Ethical progress

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  • November 10, 2006

In an age of polar opposites – right vs. left, science vs. religion, rich vs. poor, orthodox vs. heterodox, radical individualism vs. community rights – can we ever really hope to find common ethical grounds for how we order society? For ethicist Margaret Somerville, the answer to that question is yes.

Somerville, founding director of the Centre for Ethics, Medicine and Law at McGill University, gave the 2006 Massey Lectures on CBC Radio earlier this month. Her talk was titled The Ethical Imagination, published in book form by Anansi.

Considering Somerville's controversial reputation in liberal circles — she is an outspoken advocate for traditional marriage and is mostly opposed to abortion — CBC Radio's decision to ask her to give the prestigious lectures took considerable courage. Somerville's appearance at a Ryerson University convocation earlier this year to receive an honorary doctorate drew nasty protests from same-sex marriage advocates and she faced some heated questions at her public delivery of the Massey Lectures. But her talks were in the finest tradition of the Masseys, which have embodied thoughtful and intelligent inquiry on some of the gravest issues facing humanity for the last 45 years.

Somerville's self-imposed task in the lectures was to grope toward some common ethical ground in our multicultural, pluralistic, secular society. She recognized this as an extremely difficult, but not impossible task.

Intriguingly, she rested her foundation for a common ethics on some very Catholic notions. She started with the idea, admittedly shared with many religious faiths, that there is ultimate truth which humanity has a deep hunger to know, a yearning for transcendence, as she called it. She also turned to natural law theory to argue that there are universal moral principles that all human beings have imprinted on their hearts. For Somerville, morals and notions of good and evil are not simply social constructs, subject to variation depending on culture and history. Nor are they arbitrary rules imposed by religions. They are knowable to all cultures and times via human reason.

Sound familiar? They should. Understandably, the conclusions she draws for a common ethics will also be familiar to Catholics: respect for human life as its foundation; a bias for "the natural," that is, for preserving traditional and natural ways of looking at what it means to be human; a high value for traditional families that provide the ideal setting for raising healthy children; advocacy for a child's right to have and know his/her biological parents.

Somerville recognizes her approach has limits. Of necessity, it eschews religious languages (without, at the same time, relegating religion to the private sphere). She is seeking a limited space for finding agreement among competing ideologies in hopes of preserving the best of the human species against the onslaught of "technoscience" that threatens to render the human race unrecognizable.

A monumental challenge, perhaps, but worth all our effort. Somerville's roadmap will not easily be dismissed; nor should it.

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