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


Things Noticed: RFID Firewall article Mentions Libraries

The Popular Science blog has an entry about an invention by Melanie Rieback called the “RFID Guardian.” Like a regular Firewall, it blocks attempts to access information via RFID unless you want them to.

It sounds like a neat invention, but the thing that struck me was this:

a personal firewall she’s developing [. . .] will protect your privacy in an world where your clothes, library books, and passport contain RFID tags.

It’s very interesting to me that library books were mentioned in this venue. We don’t have RFID at Halifax Public Libraries, but we are definitely talking about it. I wonder what are the ethics of a world where some people can blog RFID calls and others cannot, and most of it based on whether someone can afford a piece of technology.

A little bit scary to think of a world where only the few can reasonably expect to have something resembling a private life. Although, like most things, it will probably become affordable (and hackable) faster than we can say “Circ [everything under] de Soleil.”

Public Internet Access is Morally Wrong?

I was doing some research on the use of the internet recently, and I’ve decided to write a paper on the ethics of providing public access computers to the public by public libraries.

Clearly, looking at the issue from a strictly professional standpoint, one could easily say that access to the Internet is a core responsibility of libraries. However, my perspective, as I have consistently said in this blog, is that we have to look at library issues from a non-library perspective as well. My intention is to begin with the premise that providing public internet access is morally wrong and to work backwards from there.

When you look at the empirical data, it is absolutely scary how convincing the “Internet is evil” becomes. Some interesting factoids:

  • Those who are extroverted and/or have strong social networks tend to benefit from internet use while those who are introverted and without social networks tend to feel the negative effects of internet use the most (Kraut et. al, 2002).
  • Despite “Global village” claims, unmoderated teen chat rooms are full of negative racial interactions (Tynes, 2004).
  • 11% of youth 10-13 and 23.4% of youth 14-17 encounter solicitations of sex on the internet, with “troubled youth” being particularly vulnerable (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2001).
  • Hyper-commercialism has some particularly nasty effects on the personal development of children, and many internet sites are clearly using the internet to disguise commercial content from desired information (Greenfield, 2004).

I haven’t even started in on such topics as Internet addiction, the “Happy Slapping” phenomenon and the whole Jason Fortuny affair.

One argument that libraries can use is the “individual responsibility” argument — that is, that the library is not ultimately responsible for the effects of the internet, since the people who use it have free will. Of course, your average drug dealer could say the same thing.

Since I’m in the fact-finding stage of my paper, I do not want to make a conclusion yet. I already have my beliefs and biases, but I want to see if the data will change my mind first. So far, this has been a great learning experience!

Works Cited
Greenfield, P. (2004). Developmental considerations for determining appropriate Internet use guidelines for children and adolescents. Applied Developmental Psychology 25: 751-762.

Kraut, R. et. al (2002). Internet paradox revisited. Journal of social issues 58: 49-74.

Mitchell, K. J., Finkelhor, D. & Wolak, J. (2001). Risk factors for and impact of online sexual solicitation of youth. Journal of the American Medical Association 285: 3011-3014.

Tynes, B., Reynolds, L., & Greenfield, P. (2004). Adolescence, race, and ethnicity on the Internet: A comparison of discourse in monitored vs unmonitored chat rooms. Applied Developmental Psychology 25: 667-684.

Web 2.0 and Judgement — are we losing Science in all this tech?

I was working with a family member and I had the opportunity to be a librarian next to him/her.

The good or bad thing about being a librarian to a family member is that all that professional stuff goes out the window. This person did not enjoy a great reference interview, nor did they get a non-judgemental view of their information need. They got “Ryan” who is close to them and who has rights to tell them straight what he thinks about their reading. It’s not being a good librarian, but it is being a good family member.

So, this family member bragged to me about a tome that the scientist in me just couldn’t let go without a swipe. I want to be fair here, but let’s just say that the resource purports to have a scientific basis, but a closer inspection gives you the idea that the source is questionable at best.

And Ryan the librarian went to demonstrate the sketchyness of the source to said family member. The first strategy, though, was to find a half-decent review. The first weed-through were sources from URLs that would suggest bias in favor of the book. Kind of like if I was searching for a review of a book on the nutritional benefits of apples and could only find reviews from URLs like “” or “” These resources were predictably positive and not rigorous at all.

The second weed-through was the Web 2.0 level: basically, Amazon-ish type reviews. And my librarian alarm bells went off yet again. The reviews were also predictably positive, probably because the tome is the sort that would be read only by the community that accepts it. So, this led me to a primary concern about Web 2.0-ish stuff in general.

Web 2.0 means an emphasis on how one expresses the things that a community of practice already accepts or believes to be true.

Clearly, Web 2.0 wasn’t helping my family member in evaluating a resource that he/she was prepared to take quite seriously. All I had left was an analysis of the book itself. So, I searched for a bibliography. Yes! There was one! The book listed some pretty serious resources that could be found in PubMed for instance. That’s pretty impressive.

The author had a PhD as well. So there was something else in the credibility factor that raised the level of acceptance. Sort of.

