In Defence of Universal Ethics

Contemporary debates about moral issues are increasingly detached from any broader ethical perspective by proponents of change who frame their views in terms of individual preferences or “rights”. As a result, the ethical issue is often lost as ensuing arguments centre on rights and discrimination while regulatory controls are offered to appease opposition.

Take euthanasia, for example, which proponents prefer to call “voluntary assisted dying”, a phrase that cloaks the moral issue at stake. It is now legal across much of Australia. Legislators who voted for euthanasia gave repeated assurances that provision would be strictly regulated, that it would be available only in the most desperate circumstances, and that categories of eligibility would not be expanded. Fat chance, as euthanasia opponents had long warned. In January 2024, the ACT Human Rights Commission led the charge, calling for teenagers to be afforded access to euthanasia. The commission argued that denial of access infringed the “right” of teenagers to receive health care “without discrimination”. Setting aside the dystopian euphemism that the killing of a patient by a doctor falls within the ambit of “health care”, framing the matter in terms of a “right” that can be asserted by an individual against others ignores serious moral issues, such as the capacity to give informed consent. It also ignores a much more fundamental moral question: Is this how human beings ought to live?

Any idea that there can be an unequivocal answer to this question, or that there are universal moral norms which apply to all human beings regardless of who they are, is unfashionable, to say the least. Such is the premium placed on individual autonomy and the subjectivity of “lived experience” that what it means for something to be “right” or “wrong” in any situation is often deemed to be nothing more than a matter of opinion. People want to choose their own experience—whether length of life, avoidance of suffering, or even physical appearance—and reject any kind of constraint that impinges on their freedom to choose. It is as if human beings have slipped their moral moorings and lost the capacity to understand the proposition that what is right might always be right, and that what is wrong might always be wrong.

But it is just this claim about the universality of ethics that Shimon Cowen sets out to defend in his new collection of essays, A Populism of the Spirit: Further Essays in Politics and Universal Ethics. Cowen, who is a rabbi and director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilisation in Melbourne, is the author of two previous books on the topic, Politics and Universal Ethics and The Theory and Practice of Universal Ethics. This latest book can be read very profitably without reference to the other two, but it forms part of a larger—and greatly needed—exposition and defence of universal ethics.

Cowen traces the roots of universal ethics to the divine revelations recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures which forged a moral covenant between humanity and the Creator. These basic laws, known as the Noahide laws, are named for Noah, the survivor of the biblical flood and father of humanity. “The tradition of these ethical laws”, says Cowen, forms “the root morality of the world religions which surfaces in and out of human consciousness throughout history”.

Fundamental “anchor prohibitions” of society, such as the deliberate taking of human life, become easier to overturn when the spiritual and religious roots of those prohibitions wither. Cowen warns that this is precisely what has happened and points, as evidence, to debates about euthanasia and same-sex marriage which are invariably framed solely in terms of individual needs and preferences and the assertion of rights.

Critics affronted by what they infer is an attack on the rational principles of Enlightenment might argue that Cowen wants the spiritual tradition of universal ethics to displace reason. Not so, says Cowen; rather, the spiritual tradition must tutor reason. “The role of universal ethics is to establish the contours and principles of reason, which reason itself cannot supply, but necessarily takes from somewhere else.”

Cowen argues that rejection of the spiritual has allowed a new ideology to emerge which is oriented to physical and psychological gratification. He calls this ideology “hedonistic materialism” (coining the neologism Hedonomat) and says it has taken root, in part, because of the weakness of traditional faith in defending universal ethics:

[Hedonomat] pursued the quest for pleasure and flight from pain, uninhibited by the review of conscience, anchored in traditional faith, that decides what pleasure may be legitimately indulged and what pain may legitimately be escaped.

Whereas the tradition of faith defines human being in terms of a relation to a creator and an injunction to honour the divinely inspired soul, Hedonomat simply asserts that a human being is “compelled by drives or emotions and perceptions and is accordingly fulfilled only through the actualisation of those emotional drives and perceptions”. Once uncoupled from conscience informed by an acceptance of the universality of fundamental moral principles, Hedonomat is free to roam in pursuit its materialist ends.

And roam it does. The scope of A Populism of the Spirit is broad and Cowen demonstrates the extent to which the ideology of Hedonomat has penetrated the culture by means of legislation and policy. He warns of threats to religious liberty that now regularly arise when conscience informed by faith is deemed to threaten the materialist program. Education and the business of what goes on in the classroom and on campus is another front that has opened up in the culture wars. Cowen argues cogently that the spiritual component of education must be embraced if it is to fulfil its proper function, that is, “to produce a citizen who does not steal, who respects life [and] justice and [who] upholds a variety of other basic universal values”. But as Cowen demonstrates, universal ethics also has application when thinking about economics, the environment, the family, aged care and health care.

And what of the populism of the spirit? Cowen uses the expression to denote the reaction against those forms of moral outlook that we sense have “eclipsed the human spirit or soul, with its moral compass and religious teaching that have guided civilisation as we know it”. In other words, “populism of the spirit” reflects what Cowen considers to be a residual spiritual awareness of conscience lurking in the human soul that prompts a revolt against the ideology of Hedonomat.

Can the tide of hedonistic materialism be turned? Those vested in promoting human being as a composite of bodily and psychological impulses whose interests are maximisation of pleasure and minimisation of pain resist fiercely all efforts to redraw the moral boundaries of a universal ethics. Yet if Cowen is correct, the populist response he identifies and expounds in this timely collection suggests that the roots of universal ethics nonetheless run very deeply indeed. However, confidence must not give way to complacency. The divinely imprinted capacity to discern that which is fundamentally good will never be eradicated from the human spirit; but the spirit of the age will not cease striving to obscure the historical ethical heritage in which all human beings stand.

A Populism of the Spirit: Further Essays in Politics and Universal Ethics
by Shimon Cowen

Connor Court, 2022, 376 pages, $39.95

Peter Kurti is Director of the Culture, Prosperity and Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies, and is Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia.


6 thoughts on “In Defence of Universal Ethics

  • cel47143 says:

    Along with the discipline’s of economics, the environment, the family, aged care and health care I would add the push, as per the accompanying article on the adoption of aboriginal law. How does universal ethics fir in there? A point to ponder.

    • Paul from Sydney says:

      Yes ironically hedonistic materialism seems to suddenly disappear when it comes to Aboriginal spirituality. It is strange how hedonistic materialism can suddenly become very romantic about spiritualities that are completely incongruous with modernity whereas those that can stand side by side with it like Christianity are despised.

  • pgang says:

    The west’s problem is one of philosophical collapse. First it has rejected supernatural authority (and therefore universal ethics), leaving an open field for the minds of man-gods to decide the fates of others. Subsequently it has become trapped within the philosophical conundrum of the one and the many, disintegrating the ‘person’ by insisting it must either be collective or individual, but never both. All confusion stems from this secular humanist whirlpool – am I an individual free to do whatever I please, or am I a slave to the collective? This is a form of nihilism, which is inevitably expressed as socialism (equality in nothingness).
    Given that this is where we now stand (or float meaninglessly), on what basis can we claim any sort of ultimate ‘ethic’?

  • Searcher says:

    Better to acknowledge that our ‘universal’ ethics is an approximative generalisation, and should be seen as conditioned by national and religious cultural traditions. Try as we may, we are not clever enough to produce an absolutely (or unconditioned) universal ethics. National and religious cultural traditions are properly subject to comparison and criticism. We are an evolving species.

  • James McKenzie says:

    When Lydia Thorpe mocked the oath to parliament and accommodated thereto was the death of ethics. Her divisive hate expletives remain unchallenged: note Nazi symbolism is verboten, but we are facing similar. Then the Hamas issue: where we see the Aboriginal Flag supporting the extermination of colonist powers. Now to coin an old adage, the natives are unsettled as those in Alice Springs: who delivered this toxicity? At a minimum Lydia should have been persecuted for sedition.

  • Simon Mundy says:

    As a bit of basic reasoning, one cannot derive a “universal ethics” from a particular spititual tradition as the author says Cowen attempts to do. We might get a universal ethics from a synthesis of several major spiritual traditions: they are in broad agreement as to “how one should live”. The question is then, what underlies this similarity?

    A partal answer is that a problem with Hedonomatsy (?) is that it only allow a very limited set of “drives or emotions and perceptions”. The range thereof is much wider than either the Hedonomats or the deistic religions allow. When we are able to include our need for moral companionship, our need for agreement and cohesion with our fellows-in-society, our basic understanding of fairness (which even 3 week old babies seem to demonstrate), we move much closer to a wholesome fulfilling of our humanity “through the actualisation of those emotional drives and perceptions”.

    The challenge of an ethics which is supported by more than supernatural, mythological authorities must, in the end, resort to the resources of the human.

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