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2017 ETHICS: Ways of Thinking Ethically

SESSION 1 Theme: Ethics and Morality - Human Beings

This is the first of the discussions in the series "Ethics". The purpose is to begin with Socrates who asks the question, what does it mean to be human? Socrates is often referred to as the "Greek Jesus", both in the sense of the direction of his ethical thought, encouraging radical questioning - the Socratic Method - and in his death ... although drinking hemlock was a little more benign than crucifixion.

In this session, I also draw upon Socrates questioning method, applying it to thinking through the tragedy of Australia's asylum seeker policy and practice - a stain upon Australia's human rights record. In doing so, I have used a piece by Simon Longstaff of the Sydney Ethics Centre, formerly St. James Ethics Centre, which initially began under the umbrella of St. James Anglican Church, King Street.

Please click on the links for documents relating to the Ethics Discussions.

The Unexamined Life

Article: Thinking Creatively - Asylum. Simon Longstaff AO.

SESSION 2 Theme: Why We Think the Way We Do About Ethics and Morality

In this session, we begin the process of looking at why Christianity thinks the way it thinks about ethics and morality: in other words, the method, the approach. Here we think through the basics of the Hebrew tradition and examine three tensions: the place of law (rules) and grace (generosity) as the foundation of our thinking; the place of context, meaning universalism as opposed to group identity; and finally the weight of the theme of privilege as opposed to equality, in Biblical thought. The discussion begins with reference to a scene from the film Philadelphia. Attached to this study is an article from the Guardian, June 10th 2017 about the declining share in household income in Australia as a component of National Income.

Grounding our Thinking. Why We Think The Way We Do About Ethics and Morality - Hebrew and Biblical Thought

Article: Household Income Low - Guardian June 10 2017

SESSION 3 Theme: Why We Think the Way We Do About Ethics and Morality - The Greeks

Today, we think through the Greek contribution to Christian ethical thought and more broadly Western ethics. We examine three aspects of the Greek gift: the Pre-Socratics, then the “Big Three”, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; and finally the place of the Stoics, who really furnished the early Church with much of its ethical content – especially the letters of the apostle Paul, as a way of dealing with thorny relational issues. Today we begin with a scene from the film The Name of the Rose

Grounding our Thinking. Why We Think the Way We Do About Ethics and Morality - Greeks and Geeks - What a Band


2017 ETHICS: Bio-Ethics

The last 3 discussions have set the foundations for the following studies for the remainder of this year. In the next two sessions, we examine issues that concern living and dying. Together, the issues of genetics and genetic enginering, along with euthanasia are important to the world of medical or bio-ethics. In the first study, "Genetic Engineering: What's All the Fuss About?" we dig deeper into the reality of genetic manipulation and then look at the varied assumptions behind conservative and progressive approaches and conclusions. In the second study, "Euthanasia: We All Die", we briefly begin with discussion about early Christian history and the priority for the defence of life. We then proceed to think about the issue of the value of life and how that is handled, and finally move onto the questions of active and passive euthanasia: voluntary, involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia; and finally, the issue of double-effect.

Genetic Engineering: What is All the Fuss About?

Euthanasia: We All Die

SESSION 1 Theme: Bio-Ethics

In the next two sessions, we examine issues that concern living and dying. Together, the issues of genetics and genetic engineering, along with euthanasia are important to the world of medical or bio-ethics. In the first study, “Genetic Engineering: What’s All the Fuss About?” we first dig deeper into the reality of genetic manipulation and then look at the varied assumptions behind conservative and progressive approaches and conclusions. In the second study, “Euthanasia: We All Die”, we briefly begin with discussion about early Christian history and the priority for the defence of life. We then proceed to think about the issue of the value of life and how that is handles and finally move onto the questions of active and passive euthanasia: voluntary, involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia; and finally the issue of double-effect.

Genetic Engineering

SESSION 2 Theme: Euthanasia: We All Die

Euthanasia: We All Die

2017 ETHICS - How We Live Together

In this final section of ethics in this series for 2017, we initially examine the theme of “How We Live Together”. The first session, examines the issue of immigration -not the more politically volatile question of refugees and asylum seekers - to which much energy is rightly given. The research is grounded in the now classic but dated parliamentary report “Immigration, Social Cohesion and National Identity”, Research Paper No. 1 1997-98. It is one of the few extensive pieces of work that has been done, over recent decades, in a country of immigrants, that still has no clear population policy. Additionally, we are including a very recent piece by the Melbourne based journalist George Megalogenis, "The Changing Face of Australia”, in Australian Foreign Affairs, Issue 1, October 2017 (Schwartz Publishing, Carlton, Vic, Australia). The issues examined in this discussion include, immigration and social cohesion, immigration and globalization, and immigration and multiculturalism. The last section examines the responses of Christian theology and philosophy.

