BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Resisting the secular left's adversary culture
, July 21, 2012
POLITICS AND UNIVERSAL ETHICS
by Shimon Cowen
(Ballan, Victoria: Connor Court)
Paperback: 120 pages
Reviewed by Peter Westmore
Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, son of the late Australian governor-general, Sir Zelman Cowen, is director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization in Melbourne.
In this book he argues that there is a set of propositions which he terms “universal ethics”, which form the foundation of morality, including political morality.
Dr Cowen writes that these universal ethical principles are enunciated in the Noahide laws, which resemble the Ten Commandments that the Old Testament says were given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.
(Jewish thinkers consider that the seven Noahide laws have universal application, while the Ten Commandments were given to the Jewish people alone. The universal adoption of the Ten Commandments by Christians, together with a superficial reading of the Noahide laws, which include dietary prescriptions and an injunction to establish a legal system, might persuade some gentiles that the reverse is true).
In any case, Dr Cowen argues that there exists a set of ethical principles which tell us what actions are objectively right and wrong, in all times and under all circumstances. Christians often refer to this as the moral law, or natural law.
Dr Cowen provides a most enlightening discussion of the foundations of natural law (pp.80-82), in contrast to positive law which holds “that law originates in human — legislative, political, social and judicial — activity”. In this view, he says, “Law is not intrinsically valid or imperative. It expresses human will, need and political power.”
Dr Cowen contrasts universal ethics with what he calls “the adversary culture” which was responsible for the 2008 Victorian abortion law, and with current moves to legalise euthanasia and homosexual unions.
He describes a cultural struggle between two sets of values, one “anchored in the common tradition of the world’s religions and [which] holds to objective, universal and enduring values, representing the moral covenant of the Creator and the conscience or soul of the human being”, and the other rooted in “an essentially materialistic and secularist philosophy”.
Dr Cowen examines two of the principal arguments made against the concept of universal ethics based on religious belief. The first is that we live in a secular society, and we must accept the separation of church and state. The second appeals to a person’s “rights” or “human rights”, by which is meant autonomy.
In fact, both these arguments are red herrings. The separation of church and state, as embodied in both the Australian and American constitutions, simply provides that the state shall not establish a particular religion, in other words, establish a “state religion”.
The preamble to the Australian Constitution speaks of its constituents “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”, while America’s Declaration of Independence was signed by representatives of the 13 states, “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence”.
Dr Cowen points out that every citizen brings his or her own values, including religious values, to public debate, and in a free society must be able to do so.
Attempts to exclude religion or religious values from public debate amount to a secularist coup to exclude religious principles from the public square.
He also rejects the claim that so-called human rights legislation should override the rights of conscience or of religion.
Dr Cowen sees great dangers in a number of areas, particularly the Victorian abortion legislation of 2008, and in attempts to legalise same-sex unions and euthanasia, and in the enactment of IVF legislation which makes possible the creation of “biologically parentless children”.
He calls for all believers in universal ethical values to work together to ensure that future legislation reflects the principles to which the vast majority of people in society — Christian, Jewish, Muslim and others — subscribe.
He concludes with the words, “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.”