The Dialogues:  One   •  Two  •  Three  • Four  •  Five  •  Six  •  Seven



Who Cares?  
Creative Responses to Social Obligations—A Dialogue Series

Monograph 5

A Dialogue with Dr. Margaret Somerville

September 27, 2001

We have got to put our human spirit on the line if we hope to communicate with others at all.  Maybe that is when people feel cared for, when they feel that sense of the human spirit.

Hope is the oxygen of the human spirit.

Margaret Somerville

Ethics, the human spirit and caring were the themes Margaret Somerville wove through her presentation to the fifth gathering of the ‘Who Cares?’ dialogue series group.  In introducing her presentation Dr. Somerville speculated that with bonding and a largely shared genetic endowment our similarities as human beings should be stronger than our differences.  Yet often the opposite appears to be so. Dr. Somerville believes that in exploring our differences ethics can create a communal space that builds upon our common human virtues.  These virtues include honesty, trust and openness and they contribute to our being able to work with the creative tension provided by our differences. 

With today’s intense focus on individualism we seem to have lost our sense of the common good and responsibility for one another.  Dr. Somerville stated that we need imagination and creativity to hold a balance between the individual and the collective.  She noted that in order to address our differences we need to be able to ‘do ethics.’  In part this requires that we listen, live with uncertainty, be confident that answers can be found through indirect means and appreciate there is nothing wrong in saying ‘I don’t know.’  In addition ‘doing ethics’ requires we establish a structure that helps us identify when we have an ethical problem, where the problem might fit in an ethical framework and how to deal with an ethical issue.

Dr. Somerville structured her presentation entitled ‘Doing ethics: What does it mean?’ around 13 key points and questions.  The answers to these questions provide an introduction to ethics and an introduction to the concepts and methodologies that are the tools with which we do ethics.  This monograph summarizes her comments and the ensuing dialogue from the group.  It follows the questions and key points as she presented them and concludes with her comments regarding the themes she sees  arising from the ‘Who Cares?’ dialogue series to date.

Doing Ethics: What does it mean?

What is ethics?

Until the 1970’s ethics were viewed primarily as a theoretical sub-discipline of philosophy.   Today applied ethics or ethics in practice are what is meant by ‘doing ethics.’  Individual conscience is necessary for applied ethics but not enough.  Applied ethics flow back and forth between facts, ethics and law.  Applied ethics are trans-disciplinary, values based and require a moral justification of the final choice.

Why the interest in ethics?

This question places ‘doing ethics’ in the larger context.  Dr. Somerville identified eight different factors that are contributing to a growing interest in and need for ‘doing ethics.’

Western societies have become multi-cultural, pluralist, individualistic, post-modern, secular democracies.  As a result there is a deep challenge of finding shared values.  We are searching for ways to be bound together.  Interestingly, in recent research by Daniel Yankelovich, the single fastest growing change in North American values is the longing to belong to something greater or larger than oneself.

There is no consensus on shared values even among ethicists.  Some believe we will be able to find shared values. Others think shared values are impossible to find but we can have shared ethical processes.  These approaches are known as thick and thin theories of ethics.

Our faith in technology has been shaken by the HIV/aids epidemic and there is now a lot of fear surrounding technology as we face its by-products such as frankenfoods, frankenpigs and mad cow disease.

There has been an erosion or loss of trust in societal institutions.

The media has presented the case well for the individual but not for the collective good or society.  (On a positive note, the growing interest in ethics is making it newsworthy.)

We are moving towards ‘post-materialism’ when values are beginning to supersede economics especially in the political arena.

Globalization can be a force for ethics.  It helps us all recognize what we all have in common. 

We are searching for a new societal paradigm.  Our story is being re-written because of technology.  For example, on September 11 people all around the world watched events in the U.S. occur in real time.  Our new story will need to be told in language that communicates beyond rational-logical ways of knowing.  Poetry for example does this.  Intuition, examined emotions and ethics are other ways of knowing that can use reason as a secondary verification.

These factors have resulted in a public that perceives the need for ethics (values) but there is no longer a single church to carry societal values.  Societal values are currently carried by secular institutions and especially by the institutions involved in social welfare, health care and justice.  Today people and their institutions are seen as one.  Whether a person or institution acts ethically or unethically affects societal values and, therefore, matters to society.  We need to manifest ethics in the structure, mechanisms and spirit of institutions.

What is the aim of ‘doing ethics’?

We do ethics to sensitize ourselves to morally problematic aspects of situations, for values clarification and to make ethical decisions.

‘Doing ethics’ at different levels

Ethics can differ at different levels and there can be conflict between the levels.  For example in the case of an elderly heart transplant patient a decision at the individual level would lean towards the transplant to save her life.  The decision at the institutional level would be primarily influenced by efficient use of resources in such an operation.  At the governmental or macro level the decision would be related to best use and access.

Dr. Somerville pointed out that levels of ethics, in particular the individual and institutional, should be considered carefully in our exploration of ‘Who Cares?’

Domains of ‘doing ethics’

There are many domains such as health care, business, sport, education, media, etc.  Ethics can differ in different domains and when we don’t recognize this we get into difficulty.  For example the ethics of business revolve around the fundamental principle of profit generation.  The ethics of education are driven by the principle of knowledge creation.  These two principles can be conflicting.  A question posed by Dr. Somerville for our group is, ‘are the institutions that undertake society’s caring function a “special” domain ethically?’  When and how do the basic principles of caring compliment and come into conflict with other ethical domains?

