A question of ethics

By Roger Hollands

Are we lost? If we were would we care?

Dr. Margaret Sommerville, author of The Ethical Canary and founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University addressed these questions on Tues., Sept. 25 at the University of Calgary. In doing so, she debunked current conceptions regarding individualism and expounded on the need for a healthy relationship between ethics and medical science.

"First question is, what’s going on? Good facts are essential for good ethics," Sommerville explained. "Facts change so fast that it is impossible to make decisions."

Sommerville’s comments came as an introduction to an in-depth examination of the struggle between ethical thought and the rapid development of the biotechnological industry. She focused her discourse on interpersonal interactions in light of these rapid developments.

"We are seeing a marketplace approach to values," Sommerville explained. "We see ourselves as gene machines."

Her lecture was presented courtesy of the Department of Religious Studies and explored the idea that medical breakthroughs have led towards a state of "intense individualism" which contrasts our spiritual sensitivities.

"The search for ethics in science and medicine is part of a larger tradition," she said. "We are in a search for a new shared story."

The new story is a unifying belief system that will bring humankind together. Sommerville referred to the way religion operated to unify people and provide hope, and suggested that humans have been in search of a unifying agent ever since the death of religion. Consequently, we have latched onto science and medicine as a result of its success.

"What I think happened is, in the ’60s and ’70s, we transferred the faith we found, and shared, in religion, onto science and the new medicine," Sommerville explained. "Our emotions were engaged and that gave us a strong personalization with medicine."

She explained that people developed a strong personalization with science and medicine as a result of medical breakthroughs, such as the first heart transplant. She suggested that society lost faith in the medical science as a result of the AIDS epidemic, and as a result became much more critical of authority. This move towards an egalitarian relationship led to the development of what Sommerville referred to as "intense individualism," which she claimed is responsible for the increased malaise witnessed in our society.

"I don’t think [intense individualism] is very effective in framing a society," Sommerville explained. "We need a companion focus on individual responsibility."

Sommerville concluded that biotechnologies can either facilitate, or stand in the way of our coming together but that we are in need of community.

She finished by fielding questions from the audience, during which she emphasized that although some of her ideas mirrored those of certain religious systems, her campaign is one of awareness, not evangelism.

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