A Critical Review from a Christian Perspective
Dr Chris Gousmett
A review and critique of
Cornerstone Values: A Values Education Curriculum,
by John Heenan.
Invercargill: New Zealand Foundation for Values Education, 1996.
The decline in standards of public and private morality in New Zealand, paralleled by a similar decline overseas, has produced calls for the re-introduction of the teaching of values in public schools. For instance, in Albuquerque, USA, the schools have introduced the "Character Counts" programme, which teaches a set of basic values: trustworthiness, respect, caring, fairness, responsibility and citizenship.
In New Zealand, John Heenan, a former school teacher from Invercargill, has produced what he calls the Cornerstone Values Curriculum. In this curriculum book, he outlines an approach to teaching values which he claims will have wide acceptability because it teaches values which are common to all cultures, countries and religions. He draws on C S Lewisí view of "the Tao, or doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true and others are really false to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of thing we are," which Lewis expounded in his book The Abolition of Man [ 1 ]. Heenan specifies these objective values as: "honesty and truthfulness, kindness, consideration and concern for others, compassion, obedience, responsibility, respect, duty." [ 2 ] He asserts that there is an external measure of right and wrong, which is built into the structure of the universe, and reflected in every culture and religion in the basic core values which are common to them all, or at least, are found throughout all religions, even if not all of them are found in each and every one. This then provides us with a core of universal moral precepts which can be taught acceptably to everyone.
Heenan places the problem in the context of two stark alternatives:
there are core moral precepts,
there are no core moral precepts.
He says: "All values arise from one or other of these two positions. They represent two opposite views about the nature of morality." Heenan asserts that there are indeed core moral precepts, a position that he describes as the "traditional understanding." He states that "The philosophical basis of the Cornerstone Values Curriculum is the understanding that there is a core of universal moral values precepts," [ 3 ] and it is these precepts which he has listed. Thus he rejects the "moral relativism" which he says has in recent decades "become the overriding concern of values education that programmes should not favour any particular religious or philosophical point of view. Programmes and approaches have been developed which present as being neutral and without religious or moralistic bias." Heenan criticises this view as betraying not a neutral basis but a bias for moral and cultural relativism, a view arising out of "the doctrine of situation ethics." [ 4 ] This relativism rejects the idea of "an objective external measure of right and wrong," and also rejects judgementalism, asserting that what is right for one may be wrong for another, all values merely personal and having no absolute status, being dependent on time, place and circumstance. Values thus are claimed to vary with the opinions of particular individuals and groups.
Heenan correctly points out that a schoolís approach to values will permeate all aspects of the curriculum, the schoolís governance, management, administration and relationships. It will shape the teaching and learning methodology and the selection of resources. However, it is not so apparent that there are merely two choices. And this is where Heenanís approach to values begins to break down, as he expresses the conflict between relativism and an "absolute" standard for values, in terms of the "contemporary" versus the "traditional." The latter he calls "a centuries old consensus," while the relativism he attacks as having arisen in "recent decades," it being "the current prevailing ideology." Thus before proceeding to expound his conception of values, Heenan has already placed the conflict not primarily in terms of competing philosophies, but of competing historical views: the older, traditional one, and the modern, contemporary one. But to describe values in this way cannot escape from a certain nostalgia for the past, a consideration that things were better in earlier times, a traditionalism that has its own inherent problems.
This is not to deny that there were indeed lower rates of crime, of illegitimate births, of suicide and divorce in earlier decades. It is not to deny that there have indeed been declining standards of personal and public morality, correlated with the teaching of moral relativism and situational ethics. However, in order to understand the reasons for the popularity of moral relativism today, we need to reflect on the inadequacies of "traditional" ethics, and the reasons for their loss of credibility. And to do that, we need to examine what we mean by ethics in the first place.
