To judge Somerville by her ideas *is* to judge her by her religion

Veronica Abbass asked me to write something about Margaret Somerville’s recent complaint column, in which she urged people to respond to her ideas instead of criticising her religion. (See “Judge me by my ideas, not my religion.”) So, I did so, and you can access that post here, over at Canadian Atheist. Since I have in effect opened up the blog again, it seemed worthwhile to recapitulate here what I said over at Canadian Atheist, with a few modifications. (I should warn you that this is, at this point, only a one-off post. My main reason for releasing a few older posts was to help Jerry Coyne with his book. Though I have kept the domain name, I do not, for the time being, intend to return to regular blogging.)

The funny part is that Somerville should only just now have recognised that many people regard her as a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Church. She knew, she says, that there were a few activists who so regarded her, but she was completely oblivious that this was a widely shared view. Either she is living in a cocoon, or she shows less interest in her public image than she leads us to believe, since she has become something of a darling to Canadian news media, who consult her repeatedly on issues of bioethics.

While I find it hard to believe that this is something that she did not know before, she is very lucky to have been spared for so long the dismay that this realisation has caused her. The strange thing is that she gives, in her latest contribution to the Globe and Mail, no reason at all for supposing that she is not, as it is imagined, a mouthpiece for the Roman Catholic Church. She says that she has “never argued from a religious base in presenting ethical and legal analyses of the issues with which I deal.” But this is really a bit of window dressing, since she must know that the Roman Catholic voice in the public sphere seldom puts on religious vestments; instead, it purports to speak in terms that are applicable to everybody. Indeed, it is hard to see the difference between the official Roman Catholic public voice on issues like assisted dying, homosexual marriage, AID (artificial insemination by donor), abortion, and other bioethical questions, as they impinge on law, and Margaret Somerville’s show of studied objectivity. On each of these questions she comes to conclusions which differ not at all from the teachings of her church on these matters, and uses identical types of argumentation.

This is worth stressing, since it is sometimes misunderstood. Roman Catholic officials and organisations do not very often come straight out in the context of public discourse and condemn these things by saying that they are contrary to God’s law. This almost never happens. Though they may say this in the context of church teaching, when it comes to public discussion they immediately change intellectual registers and speak as though there are adequate “secular” reasons for condemning what the church condemns. It is plausible to believe that Somerville’s argumentation is no different than that of her church. It should occasion no wonder, then, that whenever Somerville’s name comes up as a possible speaker she should be “dismissed as being of no interest, because [she] was ‘simply a mouth piece for the Roman Catholic Church’” (as she reports in her piece in the Globe and Mail).

She had thought that what she calls this “ad hominem attack” was confined to the activist fringe of those who support assisted dying, but now, alas, she finds that the view is more widely shared. But this is, to speak frankly, a bit like the fox being caught in the chicken house with a freshly killed chicken clenched firmly in its jaws. Somerville makes no secret of the fact that she speaks at Roman Catholic conferences, and that her journalistic efforts often end up on Mercator Net — a website which, like so many Roman Catholic front organisations, does not wear its affiliation on its sleeve — much like the so-called Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, a Canadian Roman Catholic outfit now spreading its tentacles to Europe. You will search in vain on its website for the EPC’s Roman Catholic background and affiliation. This is normative behaviour for Roman Catholic affiliated organisations, which deliberately encourages the view that there are many voices in the public conversation that support the church’s stand.

Indeed, the article under discussion here, where Somerville complains about being judged by her religion instead of by her ideas, also appears on Mercator Net. Only this time it comes with a very different title and tag line:

For academics, religion is a conflict of interests

A campaign against a bioethics professor turns very nasty.

But this is ridiculous. There is no campaign against a bioethics professor. For one thing, the designation “bioethics professor” is itself in question. As Udo Schuklenk (a professor of bioethics at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario) says on his Ethix Blog:

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?

