Several weeks ago, NSW Premier Mike Baird found himself under scrutiny for allegedly cutting a deal with Fred Nile to reduce parents’ ability to be aware of the option of ethics classes as an alternative to Special Religious Education (SRE) – or “scripture” – in NSW Primary Schools.
Although the allegations of a deal were denied, Nile and other faith groups would still prefer that the NSW Government approve policy that would make parents aware of the availability of ethics classes only after they had decided against SRE. The implication being that only non-religious families would be likely to have their children enrol in ethics classes, because the existence of such classes would only be made known after a parent has opted out.
The value of ethics classes
But the nuanced political-cum-bureaucratic workings here belies more important questions: why are ethics classes opt-in to begin with, and why are they set in competition with religious education? Ethics, or moral philosophy, is an intellectual discipline designed to understand how our ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, affect the way in which people ought to live their lives.
Ethical questions are some of the most important ones that we can ask, and indeed, are asking as a society. Is it ever right to kill? Should all people be permitted to marry? Is work morally good, or a necessary evil?
Perhaps more importantly, ethics teaches us how to think broadly, coherently and carefully about these matters rather than reducing debate to politicised sound bites and emotivistic slogans. These abilities, it should be clear, are definitive of what makes a good citizen and, indeed, part of what makes a good person.
The state has an interest, then, in every citizen being able to think ethically, not only the non-religious. Indeed, for all the virtues of religious belief, there is a hazard in the certainty of answers provided by faith as a substitute for well-reasoned and carefully informed moral beliefs. They needn’t be, but it is a risk that skills of analytic thinking can overcome. It doesn’t seem clear, then, why the decision between SRE and ethics classes should be an either/or.
Contrary to this, during his Sydney visit the Dalai Lama suggested that where religion had failed to build ethical societies, perhaps secular ethics would have more success. Perhaps, he seemed to argue, ethics classes would serve as an excellent moral alternative to those whose lack of religion meant they lacked a moral code to adhere to.
But this is contradictory: by his own admission, religious moral codes have been ineffective. It seems that the religious and non-religious alike could probably benefit from some rigorous ethics classes.
Setting aside the specifics of the Primary Ethics curriculum, which is currently implemented in NSW, the idea of ethics classes, in some form, being available for primary school students (and onward) is a demonstrably prosocial enterprise that has a strong pedagogical and intellectual basis.
Recognition of this has prompted business leaders to speak out in favour of Ethics classes and against the proposal being considered by the Baird government.
In an open letter to the Premier, over 60 academic philosophers and ethics teachers write that “[Primary Ethics] provides a remarkable grounding in ethical and critical thought, a skill fundamental to living in today’s complex world.”
This has been recognised in Australia for some time. Alongside Primary Ethics exists a long-standing Philosophy in Schools Association, and a newly-launched Journal for Philosophy in Schools. Although these lack some of the marketing panache of Primary Ethics, they are no less intellectually rigorous. So, both Australian ethicists and the Dalai Lama are on board with the idea. Why, then, is there such resistance amongst (most notably) religious groups in Australia – for their existence?
Ethics vs. religion in Australia
The dispute over ethics classes began several years ago, when Cardinal George Pell was still Archbishop of Sydney and one of the most vocal opponents. Current Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher was also involved in submissions from the Catholic Education Office expressing concerns about the pilot program. But the dispute is merely a microcosm of an increasing social trend in Australia to present religious and secular life as starkly opposed, rival traditions.
Ethics, in this context, is seen as a secular equivalent to religious accounts of life’s meaning, virtue, and happiness: an equally robust and thick account to rival the traditions explored in SRE. In response, many religious educators – the most vocal of which have been within the Catholic Church – have rejected ethics classes as a viable option for students because of the relativistic notions that underpin the ethical teaching.
As a person who has spent the overwhelming majority of his life as a student of the Catholic approach to education, this seems both disappointing and contradictory to the spirit of the Church. Virtue-based, formative approaches to education should be definitive of the Catholic (and religious) approach to schooling, and there should be fewer more vocal supportive of the teaching of ethics in schools than religious traditions.
By buttressing their rival positions, secular ethicists and religious thinkers alike have deprived students – who should be the focus – of the best possible education. Religious students are deprived of the opportunity to learn about and discuss ethics and the good life in a dedicated, systematic, and open-minded manner; and those students enrolled in ethics classes are being taught a version of ethics that is far less compelling and fulfilling than it might otherwise be if it were supplemented by the accrued wisdom of thousands of years of moral philosophical thinking from within religious traditions.
The stark opposition of “ethics” and “religion” comes close to presenting ethics as a kind of secular religion, which is starkly contrary to the prevailing attitudes in the history of the intellectual development of the discipline. In discussions of ethics and moral philosophy, religious thinkers have been, and continue to be important influences on moral discourse.
Figures such as Averroes, Maimonides, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre – not to mention the ethical thinking of the eastern traditions (in which religion and ethics are not wo diametrically opposed) – are discussed on their merits alongside non-religious thinkers like Aristotle, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, Simone de Beauvoir, Alain Badiou, or Raimond Gaita.
Partly at issue here is the sacredness of the separation of Church and State. Neoliberal thinking has demanded that students not be forced to consume religiously informed thinking by the state, but that religion remain private. In doing so, however, morality – a rich tradition that includes questions of virtue, flourishing, the nature of the human person and robust accounts of the common good – risks being reduced to simple, banal, and largely empty notions. Most contemporary ethical thinking builds on very old foundations, including religious thinking. To cut it off from its intellectual source risks rendering moral reflection baseless altogether.
Perhaps the case is even more difficult in Australia because, in the wake of child abuse scandals, increasing extremism around the world, and the increasing tendency of religious commentary to focus on particular moral issues, religion has lost some of the moral authority it once had as a social voice.
It seems likely, though, that encouraging the development of deeply engaging, rich ethics classes in schools – and supporting the development of morally-informed young people – would be a step toward reclaiming that.