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Aussie, Christian or universal values?

By Scott MacInnes - posted Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Those values Australians celebrate on Anzac Day – courage, bravery, solidarity and compassion for the fallen – are exactly the same values the Turkish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Iraqi and Afghan people reflect on when they remember their soldiers who fought against us.

We continually talk about 'mateship' and 'a fair go' as being quintessentially 'Aussie' values. As if Australians had some unique claim to them. But ask a patriot of any other country and you will find the same values of comradeship and fairness proudly on display.

Similarly, Christians talk at Easter about truth, love, forgiveness and caring for others as if these were Christianity's unique contribution to the world. And yet ask a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist about the values they profess and you get the same answers. Ask an agnostic or atheist and you will find these values often underlie a humanistic 'religion', to which they are equally committed.


When people talk about 'our' values, the inference is that white Anglo-Saxon Australian Christians invented these values, rather than inherited them and then gave them their unique expression.

The truth is that the most basic human values are universally recognised. They are the values parents and teachers everywhere try to pass on to their children - telling the truth, keeping your word, treating people fairly, not harming anyone, lending a helping hand, showing compassion for the suffering of others and respect for the inherent dignity and preciousness of human life.

These are the values people around the world traditionally appeal to when judging the rightness or wrongness of their conduct.

It is important to draw a distinction, therefore, between these universal moral values and their particular forms of expression. No-one would want to deny that Australians have distinctive ways in which they express their identity, any more than one would deny the distinctive ways religious people express their faith.

Thus 'mateship' is a nationalist-mythical variation on the Christian commandment to 'love thy neighbour', derived from the religious-mythical Old Testament. The story of the Good Samaritan re-interpreted and extended the meaning of 'neighbour' to include strangers – something often forgotten in the concept of 'mateship'. It is the recognition of another's need that triggers one's moral response. Charity may begin at home. But it should never end there.

In an increasingly globalized and interdependent world, no one community – whether nationalist or religious – can claim exclusive or superior values. There are just basic universal human values that are creatively interpreted and applied (or ignored!) by different people throughout the ages.


When people disagree over moral issues they are often tempted to accuse the other person of having different values to themselves. Invariably, however, when challenged, it soon becomes clear that they actually do share these same values, because they apply them in other contexts of their lives and expect others to treat them accordingly.

What the dispute is more likely to be about are such things as: which values apply to the particular situation, what they really mean, how they should be interpreted, what they require in the circumstances, whether there are exceptions to the principles they embody, whether there are competing values which need to be weighed in the balance, etc.

Recognition of the above distinction is of crucial importance to the quality, direction and likely outcome of any debate about moral issues.

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About the Author

Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

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