Ever wondered what makes things right or wrong? Is it God, or is it what works best, or is there something within each of us that tells us? Do right and wrong change?
Aussie-born Professor Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Canada, and she recently released a book which addresses some of these questions.
Somerville believes each of us has a set of innate ethical principles, many of which we share with others, built around respect for nature, the natural and life. However she believes that "liberal individualism", which is the dominant value of western culture, is no longer adequate for our brave new world, especially the advances in medical and reproductive technology. She is concerned that in the rush to give adults everything they want (abortion, in vitro fertilisation, genetic engineering, perhaps even "designer children"), we have virtually ignored the rights of children to know, and live in a family with their biological parents.
She argues we need new approaches to ethics, especially reproductive and family ethics, and that ethics be built around recognising the natural as "sacred". She uses the old Aussie phrase "going on the wallaby" (referring to itinerant farm workers living rough in the bush and following wallaby tracks) and says we need to go on a search for new ethics: "We're in a great hot desert and we're looking for something along these trails."
She suggests three basic birth rights: "children's right to know the identity of their biological parents; children's right to both a mother and a father, preferably their own biological parents; and children's right to come into being with genetic origins that have not been tampered with." Thus she believes we should disallow medical technology that puts "our common humanity at risk".
She is wary of a reductionist scientific view of humanity, and encourages us to keep our imaginations open to the "awe and wonder" of things science cannot explain. She believes "science will give us many answers, but only our imagination will bring us home."
I agree that science alone cannot tell us what is right and wrong, but perhaps we need more than imagination. What do you think? Where do you get your ethics from?
Check out reviews of Somerville's "The Ethical Imagination: journeys of the human spirit" in the Sydney Morning Herald, christianity.ca, The Other Librarian, or read about the original lectures which led to the book in the McGill Reporter.