Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
The background to this episode is an Australian referendum to change the constitution. The proposed change involves recognizing the place of Indigenous Australians in our nation’s history as the original inhabitants of the land, and creating a new mechanism for the participation of Indigenous Australians in our nation’s government—a constitutionally guaranteed Voice to the federal parliament and executive government.
As might be expected, the proposed constitutional change has generated lively debate, and Yes and No camps have quickly formed.
The moral dimension of the question has come to the fore. A prominent Jewish leader recently said that he’d be voting Yes because “I know it’s the right thing to do. The moral thing to do.”
If he’s right, then the argument is over. And Christians, like everyone else, should vote Yes.
But is he right? What place does morality have in deciding questions like this? And how should Christians engage with the debate as citizens?
THE MORALITY OF VOTING YES OR NO
TP: Is there a Christian response to this particular social, political question that we’re grappling with? How can Christians think through morality and the way we make decisions as Christian citizens?
PJ: Well, firstly I hope we’re not going to tell people how to vote. In fact, I hope we’ll be successful in hiding how we’re voting. But I think everybody is concerned about the disadvantage that our First Nations peoples are feeling and suffering, and we are and have been spending government monies to try to alleviate the disadvantages of life that the indigenous people experience. And one of the motivations behind this constitutional change is the hope that through “The Voice”, we’ll be able to close the gap between white Australians and Indigenous Australians in terms of their life expectancy, their health, their violence, the difficulties there, economic depravations, and so forth.
TP: And so why are we talking about this on this podcast? Because at one level, this is something for every Australian citizen to think through and to work out what would be the best path forward. Is this a good constitutional change or not? However (and this is important for Christians) it has become a charged moral debate, in which both sides have invoked deep moral values and issues. And interestingly, both sides have started to engage with churches and communities of faith to try to draw them in and get them on side. And so we find ourselves not just discussing a pragmatic question of what might be best but fairly deep moral and ethical questions as well.
PJ: And as such, it has undermined the debate, because any conversation about it draws you into being either moral or immoral, depending which side you’re talking on and which side the other person is on. If opposing the referendum is a racist thing to do, then morally I’m compelled to vote yes; but if supporting the referendum divides our nation racially and so is also a racist move, then morally I must vote no. As soon as a powerful, emotional, moral term like ‘racist’ is used on the constitutional change, you’re no longer discussing what would be wise or sensible or helpful; you’re discussing what’s right or wrong. And that really leaves you no place for discussion. And so I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t want to talk about it because it is likely to cause real deep division in the conversation with the other person. If you and I agree, well, then that’s alright. But if you and I disagree, then we wind up calling each other immoral.
TP: Now, this takes us to the question of how you make an argument for a change like this and the different ways that people make ethical arguments. For Christians, there’s the Bible, but there are also these moral values that are around more generally in the community. And we also think about the consequences of our actions. How do people argue morally today in making these moral arguments? Where do they fit in these kinds of categories?
PJ: Yeah, that’s the right way of putting it. I think you’ve pinpointed the three levels of debate. For Christians, there is the question, what does God say? What does God say in the broadest terms and senses? For example, he’s not going to talk about the Indigenous Australians, but he will talk about reconciliation or mercy or forgiveness or care or love, all of which we might be applying to a situation. But then there’s a second level that the Christian and the non-Christian will pick on. That is what I would call a kind of intuitive morality. It’s the sense of “that’s not fair” or “that’s right”. But it is called intuitive because it’s not really open to rational discussion. It comes just from our intuition, our sense, our feeling that this is fair or unfair. The one rational way of discussing it is that third level: outcomes. It is where we can actually say, “Well, if we do this, these will be the consequences. If you do that, those will be the consequences.” But of course, the trouble with that is, you don’t know until after the event what the outcomes are going to be. So how long a period of time are you going to wait to judge whether the outcomes actually have their effect or not? Because sometimes you can make a decision, like we did in the 1970s about divorce and new marriage laws, and the consequence has not really been seen until 30 years later, by which time, it’s a little too late to go back. Now I think most people would regret some of the change. But it’s too late.
