College Quarterly
Fall 2006 - Volume 9 Number 4
Reviews The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit
Margaret Somerville
Toronto: House of Anansi, 2006

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Their timing could hardly have been worse. The authorities at Ryerson University in Toronto chose to present an honourary degree to Dr. Margaret Somerville, professor of law, professor of medicine and founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University on the very day that Toronto’s gay, lesbian, transsexual and generally “queer” community as well as their friends and supporters had scheduled their annual PRIDE parade.

The letters denouncing Dr. Somerville, abetted by protests, hoots of derision and expressions of angst and disgust were predictable. Margaret Somerville, after all, is well known for her opinions about the sanctity of human life and the sacredness of the human spirit. In her view, gay civil unions are acceptable; gay marriages are not.

Her arguments on this matter derive from the belief that a child has the innate right to know its own parents and, while she is tolerant of people whose sexual orientation she does not share, she draws the line at replacing “natural parenthood” with “legal parenthood.” It is not an argument I endorse, but it is an argument. Dr. Somerville has many of them. Some are better.

She is among Canada’s most highly regarded medical ethicists, and she can be trusted to express honest, if controversial, judgments on topics as diverse as eugenics and children’s rights, neuroethics and transhumanism. Her ethical compass is traditional. Her sentiments are geared to a respect for nature and for human dignity as defined through the prism of a gentle cultural conservatism. She is, however, no shrill opponent of secularism and science. She is merely a sceptic with a firm moral base. So, although her words might give transitory comfort to fundamentalists of various sorts, the comfort would be short-lived once a genuine discussion ensued, for Margaret Somerville is a thoughtful and a worthy opponent.

The Ethical Imagination is a product of that most wonderful of Canadian broadcasting inventions, the CBC radio program, Ideas and its annual production of the Massey Lectures. Over close to half a century, this public exercise in the popularization of serious thought about serious issues has captivated the attentive and intelligent laity. The register of past lecturers includes people from diverse disciplines, opinions and ways of life. The inventory includes anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, biologist Richard Lewontin economists Robert Hielbroner and John Kenneth Galbraith, novelist Doris Lessing and literary critic Northrop Frye. They are joined by Ursula Franklin, Paul Goodman and George Grant, as well as by formidable political figures such as Willy Brandt, Martin Luther King, and … the list goes on. As this fragmentary catalogue reveals, those who choose the Massey Lecturer each year are relatively indifferent to political positioning. Instead, they select individuals with strong but not blindly dogmatic beliefs on matters of vital interest. They want to listen to people with something to say.

Margaret Somerville is such a person. She gets some things wrong, of course. Her characterizations of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jürgen Habermas are seriously off the mark. Her shoe-horning of some of Emile Durkheim’s and Paul Ricoeur’s musings on religion and human solidarity into arguments against abortion and assisted suicide is tenuous. Nonetheless, she advances a sunny synthesis of spirituality and science that almost achieves its purpose.

She comes close enough that she has inspired me—a cheerful agnostic on a good day and an unrepentant atheist when things are going badly—to look at some of her more formal publications. And this is precisely what any selection from the Massey Lectures should achieve. The presentations in person, on radio, on audiotape or CD—or in print in either transcript or book form are intended to whet the appetite. They are popular versions of profound ideas in the best senses of both terms.

It is therefore unfortunate that, for at least a while, Margaret Somerville’s lectures in October 2006 will be associated with the episode at Ryerson a few months earlier. Confronted with protests from an ersatz “rainbow coalition,” Ryerson officials said that “if we had known her views on same sex marriage,” they would never have offered the degree. This is either disingenuous or a mark of incompetence. Who did they think they were honouring? What did they think she believed?

Then, in a desperate but failed attempt to soak up some of their leaking dignity, they said that “if we withdraw the award, then we will demonstrate that as a university we show tolerance for some contestable views but not others. Consequently, to rescind the award would raise basic issues of freedom of speech in an academic environment.” Sorry, folks, but the issues were already raised, the matter of corporate responsibility was badly finessed, and the ensuing tepid defence of academic freedom was far too little, far too late. They were saying, in effect, that they no longer wanted Margaret Somerville to receive their big prize, but they couldn’t bail out because that would be bad for business. A person with a shorter fuse and less generosity than Margaret Somerville would surely have told them precisely where to stick their degree.

A similar fracas took place in 2005 at the University of Western Ontario, by the way, when Dr. Henry Morgentaler was given an honourary LL.D. degree despite the harping of “right-to-life” activists and the gathering of a mob that required extra tight security at the ceremony. I would like to think that Dr. Somerville and Dr. Morgentaler could sit down one day and have a spirited but civilized debate over issues of mutual concern, with the thought police held safely at bay.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology