May 21st 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY It's a queer theory, with 51 closets to come out of (Part One of two parts)

CANBERRA OBSERVED Labor may find it's not easy to avoid being green

EDITORIAL Double-dissolution trigger may have misfired

ENVIRONMENT Cut tax breaks to wonky green groups: committee

HUMAN RIGHTS Honorary fellow means to dishonourable end

POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY Remembering "populate or perish": Arthur Calwell

EUTHANASIA Belgium: where the devil is refining the details

RESEARCH The scientific objectivity of gender difference (Part Two of two)

MUSIC The muse, leisure and the importance of play

CINEMA Technology and war's cost: Eye in the Sky

BOOK REVIEW Preserving essential social values

BOOK REVIEW Putting postmodernism in its grave



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Preserving essential social values

News Weekly, May 21, 2016


BIRD ON AN ETHICS WIRE: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars

by Margaret Somerville

McGill-Queen’s UP, Montreal, 2015
Hardcover: 358 pages
Price: AUD$45.75


Reviewed by John Young


This work discusses key questions, including abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage”, the place of religion in the public square, and the campaign to suppress discussion of “politically incorrect” ideas.

The author, Margaret Somerville, is a professor in the Faculty of Law and Faculty of Medicine at McGill University, Canada. Her aim is to look at the various viewpoints on debated questions, and to make a balanced assessment of them. She writes: “I was once told that I am referred to by some CBC journalists as ‘Margo-on-the-other-hand Somerville’.”

That comment may give the impression that she sits on the fence on the issues under discussion; but that is not the case. While looking at both sides, she usually comes down on the side of common sense.

This book is based mainly on talks that the author has given to various audiences, including one at Warrane College at the University of New South Wales.

Somerville points out that secularism is not neutral. If it is not excluded from the public square, neither should reli­gion be. Exclusion of religion is not a valid expression of the separation of church and state. She deplores the narrow stance so prevalent today that shuts down debate, without giving arguments. She sees religion as a store of traditional knowledge and wisdom.

Somerville is concerned about the hostility of the media, which gives only one side of controversial questions, about political correctness in the universities, about misuse of the law to promote certain views and exclude others.

Writing of the strategies used by people who want to exclude religious voices from the public square, she points out that they do not give objective arguments but resort to ad hominem attacks. They label people and then dismiss them on the basis of that label, ignoring any arguments their opponents might give.

Somerville gives a great deal of attention to life issues, particularly abortion and euthanasia. She discusses the draconian abortion law enacted in Victoria in 2008 that legalised abortion on demand, right up to birth.

As she points out, information is necessary to have the capacity and opportunity to exercise freedom of thought and freedom of speech. So there is need for freedom of access to information; suppressing information curtails freedom of speech and, in the university, the capacity to carry out research.

As an example she mentions the fact that abortion statistics are being withheld under the Ontario Freedom of Information Act, which has the effect of limiting freedom of thought and freedom of speech. The act was amended in 2012 to exclude records relating to the provision of abortion services. “All information relating to abortion held by government institutions or departments in Ontario is now secret.”

While not advocating a particular religious or philosophical position, Somerville argues that if we do not believe in the soul or do not believe that the human spirit means that humans are different from other animals and machines, then there is no basis for arguing that humans deserve special respect.

She sees natural law as a foundation of ethics, while she leaves scope for different views as to what this involves: “Some people see natural law as having a divine source, and such a view is probably the reason some others reject it. But it can also be seen as innate to being human and as upholding and protecting that which is of the essence of being human – that which manifests the ‘kind of entity we are’.”

Proceeding from an awareness of the uniqueness of human beings we should leave ourselves open to an experience of “amazement, wonder, and awe, in as many situations and as often as possible”.

“What I hope will result from such experiences is that we will open ourselves to re-enchantment with the world, recover a sense of the sacred, for some a ‘religious sacred’, for others a ‘secular sacred’.”

The fact that Margaret Somerville does not take a definite stand regarding Christianity or any supernatural religion, while not denying them, should lead secular-minded people who would otherwise reject her book out of hand to read her. It should appeal, therefore, to a wide range of readers, whether religious or not, and whether Christian or not.

It is to be recommended as a perceptive analysis of today’s culture wars that documents the narrowness and tyranny of the secularists who claim to be broad and tolerant. Professor Somerville exposes them with common sense and factual information.

John Young is an Australian philosopher who lives in Melbourne.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


All you need to know about
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