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The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit.

The Ethical Imagination Journeys of the Human Spirit WRITTEN BY Margaret Somerville PUBLISHED BY House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto, 2006 ISBN: 9780887847479. Softcover, pp. 270, $18.05 CAD

Ethicist Margaret Somerville of McGill University is concerned about the threat posed by terrorists and tyrants with whom we have fundamental value conflicts, and by the new techno-science: genetics, reproductive technologies, artificial intelligence, and nano-technology. She also believes, contrary to the beliefs of many others, that religion should find a place in the public square, but holds that it cannot function there in the same way as it did in the past.

As well, she believes that the only way to solve these new societal problems is to find a shared ethics, to be used as a starting point for discussion. This is a search for the ethical concepts and values that the various groups in society already share. Furthermore, it is claimed, that in order to facilitate the marriage of science and our philosophical-spiritual heritage, we need reason and imagination. These are indeed necessary if we are to understand not only material realities but realities that can be apprehended by the mind and are not perceived directly by our senses. These latter realities include being, knowing, truth, good and evil, and God as the uncreated, eternal first cause.

Empirical science, based on intellectual abstraction from the evidence of the senses and on measurement and experiment, informs us of truths about material realities, including the biological nature of man. It cannot tell us anything about the spiritual nature of man. That can only be known through divine revelation and by metaphysical reflection.

I believe that Margaret Somerville would agree with John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, that "Philosophy ... is the practical integration of an answer to the question of how one ought to act as a human being, and what is involved in thinking truly and acting rightly. This integration is achieved through rational abstract reflection: the examination of the concepts derived from our engagement with reality by which, through holistic interpretation, one arrives at rational truths, including ones relevant to answering questions about the existence and nature of mind, soul, and deity." (1)

Professor Somerville hopes to reach a shared ethics with those who base their ethics on principle (the source of which is divine revelation and natural law understood as divine law as seen by the light of human reason) and with those who base their ethics on a human-based morality (consensus ethics). It is of interest to note that some principle-based ethicists regard natural moral law, not as reason's understanding of divine law, but as analogous to the physical laws of science. This is a materialist, and perhaps pantheist, approach to morality. Professor Somerville hopes that finding shared universal truths will result in increased societal respect for individuals, relationships, community, all life, freedom, creativity, imagination, play, and the search for meaning.


The ethics of reproductive genetics (reprogenetics) are dealt with in some detail. The author regards in vitro fertilization (IVF) as morally acceptable, on the basis that most people accept that it is ethical to use IVF for the purpose of having a child. IVF is of two kinds: heterologous, fusion of gametes of at least one donor other than the married spouses, and homologous, IVF between husband and wife. Catholic Church teaching forbids heterologous IVF because it is contrary to the unity of marriage, to the dignity of the spouses, to the vocation of the parents, and to the child's right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage. Homologous IVF is forbidden because "the moral relevance of the link between the meanings of the conjugal act and between the goods of marriage, as well as the unity of the human being and the dignity of his origin, demand that procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to love between the spouses." (2) The author accepts sex-selection by means of separating the X sperms from the Y sperms, and then inseminating ova with an X or Y sperm, provided it is done to avoid a child of a certain sex who would be subject to a serious genetic disease. This procedure is also forbidden by Catholic teaching, because it involves IVF.

Rejected by the author are nuclear transfer cloning and cloning by combining two ova or two sperm (so that two men or two women could have a shared baby), or cloning involving the creation of synthetic sperm or ova from adult stem cells for use by same-sex couples. Alteration of an embryo's germ cell line is also condemned because it changes not only the embryo, but also all of his or her descendants. This is regarded as inherently wrong. The author also condemns the creation of a chimera, a human-animal combination, and a cyborg, a human-machine combination, as well as the efforts of the so-called 'trans-humanists,' who aim to produce a post-human species of unprecedented physical, intellectual and psychological capacity, through the use of the "info-, bio-, nano-, robotic, and artificial intelligence technologies." These technologies disrespect human dignity intrinsic to the human being, and not bestowed on him or her by any outside agency such as the state, or by medical or public opinion. Professor Somerville holds that the reason why human beings are different from highly 'intelligent' robots is "our human spirit and soul (whatever we take that to mean)."


The main thesis of The Ethical Imagination is that "profound principles of human ethics" can from now on be arrived at by a process of "overlapping consensus" that results from a debate involving stake holders which leads to a shared ethics. A hunt for the universal, absolute, metaphysical "Truth," Professor Somerville regards as a "barrier to finding a shared ethics." She also holds that concepts of the secular-sacred and a basic presumption in favour of the natural avoid the problem posed by that hunt. She allows that one need not abandon one's "own personal belief in that Truth, whatever it might be for us." In other words, she does not appear to believe in an objective moral truth that can be truly known and shared as such. Truth then, is regarded merely the end product of debate and consensus. Furthermore, the use of the term secular sacred is puzzling. The dictionary meaning of 'sacred' is "set apart for religious reasons or purposes." 'Secular' means non- religious.


Professor Somerville holds that by developing a sense of the "sacredness of a human being that is not dependent on anything but his or her biological and psychological characteristics, one can develop an ethics that will respect the dignity of all." She also says that the search for metaphysical truth must be abandoned in the search for a shared ethics, even if we are left free to have a personal belief in that truth. All we can achieve, she says, is a "temporal truth always open to change." It is true that the facts of science do change because more facts are discovered over time. True moral principles, however, cannot change. The modern secular notion of truth is left to the vagaries of a group consensus, and the consensus itself is in fact, often, the result of manipulation by society's power elites.


The process of achieving shared ethics cannot be a credible guide to human behaviour. It is instead an example of one way to achieve conflict resolution; a way in which compromise, that may be just or unjust, moral or immoral, is the means used for ending a dispute. It is based on moral relativism, the idea that there are no universal moral truths and that right and wrong are determined by the individual or the culture. An anthropology that does not take into account the spiritual nature and eternal destiny of the human person cannot serve as the basis of a morally just society. Pope John Paul II taught that, "the Supreme Good and the moral good meet in the truth; the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by him. Only upon this truth is it possible to construct a renewed society and solve the complex and weighty problems affected by it, above all the problem of overcoming the various forms of totalitarianism, so as to make way for the authentic freedom of the person. Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense." (3)

It is of interest to note what Cicero, 106-43 B.C., wrote about law: "True law is right reason in agreement with Nature ... it is of universal application, unchanging, everlasting ... and there will be one master and one ruler, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge." (4)

Professor Somerville believes that consensus ethics will provide true guidance to a world in which Natural Law and Divine Law have largely been abandoned. Her book has the sub-title, Journeys of the Human Spirit. How can one really speak of the spirit except as a fuzzy metaphor of some imagined sacredness of human nature if one does not believe that we are sons and daughters of God? If we regard ourselves as merely intelligent hominids, smart apes, then we should also consider the fact that the other hominids live in the jungle and that in that jungle the animals always obey their biological laws. We, on the other hand, possess intelligence and a free will. Also, because of the fall of Adam and Eve, we have a darkened understanding, a weakened will and a strong inclination to evil. For human beings to behave morally they require not only an understanding of true morality but also the grace of God.

In writing this book, Margaret Somerville has raised some very important questions that must be answered. It is true, as she emphasizes, that there must be civil dialogue between those who hold different views in regard to morality. St. Paul tried to build bridges with the pagan Greeks in Athens when he quoted from the poets Epimenides and Aratus of Soli in speaking of "the God in which we live and move and have our being." However, he failed to achieve it.

In the November 19, 2006, issue of The Catholic Register, the editor speaks approvingly of Margaret Somerville's recent book in which she says that a shared ethics achieved by a consensus among the various groups in society will help solve its problems. He mentions the fact that Dr. Somerville holds that there is a universal, absolute metaphysical truth and that there are universal moral principles, knowable to all cultures. Not mentioned is the fact that in her search for a shared ethics, Dr. Somerville rules out a search for universal truth. All we can achieve, she says, is "a temporal truth always open to change." Dr. Somerville ignores the teaching of Pope John Paul II that the only truth upon which it is possible to construct a renewed society and solve the complex problems affected by it is, "... the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by Him."

In summary, an effort to discover what moral principles are objectively true is very different from one in which all we hope to achieve is an end to a conflict. The objective morality of the means by which we arrive at the solution of society's problems is of paramount importance.


(1.) John Haldane, First Things, November, 2005, pp. 22-27.

(2.) Donum Vitae, Instruction in Bioethics, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (1987).

(3.) Evangelium Vitae, The Encyclical letter of His Holiness, Pope John Paul II regarding certain fundamental questions of the Church's moral teaching, (1993), no. 96.

(4.) Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Re Publica, trans. Clinton Walker Keyes, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1928) 111, xxii. 33.

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Author:Shea, John B.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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