By Dr Simon Longstaff
It is seven years since the Ethics Centre was approached by parents asking if it might be possible to develop a program of study about ethics that might then be made available to primary school students not attending scripture classes in NSW Primary Schools. We thought that this sounded like a simple enough request – so wrote to the then Premier, Bob Carr, asking if this might be done. Carr referred our letter to the Education Minister of the day, Dr Andrew Refshauge, who eventiually replied by dismissing our request along the lines that there was little interest, within the community, about the issue we had raised.
Well, today sees the announcement, by Premier Nathan Rees, of approval for the Centre to oversee a pilot program to test a program of classes on ethics that will complement both the core curriculum and special religious education. This announcement represents a remarkable achievement by parents on behalf of the children of New South Wales. Rather than accept, at face value, Andrew Refshauge’s assertion that there was only marginal interest in this topic, we contacted the NSW Federation of P&C Associations and found that contrary to the Minister’s claim, there was overwhemliming support for modest change of the kind requested. Indeed, the support ran right across the Board – including parents who supported the maintenance of scripture in NSW Primary Schools and indeed, from parents who sent their children to scripture each week.
In the meanime, Andrew Phillips (then working at the Centre) completed a thorough investigation of the legislative and regulatory context within which the debate was being conducted. He discovered that there was no legal impediment to introducing a new program. Rather, a Departmental regulation stood in the way – and this could be changed at any time if the Government of the day was minded to do so. Andrew also made the observation that ethics was already being taught to some (in scripture classes) so why not to all during the allocated period – but without the theology.
It has never been the intention of the Ethics Centre to weaken or remove scripture from NSW Primary schools. Rather, we simply wanted to support the claim by parents that all children be engaged in meaningful activity during the allotted period. With this in mind, we sought to engage directly with faith groups. And so we did – with the aim of enlisiting their formal support for a policy based on the just treatment of all children. We encountered many synpathetic opinions amongst the faithful – but only a few willing to provide institutional support for the proposal. Of those who did offer support, the Uniting Church was most fully engaged. Indeed, its Director of Education, John Oldmeadow, came up with the compelling idea that any of the material developed for the proposed ethics program also be made available to faith groups for possible inclusion in their own offerings – with the material then interpreted through the lens of their own tradition. That way, no child would be denied access to the newly developed material and methodologies. Unfortunately, some faith groups still opposed the proposal – thinking that it would weaken their relative position. I must confess to disappointment that any religion would think to place its institutional interests before those of children.
In September of this year, we wrote to the current Minister for Education, the Hon Verity Firth, proposing a modest trial of a program that would complement the core curriculum and scripture. We wrote knowing that seven schools had already volunteered to participate in the trial and with the clear understanding that NSW teachers would not be required to partcipate in the program now or in the future. Rather, this would be a trial initiated by, led by and conducted by parents and volunteers. Once again, a number of faith based groups expressed their opposition. However, there has been a massive, public campaign by parents and on this occasion, their request was heard by a sympathetic ear in government.
So, here we are – on the brink of an historic change in government policy where principle has come to the fore. Acknowledgement must be paid to the parents who have worked so hard for this outcome and to the volunteers who have given so much of their time and energy to the project – to Ann Storr, Sue Hooke and Coleen MacKinnon in particular.
Now the real challenge begins – to develop and implement a world-class program of ethical enquiry within the State Primary Schools of NSW.
Sunday, November 1st, 2009
By Dr Simon Longstaff
Recent debate about Australia’s official response to the phenomenon of asylum seekers fleeing to our shores without official permission has highlighted a particularly potent ethical dilemma facing the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Mr Rudd is a man of deep faith and personal conviction who has publicly commended the example set by the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoffer who was, by the standards of his day, an ‘illegal people smuggler’. Mr Rudd is also a Prime Minister – charged with acting in the public interest and let’s face it, in the interests of the political party that he leads. The famous ‘problem of dirty hands’ begins with this duality – between the demands of individual conscience and the demands of public office. Ideally, the demands of each should be the same – or at least complimentary. But what if they are not? In those circumstances, should a man like Kevin Rudd ‘get his hands dirty’ by violating the dictates of his own conscience in order to serve the public interest?
It is important to note here that the challenge before Kevin Rudd, in this case, is not that he should do exactly as Bonhoffer did. After all, the actions of Bonhoffer were in a different time and in aid of people facing a different kind of evil. The people-smugglers of today exploit the vulnerability of those wanting to chance a risky voyage to Australia – a chance that they are prepared to take for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, Bonhoffer was motivated solely by a selfless Christian charity and sought to offer protection to Jewish people at risk of annihilation by the Nazi State. So, it is entirely possible that Kevin Rudd might, in all good conscience, distinguish between the circumstances in which Bonhoffer acted and those in which he finds himself. But what if, in his deeper self (in his soul) Kevin Rudd does not see the distinction so clearly?
Some have argued that a political leader cannot legitimately expect to accord their individual conscience primacy over the public interest. While they might hope to govern without ever encountering any major divergence between the two, they must ultimately accept the possbility that this might occur and that should this be so, then they will bear the terrible, personal cost of violating their conscience in service of the public.
The ‘problem of dirty hands’ has inspired some powerful writing by authors like Machiavelli, Max Weber and Michael Walzer. I would especially recommend Walzer’s 1973 classic, “Political Action: the problem of dirty hands”. Without trying to trace the lineaments of Walzer’s confronting argument, I would highlight Wlazer’s observation that, if nothing else, we should hope for a political leader who cares so much to act in good conscience that, if they do not, then their life will be ruined forever. Yet, Walzer also hopes for a political leader who will not privilege the dictates of his or her own conscience, who will be prepared to destroy their sense of integrity and who will readily accept that the public will both accept the benefits that flow from this sacrifice and insist on the right to punish them for their ethical transgressions. Wlazer’s essay makes chilling reading for any political leader and should be compulsory reading – for all.
This was not the choice faced by Bonhoffer – who chose to encounter the terror of his own death but not the destruction of his soul. As a political leader, Kevin Rudd does not risk death as a consequence of the decisions he makes about people seeking asylum outside formal channels. But what, if any, of the risk to the Prime Minister’s soul?
The point of Bonhoffer is not so much in what he did (vitally important as it was) – but in why he acted to his extreme risk; in his demonstration of moral courage sufficient to act in accordance with his conscience. On this understanding of the significance of Bonhoffer, Kevin Rudd only encounters a serious problem if he finds himself acting in a manner contrary to his own conscience. And only Kevin Rudd knows if this is so.
Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre www.ethics.org.au