In the second paper, we look at the broad but important question of “Economic and Social Development in Australia: a Christian Construction”. Much of the debate of these themes, tends to centre upon a particular philosophical approach grounded in liberalism: the idea that society is simply the sum total of individualswithin in. In this paper, we begin from a different vantage point: that of communitarianism, that seeks to strike a balance between extremes of individualism and collectivism. In the paper, we examine Catholic Social Teaching, which contributes significantly to the idea of communitarianism. In so doing, we look at the questions of rights, the market, the state and the individual.

SESSION 1 Theme: National Borders, Sovereignty and Immigration

National Borders, Sovereignty and Immigration

SESSION 2 Theme: Economic and Social Development in Australia: A Christian Construction

A Christian Proposal for Society and Economics

2018 WHAT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO - The Question of Justice

This year, 2018, the group discussion focuses upon the question of justice – what does it mean? This may appear a redundant question in as much we think that the meaning of justice is obvious; we feel it in our bones, so to speak. But the issue is more complex than that. It is true that we feel in our bones what injustice is, but to construct a clear understanding of what characterizes justice, is another thing. We shall think through a range of ways to approach the question of justice couched as “what we are to do?”

They include the following agenda:

I am to do that which offers the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people (Utilitarianism): The British school of thought shaped above all by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Utilitarianism, as the name suggests, measures what is just or fair, in terms of utility or consequences. For Utilitarianists what matters is what gives the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.

I am to do that which offers and promotes the greatest autonomy or freedom to the individual (Libertarianism): This is largely a product of North American thought but not exclusively so. Its patron saint is the philosopher John Locke, (1632-1704), although it has become split between libertarians of the political right and left who differ greatly in their world views. What is common to both strands, is the priority for personal autonomy. In the US, it has been right wing libertarianism which has dominated, in views about the unethical nature of tax and the beauty of the free market.

I am to do that which is right, that which sits with my conscience (Deontology - from the Greek “deon“ – meaning obligation): This is especially important for Christians, shaped as we are - especially Protestants – by its father, the Christian pietist Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). For Kant, it is not consequences that ultimately matter in ethical living as it is for the Utilitarians, but rather motive: internal, psychological and spiritual motivation.

I am to do that which is fair (Liberalism): The best representative of this more modern school is John Rawls (1921-2002), an American who taught at Cornell, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Rawls, was arguably the most important political philosopher of the 20th century, his magnum opus being, “A Theory of Justice”(1971). His theory of “justice as fairness” gets very close to Christian approaches to the issue. He recommends, equal basic human rights, equality of opportunity and the promotion of the interests of the least advantaged in society.

I am to fit where I belong in society (Aristotle): We return to the ancient world, just to show how different it was when considering justice. Aristotle disagrees with modern views about justice, especially those shaped by Kant (conscience) or Rawls (fairness). Instead Aristotle argues that justice is about giving people their due, what they deserve. What does that mean for personal freedom?

I am to do that which promotes community (Communitarianism): Emphasizes the relationship between the individual and the community. Its overriding philosophy is based upon the belief that a person's social identity and personality are largely moulded by community relationships, with a smaller degree of emphasis placed on individualism. Important to communitarian philosophy is the concept of “positive rights” which are rights or guarantees to certain things. These may include state-subsidized education, state-subsidized housing, a safe and clean environment, universal health care, and even the right to a job with the concomitant obligation of the government or individuals to provide one. To this end, communitarians generally support social security programs, public works programs, and laws limiting such things as pollution.

How are We to do It?

In order to examine each of these approaches to justice, we will enlist the help of the Harvard based moral philosopher, Michael Sandel. Sandel’s method is to think these varied approaches through as concretely as possible by using examples to explain the issues involved, and by engaging his students to offer their own insights. Accordingly, we shall use his Harvard Lectures as a reference point, which, as it happens, are accessible online at

At the beginning of each session, I shall provide a summary of the preceding discussion and an outline of the theme for the current one. Most of the summaries will include questions which we may or may not use depending upon the group.

SESSION 1 Theme: Thinking Morally according to Consequence or Principles

Session I Summary

SESSION 2 Theme: A Summary and Critique of Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism through Cost Benefit Analysis

Session II Summary

SESSION 3 and 4 Theme: John Stuart Mill's Criticism of Justice as the Greatest Benefit for the Greatest Number and a Turn to Libertarianism where the Individual Rules

Session III and Session IV

SESSION 5 Theme: Morality is all about Motive not Results:Acting out of Duty

Session V

SESSION 6 Theme: Principles of Distributive Justice: How to Make a Society More Equal

Session VI

SESSION 7 Theme: Aristotle - Justice is About Giving People their Due, What They Deserve

Session VII

SESSION 8 Theme:Communitarianism: The Claims of Community Upon Us – but what about our universal obligations, beyond kin?

