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To Listen Does Not Mean to Agree

“We need this external frame of reference so that we can test our hearts against that which is First, that which gives meaning to life that is more than mere animal survival instincts.”


I have read a number of Voice proponents say that the proposed Voice will ‘force parliamentarians to listen’. This is either a misunderstanding of how we as people relate, or a gross falsity.

Let’s take the issue of misunderstanding of how we as people hear each other. What happens when we hear things from others? One of the standard ‘texts’ used to reflect on this kind of question is Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.

In it, he uses a metaphor of a person riding an elephant. The elephant is our emotive response, and the rider our more rational self. Haidt believes that most often, the elephant has its way, at least initially.

Haidt used this analogy to further his work on his Moral Values Framework[1]. This has been helpful in helping us see afresh that we can hear the same thing, but bring to that statement different meanings, because of our presuppositions, or basic assumptions of life.

Haidt’s analysis is based on a social-evolutionary frame of reference. As Andrew Cameron[2] has noted, this is probably the weakest part of Haidt’s work, but Cameron also credits Haidt with at least pointing to some kind of spiritual reality to make sense of our moral decision-making, even if that pointer denies the ‘trans-natural’.

At least Haidt suggests that there may be something at play greater than the physical aspect of our humanity. Cameron certainly does. He names the elephant: “To react to something emotionally is intrinsically to express an opinion about good and evil. Love, hate and the like offer a window into one’s moral commitments. (p.142)

When I teach at the tertiary level, I sometimes test this thinking by asking this question: “From where do our thoughts come?” These students were mostly from faith-based backgrounds. Eventually, someone says, ‘Does it have something to do with the – um, heart?” To which I reply, “Yes, of course – He said our thoughts and actions come from our heart.” Our responses, called elephant or whatever, demonstrate where our hearts are at. We listen through our hearts and respond accordingly.

It is why facts cannot be separated from ethics. We receive information through the lens of our deepest commitments. As James R. Peters[3] wrote, “Reason alone, operating in isolation from our passions, is insufficient for the tasks for determining who we ought to live and or guiding us to live properly in accordance with our human limitations.” (p.25)

But it seems our politicians are deaf to this.

They speak as if putting in a bureaucratic layer of government that has an administrative mandate to speak on what they think is important to their part of the population will automatically be received well. Sadly, this is naïve. What they speak will come from their hearts, and as we have seen, those hearts are not united. Nor are those who are listening – and we cannot tell where those hearts will go in the future.

It is why the most stable nations have had to work to build equality before the law built into their structure – a freedom that says, ‘no matter who you are, where you are from, and what you do now – no matter what is on your heart, we will listen, and you will be represented.’ This is called universal respect. It is not innate to humanity. As Tom Holland[4] noted, to his surprise, equality did not come from the Greco-Romans, nor from first nations people, nor from the Enlightenment. He introduces his 500 + page book with this in mind:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or weak might have the slightest intrinsic value. … Assumptions that I had grown up with – about how a society should properly be organised, and the principles that it should uphold – were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature’, but very distinctively of that civilisation’s Christian past. (pp. xxviii – xxix)

So, we have freedom to be heard because of this equality, derived from Genesis 1:26-27, the unfolding account of Jesus Christ and the teaching of Paul the Apostle. But that freedom does not mean automatic agreement. Another part of our civic world, as our Australian Constitution reminds us, is that we, “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite…” (9th July 1900). We need this external frame of reference so that we can test our hearts against that which is First, that which gives meaning to life that is more than mere animal survival instincts.

To pretend otherwise is a falsity. It comes from a lack of understanding who we are, and what we need for purpose and mutual commitment. As Anthony Dillan recently wrote in The Australian: “I agree with Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price that our leaders need ears and not the voice, and would add that they also need some backbone, in order to make some tough and unpopular decisions.”

Might we have but one leader who can agree with Andrew Cameron, who goes back one and a half millennia, to quote Augustine: “… the soul needs to follow something in order to give birth to virtue; this something is God: if we follow Him we shall live aright.” (p.144)


[1] Jonathan Haidt (2013) The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage Books Edition

[2] Andrew Cameron. (2023). The Logic of Love: Christian ethics and moral psychology T & T Clark

[3] James R. Peters. (2009) The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal and the Rationality of Faith. Baker Academic.

[4] Tom Holland, (2019) Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. Abacus

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