Creative Responses to Social Obligations—A Dialogue Series
Dialogue with Dr. Margaret Somerville
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.
is the oxygen of the human spirit.
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.
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.
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.
Ethics: What does it mean?
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.
the interest in ethics
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
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.
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.
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.
has been an erosion or loss of trust in societal institutions.
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
are moving towards ‘post-materialism’ when values are beginning
to supersede economics especially in the political arena.
can be a force for ethics. It
helps us all recognize what we all have in common.
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.
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.
is the aim of ‘doing ethics’?
do ethics to sensitize ourselves to morally problematic aspects of
situations, for values clarification and to make ethical decisions.
ethics’ at different levels
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.
Somerville pointed out that levels of ethics, in particular the
individual and institutional, should be considered carefully in our
exploration of ‘Who Cares?’
of ‘doing ethics’
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?
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.
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
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.
of ethics and law
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
factors in ‘doing ethics’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
can we do ethics?
is about structuring as many of the right questions as possible.
The framework for this is fluid and always under
the framework though, good facts are essential to good ethics.
process for doing applied ethics or ethical analysis is:
if the values conflict
them if they do
moral justification for the value that is breached in the decision.
sounds simple but it is hard to do.
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.
the ethical process there is a continuum of presumptions in making a
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].
rights, human responsibilities and human ethics
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
Somerville identified several themes that emerged from previous
‘Who cares?’ dialogue sessions and tied them into the ethical
framework she presented.
like trust, responsibility and ‘doing ethics’ is a process not
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.
is a growing need to belong to and care about something larger than
ourselves. Caring is
one avenue to achieve this.
is a growing concern about the loss of intimate contact and
depersonalization of our communities.
Caring responses can remove some of this.
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.
is an increasing segmentation of knowledge, systems and cost
results in a ‘silo mentality’ that gives skewed results which
can lead to unethical decisions especially in regards to the
allocation of resources.
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
need to connect with nature and the metaphysical.
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
in responding to Dr. Somerville commented that her presentation had
given weight to our discussions and enhanced our practical and
Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit,
by Margaret Somerville, Penguin Books, 2000
Josephson Institute of Ethics – Making
to Dialogue Introductions
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