Human
dignity has fallen on hard times. Nearly 60 years ago, it was the
bedrock of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. But now
bioethicists, who are tasked with the protection of life, are
questioning whether or not it even exists. Not long ago, for
instance, the most quoted bioethicist in the world, Arthur Caplan, of
the University of Pennsylvania said that: “Dignity reflects a
moral status that moral agents assign to others. It is conferred on a
human being by other human beings. There is no inherent property that
confers dignity on a human being.”

This
is not a radical point of view. In fact, amongst bioethicists, it is
probably the dominant point of view. There are exceptions, but they
are not popular in the media. Take Leon Kass, who must have one of
the most intelligent and insightful minds in American public life. He
served for several years as chairman of the President’s Council for
Bioethics where he strongly opposed cloning, even so-called
therapeutic cloning. Although he marshalled cogent scientific
arguments against it, he was ridiculed for contending that
“repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond
reason’s power completely to articulate it”.  It is
significant that the leading professional journals — Bioethics,
the Journal
of Medical Ethics,
the
American
Journal of Bioethics

— are edited by utilitarians and libertarians and regularly feature
defences of IVF, euthanasia, “directed human evolution”,
and so on. 

How
gratifying it is, then, to discover Margaret Somerville, a bioethical
voice which is respected and consulted by the media, and which
staunchly defends human dignity against corrosive “isms”.
She is an Australian who is the founding director of the Centre for
Medicine, Ethics, and Law at McGill University in Montreal. In 2006,
she was invited to air her views in the Massey Lectures, a
prestigious series sponsored by CBC Radio in Canada, and these have
recently been published as The
Ethical Imagination
.
This book shows that she is deeply concerned about the IVF industry,
opposed to euthanasia, and most controversially, an outspoken
opponent of same-sex marriage in a country where it is already legal.
Yet her opinions are regularly sought out by the media.

Unhappily,
too few people acknowledge the deep moral seriousness of bioethical
debates. Compared to global warming, the obesity epidemic, and
Hollywood strikes, embryos and euthanasia are also-rans.
Consequently, most of us go with the flow and end up supporting the
whacky views of the professionals.  But Somerville somehow
manages to rouse people from their bioethical slumber and stirs their
consciences. So her book deserves the close attention of anyone who
treasures human dignity. 

By
no means can Somerville be pigeonholed as “Christian” or
“conservative”. Her own religious convictions do not emerge
in The
Ethical Imagination

and her freewheeling approach to metaphysics must rattle
conservatives. As a left-brain person myself, I quaked when she
suggests that “there can be equally valid but different versions
of the truth about something, rather than one person or body having
the full and exclusive truth and others having no access to it”.
At first blush, too, her notion of the “secular sacred”
sounds eccentric and paradoxical. Personally, I feel more confident
within a scaffolding of ethical principles, definitions and
syllogisms. Somerville’s right-brain, intuitive approach can be
unsettling. But it is persuasive, and over and over again in this
slim volume I found myself applauding her insights.

Her
first concern is to establish that our pluralistic societies need to
establish common ethical principles. But her “shared ethics”
is not a least common denominator, or moral relativism in mufti. It
means discovering what everyone agrees is inherently wrong, not just
on the basis of reason, but also of imagination, spirituality,
creativity and reverence for the “secular sacred”. So
“shared ethics”, it turns out, is basically a right-brain
approach to the traditional concept of “human nature”.

If
pigeonholes are required, perhaps Somerville slots in with the
post-modernists. Central to post-modernist thinking is unyielding
hostility towards the devouring rationalism which claims that logic
and science exhaust reality. Loopy PoMos are a dime a dozen, but
there is a healthy post-modernism impulse which stoutly resists the
temptation to measure everything by a single yardstick, whether it be
profit, technological progress, empirical verification, or even
logic. It attempts to recover a sense of wonder before the natural
world, the wonder that Aristotle regarded as the beginning of
philosophy. Somerville’s belief that we do not own the world, but
hold it in trust is one of the strongest themes in The
Ethical Imagination
.
This image expresses it clearly:

“As
I was correcting a draft of this chapter, I was flying from Montreal
to Beijing over the High Arctic. I looked out the window of the
airplane and thought, What a beautiful and amazing world! Please,
don’t let us mess it up. Our natural world includes us humans, and
arguably the most important aspect of our world not to ‘mess up’ is
our very own nature. The new technoscience gives us the power to do
that… Ethics is fundamentally about not ‘messing it up’ — not only
for ourselves, but especially for future generations.”

A
deeply poetic appreciation of the world leads her to have a
“presumption in favour of the natural” which underlies
many of her misgivings about the technology which threatens to
dominate modern life. It is “a way of implementing respect for
life and for the human spirit”. For anyone who follows
bioethical debates, this is a new kind of language, one which awakens
readers to the dangers of a diminished humanity. “We have lost
complexity, spirit, and mystery, and replaced them with mind, will,
and technology. The problem is not that the latter are bad or
worthless; it’s that they are necessary but not sufficient to living
a fully human life.” With this as a starting point,
many bioethical questions are far more easily unravelled. Somerville
deals thoughtfully with a number of them in The
Ethical Imagination
:
IVF, transhumanism, cloning, genetic engineering, a child’s right to
a mother and father, and same-sex marriage, amongst others.

Somerville has been criticised for lacking philosophical rigour by
some who would otherwise agree with her conclusions. This is not
surprising. The “secular sacred” is a blunt instrument for
unpicking the finer threads in the tapestry of modern perplexities.
But such critics ought to bear in mind that bioethics is more
rhetoric than philosophy. At its worst, bioethics is the sophistry of
mediocre ideologues; at its best, it challenges us to acknowledge the
deepest truths of the human condition. Margaret Somerville practices
the latter kind. Canada is lucky to have her as a leading participant
in its public square.

Michael
Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet