religious belief, far from harming patients, results in significant short and long term benefits in mental and physical health.

Dr Cowen has the ability of deconstructing arguments pertaining to the separation of religion and state. He speaks directly into this debate. He points out that often symptoms are addressed by Governments, not the causes of the issues. He points out the disproportionate influence at times of unrepresentative elites, which might include bureaucratic commissions and also the media. A remark by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is illustrative of this point: “The press has become the greatest power within western countries and one would then like to ask by what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?” Dr Cowen has also forcefully argued that the public square belongs to religious as well as non-religious constituents. He examines the Written and Oral law from Sinai and he defines the laws in place at the time of Noah. He comments on the spiritual health of contemporary society, and some of the social and emotional challenges that people confront. He strongly advocates that “politics must now be concerned with the human centre which involves reflecting upon and affirming the highest values which civilization has produced” (p.103). And he notes also the culture of common norms amongst different religions. He has looked also at the contributions of current serving politicians and how they have wrestled with the social and political legislative challenges in Victoria over the last five years. These challenges confronted by my colleagues – including Christine Campbell and myself – are very similar to the challenges that are confronted in over 80 legislatures around the western world – in Canada, in North America, within the countries within the European Union. The work of Dr Cowen can speak into each of those legislatures and into each of those debates, in some moral standpoint, in some regard to those transcendent and enduring values that have guided western civilization for 3000 years and related civilizations during that time.

Australian and international legislatures represent battlegrounds in the contest of ideas. But do in fact twenty-first century legislatures draw upon universal values, which have been defined unequivocally and historically in the speeches, constitutions, architecture, monuments and notable lives of past democratic leaders in the western world or is legislation to be defined by postmodern, secular, atheist, hedonomat values?

I’d like to take a quick journey through some of the Parliamentary precincts around the world. In Melbourne bounded by Spring St, an extension of Collins St being McArthur St, and Albert St is a Parliamentary precinct. There are a number of fountains, monuments and buildings within that particular block. I recently found out in the Treasury building corner of that precinct, there is a statue of Gordon of Khartoum. Interestingly, in the statue placed there by his admirers in Australia at that time, he is holding a bible in his hand. What does that say to the values that he reflected and represented to the people of Melbourne? On the other side of the block up near Albert St, there is a fountain but also a statue of Sir Doug Nichols who was Governor of South Australia, perhaps one of Australia’s most famous indigenous sons, a league footballer, a Church of Chr pastor. He worked with the Aboriginal Advancement League in Melbourne. And interestingly, religious values imbued and guided his life and life’s journey. And then there is the church on the corner, St Peter’s church, which has a plaque marking the contribution of the Governor of Victoria, Charles Latrobe, the first Governor of Victoria, as a founder and benefactor of the church. Interestingly, there is a recorded prayer of Governor Latrobe in speaking to the approach of the early colonists, where he states, “not by individual aggrandizement, by the acquisition of numerous flocks and herd and by the acquisition of costly acres that the people shall ensure for the country enduring prosperity and happiness but by the acquisition and maintenance of sound moral and religious institutions, without which no country can become truly great”. And then there is the role of the Australian Constitution which governed the nation from the Victorian Parliament, wherein are the words “Humbly relying upon the blessing of Al-mighty G-d” which was incorporated in the constitutional document of Federation in 1901. And 19 out of 26 Australian Prime Ministers have had a nominal or observant faith. And in the words of the longest serving Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies, a number of years ago, it was noted. “Human nature is at its greatest when it combines dependence upon G-d with independence of man”. And then there are Senior Australians of the Year, who have humbly assumed that high office and nomination. Unknown to many Australians is the role of the quiet and private faith that has guided their lives and has led them to that position of nomination and appointment.

So we can go from this particular square in Melbourne briefly to Washington where we have the Lincoln Memorial where it is written “This nation under G-d shall have a new birth of freedom”. Or the Jefferson Memorial where it is noted: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that G-d is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” Or the Congress Library which has on the words Library, “What does the L-rd require of thee, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with thy G-d.” And in the American Congress chamber itself around a ceiling like this room here there are 23 relief portraits including Colbert, Pothier, Edward the first, Pope Gregory, Justinian, Lycurgus, Solon, Gaius, Maimonides, Suluman the Magnificent, Pope Innocent the third, Grotius, Sir William Blackstone, Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson, Maimonides. But out of those 23 relief portraits, there is only one at the front overlooking the Congress, the only one that overlooks the whole chamber and that is Moses.

And then we briefly move over to England, to Westminster, where Queen Elizabeth took her coronation oath and the archbishop in 1953 asked,Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?”

The Queen replied, “I will”.

And the archbishop then said, “Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?”

The Queen said, “All this I promise to do”

And then there is the life of Wilberforce, who abolished the slave trade, who through that struggle over a 33 year period or so was guided and driven by his faith.

Before closing I’d just like to comment that I gained a comment from an outside jurisdiction in relation to the book that Shimon has written. He wrote back to me, “I really like this work. It is sound and clearly articulates the role of universal values as a basis for public policy”. And he is but one of many legislators across the Western World who I believe could benefit from the work, scholarship and the insights of Dr Cowen. As I mentioned earlier Dr Cowen stands as one of a small group of men and women in Victoria who have sought to apply their force of intellect and faith, to articulate a vision of a better world, grounded in a spiritual literacy. Shimon has concluded his treatise with a thought that “a culture needs to be cultivated…with a sense of commitment in relationships and of the value of life.” He concludes that

The moral and hope of such a stance is that a single, articulate, strong voice can penetrate and crack a wall of political correctness. And it does not ultimately matter who says it. No human is perfect, we are not trapped in our past.

Dr Cowen notes further,

A politician who has had an abortion can now genuinely believe and say that abortion on demand is wrong. We are capable individually and collectively of restoring our orientation to the traditional compass of the human spirit, the human soul. The time has come to add courage to conscience (p. 120).

The work of Dr Cowen has advanced the cause to a very high degree and I wish Dr Cowen every success as the book is distributed in the days and years ahead.

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

[1] [A vote in which individual politicians are permitted to vote freely according to conscience, without party discipline. Ed.]