The idea of "moral absolutes"
The idea that there are "moral absolutes" is by no means unproblematic. What do we mean by absolute? Simply that something is "absolved" or removed from a particular situation. It is unchanging, unalterable, permanently valid or true, independently of whether or not it is actually held or understood or believed to be thus valid and true. This conception of "absolutes" is derived largely from a rationalistic philosophy, which posits the existence of such "absolutes" in a realm of rationality that is independent of and removed from the world of phenomena around us. They are transcendent and detached; governing the world but not influenced by it. They are unchanging, unalterable, static and fixed. Their status is problematic, because of their basis in rationalism, that is, the appeal to Reason as the ultimate authority. This very concept of Reason has withered and collapsed in the attack on the modern project by post-modernism, and not only for that reason, but also because Christian thinkers have exposed the very humanistic basis of such appeals to Reason, [ 5 ] appeals which amount to the establishment of a counterfeit, alternative religion to Christianity. [ 6 ]
As Christians we cannot in any way appeal to "Reason" as the basis for our moral or ethical beliefs, because that is the ultimate source of the relativism in ethics that Heenan is so concerned about. What are the standards by which we can judge which ethical system is the most reasonable or rational? Only reason itself, that is, standards which have themselves been established by the use of Reason. However, we have proved ourselves to be capable of producing rational arguments for any ethical system we care to adopt. So we cannot appeal to reason as a guide in determining which ethical system is the right one. It has been claimed by Heenan (and others) that behind all ethical beliefs are common denominators which are found in each and every culture and religion. But the idea that all religions, all cultures, all ethical systems, do in fact share a set of core moral beliefs remains to be proven. All the evidence in fact points in the opposite direction: there are no core moral beliefs, no shared ethical convictions, that are all found in all religions. Nor can we compile a core set of beliefs by taking some from each religion, if we wish to maintain that they are indeed core ethical beliefs. Should they not in that case all be found in every religion? If not, in what sense are they truly core beliefs, and on what basis can we assert that this selection should be given the status of core beliefs over against any other similarly compiled, but different, selection?
Moral beliefs do not exist as independent, "absolute," universal beliefs, but are inherent in, intrinsically part of, inseparable from the religion in which they are found, the religious convictions on which they are based and which alone can give them meaning and validity. That is, moral beliefs are not derived from an independent, separate code of ethics which is adopted in all or in part by each religion, but each religion generates its own unique, independent, set of ethical convictions that are necessarily rooted in that religion and only ever in that religion. As Christians, we confess that we are given a revelation from God that stands over against our appeals to "Reason," or to anything else, a revelation that challenges our own attempts to decide for ourselves, on whatever basis at all, how we should live. Other religions similarly have their own ethical beliefs which likewise have their own specific authorisation from with that religionís belief system.
Thus, each particular religion (including secular religion) has its own authentic, unique and distinctive set of ethical beliefs. These are all based in their particular perspectives on the nature of the world we live in, in the nature of human beings, and in the relationship these have with the gods that are worshipped. They are characterised by the different perceptions and beliefs of each religion concerning the purpose, meaning and destiny of human life, the penalties and rewards consequent on our response to those ethical demands, and how and when those penalties and rewards are allocated and by whom or what. They are not common, universal, independent ethical beliefs that each religion shares, but are specific to each religion and have the character and perspective of that religion.
The claim that there is a universal moral code that stands apart from and independently of each and every religion, that each of them share to a greater or lesser extent, does not arise from within those religions, but rather from Enlightenment rationalism. This rationalist project tried to discover what was universally true, in other words, the universal, single, rationally grounded truth that lay behind the irrational and diverse external manifestations of the various religions, and was partially and somewhat confusedly incorporated into each religion. True religion lay not in any one of these, but in the Rational beliefs of the philosophers who were convinced they were able to get to the heart of the matter. Thus Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism could be discarded after having discerned the elements of rational truth they each contained that lay behind and independently of all of them. That is, these religions themselves were not the ultimate convictions that their adherents mistakenly thought they were.
This was not to establish the truth of each religion, it was to establish an alternative religion, one that itself claimed to be the ultimate ground of all belief: a religion of Human Reason alone. It is this Reason that is the transcendent, universal truth, not what any religion teaches. The view that each religion, whatever it may be, simply accesses a common, independently grounded, set of ethical beliefs that are then incorporated into that religion, is not intrinsic to those religions, but is itself a particular view of the nature of religion and ethics grounded in its own beliefs. It is an alternative, competing religious perspective that seeks to co-opt and re-present other religions on its own basis, and also relativises them to its own perspective. That is, the so-called core ethical beliefs which Heenan has identified are not necessarily those which each religion posits as its own "core ethical beliefs," but which Heenan has posited as the core ethical beliefs on the basis of his own perspective. This is to impose on these religions an alien and external criteria established by someone else. It is a form of ethical imperialism. In addition, it relativises the other ethical beliefs in each religion, by claiming that these "core" beliefs are the important ones, and any other ethical beliefs a religion holds are thereby less important, not only for those outside that religion but also for those inside it. And to make that claim is to do violence to the authenticity and integrity of the beliefs of others: it is, among other things, to claim to understand these religions better than their own adherents.
