Review: Margaret Somerville The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit 

Margaret Somerville (2006). The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
In ethics class, I was taught about the deontological and utilitarian approaches to moral behavior. The utilitarian looks at ethics specifically in terms of outcomes. That is, the most appropriate behavior is the one that brings the greatest benefit to the most amount of people. Few would ever take this approach to its extreme. For instance, most would find it quite unpalatable to kill a single healthy person simply to save the lives of many (as in to provide organ transplants or bring leads to a cancer cure).

The deontological approach basically says that moral behavior should be set via a set of principles, meaning that there are sacred things that cannot be breached no matter what. Taking the deontological approach to the extreme is also fairly nonsensical, or at least unrealistic. Take for instance the argument that shutting down internet access in libraries is justified even if it means saving only one child from falling into the hands of a predator. Clearly, some balancing of risks is necessary to create a working society.

Margaret Somerville argues in favor of the deontological approach and defends it quite effectively against the pedant’s fear of the word “sacred” in secular thought. Most importantly, she distinguishes between the religious sacred and something she calls the secular sacred. The point of the secular sacred (as I understand it) refers to the rituals and values that are common to humans whether they have a particular religion or not. She sees this as an appropriate middle ground among the utilitarians and deontological-types and also among the religious and non-religious.

Basic Presumption in Favor of the Natural

Somerville also advocates something she calls a “basic presumption in favor of the natural.” When we consider ethical questions, she proposes that we approach them with an understanding of the natural as the “sacred” first, then to apply other social idols (science, technological, law and culture to name a few) . In a broad sense, this makes perfect sense. We ought to put life (for instance) before advancement of technology, or the preservation of social order.

What has been more controversial are some of the conclusions Somerville makes. For instance, Somerville is an opponent of unnatural birth methods such as in-vitro fertilization, other genetic alteration/manipulation/favoring. Convincingly, Somerville notes that “non-natural” birth children feel a loss of identity because they do not know their natural fathers/mothers and that this harm represents a breach of ethics on the part of the parents and the society that allowed such procedures.

Somerville mentions children alot in her book. She ties the bonds of parent and child to the “sacred”:

She notes that “many people experience” the sacred “on first seeing their newborn baby” (59) and that

parents and children’s bonds to one another — especially a parent’s unconditional love for their children simply because they are their children — are often described as sacred.

Once the stage for a sacred is set, and especially the stage where children are sacred, then begins the path to the primary target of Somerville’s book, namely the moral relativists. In essence, moral relativism suggests that identity and perceptions of identity are socially constructed and so, therefore, is morality. She paints a picture of the moral relativist as ultimately self-centered. Thus, she argues, people who speak of the benefits of such things as in-vitro fertilization are focussed on the benefits coming to the adults and not to the harm that may befall the “children” of such a procedure.

The Same-Sex Marriage Argument

Even more controversial, and nonsensical in my view, is Somerville’s position on same-sex marriage. In a nutshell, Somerville argues that since marriage is “a compound right . . . to marry and [to] found a family” then an ethical society cannot accept same-sex marriage and protect “children’s” right to such things as the knowledge of biological parents, freedom of a “natural” identity and so on.

This goes against Somerville’s premise that we should make presumptions in favor of the natural. If same-sex relationships are “natural” and people truly fall in love, and at the same time het couples start families (naturally) from outside the confines of marriage, then we ought to presume that the technology (marriage) is broken and not the couples who want to be married. Further, if the problem is the “production” of offspring in unnatural situations (such as through genetic manipulation, cloning or IVF), then that is what the ethical focus should be. Laws, even constitutionally enshrined ones, can be modified to accomodate a society’s change in values and should do so accordingly. Further, same-sex couples do have options to avoid a future loss of identity in their children. Open adoption, for instance, guarantees that children can maintain a relationship with their natural parents throughout their lives while being raised by adoptive parents. While claiming not to condone discrimination or inequality, Somerville at least begins with an assumption that same-sex couples are predestined to unethical parental behavior (if you agree with Somerville’s argument that IVF and etc. are unethical).

There are other “natural” that need attention as well. Naturally, human beings are most closely associated with promiscuous species of primates. Thus, monogamy is a human-designed construct — a cultural norm more than a natural state. Further, despite arguments from Somerville in the opposite, “single-sex” reproduction does occur naturally, most recently discovered in Komodo dragons through parthenogenesis. Granted, parthenogenesis has not occurred to humans to my knowledge, but it does raise questions about what “natural” means and how it should be applied. For one, the manipulation of nature is the human race’s greatest adaptation strategy, and as an adaptation strategy, it is natural. Where do we draw the lines between “nature” and “technology?”

Then, there is the question about what we mean by “children.” Clearly, the “sacred” baby is not the one that suffers loss of identity, but moreso the more grown-up “child” who could experience loss of identity in a gazillion other ways resulting from their parent’s behavior. Ought mixed-race couples be restricted from marriage because of identity issues of their children later in life? Part of the experience of parenthood is causing harm to your children for self-centred purposes (sexual gratification, “biological clocks,” “help on the farm” (in agrarian societies), “someone to take care of me when I’m older” and so on).

And herein lies the challenge of the deontological track — we can create principles that can gather popular (if not universal) consensus, but do we apply these principles for the principle’s sake or to rationalize previously held opinions of our own? Let it be said that every deontologist needs a utiliarian, (even a moral relativist) conscience and vice versa to keep the practice of “doing ethics” in check. Thank goodness that in a diverse world such as ours, there is always such a conscience to be found in peers if not inside our own heads.

UPDATE:   Margaret Somerville clarifies some points in a comment (also found below):

Dear Ryan Deschamps,
I’ve just seen your review of The Ethical Imagination and read it with interest. Some clarifications are needed however.

