Those values Australians celebrate on Anzac Day – courage, bravery, solidarity and compassion for the fallen – are exactly the same values the Turkish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Iraqi and Afghan people reflect on when they remember their soldiers who fought against us.
We continually talk about ‘mateship’ and ‘a fair go’ as being quintessentially ‘Aussie’ values. As if Australians had some unique claim to them. But ask a patriot of any other country and you will find the same values of comradeship and fairness proudly on display.
Similarly, Christians talk at Easter about truth, love, forgiveness and caring for others as if these were Christianity’s unique contribution to the world. And yet ask a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist about the values they profess and you get the same answers. Ask an agnostic or atheist and you will find these values often underlie a humanistic ‘religion’, to which they are equally committed.
When people talk about ‘our’ values, the inference is that white Anglo-Saxon Australian Christians invented these values, rather than inherited them and then gave them their unique expression.
The truth is that the most basic human values are universally recognised. They are the values parents and teachers everywhere try to pass on to their children - telling the truth, keeping your word, treating people fairly, not harming anyone, lending a helping hand, showing compassion for the suffering of others and respect for the inherent dignity and preciousness of human life.
These are the values people around the world traditionally appeal to when judging the rightness or wrongness of their conduct.
It is important to draw a distinction, therefore, between these universal moral values and their particular forms of expression. No-one would want to deny that Australians have distinctive ways in which they express their identity, any more than one would deny the distinctive ways religious people express their faith.
Thus ‘mateship’ is a nationalist-mythical variation on the Christian commandment to ‘love thy neighbour’, derived from the religious-mythical Old Testament. The story of the Good Samaritan re-interpreted and extended the meaning of ‘neighbour’ to include strangers – something often forgotten in the concept of ‘mateship’. It is the recognition of an other’s need that triggers one’s moral response. Charity may begin at home. But it should never end there.
In an increasingly globalized and interdependent world, no one community – whether nationalist or religious – can claim exclusive or superior values. There are just basic universal human values that are creatively interpreted and applied (or ignored!) by different people throughout the ages.
When people disagree over moral issues they are often tempted to accuse the other person of having different values to themselves. Invariably, however, when challenged, it soon becomes clear that they actually do share these same values, because they apply them in other contexts of their lives and expect others to treat them accordingly.
What the dispute is more likely to be about are such things as: which values apply to the particular situation, what they really mean, how they should be interpreted, what they require in the circumstances, whether there are exceptions to the principles they embody, whether there are competing values which need to be weighed in the balance, etc.
Recognition of the above distinction is of crucial importance to the quality, direction and likely outcome of any debate about moral issues.
If we allow ourselves to think that we have fundamentally different values, then it becomes much easier to demonize others, by accusing them of being fundamentally different and morally inferior to ourselves. The argument quickly deteriorates into one about whose values are best and whether we need to protect our peculiarly ‘Australian values’ from being diluted by exposure to others who don’t appear to share them. On such a basis, we apply different standards towards ‘others’, often with very harmful effects.
In this context, people frequently get drawn into unhelpful debates about the origins and ‘authority’ of their values. Religious fundamentalists claim divine authority and post-modernist fundamentalists claim that all values are subjective and relative. Such debates usually end in a hostile stalemate and result in a disengagement from the real practical issues confronting us.
By contrast, an acceptance that we all share the same basic moral values but disagree over such things as their meaning, relevance, application and relative weight enables us to join together in a properly focused discussion about these matters. This approach recognizes that we usually have more in common than we think and it enables us to discuss moral issues within a rational framework. The tone is less acrimonious and there is a better prospect of co-operative problem solving and creative resolution.
In this kind of discussion, disputes typically revolve around two major points of contention: disagreement about the facts and coherence in the arguments put forth. The former can only be resolved by looking dispassionately at the evidence, like a jury well instructed on the issue of relevance. The latter, requires an examination of the way values are interpreted and applied in other contexts of concern to see whether they are consistent.
In relation to the war in Afghanistan, for example, the factual issue would require us to focus our attention on an evaluation of the evidence (as distinct from the political assertions) of a sufficient imminent threat to our national security to justify military invasion. The issue of coherence would require us to ask how we can justify making Afghan civilians pay the price, in terms of their human sacrifice and suffering, for alleviating our feelings of insecurity, when we would never be willing to make our own citizens and loved ones pay a similar price. We can only ignore this moral dilemma by treating Afghan lives as being of lesser worth than our own.
Some people believe that arguing on the basis of our moral values is naïve and too idealistic for the ‘real’ world, where decisions are made by brutes, liars and cheats, based on ruthless political or economic self interest and corruption. Of course, these realities must be recognised and exposed for what they are. But by what standards are we to judge them, or our own responses to them, if not on the basis of the values we profess to live by?
In relation to our treatment of asylum-seekers, the factual issue would require us to evaluate the evidence (as distinct from the assertions) that we are being ‘invaded’, that we have lost control of our borders, that boat people threaten our national security, etc. On the issue of consistency, we might reflect on the very different way we treat asylum-seekers who arrive by plane. Or how we treat children who come by boat compared to other children in our community.
We should beware here of confusing the personal and public domains in which the moral debate is taking place. A person can quite properly argue for a more liberal refugee or immigration policy without wanting to open their private home to other than their immediate family.
In moral arguments, there will sometimes be competing moral values which need to be weighed in the balance. The Wikileaks debate, for example, highlights the competing values of truth and freedom of expression and the need to protect human life that could be endangered by publication.
Occasionally, a moral issue will require a major re-evaluation of what the competing moral values really mean or require in order to do them justice: for example, interpreting ‘equality of treatment’ with ‘fairness’ for a disadvantaged group, such as aborigines.
We should beware, however, of treating strongly-held opinions as competing moral principles. Thus, in the gay marriage debate, the opinions of those who have ‘a fundamental belief’ that marriage can only be between a man and a woman should not be elevated into moral values that must be respected. Such opinions can have little weight when confronted with a clear moral principle, based on both fairness and equality of treatment, that it is wrong to discriminate simply on the basis of sexual preference.
In such moral debates, personal vilification of those with different views is no substitute for principled argument.
At their best, so-called Aussie and Christian values can serve us well enough provided they are not exclusive, self-promoting or jingoistic. The danger is that they reinforce the discriminatory barriers that exist between ‘us’ and those defined as ‘not us’. The only way to avoid this is to insist always that these distinctive national and religious expressions rest ultimately on more fundamental moral values that unite us all in a common humanity.
In this regard, one of the greatest moral challenges of our time is to constantly remind ourselves of this deeper reality and afford the same concern and respect for the lives of ‘others’ as we do for ‘our own’. In an increasingly globalised and inter-dependent world there is no longer ‘us and them’; it’s all ‘us’ now! We are all in it together. And only one set of values will do. Values sans frontiers!