Session VIII



Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel (5 March, 1953 - ) currently teaches at Harvard. He is well known for his course on Justice which he has taught for over two decades to over 15,000 students. He was born in 1953 in Minneapolis to a Jewish family, which moved to Los Angeles when he was thirteen years of age. He studied secondary school at Palisades Public and then did his undergraduate work at Brandeis University in Boston, Massachusetts. Subsequently, he went to Balliol College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and studies under the philosopher Charles Taylor. Sandel, made his early mark with a publication critical of the famous North American philosopher John Rawls, who also taught at Harvard and who wrote the celebrated work on social ethics, “A Theory of Justice”. Sandel is considered in the world of ethics as a “communitarian”. We shall be looking at communitarianism in our work together, as well as the ideas of Rawls.

Jeremy Bentham 1 Jeremy Bentham (4 February 1747 – 6 June 1832) was an English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism. Bentham defined as the "fundamental axiom" of his philosophy the principle that "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong". He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism. He advocated for individual and economic freedoms, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalising of homosexual acts. He called for the abolition of slavery, of the death penalty, and of physical punishment, including that of children.[8] He has also become known as an early advocate of animal rights.

Bentham is nothing if not eccentric. His instructions upon his death were for his head and skeleton to be preserved in a wooden cabinet, referred to as the “auto-icon” with the skeleton padded out with hay and dressed in Bentham’s clothes. The attempt at mummification of the head failed however and so a false head was placed on the hay-filled skeleton. That said, his head, ‘mummified” was kept, an approximation to which you see above. All rather macabre!

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill 20 May, 1806 – 8 May, 1873) is without doubt the most significant voice in English ethical thought. He was deeply shaped by Jeremy Bentham and is considered in terms of ethical thought, a “utilitarian” like Bentham, but probably considerably more able. Mill is frustrating because he is one of those people who was always pretty much right. Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind. He led the fight for due process for detainees accused of terrorism; argued for teaching Arabic, in order not to alienate potential native radicals. He was right about nearly everything, even when contemplating what was wrong: open-minded and magnanimous to a fault, he was an enemy of religious bigotry and superstition, and a friend of toleration and free thought, without overdoing either.

(No one has ever been more eloquent about the ethical virtues of Jesus of Nazareth). Every time we turn a corner, there is Mill, smiling just a touch too complacently at having got there first.

John Locke

This rather exhausted looking man, who needs a douse of the sun and a little vitamin D, is John Locke (29 August, 1632 – 28 October, 1704). Locke is regarded as the patron saint of US political theory and practice, although to brand him with that responsibility is a bit much. Certainly, however, he is considered the father of libertarianism, which has split into right-wing and left-wing persuasions. Locke believed that human nature is characterised by reason and tolerance, but that human nature allowed people to be selfish. In a natural state all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his "life, health, liberty, or possessions". Locke also advocated governmental separation of powers and believed that revolution is not only a right but an obligation in some circumstances. These ideas would come to have profound influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

Locke was a convinced Christian and among other things authored a small piece called “The Reasonableness of Christianity” (1695). He believed the entire Bible sat coherently with human reason and while an advocate of tolerance, he counselled against tolerance of atheism – the only exception – since the denial of God’s existence would undermine the social order.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804), is the most influential thinker of the modern era (1600 – 1914). He influenced a broad range of thought including metaphysics (the essence of being, becoming, existence and reality), epistemology (theory of knowledge – why and how we know what we know), ethics, political theory and aesthetics. His major works include in particular, “Critique of Pure Reason” (1781), “Critique of Practical Reason” (1788), “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” (1785) and “The Metaphysics of Morals” (1797). Kant was born on April 22, 1724, into a Prussian German family in Königsberg, East Prussia – today Kaliningrad, Russia. Baptized 'Emanuel', he later changed his name to 'Immanuel after learning Hebrew. He was brought up in a Pietist household that stressed religious devotion, humility, and a literal interpretation of the Bible. His education was strict, punitive and disciplinary, and focused on Latin and religious instruction over mathematics and science. Kant maintained a belief in Christianity: in his work Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals he reveals a belief in human immortality as the necessary condition of our continued approach to the highest good possible. That said, Kant was sceptical about any possibility of demonstrating God’s existence through rational metaphysical argument, maintaining that human understanding is limited. Having taken away from Christianity, such ‘logical’ argument as proof for God, Kant nevertheless, suggests that it is in the realm of the moral that there does in fact exist a foundation for rational faith. For Kant, moral duty is synonymous with divine commands. In his work on morals and ethics, what Kant has gifted the world is the insight that the good rests not upon the result, as the Utilitarians reasoned (Bentham and Mill), but in the motive of the individual. He writes, A goodwill is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes. Even if…this will is entirely lacking in power to carry out its intentions; if by its utmost efforts, it still accomplishes nothing…even then, it would still shine like a jewel for its own sake as something that has its full value in itself.