TP: Sometimes your belief in a moral principle might drive your view on a particular question, but what actually happens as as an outcome might be quite different, and even go against your principles.
PJ: Yes. My classic example was changing the hours in which pubs are open and selling alcohol in New South Wales. The pubs used to close at 6pm and there was great pressure to keep them open till 10pm. But the Christians really objected because we saw how alcohol was treated in the Australian culture, and it is one of the great social problems of our time. It still is a major contributing factor to driving accidents, to drowning accidents, to domestic violence and on it goes. However, the six o’clock closing actually was a disaster. Ten o’clock was much more civilized, for the six o’clock closing meant men who knocked off work at five o’clock dashed to the pubs and drank as much as they could on empty stomachs, and so got very, very drunk, and they went home for dinner drunk. Whereas once we had ten o’clock closing, men would go home and have dinner, and then go out and drink. Consequently, we actually reduced public drunkenness and private drunkenness by changing from six o’clock to ten o’clock. So on the basis of principle, the churches argued for six o’clock closing. But in fact, it was better to have ten o’clock closing. So your principles, and the practical outworking of different policies, are two slightly disconnected things; you can’t just draw the straight line from one to the other.
TP: And that’s one of the problems in this current debate, because we don’t know the future, and we can’t ever tell really what is going to be truly effective in the long term. We want to argue our case, though, by attaching our moral position to a set of outcomes. And so in the case of the constitutional debate, the Yes side says, “If you support aborigines and their lives and you want to see a closing of the gap, vote Yes.” So there’s a connection between your desire to do good and to see reconciliation and improvement in conditions with this proposal. Whereas the No case, in much the same way, will evoke the principle that it’s bad to divide a nation on racial grounds, and connect that to the fact that this particular proposal will not only produce that division and the bad effects that come from that, but also that it won’t improve the life of aborigines in any kind of tangible way. So for both sides, there’s this desire to connect my moral argument to some pragmatic outcomes. But it’s very hard to do that.
PJ: Yes. You can argue the pragmatic outcomes, and although you can’t prove the case one way or another, at least it’s rational in the debate. However, the rational debate is not what motivates people to change their opinion. It doesn’t motivate people to go into the ballot box and tick “yes” or “no”. What motivates people is the moral issue, the big sense that “I’m doing the right thing”, or “not doing the wrong thing”. That’s the thing that actually shifts people in this kind of debate. But of course, once you move into that moral debate, it’s no longer a rational debate.
TP: Yes, because the kind of intuitive sense of morality that people have and which keeps being invoked in this current debate seems unanchored in our culture; it just seems assertive. “This is just the case. There’s no way to agree on it or disagree on it.” It’s a vibe—to use the words of The Castle. It’s just a sense we all have that something is correct. And this is one of the problems with that intuitive level of morality.
PJ: It’s part of the human creation. See, God has created us and charged us with our responsibilities for the world. And so it’s what some people would call natural justice. It’s true, it’s real, there is a right and there is a wrong. And we as creatures—unlike the cows, and the sheep and the lions, or the elephants, or the flowers—we actually have that sense given to us by God of there being a right and wrong.
TP: It’s creational, in the sense that we are created as creatures with that faculty and agency in the world to perceive morality, to perceive good and perceive evil. But it’s also creational in the sense that the world is a morally ordered place: things are ordered in a certain way to fit or work together and to have certain purposes, such that violating those purposes or nature or characteristics of things is an evil or is wrong. For example, the created good of marriage and what marriage is, and who men and women are and how they’re created—that makes marriage a good and adultery an evil. It’s woven into the nature of the way things are. So the creational basis of that intuition is there.
PJ: Yes, but because of sin, our perception of it is now distorted, because instead of living under the knowledge of good and evil that God gives us, we have eaten the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil ourselves. So that we are trying to determine by ourselves and for ourselves, the content of that intuitive morality. And, sadly, because the basis of that is sin, we inevitably get it wrong.
