Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Accommodationist Postion in Academic Matters

Margaret Somerville has written an essay on Facing up to the dangers of the intolerant university: Bird on an ethics wire. It is published in Academic Matters, the publication of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).

Here's her brief biography as published in the journal.
Margaret Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor in the Faculty of Law and a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University and is the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. In 2004, she received the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science and in 2006 delivered the prestigious Massey Lectures.
I agree with a lot of what Somerville has to say about rampant political correctness in the universities.
That is where political correctness enters the picture. It excludes politically incorrect values from the “all values are equal” stable. The intense moral relativists will tolerate all values except those they deem to be politically incorrect—which just happen to be the ones that conflict with their values.

Political correctness operates by shutting down non-politically correct people’s freedom of speech. Anyone who challenges the politically correct stance is, thereby, automatically labeled as intolerant, a bigot, or hatemonger. The substance of their arguments against a politically correct stance is not addressed; rather people labeled as politically incorrect are, themselves, attacked as being intolerant and hateful simply for making those arguments. This derogatorily -label-the-person-and-dismiss-them-on-the-basis-of-that-label approach is intentionally used as a strategy to suppress strong arguments against any politically correct stance and, also, to avoid dealing with the substance of these arguments.
However, I also agree with Jeffrey Shallit that she applies her own standards inconsistently, such as when she insists that physicians are being "forced" to act against their conscience when treating certain patients [Margaret Somerville in "Academic Matters"].

Shallit is an expert on the difference between real free speech and its imposters.

I'd like to focus on another part of Somerville's essay.
Sixth, not only can we, but we must, cross the secular/religious divide, the science/religion divide and the divide between religions, if we are to find a shared ethics. This is where I believe both the fundamentalist religious people and the fundamentalist neo-atheists are wrong because they demand that we choose between religion and science. We must accommodate both.

Some would like to reduce religion to being seen as nothing more than a personal fantasy or superstition. But that’s not realistic. At best it will fail; at worst it will do serious harm because it will exacerbate the acrimony of the values conflicts and make it more likely, not less likely, that religion will become a focus of serious conflict. Also, because culture and religion are linked, even within democratic, multicultural, pluralistic Western societies, it will increase the number and intensity of the current values clashes and may contribute to culture wars.
I'm not sure what this means. I believe that religion is a superstition and I advocate a non-religious society. According to Somerville the "best" thing that could happen is that I will fail to convince people. The worst thing that will happen is that I will succeed but the result will make religion the focus of serious conflict. What a strange choice. The second option is exactly my goal.

I suppose the politically correct thing to do is to accommodate because we certainly can't have a situation where religion is challenged, can we?

Somerville says that religion and culture are linked. That's correct. It's an attitude that I want to change and there's lots of evidence that it is changing in other countries. Did this lead to "culture wars"? Yes, it did in some places—notably the Canadian province of Quebec in the 1960's. What Somerville fails to address is whether the culture wars are a good thing or a bad thing. She seems to be implying that we should not criticize religion because religious people might be upset. Don't we have a word for that kind of thinking?

[Photo Credit: The Catholic Registrar]


  1. How about Accommodascist.

    And saying "neo atheists" definitely makes her sound totally smarter.

  2. Good one.....

    Every one should read this ....
    thanks for sharin with us......


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