Notre Dame university has scored something of a coup, with controversial Australian-Canadian ethicist Dr Margaret Somerville joining their teaching faculty. But who is Margaret Somerville?
The Catholic Weekly spoke to Dr Somerville last December where she expressed alarm at the direction in which her adopted country was heading: “The pro-euthanasia people can’t wait to get killing people. It’s pretty horrible.”
Australian-born ethicist Margaret Somerville reckons she has a gene for optimism, one all but impossible to suppress.
But just as the emerging field of epigenetics is revealing that the nature and function of genes can change over time, so too are current trends in academic discussion and lawmaking challenging the professor’s usually upbeat outlook on life.
She spoke to The Catholic Weekly late last year during a brief trip to Sydney in the lead up to the launch of her latest book, Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars.
The [then-]Canadian resident, with qualifications in pharmacy, ethics and law, said she was very worried about what was transpiring in her adopted homeland.
A 2014 ruling of Supreme Court of Canada had put a ‘right’ to euthanasia beyond the reach of the country’s parliament, delighting people who Prof Somerville playfully labels “permissives”.
In the meantime, people such as herself – often labelled, if not dismissed as “conservatives”, or worse, “religious” – continue to rue the spectre of an inhuman future.
“I’m just appalled by what’s currently happening,” Prof Somerville said.
“The pro-euthanasia people can’t wait to get killing people. It’s pretty horrible.”
And it’s far from being the only frontier in bioethics causing grief to apologists for human life.
“There’s surrogate motherhood: that you would use a woman just as an object to produce a child for you; you would separate the child from her and you would treat the child as a desirable product like a Gucci or a Chanel handbag. ‘We want one of those,’” she says.
And then there’s new technology promising to help consumers design their own baby, rewriting the human genome ‘to spec’, to screen out not only genetic diseases but normal and otherwise healthy traits, according to end-user preference.
“You can order one and get it from somebody else and they manufacture it for you. And coming down the road (is) reproductive technology where you can actually alter the germ line, and that will alter all of the descendants of that child”, Prof Somerville says.
“It is astonishing to think that we would be proud enough and stupid enough to think that that would be a good thing for us to do.”
Despite the incessant challenges posed by materialist ways of viewing the world, the argument advanced in Birds suggests her optimism cannot help but out.
In a dissonant note from her peers, she nominates hope – and not individual preference or sentience – as being the central category underlying all successful attempts to make meaning of the world.
Hope is key to the very possibility of making ethical decisions, she says; a supreme value among the other values and intuitions that make up what she calls our “metaphysical infrastructure”.
A proposed course of action can be assessed in the light of humans’ highest aspirations – what they hope for – so as to come to an understanding of whether it advances or detracts from the good.
“You can’t just hope for anything. If I hoped to murder you, that wouldn’t be a good thing. You have to look at what is being hoped for,” she says.
“Hope is the oxygen of the human spirit. Without hope our spirit dies, but with hope we can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles
“We have lost every battle where we have gone in and wagged our finger and said you are wrong, you are bad, you are evil; you’ve got all the wrong values.
“What we haven’t done is appreciated that these people are searching and they are looking for meaning in life, and they are looking for hope. They are looking for the things we think are important, but we haven’t delivered them in a way that they think are acceptable.
“What I am arguing in this book – and I came to this realisation fairly indirectly – is that coercion and threats and nasty labelling simply don’t work. Usually the response is ‘oh, you say that because you’re religious. I’m not religious. I don’t have to believe that and I don’t believe that’.
“However, if we can show that we have something that is worth having; that there is a joy and a meaning and a purpose in life, that is immediately attractive to other people.
“I don’t think that means they have to be religious but I do think it means that they’ve got to have a sense of amazement, wonder and awe.”
She nominates various discoveries of science to demonstrate, including what has been learnt via the deep gaze of the hubble space telescope, seemingly pointing at an entirely empty space, but sending back information revealing billions of hitherto-unknown galaxies.
“I think that is totally amazing. There’s a certain sense of awe. Firstly, that it exists and that we can contemplate that it exists, and know from the science we’ve developed, that it exists … so much greater than what we could ever have anticipated.
“And once people start to get that, they think ‘well, you know, I’m not the only pebble in the universe’ and we’ve got to be careful that we don’t lose that sense; that we don’t reduce (the universe) to what we can do materially.”
In her new book, a collection of essays and talks she has given in recent years – including at Warrane College in Kensington – Prof Somerville builds on ideas that she has continued to develop over the past two decades.
In 2006 she stoked the ire of the areligious, anti-religious and religious alike, suggesting in The Ethical Imagination that democratic countries required a notion of the ‘secular sacred’ in order to make sound ethical decisions; ones that wouldn’t result in the de facto extermination of the weak and the vulnerable.
Although castigated, she was characteristically buoyed by the experience.
“I got into dreadful trouble because religious people got furious and said I was denigrating religion; secular people got furious and said I was trying to impose religion on them.
“And when you’ve got everybody mad at you must be onto something.”
Bird on an Ethics Wire is available at Abbey Books and other good book stores, and as a Kindle ebook.