Sunday, June 25, 2006

Margaret Somerville gets an honorary doctorate

Margaret Somerville, a pharmacist cum lawyer at McGill University was awarded an honorary doctorate by Toronto's Ryerson University. In case you don't know Professor Somerville, in a nutshell, imagine the most conservative view someone could reasonably express in bioethics, and you have a fair idea what her position would be like. She is frequently billed as an 'ethicist' (eg here) yet the reality is that Professor Somerville doesn't seem to have any formal training in ethics. She seems to be one of the many lawyers expressing her policy oriented views under the label of 'ethics', making it look a bit more professional than to say 'this is my daily rant'.
In any case, from what I gather, Ryerson seems to have a kind of 'progressive' reputation in Canada and protests started against her receiving the award. Main bone of contention seems to be her stance against 'gay marriage'. Indeed, Professor Somerville has issued a paper arguing against gay marriage - as she claims - on purely secular grounds. The paper basically goes on worrying about the importance of marriage as a potentially procreative instituition and that it must be protected, because for all we know society as we know it would come to an end if suddenly same-sex kinda folks could also get married. Mr Wolfenden sez hello.
Professor Somerville also stresses that she is all in favour of legal recognition of same sex partnerships and against discrimination based on sexual orientation (except, it seems, when it comes to marriage and artificial insemination for lesbians).
Ryerson's award committee said that had it known about her views on the matter it might not have offered the award to her - kinda worrisome, because they seem to be a tad bit sloppy to have missed her high-profile opinion on this issue. During the award ceremony, it seems, there were some protests including professors turning their back at her. This I find a bit unprofessional to be honest. Somerville certainly is a very conservative professional, and her influence within bioethics is negligible to non-existent (after all, she isn't an ethicists in the first place), but she is entitled to her views. Her stance on same sex partnership recognition doesn't make her a raging homophobe either. Of course, she doesn't like artificial insemination for lesbians either, so while she might not be a raging homophobe, she probably is a homophobe - religious, secular, wo cares, outcomes not motives matter.
Having said that, I am bemused by her lack of critical thinking skills on this one. As a conservative she should have recognised that gay folks wanting to get married (ie gay folks wanting a straightjacket - pun intended) are her natural allies. Instead of recognising that marriage as we know it is a failing institution, they campaign for more of the same instead of thinking creatively about alternative regulatory models for longterm committed relationships between one or more people of the same or opposite sex. Mind you, some gay folks in Canada have realised this.


  1. Hey, if Somerville was a liberal and was in favour of same sex marriage, I bet you wouldn't bother pointing out her lack of training in ethics.

    Or are ethicists, trained or untrained, permitted an opinion only if it agreed with yours?

  2. You're welcome to place your bet and probably lose. The point is that Ms Somerville, for many years now, sells herself as an ethicist in order to pontificate on ethical issue. The problem is that she is not trained to do so, professionally. It's a bit like a philosopher pontificating on specific scientific issues in pharmaceutical sciences. Basically you don't do that unless you're keen to make a fool of yourself. An untrained ethicist, to use your terminology, btw, is a contradiction in terms.


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