John Rawls

John Rawls (February 21, 1921 – November 24, 2002) was arguably the most important moral and political philosopher, in the English-speaking world during the 20th century. An American, he came to moral philosophy after military service in World War II in Papua New Guinea, where he won a Bronze Star and in the Philippines. One apocryphal story concerns the suicide of a fellow soldier next to Rawls who removed his helmet and took a bullet to the head. The trauma of war in general and the military in particular led to Rawls’ general scepticism about God and Christian faith, finally adopting an atheistic posture. For Rawls, the idea of justice as fairness stands front and centre in his thought. His significance is clear in that he provided a strong philosophically and politically liberal argument for equality in an increasingly free-market, neo liberal environment. His best-known work is “A Theory of Justice” (1971). Reviving the notion of a social contract, found in earlier political thinkers like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, Rawls argues that justice consists of the basic principles of government that free and rational individuals would agree to in a hypothetical situation of perfect equality. In order to ensure that the principles chosen are fair, Rawls imagines a group of individuals who have been made ignorant of the social, economic, and historical circumstances from which they come. Situated behind this “veil of ignorance,” they could not be influenced by self-interested desires to benefit some social groups (i.e., the groups they belong to) at the expense of others. It has been suggested that this approach draws on Rawls' experiences in post-war Japan, where the US Army was challenged with designing new social and political authorities for the country, while "imagining away all that had gone before”. In his other notable work, “Political Liberalism”(1993), Rawls turned towards the question of political legitimacy in the context of intractable philosophical, religious, and moral disagreement amongst citizens regarding the human good. Such disagreement, he insists, is reasonable – the result of the free exercise of human rationality under the conditions of open enquiry and free conscience that the liberal state is designed to safeguard. It would be interesting to hear his views in the current political chaos of the US as ‘Trumpians’ and political liberals engage in ‘open hostility’, and where the Republican Party would have ‘no truck’ with his ideas.

2019 WHAT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO - Global Ethics

Welcome to this year’s conversations on ethics. For the next 6 months we will examine a number of contemporary issues of a practical nature, issues that appear and re-appear in different guises in our complex world.

In 2017, we began these groups, by examining three areas. First, an introduction into the “Why We Think the Way We Do”, thinking through the Hebrew and Greek roots of Western ethical thought. Second, we probed “Medical Ethics or Bio-ethics”, specifically, Genetic Engineering and Euthanasia. Finally, we delved into the theme of “How We Live Together”: National Borders, Sovereignty and Immigration, and a Christian Proposal for Society and Economics.

In 2018, we changed tack and did something more demanding: digging deeper into the shape and history of western ethical thought, by examining a range of significant people. In this work together, we appealed to the lectures of Michael Sandel, political philosopher from Harvard University: “What is the Right Thing to Do: The Question of Justice”. In doing this, we examined the approaches of Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham), that focuses on consequences, Libertarianism (John Locke), that focuses on personal autonomy, Deontology (Emmanuel Kant), that focuses on conscience, and Liberalism (John Rawls), that looks at justice as fairness. We then took time out and returned to the classical ethics of Aristotle (justice as fitting where I belong), in order to understand just how far the modern world has moved from its historical roots. Finally, we returned to contemporary times, and discussed Communitarianism, an approach which is closely consistent with progressive Christian Catholic thought where justice is about what are called “positive rights”.




The challenge to think about how we live is fundamental to human beings. The broad question of living brings to the fore, the still deeper issue of "living together"; and that is often the beginning point for thought, since it is not without its problems. Added to the conundrum of how we are to live together, is the question of historical change. We do not live in a static environment, an unchanging series of contexts. Rather history moves and contexts rub up against each other, meaning the "goal posts move". In fact, they always move.

As if the world is not complex enough, Christianity is also a multi-headed beast: constituted by a range of faith traditions, not to mention approaches to interpreting the world, some of which are not entirely consistent or compatible.

In broad terms, socially and ideologically conservative Christianity, tends to see Christian history in nostalgic terms. There once was a time when everything was in place, when all was more or less good, when church and world in one way or another were "in sync". The danger of that view is that it amounts to an idealism in reverse, always looking back through the rear-vision mirror. In the attempt to preserve the Christian tradition, the real world slips away.

Progressive Christianity, on the other hand, does not idealize the past, does engage more courageously with a changing world, but in the same breath, runs the risk of idealizing the present and even future social and political arrangements. In the attempt to ensure relevance, what appears as recognizably Christian, may slip away.

In this part of St Ives Uniting Church website, are reflected some aspects of the current debate within our community. We are progressive in the sense that we are intellectually engaged with our changing world, aware that Christian faith also moves and should move, while wanting to affirm the centrality of Jesus Christ who moves with us.

I hope the various themes included here are stimulating and useful to you.