Speaking to a secular age

Recently, I had the privilege of giving an opening address at the 2008 Catholic Media Convention, "Proclaim it from the rooftops", held in Toronto. Here are some of the themes and issues I raised in my speech.

It’s possible to argue that the greatest advance in civilization is the change from fighting with weapons to fighting with words, and the most important of those word battles is in formulating our collective values, our "shared ethics". We are currently engaged in a major reassessment – which sometimes manifests as powerful cultural conflict – of what those values and ethics should be.

Words matter and, as "word warriors", you are the people who can give other people the words they need to formulate and communicate the ideas and concepts that will protect human dignity and the essence of our humanness, and our physical and metaphysical worlds - all goals that are currently under unprecedented threat. And it is not enough to protect these entities in the present; we need the words that will enable them to be held on trust for future generations.

Whom we are trying to persuade?

In choosing the language we use to discuss social-ethical values issues – whether abortion, euthanasia, human embryo stem cell research, same-sex marriage, or children’s human rights with respect to their biological origins and families -- we must ask ourselves whom we are trying to persuade. If each other, we can talk in our own cultural idiom or code. If others, we have to understand their idiom and identify where they and we have beliefs, principles and goals in common.

I am sometimes deeply dismayed by the language religious people use in the public square – it is alienating to those who don’t share their beliefs and sets up the religious people to be dismissed on the grounds that their views are simply religious ones not shared by non-believers and therefore, do not have to be taken into account in a secular society. Although this is wrong – all voices, including religious ones have a right to be heard in the democratic public square – nevertheless, it often means the views of those people are not taken into account in formulating public policy.

Moreover, if you want to persuade others who do not share your religious beliefs, you have to present good secular arguments for the positions you advocate. And this is often much easier to do than many religious people think. To some extent it depends on your choice of language. There is no point in quoting the Bible to a secularist audience, but you can communicate the same message in language they will identify with and accept.

Choice of language

Our choice of language can alter our and others’ perceptions of what is ethical and unethical. A good example of this is the euthanasia debate which is taking place in Canada and in many Western democracies. Its proponents contend that euthanasia is just a "merciful act of clinical care", the "last act of good palliative care", or "physician-assisted death" – they avoid the use of the word suicide as surveys have shown people are less accepting of that. Compare this euphemistic, soothing language with an equally accurate description: euthanasia is physicians killing their patients.

We use language to communicate to others what we know through using all our ways of knowing, including reason. But before proceeding, I feel that a few explanatory words are in order about the concept and role of reason in our public square debates on socio-ethical values issues.

Role of reason

The nature, worth, and valid role of reason are, collectively, often at the centre of strong disagreement in relation to ethics. In my view, reason is an essential but secondary verification mechanism. It allows us to check that we have not gone off course with using other ways of knowing, such as moral intuition, examined emotions or imagination in making ethical decisions. The problem is not the use of reason.

Rather the problem, as far as "doing ethics" is concerned, is the glorification of reason to the exclusion of all other ways of knowing. Richard Dawkins does that in The God Delusion. He dismisses the validity or indeed existence of any knowledge other than that provided by the use of reason in science. He limits how we can validly know to reason, and what we can validly know through reason, to science. In particular, Dawkins wants to dismiss what people of Faith believe.

Whatever our own views on those beliefs might be, we need to understand that science cannot prove or disprove knowledge gained, through Faith, just as Faith cannot give access to pure science knowledge. In short, neither can prove or disprove the other.

Faith and reason are not incompatible – as Richard Dawkins proposes and neither are science and religion incompatible. In positing these incompatibilities Dawkins, who is a fundamentalist atheist (atheism is a secular religion) and religious fundamentalists are similar.

Like all fundamentalists the neo-atheists want to impose their views on everyone else. And like all fundamentalists, they take an either/or approach – either my beliefs or yours; either science or religion, either reason or Faith -- when we need both. They then seek to reconcile what they see as the conflicts between the two elements that make up each of these pairings, by dropping one or the other of them. Dawkins’ call for the elimination of religion demonstrates such a choice on his part.

Persuading people against euthanasia

But let’s return to the euthanasia debate. What do we have to do in practice to persuade people that legalizing it is not necessary and not a good idea because of the harm it would cause to our collective values? I’d like to suggest a few ways to make the public realize what a dramatic choice it faces.

Use all our human ways of knowing: I have often spoken about the need to use the full range of our human ways of knowing in "doing ethics". In the case of euthanasia, we need to listen to the wisdom of repugnance as a way of knowing. For instance, reason used alone could persuade us euthanasia is ethically acceptable, but our other ways of knowing would warn us it is not. Indeed, a relatively recent article in Nature, "The Moral Brain" (May 2007), gives us scientific evidence that supports my approach to how we can best "know" about ethics.

People with damage to the parts of their brains that process emotions, but who have intact centres for rational judgment, made ethically inappropriate decisions. To quote: "The study provides evidence that [good] moral decision-making is based on emotion as well as rational thought". An even more recent study, also reported in Nature, shows that people with damage to the front part of their brain – the cortex – have "an abnormally utilitarian pattern of moral judgments". So, paradoxically, science itself tells us that Richard Dawkins misses the point when he dismisses the validity or indeed existence of any knowledge other than that provided by the use of reason in science.

Identify and remove concealing devices. We need to take the medical cloak off euthanasia which makes it seem safe, ethical and humane. We should ask: "If we had euthanasia, who should carry it out?" Not physicians, because that makes people fear physicians, accepting pain relief treatment, and hospice and palliative medicine and care. We could consider having specially trained lawyers as they are educated to apply guidelines and safeguards strictly, and we’d want to ensure that. But even people who are euthanasia advocates are shocked and appalled by this proposal that we "would have lawyers killing people". But the same act is not described – or perhaps even seen – as killing when physicians do it.

Choose language that does not dull our moral intuitions: In a survey people who rejected physician-assisted suicide accepted physician-assisted death, so some euthanasia advocates have decided to use the latter term. They’ve also decided to take a graduated approach: to first get physician assisted death/suicide legalized and then move to euthanasia – they believe the public will go along with this incremental approach, but will reject euthanasia if that is presented now.

Be creative. Currently, people are very interested in spirituality and religion – to some extent we can thank the neo-atheists for that. But to maintain that interest and use it for good, they need to be surprised, for instance, with unexpected or new, non-clichéd insights. In particular, they will not respond to sledge-hammer, cookie-cutter predictable language or style of presentation.

Be charitable: We have a serious ethical obligation to avoid cynicism and nihilism in what we communicate or hubris or denigration in doing so. We need to be respectful, especially to those who are not respectful to us. That is to display strength not weakness. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the strongest man is the one who has the courage to turn his back and walk away from a fight – although that must, of course, be put in context.

Despite the fact that opponents of religion can be immensely disrespectful to religious people, I sometimes cringe when I see the way in which religious people attack their opponents. They mean well, but they can do more harm than good – including in terms of setting an example of mutual respect. They too often take a "holier than thou" approach or exhibit a childish glee in believing – usually wrongly – they have destroyed the arguments of their opponents. We need measured, careful arguments and debate if we are to convince others our positions are the preferable ones ethically.

Articulate retro-progressive values: I’ve been arguing for some time now that we make a serious mistake when we throw out old values and virtues simply on the basis that they’re old. What we need is to reconsider these values and decide whether they still offer us important foundations for our individual and collective lives and if so to integrate them with emerging ethical values.

To do that might mean our old values need to be dusted off, polished a little, and perhaps renamed more compatibly with contemporary language use. So, for instance, I call the old virtue of prudence "wise ethical restraint". Other principles, concepts or values that need re-exploring in the context keeping societal-ethical issues in a moral context include: conscience, compassion, courage – especially moral courage, confidence, hope, generosity and trust.

Be consistent about values: If you oppose euthanasia, shouldn’t you also oppose capital punishment? It’s ironic that pro-life conservatives who refuse to take all possible steps to outlaw capital punishment and prevent executions, do not see the contradiction in their stance: Failure to do so is to act contrary to a true pro-life position. It’s not just a matter of respect for an individual’s life, the life of the person to be executed, important as that is; but of respect for human life in general.

Learn from example: I was asked recently to write a "blurb" for the back cover of Jean Vanier’s new book, Our Life Together. It’s a collection of his letters, written over many decades, that describe his worldwide work and travels in establishing L’Arche, a refuge and life-long home for intellectually disabled people.

Jean Vanier is an outstanding model in terms of the power of "the word" when used selflessly, authentically, honestly and well. He does not romanticize disability, for instance, but he shows us how one can find hope, joy and love despite – or, perhaps, in part – because of it.

Here’s what I said in my "blurb":

As we move through Jean Vanier’s letters to his and L’Arche’s friends and supporters, increasingly he signs off with just "Love, Jean" -- the most simple and profound salutation. This book is a love story of a different kind. It shows the extraordinary flourishing of the human spirit that can occur when a certain kind of love – a truly unselfish, non-self-centred love – is made central to ordinary daily life.

Jean Vanier’s radical, counter-contemporary-culture message is that we "non-disabled" people are the losers in refusing to accept disabled people and rejecting the unique gifts they have to offer us as individuals and societies. He writes: "It’s not a question of going out and doing good to them; rather receiving the gift of their presence transforms us".

This unfashionable belief in the enormous value of what disabled people can contribute was summed up for me by a L’Arche assistant (a non-disabled person living in a L’Arche community) who said: "You have to understand, Margo, we’re not martyrs, saints or heroes; we do this because of the fullness of life it brings us."

Jean Vanier’s letters gently show that among the many gifts disabled people can offer us are lessons in hope, optimism, kindness, empathy, compassion, generosity and hospitality, a sense of humour (balance), trust and courage. But, as Jean Vanier recognizes, to do that disabled people must be treated justly; given every person’s right to the freedom to be themselves; and respected as members of our community. That requires us to accept the suffering, weakness and fragility we see in them, which means, as Jean Vanier emphasizes, we must first accept those realities in relation to ourselves. Most of us find that an enormous challenge and flee.

The ethical tone of a society is not set by how it treats its strongest, most powerful members, but by how it treats those who are weakest, most vulnerable and in need. This book is testament to an amazing example in the latter respect and, as such, deserves to be widely read and deeply contemplated.

Jean Vanier’s remarkable, uncommon "common humanity" shines through these letters. Not everyone will share his Christian tradition, but everyone can learn from him how to enrich themselves, others and our world through developing, experiencing and celebrating – to quote him - the "gifts of the heart" and putting into practice – again to quote him - a "little sign of love in the world".

So you must ask yourselves what are the "gifts of the heart" and what does putting into practice a "little sign of love in the world" require of you in your work in the media.

Let’s conclude

How can journalists place social-ethical issues in a moral context in public debates? It is a huge challenge and a huge opportunity. People need to be given the words in which they can express their ethical convictions. I so often have people contact me to say "What you said is what I believe, but I didn’t know how to say it." As journalists, this is your privilege and responsibility: to give others the words they need; to give them the words they need to speak their truth in a way that will fall on ears wide open.

Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal. 


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