Heenan grounds his views in a belief in Natural Law, namely, that there is a universal, objective, external set of moral precepts which is inherent in the order of reality, and which can be accessed by all rational people and articulated in a rational way. This approach is drawn from C S Lewis, who argues that there is a Natural Law, which is expressed in all ethical codes somehow or other, in fuller or restricted form, but all alike drawing from the one original source. Therefore there can never be a totally new moral code, but only a reconfiguration of existing moral codes. Christianity was not the source of our moral code, but instead presupposed it. It is an expression, a re-affirmation of Natural Law, not a new set of moral injunctions. [ 7 ] Lewis runs the real danger of positing Christian faith as the answer for our sense of guilt which comes from violating the natural law: offence against God himself is obscured, even though God is seen as the giver of the natural law. [ 8 ] I do not share his views, not because I do not believe that the basis of human ethical beliefs is to be found within humankind, but because I do not believe that the external, universal, permanently-binding ethical code for human beings is of that character that Lewis describes.
Rather, we Christians believe that ethical behaviour is established by God, proclaimed to human beings by God, and able to be recognised not by reason but only by faith. That is, we hold to our ethical beliefs as Christians not because they are reasonable or rational, but because they are given to us by God who loves us and cares for us, and who desires us to live in ways which are pleasing to him and best for ourselves. Because there is no code of ethical beliefs which is isolated from, independent from, not grounded in a particular religious conviction, the claim that everyone shares a code of ethics which is absolute, rational in character, universally valid, and permanently binding, is not a claim that is shared by Christians, but a claim for an alternative, competing, code of ethics which is other than and incompatible with that of Christianity.
I say this because there is nothing in the Scriptures which would lead me to expect that God has given such a code of ethical belief that can stand on its own, independently of his call to all humankind to repent of their sin and place their trust in him for forgiveness and new life. God does not have first-class and second-class believers. We either trust in him completely, following his way of life and his ethical demands, or we choose to go our own way. We cannot separate out a code of ethics from the remainder of his revelation in Scripture, adopt that for ourselves, and ignore or reject the rest. And to teach that we can indeed do so is to violate the very fabric of Christian faith. It is to assert that we can live a life pleasing to God without the forgiveness and renewal in Christ that God himself has established as the only way to please him. It is to continue to assert that we can please God in a way other than the way he has himself declared is the only way to please him. And that is the essence of sin; that is the essence of moral relativism; to assert our own moral standards in contrast to those which God has provided for us.
In order to teach ethics, we must begin first of all with a clear understanding of the basis and authority from which we are working. And for Christians, that can only be the teaching of Scripture. As a Christian, then, I would work with no other basis than what Scripture gives for ethical teaching. We are not teaching generic, universally-recognised moral truths, but the standards for life which is lived in obedience to Christ, shaped and directed by his teaching to us as to how we should live. We are explicitly teaching others to follow Christ and his way of life. We are calling them to turn from their own self-centred, self-directed lives and to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ. There is a long and noble tradition of Christian ethical teaching which we can draw on, not just so as to repeat the views of the past in a manner reminiscent of Heenanís traditionalism, but in recognition that God has been at work in times past, in other people, places and situations, and to draw on the legacy of their Christian thought in developing the ethical understanding we need for our time.
1. C S Lewis. The Abolition of Man. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947. It is unfortunate that Heenan has chosen this particular book by Lewis as the basis of his programme, as it is one of the first that Lewis wrote after his conversion, and it is seriously flawed in its approach. While some of the problems present in this book persist into his later works, these latter also demonstrate a vastly improved sensitivity to Christian teaching and the content of Scripture as a result of Lewisí growing spiritual maturity.
2. Heenan, Cornerstone Values Curriculum, p. 15.
3. Heenan, Cornerstone Values Curriculum, p. 8.
4. Heenan. Cornerstone Values Curriculum, p. 9.
5. See for example Roy A Clouser. The myth of religious neutrality. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991. J Richard Middleton & Brian J Walsh. Truth is stranger than it used to be: Biblical faith in a postmodern age. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995. Lesslie Newbigin. Foolishness to the Greeks. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.
6. Here I am arguing that secularism is itself a religion, a secular religion, and not an absence of or repudiation of religion. To refer to a secular religion is something of an oxymoron for many people, but that is simply because they are not willing to accept that secularism is not of a different order to religious faith, it is a particular expression of religious faith, a faith in something other than traditional deities, but a faith in a deity nevertheless (usually Reason).
7. C S Lewis. "On Ethics." In: Christian Reflections. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1967, p. 55. According to the Editor, this paper antedated The Abolition of Man by a year or so. (See p. 47, n. 1). See also The problem of pain. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940, p. 27.
8. C S Lewis. The problem of pain, p. 11.