New works by Canadian writers seek an ethical path through pressing dilemmas
By John Bemrose
To borrow from Charles Dickens, these would seem to be both the best and worst of times. On the one hand, much of the world is enjoying an economic expansion that makes past booms look like busts. Scientifically, we’ve begun to unravel the finicky mysteries of the human genetic code, while advances in communications have made near neighbours of Whitehorse and Bombay. But there’s also a sense that ethically we may not be keeping pace with our economic and scientific advances. Change is happening so fast we can’t be sure it’s for the good: we can’t be sure we are doing the right thing in letting it happen. Of course, there are powerful voices telling us it’s all inevitable and we should simply sit back while science and the global economy waft us to a rosier future. But there’s a growing skepticism about these blandishments. In fact, an ethical debate would seem to be gathering momentum, fuelled by everything from concern for the environment to a worry that the social compact might be coming unstuck.
One sign of this debate is the number of recent books that bring a moral perspective to social problems—not the old absolutist “thou shalt not” moralism of some established religions, but a subder attempt to discover an ethical path through our current dilemmas. In The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit (Viking, $33.99), McGill University professor Margaret Somerville surveys new reproductive technologies, such as cloning, the genetic design of babies and the use of animal organs in humans, and shows how they have burdened us with unprecedented moral decisions. She also writes of the ethical pressures arising from more familiar scenarios, from physician-assisted suicide to abortion.
Somerville doesn’t so much provide answers as map out the moral terrain, guided by a few basic principles, which she summarizes as “a profound respect for life, particularly human life, and the human spirit.”
This sounds fine, but as Somerville shows, the difficulties start when you have to apply these principles in a specific instance: is it respectful of life to grow a genetically altered stomach in a pig, then transplant it to a human? Somerville thinks our moral instinct— our gut feeling—that something is right or wrong should help guide the decision-making process. Again, this sounds fine: but how can a government make laws based on the competing moral instincts of
millions of different people?
The Ethical Canary necessarily raises many more questions than it answers (and it would have been an even better book if it had used more individual examples and fewer generalizations), but it throws welcome light on a debate we cant avoid.
In Who Killed Ty Conn (Viking, $33), CBC’s the fifth estate journalists Linden MacIntyre and Theresa Burke recreate the short, sad life of a young bank robber who escaped from Ontario’s Kingston Penitentiary in May of 1999 and killed himself two weeks later during a standoff with Toronto police. Ernest Hayes was born in 1967 to a teenage mother without the means to raise him. After the Children’s Aid Society assumed custody, he bounced between foster homes and was finally adopted by an Ontario psychiatrist and his wife, who gave him the name Tyrone Conn. A beautiful and gifted child, he was frequendy locked in his room by his cruel and unstable adoptive mother. After he ran away, a life of petty theft rapidly accelerated to robbing banks at gunpoint. MacIntyre and Burke capture the blind passions of Conn’s life well, from his robberies to his daring escapes from maximum security. But what gives their book its weight are the answers it suggests to the question posed in its tide. Who
The rights culture Canadians have invented, Ignatieff shows, lies at the heart of their identity
Killed Ty Conn undermines the simplistic, increasingly popular argument that society is not to blame when lives go awry. As responsible as Conn himself admitted he was, he was badly let down by certain adults and institutions at critical junctures in his life. The society he victimized was far from innocent.
There are cynics who would say that politics and an ethical life are incompatible. But in The World We Want: Virtue, Vice and the Good Citizen (Viking, $29.99), University of Toronto philosophy professor and social commentator Mark Kingwell argues that ethics is the soul of politics. Kingwell is worried that increasing numbers of people—particularly the young—have been so caught up in the consumerist craze and its underlying selfishness that they scorn political commitment without really understanding what they are rejecting. To combat this, Kingwell writes about various political thinkers, including Plato and Kant. His chapter on the trial of Socrates is particularly fine, as he explores the philosopher’s profound connection to his native city. Socrates so loved Athens—he considered the city’s laws as part of himself, and
life outside their rule unthinkable—that he chose death over banishment. In other words, he felt that conscious, participatory citizenship was a critical part of his identity.
A certain glibness and tendency towards cliché infect some of Kingwell’s rhetorical sallies against contemporary culture and politics. But when .» he stands firmly on his philo| sophical knowledge, he argues | convincingly that “without J some form of rich political ä commitment, we are somehow 0 less than ourselves.” Unfortunately, Kingwell lacks an appreciation of what has been done well in Canadian politics, and in this he shares some of the mindless cynicism he criticizes in others. A good antidote to this can be found in Michael Ignatieff’s The Rights Revolution (Anansi, $16.95). Written for this fall’s CBC Massey Lecture Series by the Canadian-born writer and historian, this little book puts Canada in the forefront of attempts to create an equitable and inclusive politics for a multicultural age. According to Ignatieff, Canada’s need to balance the claims of Englishand French-speaking peoples has made the country adept at accommodating a variety of viewpoints. And so we have a plethora of special rights for women, homosexuals, Aboriginal Peoples and children, not to mention language and constitutional rights—all of which exist to protect minorities from the democratic tyranny of the majority.
To some critics, of course, this rights patchwork is a disaster that is more likely to divide Canadians than unite them. But while remaining wary of the rights revolution’s threat to both unity and individual freedom, Ignatieff argues movingly that Canada has helped create for the first time in history an ethical political community where “everyone, literally everyone, has a right to belong.” Ignatieff’s book shares with Somerville’s a tendency to indulge in generalizations, and would have been stronger if he had anchored his thought in the thorny particularities of Canadian political and social life. But he does show that the rights culture Canadians have invented lies at the heart of their identity.
In Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History (Knopf Canada, $36.95), Toronto writer Erna Paris focuses on societies in which the suppression or absence of minority rights has led to tragedy. Her chief concern is the way the memories of such tragedies have been confronted, revised or repressed. In a sense, Long Shadows is a travel book, for Paris visited several countries to collect the interviews and reportage that make it so fresh and compelling. In Germany, she discovered a society still struggling
Adams looks into a corner most like to keep private
painfully to come to terms with its guilt over perpetrating the Second World War, and particularly the Holocaust. Bizarrely, some Germans have taken to celebrating all things Jewish: they line up for Hebrew classes and flock to exhibits of Holocaust artifacts.
Meanwhile in France, a good proportion of the population still seems to be in denial about their country’s wartime collaboration with the Germans. At the trial of Maurice Papon in 1997, Paris found a seething microcosm of the country’s conflicts. Papon, a French official, was eventually found guilty of deporting Jews. But at the trial, one of his supporters claimed he was actually a Resistance fighter because he had worked to get blankets for the people he was shipping to the death camps. Paris’s account suggests that full and just accountability for past wrongs must remain an elusive
ideal—but the society that fails to pursue this ideal may be inviting greater trouble down the line.
To include Better Happy than Rich: Canadians, Money and the Meaning of Life (Viking, $32.99) in a list of serious books about ethical issues might seem perverse. But in this breezy little study about Canadians’ attitudes to money, Michael Adams, one of the country’s leading pollsters, investigates a critical corner of our lives that we usually like to keep private. Not surprisingly, he finds large generational differences: for example, Gen Xers seem to be far more likely to cheat on their income tax than their parents or grandparents. Adams also discovered that making more money increases most people’s feelings of happiness, but that Gen Xers tend to be happy no matter how much money they have. No doubt it has something to do with being young. Adams’s penchant for creating endless categories (are you a “thrill-seeking materialist” or a “social hedonist”?) can seem pretty silly. But his book helps illuminate that shadowy territory where doing good means doing well. CIS
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