Have Values Fallen Victim to the Culture Wars?

17 May 2016

Ethicist and professor of law and medicine Margaret Somerville expands on her latest book "Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars" for STI, with whom she collaborated in 'Construction of New Realities in Medicine.'

STI Experts

Margaret Somerville has long been concerned with how people from diverse, multi-cultural Western secular societies might find some common ethical ground. She considered the question in her book The Ethical Imagination. Her latest book, Bird on an Ethics Wire, continues that search for shared values, in a series of chapters that address many of the specific areas in which reasonable people disagree for myriad reasons. She delves into the 'culture wars' on all fronts, elucidating the arguments from both sides, considering what they are based on, what their consequences are, and how they are interrelated. She frames the culture wars as largely a crisis of conflict between respect for individual autonomy and protection of the common good, calling upon readers to look beyond the individual questions to their ethical underpinning. In this interview with STI, Somerville expands on her reasoning.


Are 'culture wars' a modern phenomenon? Was society ever entirely 'at peace' with values issues?

Let me first offer a disclaimer: I am not a historian. That said, 'culture wars' in a broad sense of that term are not a modern phenomenon, for example, the Crusades were a culture war, indeed, all religious wars are culture wars. But the opponents in these wars were different societies – that is, the ‘enemy' was outside. Culture wars within any given society are, I believe, largely a phenomenon in post-modern, Western democratic societies and result, at least in part, from their pluralistic, secular, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural composition. 

Another difference between the past and the present 'culture wars' is that the former involved physical violence and the latter, on the whole, do not. (The exception is contemporary terrorism in Western democracies, to the extent to which we would be prepared to characterize that as a 'culture war' manifestation.) It also merits mentioning that many of the countries with currently very high levels of violence exhibit the earlier type of culture war. The contemporary culture wars in Western democracies use words as weapons; those still using the old culture war model use armaments.

The answer to your second question is no, no society was ever entirely 'at peace,' but there is a difference in kind not just in degree, between fighting the enemy outside your culture and doing so with lethal weapons and fighting people perceived as the 'enemy' inside your culture and doing so with words. It’s the genius of democracy to replace the former with the latter, which is not at all to say that democracy doesn’t also have risks and harms. A majority decision is not necessarily an ethical one. Democracy is only as ethical as the people who are the democratic decision makers.

Most societies used to be more or less homogenous with respect to the shared values on which the society was based, especially when there was a dominant religion which most people espoused. This meant that values differences were usually with people outside the society. In post-modern Western societies there is no shared religion or often no shared values, and values differences and conflicts are within the society.

Can you identify the source of the current deep seated values conflicts?

At the deepest level I believe the conflict is between those who sense a mystery in life – and consequently in death – and those who do not.

The former are conservatives or traditional values adherents, which is not to say that their values are static or do not evolve. Rather, they are informed not only by reason, but also by multiple other ways of human knowing, including 'human memory' (history), moral intuition, examined emotions, imagination, experiential knowledge and so on. 

The latter are so-called progressive values or liberal values advocates. They are utilitarians and moral relativists and most believe that science is the only valid form of knowledge and that eventually science will be able to explain everything. They call traditional values adherents 'restrictives' and reject traditional values as limiting their freedom to choose, likewise history and the lessons it carries. Their mantra is choice (radical personal autonomy trumps almost all other considerations), change and control, including of life (reproductive and genetic technologies, abortion) and death (assisted suicide and euthanasia). 

In short there are two competing worldviews which are largely incompatible and that have radically different answers to questions such as What does it mean to be human? What are we doing here? And how can we find meaning in life? And those radically different answers generate radically different values. 

I explore the two competing worldviews in "Bird" and call one the 'pure science' view – the belief that what we know through science is the only valid knowledge - and the other the 'science mystery' view – the belief that what science shows us is amazing and valuable, but science cannot explain everything, a mystery remains and will always do so

You have written that the conservative viewpoint accepts change, but seeks to take the past into account in order to "protect the present and future." Protect it from what?

Progressive values advocates are deconstructionists, they reject traditional values, for instance that it is morally and ethically wrong to kill another human (except where that is the only way to save innocent human life as in self-defense). But they do not see the flow-on consequences of what they advocate, for example, those resulting from legalized euthanasia. Once legalized, euthanasia will become part of the norm for how we die – it will be normalized as has happened in the Netherlands and Belgium where at least 3.5 percent of all deaths are now by euthanasia.

Such normalization seriously damages the value of respect for human life in general in society and places vulnerable people at risk. It creates a moral hazard. For instance, all Western societies have aging populations and it is much cheaper to kill people with Alzheimer’s disease than to care for them. Legalized euthanasia opens up that possibility. So we need protection from the outcomes that will result from the loss of very important foundational societal values, such as respect for life, or recognizing a responsibility to care for vulnerable people such as those who are old, frail or disabled, and from the consequences for both individuals and society of those losses.

What do 'progressives' claim to be progressing towards? You have suggested that they often seem to be moving away from traditional values rather than towards a concrete alternative (adolescent progressivism).

They see themselves as eliminating restrictions and increasing the freedom of individuals to choose what they want for themselves and they see such freedoms as establishing a post-modern utopia. Adolescents see their elders as wrong-headed and believe that if they were in charge they would create a better world. That’s a normal progression in becoming a mature adult, but it’s dangerous when it’s not balanced by sober second thought from elders with accumulated wisdom and when only the perceived needs, wishes and claims of individuals are not counterbalanced by protection of the common good. It’s what can be called 'intense individualism' or 'radical autonomy' or even 'selfish autonomy'.

