Somerville’s wrong about us animals

By Eric Mathison

Those who saw Margaret Somerville discuss her anti-euthanasia position last Friday might have felt, as I did, that her case was left wanting. The founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law gave the lecture on the University of Calgary campus as the national debate on euthanasia grows in response to Bill C-384, which, if passed unchanged, would make Canada’s euthanasia stance more progressive than even the Netherlands and Oregon.

Somerville’s case gets off to a shaky start because of her foundational claim: humans are not only different in degree to other animals, but are wholly different in kind, making humans deserving of unique moral consideration. She thinks this view demands a complete pro-life position to other matters like abortion; that Somerville was able to slip in her views against gay marriage in a talk on euthanasia might seem overly mischievous on her part, but her consistently antiquated conclusions are flawed for similar reasons, no matter the topic.

In the presentation she gave on campus, and in some of her papers which can be found online, Somerville rests her arguments on what she sees as an obvious point: humans are so unique in our capacities that different moral conclusions can be drawn compared to other species, even when situations arise where it seems similar justification can be used with other animals. For instance, Somerville held that euthanizing a dog who is in pain and cannot be cured is justifiable. In the case of humans, however, Somerville argues that because humans aren’t dogs the same reasoning cannot apply.

Somerville suggests humans have a sacred quality to them and she notes, although with more gusto than I would, that this view doesn’t require theological grounding. The sacredness of human life is used to justify her pro-life stance because if human life is sacred, then that applies to all humans, not just the ones killed by euthanasia. This is to say that ending a sacred life is bad for the community in general, as it will negatively affect others. (Her argument against gay marriage links by claiming that children have a right to be raised by a mother and a father and if that right is ignored then the children will be worse off, as will society in general).

While understanding her position isn’t overly difficult, the real challenge is seeing why it should lead to the conclusions she draws. Three members of the audience, including myself, asked her to elaborate on her statement that humans are sufficiently unique to justify the claims she does. In the three answers she gave she stated that it can’t be due to a capacity humans use, because in her mind “it has to be about human being, not human doing.” Any article in any issue of any biology journal will demonstrate that our relatedness with other animals makes finding a unique human trait exceptionally difficult. Empathy was one possibility she suggested, but she noted that a variety of other species — including mice — are empathetic. Such a search seems in vain anyway, because traits like empathy are things humans do, not are.

What Somerville needs is not a factual difference, but a moral one. Is sacredness the answer? It seems not for two reasons. The first is that making claims about the sacredness of human life does nothing to reject the case for euthanasia. If we accept her claim then it seems equally possible that such sacredness should demand moral consideration which takes seriously the autonomous choices of individuals, particularly when dealing with such important matters.

The second point is her mistaken belief that humans must be treated different morally based on kind, not degree. She did little to substantiate the evidence for her case, choosing instead to point out the consequences of society not taking her view. But Somerville gets the result exactly backwards: accepting the facts of science combined with giving other sentient animals moral consideration does nothing to lower the way humans are treated. Instead, it laudably raises non-human animals to a higher level. And while she accepts the importance of animal welfare, the claims she makes for community fall short of overriding the autonomous wishes of those who might consider euthanasia.

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