It is important to note this, especially in the context of the charge that “a campaign against a bioethics professor turns very nasty.” At least part of the question is precisely about her standing as a bioethicist. In order to be a professor of bioethics she must engage with other bioethicists; she must engage with their ideas. But one thing that is noticeable about Somerville’s “ethics” is that she almost never does this. After an earlier flurry of writing for academic journals (most of them law journals), Somerville concentrates on newspapers and as well as TV and radio, where she continues to argue her own version of Roman Catholic ethics, without adverting to the fact that, about most of the topics that she addresses, there is a large body of professional work in which her views have very little locus standi, if they have any at all. The question is not, then, about a campaign against a professor of bioethics, but whether she is a qualified bioethicist.

She asks us to judge her by her ideas, not by her religion, but, since she gives no evidence whatsoever of familiarity with the discipline of bioethics, being satisfied to make her name by plotting her own course mainly in the public media, instead of earning respect from acknowledged experts in bioethics, we are left with a lot of undigested bits of Roman Catholic theological ethics lightly dressed up in secular clothes — which, as I pointed out above, is the normal modus operandi of the Roman Catholic Church itself. Indeed, so confident are both Somerville and the church about the ultimacy of their conclusions, that they leave little room for argument. Where conclusions are absolute — as they invariably are in Somerville’s ethics – it is fair to assume that there are unacknowledged ontological and theological commitments at work.

Let me give you an example of this. In his New Year’s message at the beginning of this year (2013), Pope Ratzinger repeated the now familiar litany of Roman Catholic pro-life, marriage, family and anti-gay values (with which, by the way, Somerville shows herself to be in complete accord), and then he says this:

These principles are not truths of faith, nor are they simply a corollary of the right to religious freedom. They are inscribed in human nature itself, accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity. The Church’s efforts to promote them are not therefore confessional in character, but addressed to all people, whatever their religious affiliation. Efforts of this kind are all the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood, since this constitutes an offence against the truth of the human person, with serious harm to justice and peace. [my emphasis]

But the ontological commitments here — the principles said to be “inscribed in human nature itself,” “accessible to reason,” “common to all humanity,” “the truth of the human person,” and therefore, applicable to all people, whatever their beliefs — are but poorly concealed religious commitments. There is simply no reason to believe, without argument, that such principles exist. Their very absoluteness betrays their religious origin, and only religious belief could confirm them, for only religious belief is sufficient to ground an expression of such dogmatic confidence.

For example, in his Christmas message, given shortly before the New Year’s message quoted immediately above, Ratzinger, discussing inter-faith dialogue, of all things, said this, privileging his own institution’s privileged relationship with the truth:

To be sure, we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge.

A wonderful example of putting the cart before the horse! The quest for knowledge, thus described, is merely a restatement of dogma. And this, to be quite candid, is the impression that Somerville leaves in practically all that she writes or says. There is an undercurrent of certainty in her writing that is belied by the often weak arguments that are used to support it; and the reason that there is so little argument in evidence in this latest op-ed from her pen or computer, lies precisely in the underlying assumption that she is already in possession of the truth, a conviction that she could only have derived from her religious beliefs, allegiance to which is evident in everything she writes, however secular it may appear to be. It is not plausibly simply a coincidence that Somerville’s conclusions are in complete agreement with the position of her church.

That, in itself, is not a reason to dismiss her views, but the lack of substantivbe argumentation is. Like the pope, Somerville takes it for granted that her beliefs are true, and that others are mistaken, and then she seeks to find reasons to support those conclusions. She is, as Larry Moran says, an apologist, and her arguments are less persuasive than she believes. In an article in the Ottawa Citizen, later repeated to the Commission on Assisted Dying in Quebec (where she actually touted the fact that she had published a 400+ page book on the subject), she said that she found it hard to convince her law students that assisted dying constituted a danger to our society, and she even suggested that her failure in this respect was itself evidence that society was losing its moral foundations. However, nowhere do I recall an argument to this effect, and her failure to convince her students of the correctness of her answers may reasonably be thought to lie precisely in this deficiency. She does imaginatively explore the possible impact of the legalisation of assisted dying on our respect for life, but this scarcely qualifies as evidence, and she should remember, I think, that Switzerland legalized assisted suicide in the midst of a World War (in 1941), and there is no evidence that this has diminished respect for life in Switzerland. This, to my mind, is a crucial test case, and opponents of assisted dying studiously ignore it.