You make very strong arguments for your own positions in your book. Yet, it seems not to be so much directed at changing anyone’s mind on a particular issue as it does to getting people to come around to the idea that we must respect others’ freedom to opine, and look for ways to come to terms with each other. Am I mistaken? 

You are correct that promoting the general public’s engagement in 'ethics talk' is a major goal of "Bird," but I also want to challenge the intense individualism (radical autonomy value) that currently completely dominates public square and media discussion of values and, as well, to articulate and nurture concern for the common good.

You say that the questions we ask are as important as the answers we give in identifying ethical issues. I noticed that all the chapter titles are posed as questions.

The questions are often more important than the answers because they structure our answers. Also honest people try to respond honestly to respectful questions, so questions rather than dictates promote 'ethics talk' and sometimes result in finding unexpected agreement. For example, some feminists and pro-life advocates starkly disagree about the ethical acceptability of abortion, but agree that some reproductive technologies, which progressive values adherents accept, are unethical and should be banned. It is not an accident that the chapter titles are questions. They are ones we in Western democracies urgently need to address. Our answers to them will determine whether our future societies are ones in which reasonable people would want to live.

Debate on issues is so often simplified to X vs Y, when you rightly point out that there are myriad 'values packages' and that the goal should be to seek a shared ethics among people with myriad 'values packages' rather than to reduce people to representative of X or Y.

Yes, we have to face the reality that with our complex 'values packages' each of us has as an individual, our co-supporter on one value issue might be our opponent on another. For example, I am strongly anti-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but I’m also anti-same-sex marriage. So the LGBT community and I agree on the former value and strongly disagree on the latter. I oppose same-sex marriage because of the damage it does to children’s rights to both a mother and father and if at all possible their own biological parents. These rights are eliminated by same-sex marriage, because marriage carries the right to found a family, so a child will have two 'mothers' or two 'fathers' but not a mother and a father and not both biological parents. Unlike marriage, civil unions do not carry the right to found a family, so I support civil unions for same-sex couples because that does not affect children’s rights. 

In the chapter "Should Religion be Evicted from the Public Square" you argue that to be intolerant of religious voices breaches the tolerance that non-religious people claim to promote. But mightn’t your further assertion - that these voices help to keep decisions in a moral context and avoid moral callousness - be counterproductive, as it implies a value judgement?

Progressive values advocates – who are usually adherents of political correctness – preach but do not practice tolerance. They are tolerant as long as one agrees with their values, but very intolerant of any opposition to their values. They are totalitarian utopians. There is an old saying in human rights: "Nowhere are human rights more threatened than when we act purporting to do only good." That’s true because the good we hope to do blinds us to the risks and harms also present. I think such blindness is an apt description of many progressive values advocates.

Value judgments are necessary and cannot and should not be avoided, but you are correct in so far as you mean that we must be aware that a given stance is a value judgment.

Is this book an example of what you call 'effective informing'? - to spell out issues and spur thought and debate on them?

Yes, exactly. It’s meant to be 'effective informing', in particular of members of the general public who must all be involved in the enormously important values debates/battles (which make up the 'culture wars') in which we are presently engaged. I feel I have achieved this informing when people come to me after a presentation and say, as many do, "I knew what I believed but I didn’t know how to say it and now I do. Thank you."

You argue throughout the book that the balance of thinking has shifted away from the common good towards individual autonomy. How and why do you think this shift has come about?

That’s a very complex issue. I’ve long thought that we might be genetically programmed only to be able to relate closely to a small number of people – our mother and father, then siblings, then wider family, a small group of close friends, then our tribe or 'mob' (as the Australian aborigines call their group). Now we are thrown into the world at large and instead of a limited number of people in a small geographic area, there are potentially billions with whom we could be in contact anywhere on the planet. Paradoxically, the selfie can be seen as an intensely individualistic response to this reality: I am the most important person; I must be in every scene; I can only rely on myself to see myself; I have the right to decide what I want and no one has the right to tell me otherwise. Intense individualism, radical autonomy is the result.

How do we remedy this? I suggest that each of us must experience and then learn to communicate a sense of amazement, wonder and awe about who and what we are as human beings and about the world and universe in which we exist. That we should see the extraordinary knowledge that science brings us, as further augmenting our sense of amazement, wonder and awe, and not as shutting it down as happens with scientism. And we need hope. Hope is the oxygen of the human spirit; without it our spirit dies with it we can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But hope is not a passive state. Just as we make war and make peace, we must make hope.

Hope is a sense of connection to the future, a sense that what we do now matters in the future. No statement about the enormous importance of our engagement in the current values battles and culture wars could be truer than what we do now regarding our values matters in the future.



Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars is published by McGill-Queen's University Press and it is available for purchase at Amazon.

Learn more about Somerville's arguments in these two articles: "Hope, the common good and our duty to the future," published by Mercatornet; and "Values and Bioethics: Preserving Our Ethical Ecology" published by Zenit.

Visit Prof. Margaret Somerville's expert profile.

Visit the 'Construction of New Realities in Medicine' Experts Meeting page.