Ethics classes under threat

Ethics classes in NSW are under threat. After signficant debate last year, ethics classes can now be offered as an alternative to scripture classes in state primary schools. Since I wrote about some of the discussion of ethics and scripture classes at my daughters’ school (nearly 12 months ago) the school has successfully introduced ethics classes. My daughter attends classes, she enjoys them and I have been impressed with what she has been discussing.

Reverend Fred Nile (a member of the NSW Upper House) is attempting to overturn the legislation allowing the classes. He claims he is not blackmailing the Government:

I have not sought to blackmail the NSW government. I simply reminded them: before they reject my Ethics Repeal Bill, they should remember they need our votes to pass their controversial industrial relations legislation. I never said I would vote against it, even though I have genuine concerns about its impact. (From an opinion piece written by him in the Sydney Morning Herald.)

According to ABC news Nile has also claimed:

“[It is] a course which I believe does not teach children right from wrong but promotes the secular, humanist relativist philosophy,” he said. “I believe this is the philosophy that we saw during World War Two with the Nazis and the communists.”

Ethics are vital in community engagement (or should be). The reason I’m committed to community engagement (and teaching ethical decision making) is because I believe they can help make the world a better place. I’m not interested in supporting community engagement for groups who are not helping to improve society. While not all community engagement is about community building, I believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that our work is good for the community. I do not support community engagement activities that promote smoking, exclusion of minority groups, hatred and other things that undermine the wellbeing of community members. I’m also a strong supporter for the means being consistent with the desired ends so how we try to engage the community should be consistent with building a strong community.

How does this relate to the ethics classes? I believe that in community engagement we have a responsibility to be honest, open and fair. In my role as a peace and environment activist, I don’t support making exaggerated claims about the seriousness of the challenges we face and believe we should represent the position of other people fairly and respectfully. I don’t believe we need to exaggerate the dangers of climate change and peak oil, and if we make alarmist statements we can lose credibility. (Of course it can be very hard not to seem alarmist when so much of the situation is so grim.)

I get angry when people like Nile make outrageous statements and misrepresent the position of supporters of ethics classes (and get even angrier with the tactics of many climate change deniers) so I need to be careful to make sure that I don’t do it to others. I want to believe that Nile acts with good intentions even if I believe his attitudes are often judgemental and disrespectful.

Nile (and other opponents of ethics classes) appear to believe that we need the bible and Jesus to know what is right and wrong.

It is misleading to teach children what is called situation ethics—that nothing is really right and nothing is really wrong. There are absolute values of right and wrong and those absolute values should be taught to our children in state schools. Those absolute values come from the Christian Bible, which contains both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Of course the New Testament ethics supersede those of the Old Testament; they were presented by Jesus Christ himself when he said that he would replace the harsh requirements in the Old Testament with the commandments of the New Testament, which is based on love. The children of our State should be taught the positive teaching of ethics that come from Jesus Christ, the greatest teacher of ethics the world has ever known. (Fred Nile from speech in parliament 1 December 2010)

I agree with the teaching of ethics in NSW schools, colleges and universities, provided it is based on history’s greatest teacher of ethics, the Lord Jesus Christ. This course does not teach ethics as most parents understand the term. It does not teach children any definitive sense of right from wrong, but promotes the secular humanist relativist philosophy that there are no absolutes, such as ”You shall not murder, lie or steal”.  (Fred Nile from the Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece)

I agree that the bible has provided some great guidance for ethical behaviour – it is also used to support unethical behaviour and at times promotes violence and other behaviour we would repudiate today. I want my girls to be able to think logically about their actions and those of others. They need to be good at making decisions for themselves. The bible does not give black and white answers.

Even with the “absolute” “You shall not murder” we need to define what we mean by murder. Is killing in war, “murder”? If not, when does killing become murder? Is execution (killing people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong to paraphase Holly Near)  murder?

Even Nile needs to decide how much of the bible he will support. (As he indicates in the quote above, the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament.) The strength of the ethics classes is that it teaches students to think about right and wrong and to recognises that things are not always black and white.

I hope Jasmine and Alexa have the opportunity to go to classes where they learn about Christianity (and other religions) and that they learn how to evaluate the claims of people who claim to represent the views of Christianity (and other religions).  I am NOT going to push them to go to classes where Christianity is presented as being True or having all the answers, and where they are encouraged to accept the Bible or the teachings of a particular brand of Christianity without question.

To live in society in a moral and just way, we need to be able to evaluate and make judgements for ourselves. From what I have seen, the ethics classes are a valuable contribution to learning these skills. Some approaches to Christianity also do this, others do not. If I had to choose between attending scripture classes (at least the type that would be supported by Fred Nile) and ethics classes, there is no doubt which I would choose. The current situation allows children and parents to make that choice. Fred Nile would take away that option.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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