Going on the ethical wallaby

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McGill Reporter
October 5, 2006 - Volume 39 Number 04
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 39: 2006-2007 > October 5, 2006 > Going on the ethical wallaby

Going on the ethical wallaby

Somerville embarks on Massey Lectures series

Caption follows
Margaret Somerville and her cat Didjeridon't (Didji for short). The Samuel Gale Professor of Law talks about Didji and her other cat, Ozone (Ozzie), in The Ethical Imagination as her "in-house connection to nature."
Owen Egan

In talking to Margaret Somerville, you don't get the impression that she's one of the world's leading ethicists — certainly not one that attracts controversy like Ben Franklin's kite drew lightening. The founding director of McGill's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law is far removed from the stereotype of the staid scholar locked away in her garret studying abstractions with ponderous gravitas. Just days away from embarking on her cross-Canada Massey Lectures series on the ethical responses to our brave new technological world, Somerville is animated, quick to laugh and flashes an earthy self-deprecating wit that probably served her well in her hometown of Adelaide, South Australia.

"The book is rather chatty," she laughs, holding up a just-released copy of The Ethical Imagination, the cornerstone of the lectures she will deliver from St. John's to Vancouver in the month of October. "Chatty" probably isn't the first adjective that comes to mind to describe the books written by previous Massey lecturers, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Northrop Frye, Noam Chomsky and Doris Lessing.

That Somerville can tackle such complex issues as our growing acceptance of reproductive technologies and the way we tamper with plant and animal genes in order to create Frankenfoods, is a testament to her ability to communicate. "I think I've always been more of a journalist and a poet than an academic," she admits. In fact, the book is sprinkled with excerpts from many of her favourite poems — not the fare one would expect from a pioneer in the field of bioethicism.

Nobel Prize ribbing

Somerville is surprisingly spiritual without slipping into orthodoxy. She laughs at how Nobel Prize winner James Watson (one of the four scientists who discovered the DNA double helix) once said; "You know, Margo, the problem with you is that you're full of mystical nonsense."

Somerville's worldview has been hugely influenced by Australia. "I'm very spiritually and emotionally attached to the idea of the vast Outback and the open spaces of the spirit and also to the Aboriginal culture," she says. People must, above all else, have imaginations that are open to the "awe and wonder" of things they cannot explain.

The first chapter of her new book is titled "Going on the ethical wallaby," a distinctly Aussie reference to the phrase "going on the wallaby" coined in the Great Depression when unemployed men followed wallaby trails (because they always knew where the water was) from homestead to homestead looking for work. "To some extent that's what we're doing now," says Somerville. "We're in a great hot desert and we're looking for something along these trails. Sometimes you have a door slammed in your face and sometimes you meet people and sit around the campfire and tell each other stories."

Shared time around the campfire is a good metaphor for one of Somerville's recurring themes; the need for common ground. While our global communities are inextricably linked as never before through communication and transportation technology, Somerville believes it is a Utopian ideal to think we're all bound by the same moral values and code. Instead, she suggests that we find common ground, or "moral overlaps."

Although some Eastern cultures, in which the emphasis is placed upon one's duty to the state, see human rights as a Western imperialist construct, Somerville believes everyone has a set of innate principles, or human ethics, that guide them. This is why some behaviours are taboo across virtually all cultures. "While we can't agree on everything, if we search for points of agreement, we will uncover shared ethics," she says.

At the core of these shared ethics is a set of basic presumptions that Somerville lists as respect for nature, the natural and life. In the face of the scientific whirlwind threatening to change our physical and spiritual landscape in the blink of an eye, these presumptions are, in Somerville's view, our best safeguard against catastrophe. "This doesn't mean that we can't make changes in nature," she says. "But the person who wants to initiate change has the obligation to justify them."

Turning bullets into poetry

Despite the fact that she must grapple with some of the world's weightiest problems, Somerville is an avowed optimist. Recalling how a colleague once told her that a single generation can turn a poet's words into bullets, Somerville, in typical fashion, has flipped the bleak equation on its head, challenging today's world to turn bullets into poetry. Staring the gun right down the barrel, Somerville's work on bio-terrorism has, in her eyes, yielded true poetry in that it gives people of decidedly different cultures a common ground from which they can clasp hands.

"Traditionally, there have always been things that could help one side win a war, but that humans on both sides decided not to allow," says Somerville. "The abolition of chemical and germ warfare is an example of the sacred operating in the secular world. Preventing bio-terrorism is a shared concern.

"Humans have a fundamental need for home, both physically and metaphysically," she continues. "What we are looking for is transcendence, which is simply a feeling of belonging to something bigger and more important than yourself."

In the end, Somerville believes our salvation will come only by going on our own ethical wallaby, in which we heed our internal moral compass while honouring the stories and experiences of others. Yes, science will give us many answers, but only our imagination will bring us home.

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The Ethical Imagination

The first of the Massey Lectures will take place on October 11 at 8 pm at Mount Royal Centre, 2200 Mansfield St. Cost is $10 and $15. For more information call 514-790-1245 or go to the CBC website. The Massey Lectures will be broadcast on CBC Radio One's show IDEAS from November 6-10.