The Ethical Imagination

By Margaret Somerville

In The Ethical Imagination Margaret Somerville, who holds positions in the faculties of Law and Medicine at McGill University, speaks in a public voice. In part this is because the book comprises the 2006 Massey Lectures that were broadcast on CBC Radio’s Ideas program. But it is also because Somerville is interested in a shared ethics, a sort of Universal Charter of Human Morality. The public she would like to address is one where each individual can experience belonging to the same moral community. The sorts of ethical problems she is primarily concerned with are ones with large social and political dimensions. The individual is not her bailiwick.

Indeed a focus on the individual is contrary to the very spirit of her argument. “Intense individualism” (individualism is almost always tagged as “intense” by Somerville, which is meant to signal that it’s something bad) is antagonistic to her sense of the “secular sacred,” the ethical glue of her moral community. In formulating a shared ethics she finds it helpful to imagine ourselves “living in an encompassing human spirit . . . rather than seeing ourselves as each having an individual human spirit.” And so the complex web of relationships we live within and not the individual is primary. A “respect for life” based on knowing our place within nature and society is more important than personal autonomy and self-determination.

So what Somerville means by ethical values are mainly traditional social values. In determining these, ethics has to look away from the self, showing respect for nature and the imagination, the past and the future. It is directed outwards: Up and down, forwards and back.

The down part of the axis gives rise to the first of Somerville’s guiding principles. The first step in finding a shared ethics is to find common ground with our fellow creatures. For Somerville this common denominator and cultural universal is our human nature (usually prefaced with an adjective indicating its foundational position, like “profound” or “deep”). She disagrees strongly with those relativists who argue that there is no such thing as a common human nature but only a series of social constructions. Instead, she believes in a form of natural law: an unwritten body of universal moral principles based on our shared human nature. This translates in ethical terms to what she dubs the “presumption in favour of the natural.”

There is some confusion between this presumption and the backward-looking axis of Somerville’s ethical system, which might be described as a presumption in favour of the traditional. In fact, the traditional is far more important than the natural. We may all share a common human nature, but a moment’s reflection should be enough to confirm that there is little ethical about it. It is, rather, in “long-time, widely shared aspirations and ideas of ‘the good’ in human life” – in our ethical traditions, now frequently represented as human rights – that she locates our shared ethics.

Unfortunately she does so in language that is as generalized, repetitious, and lush with unhelpful metaphor as any New Age spiritual guidebook, frequent appeals to the Oxford English Dictionary notwithstanding. One has to cut through a veritable jungle of such stuff as “A story is to human growth as a fact is to science,” and “As breathing is for the body, hope is for the human spirit” before finding her engaging in discussions of specific ethical issues. And when theory does meet practice, the analysis routinely fails to persuade.

For example: Relegating the elderly to the margins of society (if that is, in fact, what we do) is said to be “the ultimate example of the results of our society’s intense individualism and hedonism.” It’s not clear, however, if it is unnatural. Furthermore, it is doubtful that there ever existed a Golden Age of one’s golden years, “when as a society we saw elders as fonts of wisdom” and “old people were valued respected, helped others, and could experience hope to the end of their lives.” One suspects the author is imagining a false tradition.

Then there is Somerville’s firm opposition to same-sex marriage. Apparently a shared ethics is not without its controversial strictures. Marriage, we are given to understand, is nothing if not natural. It exists to embody “the inherently procreative relationship between a man and a woman.”

Such a relationship needs special legal status because it protects children’s rights with respect to their biological parents. Somerville is very big on these “think of the children” arguments. They also inform her opposition to reprogenetics. In addition to an absolute right to have a biological father and mother in a legally protected relationship, children also have a right to be born with a “natural biological heritage” (that is, no clones or designer babies) and to full disclosure of their genetic origin.

But while these may be worthwhile goals, appeals to nature and tradition don’t help us much when we’re talking about clones. We need facts as well as imagination to determine absolute rights and wrongs, or to engage in moral cost-benefit analysis. Good facts, Somerville notes, are essential to good ethics. But when it comes to the rights of children she bases her analysis entirely on suppositions, feelings, and metaphor. We simply have no way of evaluating the assertion that without a knowledge of one’s biological material a child cannot feel properly “embedded in a web of people, past, present, and future.”

That image of being embedded in a web of time is telling. Somerville uses the word “hope” a lot when talking about the future, but her main hope for the future is that it will preserve the past. This can only lead to a deeply conservative, if not static, system of ethics that not everyone, despite our common human nature, will feel disposed to share.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2006.

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