Ethical systems

Ethical systems require a good ‘ethical tone.’  Recent research reports that a small group of people at the top sets this tone.  Integrity, honesty and a clear process for dealing with ethical dilemmas are required.  We need to recognize that the process takes time.  We need systems that allow for ‘ethics time’ and make it possible for people to say “I don’t know.’  One of the struggles for politicians is that they are pushed to come up with the answers and short term solutions for long term problems.  People in authority need to act in good faith by giving discretion to others and trusting them to act ethically. 

This particular area is one that Dr. Somerville noted as being important in the work to date of the ‘Who Cares?’ dialogue group.  Her comments provoked a wide ranging discussion about the role of artists, the origins of life and language, evil and the ‘sacred secular’ (connectedness between ourselves and the universe).  Dr. Somerville stated that human beings need to have one hand in the earth and one hand touching the stars in order to be simultaneously aware of how tiny and extraordinary we are. 

Relationship of ethics and law

We are shifting from a time in which law informed ethics to a time when ethics informs law.  This shift is especially important in health care.  There is a difference between assessing the acceptability of a decision about health care on the basis of whether it is first legal and second ethical.  For example we have set up systems that make it difficult to provide patients with adequate pain-relief treatment (the ethically correct thing to do) because of legal concerns over liability for misuse of medications.

Four factors in ‘doing ethics’

The four factors are language (it is never neutral), moral intuitions (we need to listen to this), evolution of ethical concerns (ethics answers may not be permanent) and clash of values.  When there is a clash of values we have an ethical conflict.  Ethical distress is when there is clash of values and we are powerless to do anything about it.

Ethics and trust

In the seventies there was a change from blind trust to earned trust.  Prior to this time most trust was paternalistic and was a result of status, power and authority.  Today most trust is earned on the basis of demonstration.  It is more egalitarian in nature.

Today with a more complex society we actually operate with more trust.  For example the food that we consume in any given meal may come from three different continents, be handled by a wide variety of people and prepared for us by people we do not know. 

Ethics and accountability

Acting ethically requires that decision-makers be held accountable for the decisions they make.  This is a powerful factor in creating trust.  Truth, trust and ethics are linked.  Sometimes we experience ethical confusion.  There are situations in which truth and fiction are blurred, for example when there is only partial disclosure of a story or situation.  What is said is technically true and accurate but not having the whole story impacts our interpretation.  Another example is politics where partisan decisions often beg the question of personal accountability.

Ethics and power

Power is linked to responsibility and responsibility is linked to ethics.  Ethics helps ensure the responsible use of power.  We can use ethics to draw boundaries.  For example, if our value is to do no harm then we must justify it if we make a decision that could have harmful effects.

How can we do ethics?

Ethics is about structuring as many of the right questions as possible.  The framework for this is fluid and always under construction.  Whatever the framework though, good facts are essential to good ethics.

The process for doing applied ethics or ethical analysis is:

  • identify values
  • see if the values conflict
  • prioritize them if they do
  • give moral justification for the value that is breached in the decision. 

This sounds simple but it is hard to do.

There are many schools of ethics.  The first of the two dominant groups are the dentological (principled) approach that says if something is inherently wrong that it cannot be under any circumstances.  The second is the utilitarian (situational) approach that says that ethical decisions will vary according to circumstances.  Doing good could be a justification in this approach.

In the ethical process there is a continuum of presumptions in making a decision.  Presumptions range from yes we will to yes but not if a certain circumstance arises to no, unless a certain circumstance arises to no.  Dr. Somerville identified the precautionary principle of do no harm that is currently being used in environmental decision making as a shift on the continuum from [yes, but] to [no, unless].

Human rights, human responsibilities and human ethics

We need to try and create a global construct.  In some cultures human rights are considered a western cultural construct.   Human ethics are universal and based on respect for persons.  In human ethics people are subjects, not objects


Dr. Somerville identified several themes that emerged from previous ‘Who cares?’ dialogue sessions and tied them into the ethical framework she presented.

Caring like trust, responsibility and ‘doing ethics’ is a process not an event.

Our task is to avoid cynicism.  Cynicism is the opposite of hope.  Hope is our connection to the future.  We might ask ourselves how we can make caring contagious.

There is a growing need to belong to and care about something larger than ourselves.  Caring is one avenue to achieve this.

There is a growing concern about the loss of intimate contact and depersonalization of our communities.  Caring responses can remove some of this.

We live in a time when systems, not people are placed at the centre.  Sometimes we have to take risks and when we do we should put the system at risk not people.

There is an increasing segmentation of knowledge, systems and cost assessment.  This results in a ‘silo mentality’ that gives skewed results which can lead to unethical decisions especially in regards to the allocation of resources.

Language matters.  It can be powerful and poetic in communicating about human respect, emotion and caring.  It should not be sanitized. We need to stop using pat responses as these breed cynicism.

We need to connect with nature and the metaphysical.

In conclusion Dr. Somerville again noted that the levels of ethics (individual, institutional, governmental/societal, or global) need to be included in our explorations.  She also reflected on levels of caring and the need to explore how it should be expressed or what constitutes caring at various levels.

Participants in responding to Dr. Somerville commented that her presentation had given weight to our discussions and enhanced our practical and intellectual framework.


The Ethical Canary:  Science, Society and the Human Spirit, by Margaret Somerville, Penguin Books, 2000

The Josephson Institute of Ethics – Making Ethical Decisions

  Back to Dialogue Introductions

Back to Actions


How Our Site Works | About Us | Caring Citizen | Universal Values
Themes | ACTIONS  | Get Involved | Home | What's New | Book Reviews