A good example of Somerville’s style of argument may be seen in another Globe article published last June — which, true to form, appeared on Mercator Net, with a significantly different title: “A Mad Way to Die in Quebec.” In the Globe it appears as “Quebec is trying to legalize euthanasia by calling it something else. It’s still wrong.” The proposed bill would call euthanasia “medical aid in dying” (which Somerville happily transforms for emotional effect into the acronym MAD). To Somerville assisted dying is just killing, period, so calling it by any other name is intended to hide from others what is being done. That, however, is not an argument either: it is merely a more indirect way of calling assisted dying wrong.

I do not intend to discuss the specifics of the Quebec bill on medical aid in dying. There may, indeed, be aspects of that bill that need to be more carefully worded. However, the fact that the act of helping someone to die is called (in the draft bill) “medical aid in dying” is clearly meant as an attempt to work around the separation of powers between the Federal Government and the Provinces — something that Somerville, the legal scholar, ignores entirely — and, one assumes, deliberately.

So, what about her argument. One is tempted to ask: What argument? She points out that medical aid in dying is opposed to the Hippocratic Oath. But this is scarcely convincing, for the question is precisely whether the prohibition of assisting someone to die (in appropriate circumstances), notwithstanding the Hipocratic Oath or the law, is right or wrong, and this can scarcely be settled by repeating that it is opposed by the Hippocratic Oath, or prohibited by law. It’s a bit like the “argument” made by many MPs, in the “debate” of Francine Lalonde’s assisted dying bill, that assisted suicide is illegal! The point that they, as well as Somerville, seem to miss, is that the argument is that the Hippocratic Oath, and the law governing assisted suicide in Canada, are both wrong. Just saying that a change would be a change is scarcely an argument.

The argument in support of assisted dying is that individual control over when and how to die is a right that has been long ignored. When the Dutch gave a legal exemption to doctors who helped their patients to die when they were in extreme suffering, it was because of the doctrine of “overmacht”, or what is called, in English, the doctrine of necessity. We all have a duty of care and compassion towards those who are suffering, and sometimes this duty may require us to accede to their wishes to die, when it is clear that nothing short of death will relieve their intolerable suffering. The necessity involved derives from the urgency of the need of suffering people for relief from suffering. When it is acknowledged that medicine can do no more than provide palliation for the suffering patient, whether or not they are close to death, and when such palliation does not provide sufficient relief from pain and suffering, then it is reasonable to believe that the suffering have a right to receive assistance to die if that is what they want, when they have provided evidence that their desire for such relief is stable and enduring. At that point, just repeating a stipulation of the Hippocratic Oath, or the limits of existing law, is scarcely an answer to the question of whether or not this would be the right thing to do.

A lot of Somerville’s opposition to the Quebec bill is based on what appears (at least to me) to be terms forced on its framers by the Canadian Criminal Code, which is a Federal responsibility, and so need not detain us. But it is worthwhile to note that Somerville once again pulls the old vulnerability chestnut out of the fire. Since terminal illness within a stated period is not a feature of the bill, it leaves it open to interpretation as to who may be offered assistance in dying. As Somerville says:

In other words, they need not be terminally ill and might be mentally, but not physically, ill. Many disabled, old, frail and vulnerable people would fulfil these criteria.

There is really not a shred of evidence that the vulnerable are put at risk by existing assisted dying legislation. And it seems clear to me that it is short-sighted and plainly wrong (since so many who are suffering greatly do not come within the “terminal within a stated period” category) to restrict assisted dying to the terminally ill within six months or a year (or whatever other arbitrary figure is devised). Certainly, it is possible to question the decisions that some physicians have made — in jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal — regarding who appropriately comes within the scope of the law, but in the end it does come down to autonomous and informed consent — something that Somerville routinely dismisses as individualism run amok. But there is no evidence that people are being killed who want to continue living (although we should bear in mind that organisations like the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition consider that Terry Schaivo was murdered).

But here’s the rub, you see. All of the arguments that Somerville uses are used by Roman Catholic organisations and officials. The key question is: If it could be shown that the dangers that she predicts will not eventuate, would she continue to oppose assistance in dying? If she answers yes, then it is clear that more than her apparently “secular” arguments are at issue here. She has certainly never shown any indication whatever that the evidence would change her mind. I think we should take it for granted in this case that underlying her “secular” arguments are her religious convictions, and these constitute the driving force for the arguments themselves, and their often overly confident conclusions.

