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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 as opposed to an academic one. This is the case not only because the lectures published here were originally broadcast on CBC Radio as part of the 2006 Massey Lectures series, but also because Somerville is interested in a shared ethics, a sort of Universal Charter of Human Morality. The 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, to signal that it’s something bad) is antagonistic to her sense of the “secular sacred,” the ethical glue of her moral community. 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.

This gives rise to the first of Somerville’s guiding principles, that the first step in finding a shared ethics is to find common ground with our fellow creatures. For Somerville this common denominator is our human nature (usually prefaced with an adjective indicating its foundational position, such as “profound” or “deep”). She disagrees strongly with those relativists who argue that there is no such thing as 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 another crucial aspect 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. Instead, it is 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 Somerville 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. One has to cut through a veritable jungle of windy abstraction before finding any engagement with specific ethical issues. And when theory does meet practice, the analysis fails to persuade. For example: Somerville declares the relegation of the elderly to the margins of society to be “the ultimate example of the results of our society’s intense individualism and hedonism.” But was there ever a Golden Age “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 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. 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 her 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 will share.


Reviewer: Alex Good

Publisher: House of Anansi Press, House of Anansi Press


Price: $15.95

Page Count: 208 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-0-88784-747-9

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 2006-12

Categories: Reference