First, I am not against IVF as such. I am against some uses of it. Broadly speaking when it is used to “repair nature when it fails” (for instance, to overcome infertility from blocked fallopian tubes) it does not raise ethical concerns that would indicate it should not be used. When, however, it is used to do what is “impossible in nature” (for example, to make a baby that has the genetic heritage of two women and no man – this has just been achieved with female mice in a Japanese experiment) I believe its use is unethical.

The ethics of new reproductive technologies (NRTs) are linked to same-sex marriage, because marriage, as you rightly note in your review, automatically gives the right to found a family. As I predicted in my book, married same-sex couples in Canada, where same-sex marriage is legally recognized, are now claiming that the law which prohibits certain uses of NRTs is unconstitutional because it infringes their rights to found a family in the ways they wish to do. These prohibited ways currently include cloning and paid surrogate motherhood. In the future the use of some of the emerging technologies that would make shared genetic babies between same-sex spouses possible would be an issue. I believe that all of these ways of bringing children into existence are unethical from the perspective of the resulting child which is the sole reason that I oppose same-sex marriage.

Having said that, I agree that discrimination against homosexual people is a horrible wrong that needs to be prevented and that homosexual couples need to be able to protect each other, for instance, financially. Consequently while I oppose same-sex marriage because of its impact on children’s rights, I think that we need to legally recognize civil partnerships that provide the necessary protections to same-sex couples.

Thank you for your interest in my work.
Margo Somerville

7 thoughts on “Review: Margaret Somerville The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit 

  1. Your thoughtful points made me want to at least skim Somerville’s book. It does sound like her bias may not be so much for nature as an attempt to say that nature, as she conceives it, supports her moral sensibilities. I am about a third of the way through The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith. In part three of this neglected classic he argues that general principles are derived from from what we feel and imagine others to feel about individual incidents and that in the case of virtues like gratitude, love for our children, etc. we do best to let our moral sentiment take the lead. In the case of other virtues, such as justice, it is better to follow the principles.

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  2. Hi Eber,

    Your comment is the second time I’ve heard a reason to re-read Adam Smith (the first was Jeffrey Sach’s The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time ).

    I have always been under the suspicion that professional schools only teach enough Smith (and everything for that matter) to be dangerous. I’m going to put The Theory of Moral Sentiments on my already bottomless reading list.

    Thanks!

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  3. Thanks for the insightful review. You’ve put your finger on what I see as the weakest point: “natural” is either a loaded term in morality, or it is meaningless and irrelevent. Somervilles argument does sound interesting: I like the idea of a “secular sacred”. But if we limit such a deontological approach to what is uncontroversial, it solves no moral problems: too strong and it starts to look- and probably is- arbitrary. Now what I’d like to see is a utilitarian embrace of some such “secular sacred”. Aren’t we generally happiest when we live within some boundaries?

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  4. Natural, nature, are important concepts in my thought and speaking about ethics, so are the phrases, “what works” or “just the way it works” but I always have to qualify them with, “to the best of my knowledge”. Rob, your final comment about happiness and boundries reminds me that yes I’m gererally happiest when I’m living within the boundries of what works and generally speaking that’s seems natural and benificial or at least no harm to others as well. I think I will take my class, Social Issues in Business, to hear Smerville’s talk tonight with the thought that she can be dead wrong about what nature is and implies for ethics and still she may give us a worthwile exercise in articulating where she goes wrong (to the best of our knowledge).

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  5. I had a little brain-wave recently on deontological approaches because of an analogy I used in a different context:

    namely, that of “complaining about the noise in the midst of a fire-fight.”

    In my view, the deontological approach weakens where more than one boundary of behavior applies. True, excessive noise is unethical; so is shooting at people. The risk is that we hone in on some unethical behaviors, at the cost of others — including those that may be causal for the original complaint.

    Thus, even deontological approach requires a certain amount of pragmatism. We need somehow to create the best possible boundaries for the greatest number of people. Anyone who has had to deal with any amount of legislation or regulation in public policy can appreciate that approach.

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  6. Dear Ryan Deschamps,
    I’ve just seen your review of The Ethical Imagination and read it with interest. Some clarifications are needed however.

    First, I am not against IVF as such. I am against some uses of it. Broadly speaking when it is used to “repair nature when it fails” (for instance, to overcome infertility from blocked fallopian tubes) it does not raise ethical concerns that would indicate it should not be used. When, however, it is used to do what is “impossible in nature” (for example, to make a baby that has the genetic heritage of two women and no man – this has just been achieved with female mice in a Japanese experiment) I believe its use is unethical.

    The ethics of new reproductive technologies (NRTs) are linked to same-sex marriage, because marriage, as you rightly note in your review, automatically gives the right to found a family. As I predicted in my book, married same-sex couples in Canada, where same-sex marriage is legally recognized, are now claiming that the law which prohibits certain uses of NRTs is unconstitutional because it infringes their rights to found a family in the ways they wish to do. These prohibited ways currently include cloning and paid surrogate motherhood. In the future the use of some of the emerging technologies that would make shared genetic babies between same-sex spouses possible would be an issue. I believe that all of these ways of bringing children into existence are unethical from the perspective of the resulting child which is the sole reason that I oppose same-sex marriage.

    Having said that, I agree that discrimination against homosexual people is a horrible wrong that needs to be prevented and that homosexual couples need to be able to protect each other, for instance, financially. Consequently while I oppose same-sex marriage because of its impact on children’s rights, I think that we need to legally recognize civil partnerships that provide the necessary protections to same-sex couples.

    Thank you for your interest in my work.
    Margo Somerville

    Like

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