I asked her to define "bioethics" and she couldn't. To her credit, she immediately recognized that this wasn't right. If she's taking an entire program in bioethics she ought to be able to explain what it was all about. She was then joined by her friend, who is also majoring in bioethics. My colleague, Chris DiCarlo also joined us. He's a philosopher writing a book on ethics.
We described a scenario where I wanted to end my life and Chris was willing to help me. Neither of us have an "ethical" problem with that decision. So why is assisted suicide thought to be a problem for bioethics? If some people don't want to participate in euthanasia then nobody is going to make them? Where's the problem?
Does it only become a bioethical problem if some people want to impose their views on others? In this case, the people who are personally opposed to euthansia want to pass a law preventing me from ending my life with the help of my friend. Our students were puzzled by this discussion. Even though they have taken many courses on bioethics, nobody had ever raised this issue. Isn't that strange? You would think that any program run by a Department of Philosophy would emphasize critical thinking. Sadly, this turns out to be rare whenever the topic of bioethics comes up.
Margaret Somerville describes herself as "Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and the Founding Director of the Faculty of Law's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University." That's from the Wikipedia article, which is currently being altered by her opponents and supporters on a daily basis.
Somerville writes opinion pieces for the Globe and Mail newspaper (Toronto, Canada). Last Sunday's article was Judge me by my ideas, not my religion. The reason she had to write such an article was because her ideas on bioethics just happen to correspond with the views of the Roman Catholic church and Margaret Somerville is a Roman Catholic. Is it possible to be an academic bioethicist if your most deeply held views are shaped by religion? If the answer is "yes" then aren't all priests and rabbis bioethicists?
Reportedly Margaret Somerville is at it again in the Globe and Mail, celebrating her scholarship].
Ms Somerville's views are not seriously discussed in bioethics, despite her hard work at selling herself as a bona fide bioethicist in her newspaper and other appearances. She doesn't publish in serious, mainstream bioethics outlets or serious mainstream international academic publishing houses. On her website there is zero evidence that she has any academic qualifications in biomedical ethics. For years she has been marketing herself as the founding director of some bioethics outfit at McGill University. Really Ms Somerville? Bragging about having founded something many years ago as evidence of current-day academic competence?So how does Margaret Somerville deal with these accusations? Here's what she says in her article from last Sunday ...
Despite Ms Somerville's reported protestations (in said article) to the contrary, this empress is really naked. The reason why virtually nobody seriously engaged academically with her is that there is little academic professional output to engage with. She pontificates mostly in newspapers, and it's always predictably Catholic output. To give you just three examples: Catholic Church: Assisted Dying = bad. Ms Somerville: Assisted Dying = bad. Catholic Church: marriage equality = bad. Ms Somerville: marriage equality = bad. Catholic Church: abortion = bad. Ms Somerville: abortion = bad.
For the record, my family is Roman Catholic – although, when I was young, my father was a card carrying atheist-communist, who refused to set foot in a church – and I was educated in Roman Catholic schools, for which I am deeply grateful. I also both have great respect for religion and regard its misuse as abhorrent.Do you get it? Somerville never quotes God or the Pope as an authority. It's just an amazing coincidence that she happens to agree with the Roman Catholic God and the Pope. Apparently, she and God reached the same conclusion independently through pure reason (and the law).
All that said, I’ve been a participant in the public square for more than thirty years and have never argued from a religious base in presenting ethical and legal analyses of the issues with which I deal. So why was this seeming expansion of labelling me as Roman Catholic occurring now?
Somerville continues ....
It’s a "label and dismiss" strategy. People, who cannot tolerate religion – indeed, they despise and are hostile to it – try to suppress the voices of people they perceive as religious, and their arguments and views with which they disagree, by using a "derogatorily label the person and dismiss them on the basis of that label" approach. For them, calling a person religious is highly derogatory. This strategy allows them to eliminate their opponents’ arguments, without needing to deal with the substance of those arguments.There's an element of truth here but the real truth is much more complicated. What people like Udo Schuklenk (and me) object to is not the fact that Somerville is religious. What we object to is that she pretends to be making a rational argument when, in fact, we all know that her morality is based on her faith. That doesn't mean that the rational parts of her argument are silly or meaningless but it usually means that they aren't as powerful as she thinks. They are, in fact, apologies.
She gives us an example ....
I published an article in the online Globe and Mail arguing for the importance of children’s biological ties to their parents and doing the least damage possible to these. This was extremely unpopular with same-sex marriage supporters, who believe that what constitutes a family is simply a matter of adults’ personal preferences. Here’s one response to that article: "Any chance that Dr. Somerville is a Catholic? If so, she should at least state it in her opinion pieces and not hide behind her ivory tower."Ms. Somerville would have us believe that the only reason she opposes same-sex marriage is because it's important for children to have "biological ties" to both parents. Presumably that's why the Pope and the Roman Catholic God are opposed to homosexuality. It's because both they and Margaret are worried about the children. It has nothing to do with several thousand years of Roman Catholic bigotry. It's all very rational.
This could be called the "you too! fallacy" ....this fallacy is committed when one makes an irrelevant attack against a person's similar actions in defense of an accusation by that person.Let's see Somerville's example. Recall that she is being accused of Roman Catholic bias in her ethical positions. Most of her accusers are not very religious and many are atheists. She defends by invoking Tu Quoque with a healthy dose of Strawman ...
Secularism is a belief form and ideology, much like a religion, a principal edict of which is the active exclusion of religion, religious people or religious views and values from having any influence or role in the public square, in particular, any input into social or public policy, or law. That is not "religious neutrality".Let me summarize her arguments so far. First, she argues that her ethical positions are rational and not based on the fact that she is religious. It's wrong for people to invoke a "label and dismiss" strategy to weaken her arguments.
Moreover, if religious people are disqualified on the basis of their lack of neutrality, adherents of other belief systems, such as secularism, should be dealt with likewise. Clearly, that would be an unworkable situation as everyone would be excluded, because we all have beliefs that guide us. The answer to this dilemma is that all voices have a right to be included and heard in the democratic public square. This liberty right is the correct understanding of the nature of a secular state and respecting it is at its heart. Importantly, as this demonstrates, such a state is the polar opposite of one that espouses secularism.
Second, she argues that, yes, it's true that religious people have religious views but so do secularists. Secularists are also biased so maybe their views should also be disqualified.
I think this form of argument has something to do with eating cake but I can't find it in Chris' book.
Pay attention to the solution to this dilemma. Superficially it looks very fair and reasonable but it's not. She's saying that everyone has "beliefs that guide us" and, therefore, everyone has the right to be heard on "ethical" issues. That's true but it misses the real point. The point is not that all voices need to be heard it's which ones do we need to listen to in a secular society.
As a general rule, when it comes to so-called "ethical" (bioethical) issues, it's usually the religious voices that advocate imposing their views on all of society. As a general rule, the secular side advocates more freedom of choice and does not want to make laws restricting the freedom of religious citizens. Have you ever heard secularists insisting that all women must get abortions or that men and women mustn't be allowed to marry each other? Have you ever heard secularists argue that everybody must agree to assisted suicide once they've been diagnosed with a terminal illness?1
In a free and secular society we have much more to fear from religious voices than secular voices. It's absurd to claim that minority religious extremists have to be listened to with the same attentiveness as those who have no religious axes to grind.
1. In Canada, this debate about ethics is taking place within a particular context. A quasi-secular government in Quebec is trying to impose secular views on religious citizens. It's an exception that proves the rule.