She nowhere shows how her “secular” arguments differ from those used by the Roman Catholic Church itself, since the church is past master at the art of using apparently secular argumentation to mislead as to the real basis for their opposition to assisted dying, abortion, homosexual marriage, and other things high on their list of mortal sins. One assumes that Somerville accepts these values, too, as basic, and in much the same way. She uses secular argument to bolster religious conviction. It does not seem to me that she has offered evidence to suggest otherwise, and we will look in vain for such an argument in Somerville’s writings. Her values are identical to her church’s; and her arguments, such as they are, are entirely devoted to affirming those values. To judge her by her ideas is to judge her by her religion.

But there is more. In the whining article that prompted this post, Somerville presents what she clearly thinks of as a clinching argument. She suggests that secularists, like religious believers, have guiding moral principles. If such beliefs are ruled out of public debate, then we should, she suggests, all fall silent. Listen:

[I]f 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.

However, Somerville herself knows that this is not true, for she, herself, claims that she does not use religious beliefs to support her position. Her arguments, we are told, are entirely secular. In other words, she has already acknowledged that secularity is not a totalizing value system in the way that most systems of religious belief are, that secular reasoning consists in the process of supporting conclusions with evidence and rational justification. And she claims that this is the process that she has all along been engaged in. That she doesn’t notice the contradiction is good evidence that her moral beliefs are grounded in religious belief, and her pose of secular reasoning is, in fact, merely a pose, as it appears to be. Once again: to judge her by her ideas is to judge her by her religion.

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  1. #1 by Paxton Marshall on 1 December 2013 - 18:49

    Devastatingly awesome!!!

  2. #2 by gbjames on 1 December 2013 - 19:33

    I look forward to the next non-regular post, whenever it might arrive!

  3. #3 by Paxton Marshall on 1 December 2013 - 19:52

    Eric, I do want to take issue with your debunking Somerville’s credentials as a “bioethics professor”. It smacks of academic elitism. Academic ethicists have not the last word on ethics any more than are religious ethicists. She clearly has had some academic success, rising through the ranks to full professor in the faculty of Law and that of medicine at McGill.

    You have undermined her claim to speak independently of the RC church, and even more importantly, exposed the presumption and deviousness of the RC church in pushing legal enactment of their religious doctrines. Questioning her credentials is not necessary and doesn’t add.

  4. #4 by couchloc on 2 December 2013 - 07:32

    Interesting post that clearly shows where the problems lie. This part caught my attention, and would seem to show that Somerville is guilty of the very same thing she complains of in her column. It seems she is dismissing something merely by labeling it:

    “The proposed bill would call euthanasia “medical aid in dying” (which Somerville happily transforms for emotional effect into the acronym MAD). To Somerville assisted dying is just killing, period, so calling it by any other name is intended to hide from others what is being done. That, however, is not an argument either: it is merely a more indirect way of calling assisted dying wrong.”

  5. #5 by Eric MacDonald on 2 December 2013 - 18:09

    I think, Paxton, that, respecting Somerville’s apparent standing with Canadian media outlets, her status as an expert needs to be questioned. The fact that she is a tout for the Vatican line makes it clear that she is not a paid up member of the bioethics guild. The two work together, as it were, and it is important (not that my opinions will reach very far) to make it clear that Somerville’s bona fides are not all that good. When someone with Udo Schuklenk’s stature rejects her credentials, this is something to which the CBC and others should pay attention, because by using her (and they do so regularly) they are misleading the public that they serve.

  6. #6 by Kevin Alexander on 7 December 2013 - 15:03

    If only she or anyone else in the Church could understand human nature!
    They could examine exactly why they are so fixated on the subject of human suffering. After all it’s a natural feature of every other predatory species (and we are the top predator) that is endowed by evolution to feel the most profound pleasure in the agony of their prey. It’s why there are squeaks in dog toys.
    It’s an emotion that Mother Theresa called “Kisses from Jesus” Some kisses, some mother!

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