8.4 The Moral Consensus And The Individual
From The Judeo-Christian Ethic by LJM Cooray (1996)

Moral values based on spiritual or religious values are the only reasonable and humane basis of law. The Australian Values Study demonstrates that these values are supported by over 90% of the people of Australia. There is therefore a moral justification and a democratic justification for supporting these values as the basis of the legal system. Those who seek to impose contrary values are a very insignificant minority in terms of the total population. They, however, exercise considerable influence in the political, academic and media circles, which in combination set the agenda of the political debate of this country and thereby exercise tremendous influence over government and changes in the law. These changes are effected gradually and in stages, with the people being deceived about the real intentions and the ultimate consequences.

The consensus which Lord Devlin refers to was a part of, and very influential in, the rise and development of western civilisation. The Australian Values Study seems to indicate that it still exists in the modern western community and in the Australian community. A major problem, however, is that elites in politics, society, media and even in religious organisations have turned their backs on the traditional conceptions of right and wrong. Some have done so deliberately — others support ideas and causes which have (for them) the unintended effect of undermining values to which they are mentally committed. The latter factors may also explain the breakdown in traditional morality which some regard as a feature of modern society.

A liberal society can tolerate individuals who do not accept the moral consensus. The problem arises when the consensus which existed over moral values begins to break down. When a large section or a majority of the population rejects the basic moral values, tensions in society increase. That point has not yet been reached in Australia. The Australian Values Study demonstrates that support for traditional values is high. In the United States and the United Kingdom recent surveys demonstrate that after a period of progressivism there is a distinct drift back to basics. The argument developed in this book is that what is important is the existence of a consensus covering a very significant part of the population.

Certain non-legal restrictions on freedom are an essential part of the democratic order. These must be preserved, creatively adapted and nurtured. Some moral values are translated into law. See analysis in section 18.2. Liberals may legitimately argue that other moral values should not be translated into law, but they should nonetheless, in the arena of public debate, assert the importance of these values and the social sanctions attached to breaches thereof.

An example of the above distinction (moral values translated into law and moral values subject to social sanctions) may be provided with reference to laws governing, and the public attitude to, homosexuality. Homosexual acts in private among consenting adults should be tolerated and not be visited by criminal sanctions. But it does not follow that homosexuality should be publicly condoned and encouraged. It does not follow that the law should provide similar benefits to homosexual partners (and also to "de facto spouses") as to married persons, that homosexuality should be publicly presented in schools as a legitimate alternate life style, that public money should be used to promote homosexual life styles and activities, or that public comment on the undesirability and unnaturalness of homosexuality should cease. Toleration of life styles alternative to the family, which do not offend the law, is part of liberalism. But this does not mean that they must be given moral sanction, recognised by law and subsidised from the public purse.

Supporters of moral values may support liberalisation of laws which are harsh in their operation (eg homosexuality among consenting adults). However, they have failed to stand up for moral values and to emphasise their importance in community life. Many who have enjoyed the benefits of family life are not willing to stand up for marriage and the family. While supporting legislation which decriminalises homosexuality among consenting adults, they are not willing to stand up and express views about homosexuality. They have failed, in a free society, to articulate the need for the observance of certain values.

There has been an absence of sustained rational argument, by those who believe in traditional moral values, to oppose (so-called) progressivism and to distinguish between the productive and counter-productive aspects of (so-called) progressivism. The running on these issues has been left to social moralists whose simplistic ideas and intolerant outbursts have not always constructively helped the development of those community moral values which are necessary to give meaning and depth to freedom.

Moral values have been attacked by socialists, progressivists and the libertarians. Some socialists, emphasising regulation and social systems, belittle moral and individual responsibility. Common, broad based values are not seen as ennobling. They are regarded as restrictive and repressive. Some libertarians, stressing the importance of the freedom of the individual, have also been responsible by silence and sometimes by active espousal of near absolute freedom, for the decline in commitment to broadly agreed values. The libertarian, by emphasising the success at any cost ethic, has been responsible for fostering an epidemic of amorality, which on another plane liberals have professed to deplore.

An unembarrassed sense of morality is essential to formulation of public policy and determination of the role of government, as well as to the life of the culture and civilisation. A shared morality has been a significant facet in the rise and development of western civilisation. The fragmentation of that morality is one of the tensions of the present.

While emphasising "moral values", it is important at the same time to avoid both moral absolutism and unconditional moral relativism (ethnocentrism). A system of morality based on the values common to all religions, subject to free inquiry and discussion can alone make practical application of moral values possible.

The emphasis on morality and Christian values does not mean that all things which have been done in the past in the name of Christianity, the Church and moral values, as well as the extremes of regulation. Absolute freedom leads to anarchy. The regulationists point to the problems that freedom creates but freedom is meaningful only where there are mechanisms, both legal and social, to ensure that freedom is not abused beyond socially acceptable limits. The excesses of the past in the name of morality and Christianity needed to be tempered and moderated. Permissiveness, in many areas, is going too far in the opposite direction. Many civilisations (notably that of Rome) which have fallen prey to sloth and permissiveness have declined and fallen. It is not yet too late for western civilisation to heed this important lesson of history. The Judeo-Christian system of ethics has been influential both in the development of law, particularly the common law, and in moulding community values. Its influence in both areas has been reduced in recent times.