But there were none. . . zero. . . nada clear references tying the information in the book to the bibliography in the back. I mean, if you are going through the trouble of research, it might be nice to state your articles in context, don’t you think? Or even just of few of them. A PhD should know this fairly well, too. The bibliography articles were also the sort that required context: they were generally esoteric, and the average reader would not be able to map through the bibliography for a clear understanding of what was going on.

An even further route, of course, would be to hit the hardcore databases for citations to the book, but that’s expensive and time consuming and not a very happy thing for a late night visit to a family member’s house.

So, in the end, I had a fairly difficult time warning my family member that he/she could be about to take a bunch of tripe at face value, when maybe — just maybe — I should have been able to find an honest and measured review of the book from a reasonably reliable third-party source. Not happening via Google that’s for sure.

But the big picture from my perspective — and admittedly, this may not be that different from the Web 1.0 scenario — is that we have a huge information source that targets the sources that agree with them. As a general rule, I find that blogs, and other web 2.0 technologies do tend to support rather than challenge views from peers. I also find that those who do challenge others’ views receive a level of ostracism in the online culture.

Blogging appears like dialog, but isn’t exactly. In many ways it is like a rigorous form of bathroom graffiti. The rewards and punishments are there, but they are diffuse compared to real in-person conversations. And the collaborations that occur are not the same. You can correct, even contradict yourself in a conversation as you and your co-speakers attempt to synthesize or negotiate your views. The blog doesn’t have that synthesizing quality. The contradictions are formal, and need to be declared outright.

On the other side of the coin, blogging lacks the kind of personal introspection that the writer of a full-scale book or journal article produces. And the blogger trend is not as scientific either. There are few bloggers out there making clearly falsifiable declarations and testing them out in the real world. Instinct and intuition are the rule, not systematic analysis.

All in all, these are serious questions about the consequences of Web 2.0. The answer, of course, is critical thinking. As I used to tell my Music 1000 students “Don’t tell me what you know. Tell me what you learned.” That is the blogger’s challenge. If bloggers are to be effective, we must fight through all that knowledge in our heads to come up with something we did not know, or would like to learn more about.

There’s a role here for librarians to support this challenge, I am sure.

Library Science and Library Policy

  • Introduction

There is a tension between finding knowledge through experience on the one hand, and building consensus on the other.

The ideas of science (experience knowledge) and politics (normative knowledge) are not mutually exclusive, but they can contradict each other. A scientist can develop consensus on a theory by establishing that multiple experiments over time have proved the theory to be at least approximately true. Meanwhile, the idea of science itself is a consensus that experience ought to play an important part in  understanding our world.

But sometimes, in bringing these two concepts — science and politics — together, problems arise. Consensus developed by science becomes a paradigm and can be hard to break, even when science itself calls for a significant shift in understanding. A good example of this is the shift from the Keynsian-style “macro” model of monetary policy (the insistence that wages are sticky and therefore, monetary policy ought to be used to reduce unemployment) to the Monetarist-style “micro” focus (monetary policy should be “tight” to prevent inflation). It took policy-makers years to break out of the stagflation rut in the 60s because of the early paradigm.

Consensus can also develop a science of sorts as well. I think that “Information Literacy” is a good example of this. When I look at the name and what it implies (that some,  probably most, people lack the required skill in information studies to meet their full potential [aka “literacy”]), it implies to me a consensus (by librarians and educators most likely) that people ought to be more “information literate.” From there, librarians go out and do science to establish best practices, often without thinking about the opposite assumption that maybe information literacy is not important.

I think this tension is important to understanding librarianship in the 21st century.

  • From Science to Consensus : Digging to originality

To look at the first example, — science to consensus — which Richard Feynman demonstrates quite nicely in this lecture on quantum physics, the scientist is surprised by the results of experience and (if lucky) slowly builds toward an established consensus in the wider world.  Consensus is difficult to build under these grounds. An obvious example of this difficulty is the controversy surrounding evolution theory, despite the solid evidence to support it. But even evolution has better general support than, say, a PhD student’s thesis on an esoteric aspect of evolution or physics.  There is a lot of science out there that has zero influence in the wider world.

The metaphor often used to describe this sort of science is “dig deeper,” but in a sense, there isn’t any digging at all.   For instance, one way to be ‘surprised’ by science is to break off a small piece of a theory and make it your own — it is much more like trying to separate a grain of sand from the beach than digging a hole.

Another way is to take two seemingly separate theories and somehow synthesize their assumptions, which would explain such disciplines as biochemistry and neuropsychology.   This is more like studying sand by putting it in water and calling it “mud.”
Either way, the science does develop into consensus through experiment. There are a wide class of people that jump into the disciplinary or interdisciplinary science game.  To an extent, I accept typical and altruistic motives for these actions: a feeling of status among colleagues, a desire to learn, and a curiousity for the unknown.

But also important in this game is the desire to carve out an identity through the practice of work. Identity in this paradigm requires consensus. John Nash, for instance, requires a progeny of game theorists to legitimize his identity as someone important to the field of economics. If no-one picks up this interest, whether it is empirically true or not, John Nash is not really a “scientist” in the long run.