TP: We get it wrong because we’re limited, we can’t see the whole, and we’re not God. We can’t stand up and look over the whole order of everything and understand it; we’re trying to understand it from within. But it’s also limited, as you say, because we’re not only finite, but we’re also flawed, and the world itself is flawed. The created order is good and wonderful, but it’s fallen, it’s cursed, and nothing quite works as it should. And so the result is that while there may be a moral order and a natural order to the world, and God has given us the capacity and the responsibilities to live in that order, to say that we’re able to accurately perceive it, understand it and express it is a whole other thing.
PJ: Yes, that’s right. So for some of us, our intuition of what is right and wrong is really our cultural upbringing. And so one society will see something is right, which another society will see is profoundly wrong. It’s also under the persuasion of the society around us—our education, the media, etc. And so you can have swings from one opinion to another in a very short period of time. I mean, around the end of the 20th century, it was perfectly clear in our society that same-sex marriage was wrong. By the 2020s, most of the Western world had accepted it as right. Well, either you’re saying there is no right and wrong, or you’re saying that the content of right and wrong is open to change. Neither of those are satisfying for those of us who believe in the created order.
So what has happened? Well, what has happened is sinful people are determining for themselves this is right and that is wrong. And sinful people can change their minds. So our way of intuition is malleable. The voting for same-sex marriage was a highly moral vote. It wasn’t a matter of any rationality or any outcomes discussion. It was a moral vote in the end. The great catchphrase here in Sydney was “love is love”. And that’s just an intuitive appeal to the ultimate good called “love”.
TP: It’s interesting then that the way we try to conduct these debates is rarely a careful and rational consideration of possible outcomes, but rather it’s: “Join this side if you want to be part of something great and good and moral. Join us because we’re the good guys.”
PJ: “Be on the right side of history.” And another way is by stories, stories of profound hurt or upset. In the euthanasia debate, it’s discussed by someone saying, “I had my father in hospital and he suffered greatly, and I wouldn’t want anybody to go through such suffering.” And then they can pour out the details of this suffering. Or another one that they say is, “If we don’t change this, people—young people—will commit suicide.” Whereas it’s almost impossible to get the statistics of who actually is suiciding, let alone why they suicide. But that is the kind of emotive argument that will be used to appeal to our emotions and our intuition of what’s right and wrong.
TP: It’s interesting that since it’s the vibe of a moral stance that ends up being what persuades people to your side—then the way to make progress is to get key people to join in and support the vibe, like celebrities, for example.
PJ: Yes. I generally don’t try and learn my ethical philosophy from football players or actors or musicians. I mean, I love football, and I love watching football, but I don’t really expect the front row forward to be the deep philosophical thinker, especially after he’s been in a lot of scrums. He’s chosen for a whole set of reasons, but his brain power of philosophical analysis is not one of them. Now, he may have it because humans do. But just because he’s a footballer, is not the sole reason to be listening to him.
TP: Yes. And it’s the same for whole football codes and enterprises, because it’s not just individual footballers that are brought to the side of one particular side or the other. The whole Australian Football League as an organization will take a stance on this. And so, of course, will Qantas and Westpac and universities. But why is that?
PJ: There is an important discussion that’s been happening for some years about the moral responsibility of an institution, especially a business corporation, to enhance the environment in which they’re doing business, and to make a moral contribution to the welfare of society. However, it’s very hard to work out who has the right to speak for the institution, on every issue that’s going on and whether the business has morality as its key element, especially when the business operates to provide profit for its shareholders. Ethical investments have always been a moral quagmire, for how can you really work out what ethical issues are important or unimportant? And for a business to declare itself on a particular moral issue, it raises the questions of what do you do if you work for that business or you’re a customer of the business or a shareholder of the business, and you hold the opposite point of view? The business is not set up for political purposes or moral purposes. So why should we expect them or even allow them to be promoting such an issue?
TP: Well, it seems to me that many businesses see in this an opportunity to burnish their brand, to burnish their reputation, based on the vibe heading in a particular direction. They sense that this is the way things are going and that they’ll gain some kind of social credit and reputation by being seen to be on the right side of the intuitive moral vibe. And so they declare themselves there in an effort to say, “We’re the good guys.” And in many ways, it can be almost like a marketing brand issue for many businesses, even more than the sense of I’m actually seeking to do corporate good by planting more trees or something.
PJ: What happens if they lose? If they wind up with the wrong side of history, well of course, they’ll still come out claiming the moral right.
TP: So Philip, as we’ve been talking about the problems associated with that intuitive way of moral thinking, it has shown that it can touch on things that are morally true and that there is a morality in the world to sense and interact with. But because it doesn’t have its foundation in an understanding of God, who created this world and us, and reveals to us the nature of the good and how we should live, we often see this intuitive level of morality floundering around. Sometimes it hits on good things, but overall it struggles to make sense.
So as we come with God’s Word, with an understanding of that foundation and an understanding that there are pragmatic and practical consequences to any action that ought to be thought through carefully and prudently, how then should we as Christians interact with that and respond as part of the debate? What should our voice be as we talk to our friends, as we think about how we ourselves should vote and as we contribute to the public discussion?
PJ: When we have a clear word from God, for example “You shall not commit adultery”, then legislation that encourages adultery has got to be something that we should speak against, because we have a clear explicit word from God. But a lot of the Word of God is not explicit commandments like that. It’s much more the values and attitudes to life and the kind of person you should be in life, the virtues and character you should have, and so on.
And added to that also is the wisdom of life that you find in the book of Proverbs, things that help you think whether this is a wise way of doing it. And so, therefore, we then need to deliberate and to think about the word of God as it applies to the issue of Indigenous Australians. There can be very little doubt that Christians will be highly motivated to do whatever we can to help people who have been oppressed and who are being oppressed, that we should be seeking to help them, to lift their burdens, to make their life better in any way we can. If I may add, the Christians have been doing that since we arrived in 1788. The world hasn’t been doing it, the squatters and the moneymakers of Australia haven’t been doing it. But the history of Christianity, with its flaws and faults, has always been concerned for the Indigenous Australians. And so we do need to just put a little corrective in the debate in that regard.
TP: Yes, and Christians will interrogate what you mean by “oppressed”. So because we have a different understanding of personal responsibility of communal life and of sin as something that is endemic to every community, we will have a different perspective on the problems and disadvantages of the indigenous community as we will on the problems and disadvantages of other communities. That will also shape the way we think about that issue.
PJ: Yes, I like that qualification. I agree with that. So we will be well motivated to do whatever we can to be helpful. But then we have to ask the question, “Will this constitutional change affect what we desire?” At that point, we have no word from God. And we have disagreement with each other about the wisdom or folly of this kind of constitutional change. Some would say, yes, it will work for these reasons. Others will say no, it won’t work for those reasons. And we must listen to the argument. But you see, at this point, what we’re debating is the effectiveness of this particular change, rather than the morality of wanting change, which is heavily influenced by our Christian understanding.
But also at that point, institutional Christianity should keep its mouth shut. Because just as I complain about businesses speaking on areas beyond their competence, or football players speaking beyond their area of competence, the church is not an institution which can debate with any authority, any more than a football player can, whether this particular change will result in the consequences we want or not.
We’re just making a judgment call. And that judgment call is beyond anything that I think the Scripture reveals. And therefore we’ll find some Christians will vote Yes, some Christians will vote No. And I think both of them can be acting Christianly because the Christian part of their vote is their concern for the outcome for aborigines.
But when churches enter into it, there’s a further problem, and that is, we are a bit naive. We are used by politicians. In the newspaper just the other day, I saw that the politicians are now going out because they think the big, undecided vote that is still around and available is to be found in religious groups. And so suddenly, not just Christians, but Hindu temples and other religious places have become the flavour of the month with politicians. Do not trust them because they’re just using us. We’ve got to make our own decisions from the information we have available and treat each other with Christian liberty in the choices we make, so that we can debate honestly amongst ourselves about what we think is the best outcome.
TP: And the other thing we have to do is commit our nation and our leaders, as Scripture encourages us, in prayer to God. We must acknowledge that God is the God of the nations. And we’ve got to pray for the leaders and those in authority, that they would make godly and wise decisions.