Hope, the common good and our duty to the future

Living in Canada, where the federal parliament is debating a bill to permit euthanasia, and teaching in the field of medicine, ethics and law, Professor Margaret Somerville is acutely aware of the conflict between progressive and traditional values that such issues provoke. Against this background her recent book, Bird on an Ethics Wire, explores the values needed to maintain a world that reasonable people would want to live in and pass on to their descendants.

Rachael Wong interviewed Professor Somerville during a recent visit to Sydney.

What is Bird about, in a nutshell?

The central idea is that we are in a crisis of conflict between respect for individual autonomy and protection of the common good. The balance has swung dangerously towards individual autonomy and this situation urgently needs to be corrected. A related point is this: in the past few decades we have realised that our physical eco-system is not indestructible – it is vulnerable and it can be irreparably damaged – and that we have obligations to future generations to care for it. The same is true of our metaphysical eco-system, the values, principles, attitudes, beliefs and stories we buy into to create the intangible glue that bonds us together as a society.

In this book do you talk about how to find that balance?

The aim is more to get people to recognise that what I call “radical autonomy” or “intense individualism” is not an unalloyed good. Rather, it is very much what has caused the current situation in Canada regarding abortion: we have no abortion law at all – you can have an abortion the day you would have given birth – and we now have euthanasia, and liberalized laws on prostitution and pornography. In every case it has been the individual who wants these things allowed who has prevailed; they say if they want it then they have a right to it. It is what I call a “choice and change” argument and strategy. They want to choose their own path and to do so they want change in current values and laws. There is not enough concern for the common good and there is particularly not enough concern for the well-being of future generations and the values we need to hold in trust for them.

Do you think that people are blind to the consequences for future generations, or that they simply do not care?

Well, it has been called “presentism”. There is an absolute failure to look back and there is a refusal to look forward. It is an intense presentism because the so-called progressives who drive the trend reject history and human memory as a way of knowing. Certainly that is true in Canada. They say “no, that is the past, we are not like that anymore”. They treat human memory as irrelevant and reject its lessons, when in reality memory is essential to our discussion of these very contentious issues, as is human imagination. We need to remember the past in order to protect the present and the future. 

For example, when it comes to the euthanasia debate, to even mention the Nazis is rejected as a straw man, a red herring. I went through quite a bit of indecision about including in the book a full article from the New York Times of the 8th of October 1933. It was an article on how Hitler’s Nazi regime had just introduced this “wonderful” new law that would mean people wouldn’t suffer anymore because they would be able to have euthanasia. You could have printed it in today’s New York Times and it would recount accurately exactly what we are doing with euthanasia in Canada. But today’s advocates flatly deny that this lesson from history has any relevance.

How do people just do away with history when the parallels are so obvious?

Here’s an example at the highest level of decision making in a society:  the Supreme Court of Canada said in the Carter case, when the government brought evidence of the abuse of euthanasia in Belgium that Canadian doctors are not like Belgian doctors. And it said, we cannot be concerned about risks and harms to hypothetical people in a hypothetical future. So they just followed the trial judge and dismissed these arguments and the evidence supporting them. That is intense presentism for you.

In your book you talk a lot about the importance of language…

Words matter. The choice of language is absolutely crucial. You call it “murder” or “killing” and everybody says “no we can’t do that”. You call it “euthanasia”, a few more people come on board. You call it “assisted-suicide”, more people again come on board. You call it “physician-assisted death”, more than 50 percent of people will agree.
You started off with a word that is factually correct – euthanasia is killing somebody – and almost 100 percent of people said no. By the time you get to “physician-assisted death”, which is what the Supreme Court called it in Carter, you have got over 50 percent of the population agreeing. Words are weapons in the battles about values in the culture wars.

How about the language used to describe certain voices in these battles?

In public debate anyone who opposes euthanasia is likely to be labelled “religious”, whether or not they are religious and whether or not they are using a religious argument . This label is tantamount to saying that the values and ideas of a religious person have no role in the public square, because if they were allowed, that would be “imposing” your religion on other people, which you have “no right” to do.
In the book I argue that all voices have a right to be heard in the public square and that the religious voice has just as much right to participate and be heard as the non-religious one. That doesn’t mean that you should have a religiously based society; it simply means that in a secular, democratic society, the religious voice has an equal place with the secular or other ones. Thankfully the courts in Canada have upheld that. They have held that the religious voice has the same right to be heard as any of the others. That is a very important principle in our Western democracies at the moment.


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How do you suggest we protect and promote the values needed to ensure present and future generations have a world in which reasonable people would want to live?

We can’t coerce people into accepting the values that we think should prevail; we need to somehow persuade them. What they have to see is that they will have a better life, a better world, and that they will leave a better future to their children and their grandchildren if they come along with at least some of the approaches that we are talking about.
The only way that I can think of doing that is to expose people in some way to amazement, wonder and awe, which are uniquely human experiences. I think these can help people to find meaning. I also think that they will give people an opportunity for transcendence, of belonging to something larger than themselves. An American values survey found that this was what people longed for most. It is sort of paradoxical, because what the progressives are pushing is individual values, that it is “just me” and that “I’m important”. Yet they want to feel that what they do matters to more than just themselves, and that it gives to others.
Amazement, wonder and awe can also generate hope. I am a big advocate of hope. I call it the oxygen of the human spirit. Without it our spirit dies, and with it we can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I see hope as an active process, not something passive. It is like making peace or making war, you have to make hope. We need hope – which is tied to the future – in order to make the best decisions about values.

Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal. Rachael Wong is a lawyer from Auckland who has recently completed a Master of Bioethics and Health Law and is currently working as a legal consultant with the Law Reform Commission in Samoa.

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