But the ultimate problem with this approach is that even when consensus is developed among colleagues, it is a narrow kind of consensus that requires a narrow way of understanding to develop fully. When someone does establish that the grain of sand he or she pulled off the beach is unique, it hardly matters to the beach goer, because he or she will only see the beach. Very few of those grains are going to be truly useful unless they are understood in a more holistic fashion (one that understands both the grains of sand and the beach).

  • From Consensus to Science : The Positioned Thought

I am going to be harsher on this side of the coin. That is most likely because it is the world I experience most. This is the world of the ‘professional’ over whom I think we should (and must) hold a very tight microscope.

The professional develops out of the foam of long-standing (and probably permanent) human problems. For example, the physician is a person who ultimately believes that death ought to be delayed as long as possible and that suffering should be kept to a minimum.    He or she will likely never create a world free of death or suffering.   Similarly, the lawyer is someone who believes in fairness and justice, but who will always encounter the opposite during their lifetime.

There is no real testable hypothesis that can tell you things like “death ought to be delayed as long as possible.” This is just a value that has been legitimized for long periods. In short, it is a consensus through which professionals begin their science.

Thus, medical science has such things as “good” and “bad” bacteria, and the use science to create tests that will detect  which bacteria are good and which ones are  bad. These divisions usually have humanistic roots. A “bad” bacteria is one that causes harm to humans or to a lesser extent, other plants and animals;  a “good” one provides them some benefit. The obvious difficulty here is that bacteria are also animals, like humans, and the values humans purport about the preservation of “life” become watered down when some “life” is sacrificed to the benefit of others.

John McKnight is a famous criticizer of the professional life. I will venture to put words into Dr. McKnight’s mouth by putting forth my view of how he would see a subject such as “information literacy.” Information Literacy, in McKnight’s view would be a way that librarians identify — through consensus — a “problem” that needs to be solved. By uttering ‘information literacy’ out loud, librarians assert that at least some individuals are weak in the area of information and must be “fixed” in order to better the cause of humankind. They then develop methods that do just that: “fix” the information illiterate.

But let’s say the “information illiterate” is, as a result of their weakness in this area, better in another area such as “field work” or “experimentation.” Maybe a librarian’s attempt at instilling information literacy would kill the methodological excellence in this student, as the mounds of poor journal writing are apt to do to someone of this ilk. Maybe there ought to be scientists out there who do not care what the pedigree of their discipline says. Who knows? The point is that, by focussing on weakness, we can misunderstand strength, and the root of this misguidedness is consensus itself — Then we use science to make this misguidedness as efficient and effective as possible.

Even worse, the science affirms the existence of the professionals. “Look,” we say, “there are all these people who need ‘information literacy.'”

(“Information what?” says everyone else).

“We need more librarians to instill this love of learning in people. And to find these librarians, we have to offer great salaries and tenure. And we’ll need research time and sabbaticals too.”

And what’s wrong with that? If someone believes in something so strongly, why shouldn’t they affirm their work?

When you look back away from the librarian’s “consensus” and into other people’s “consensus” you begin to understand. In a world of limited budgets, you can’t pay librarians more without paying someone less. And there the fight begins. You now have a wide group of people, all of whom believe their “consensus” opinion is important, pushing each other around for limited budgets. Not only do you have a potential for serious misguidedness, but you also have a wide range of institutions pushing and pulling at each other like techtonic plates, and ultimately taking the ground away from those who are most vulnerable. Thus, professionals, through being “professional” can end up attacking those who they purport to protect.

  • The Librarian as Scientist and Professional

Without being derogatory, I know my share of people who just want to be surprised by the world and I know plenty of people who believe in the profession strongly and get lots of positive things done because of it. I daresay that I know more of the latter than the former. This should be no surprise since very few librarians go on to become library science doctorates.

So, understanding the two problems stated here, I offer a call for change research in library science as I perceive it now. Library Research needs these two qualities:

  1. It ought to be relevant to people outside the profession.
  2. It ought to focus on community strengths.

The collorary to each of these is that library science research ought to ask itself two questions. 1) So what? and 2) Who are you to profess such a thing?  (The answer to the latter is not “I’m a professional — professing is what we do!”)
It is my contention that the current scenario is that I, the reader, am the one asking these questions when I read most library science journal articles. A couple of ad absurdum examples to illustrate my point:

1) “The information behavior of African Studies professors in French-speaking rural universities who are on sabbatical in South America”

2) “Using quantitative data, performance measures, tear-filled children and fancy hats to convince library boards and city officials that your public library deserves more funding.”

I think there is a real lacuna in the library world, just begging to be filled.   We need an Einstein or Skinner to challenge the way all people — not just librarians — think about information.   With the world of Web 2.0 and the grass roots community movements I see building in the world, I think there is tremendous opportunity for a forward-thinking librarian to do just that.   That librarian will understand his or her place within the profession — but there will also be an “other” view (pun intended 🙂 ) in their head that keeps prodding at him or her.   I can’t wait.