Author: Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen 21 August 2013

What are universal ethics?

Author: Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen
21 August 2013


Universal ethics are so called, because they are objective and eternal. History bears them out, and not withstanding ruptures and obscuring of these values for certain periods of history, they return. The reason why they return is because the human spirit resonates with them. The reason why the human spirit – or soul – resonates with and returns to them is because they embody Divine values or attributes and the human soul by its nature “imitates the Divine”.

Various names have been given to these universal ethics. One name is the “Noahide laws”, so called after Biblical survivor of the flood, and ancestor of all humanity, Noah, with whom this ethical covenant was completed. The Noahide laws have travelled through history and human consciousness. They were the values by which Abraham, the father of great world religions, lived and they were reiterated at Mount Sinai in the revelation mediated by Mosses and experienced by the entire Jewish people. Their transmission from Sinai affects not only the major world religions but also has entered modern secular consciousness. The great Renaissance jurists, the Dutchman Hugo Grolius and the Englishman John Seldon saw in the Noahide laws the foundations of national (municipal) and international law. The United States Congress ratified them in 1991 in the preamble to a bill as the “bedrock of society since the dawn of civilization” and the Australian Governor General in 2008 endorsed them as applying “to all contemporary issues and therefore play an important role in our day-to-day lives”. The King of Morocco has also welcomed universal ethics as “the bridge between religions and civilizations”.

These universal ethics are not Judaism, Christianity or Islam (or for that matter any of the other major world religions). Rather they constitute their root and common denominator. One project carried out by the Institute for Judaism and Civilization with Christian and Muslim colleagues – has been to show how Judaism, Christianity and Islam all affirm this basic set of common values. These in fact constitute their shared Abrahamic ethical core, consistent with the Noahide laws. A little booklet documenting these values, called “An education to a shared ethic” can be accessed here.

See also the DVD in which Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders discuss the common resonance of the values expressed in this booklet here.