Saturday, May 02, 2009

Margaret Somerville in "Academic Matters"

Here's a piece by McGill philosopher Margaret Somerville in the OCUFA publication Academic Matters. (OCUFA is the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.) I found it very shoddily argued.

For example, she rightly decries the suppression of speech on campus (something that I have also done; see here). But she then says "some people are going even further: they want to force physicians to act against their conscience under threat of being in breach of human rights or subject to professional disciplinary procedures for refusing to do so". I think these cases are not remotely comparable. The latter question revolves around whether physicians have the right to shirk their professional duty and engage in discrimination simply by calling their view "religious". Would Somerville also support the right of a physician to refuse to treat black patients, because the physician belongs to an Aryan church that views blacks as subhuman? I doubt it. Then how can she support the "right" of physicians to treat lesbian couples differently from heterosexual couples?

She says, "Political correctness operates by shutting down non-politically correct people's freedom of speech. Anyone who challenges the politically correct stance is, thereby, automatically labeled as intolerant, a bigot, or hatemonger. The substance of their arguments ... is not addressed ..." But then, just a few paragraphs later, she labels Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as "fundamentalists". I do not know exactly what she means by "fundamentalist" in this context, but it seems to me she is doing here exactly what she decried previously: applying a label to them without addressing the substance of their arguments.

Later she says "Only the decision not to abort when the fetus has Down's syndrome is not a eugenic decision". But here she is begging the question: why are decisions that she labels as "eugenic" necessarily bad? Why, exactly, would the world be better off with more Down's syndrome children? By her reasoning, positive assortative mating would be considered "eugenic"; yet most of us practice some form of it.

She seems to imply that religion deserves an equal place at the table as science. But she doesn't say why, other than to point out the obvious fact that many people hold religious views. Many people believe that 9/11 was a US government conspiracy, too, but I don't see why we are obligated to take their views seriously. With respect to religion, why should religious dogma, which maintains ridiculous and unverifiable claims, be treated in the same way as science and rational thinking?

Probably you can find more examples of shoddy argument in this piece. Academic Matters has a history of publishing anti-science and anti-rationalist screeds.


Takis Konstantopoulos said...

She makes a big mistake in that she calls "fundamentalist" someone who she does not agree with or someone whose arguments she cannot understand, or someone whose arguments are more sound than hers.

What she calls neo-atheists (very stupid terminology) do not force anyone to believe in their arguments. They simply put down a series of arguments and pose questions that make sense. Even if a claim they make is false, they will welcome anyone who can provide a proof of its negation. (And I'm sure they also know Goedel's theorem too.)

The mistake, in summary, is this: She applies the term "fundamentalist" to anyone who has strong views about something. Having strong views (especially when the views are supported by proofs) is very different from imposing one's beliefs by fiat. The latter does, indeed, represent fundamentalism. But the former, no.

What kind of philosopher is she if she cannot differentiate between the two?

P.S. I've been called fundamentalist by some because I insist in proving everything I teach or talk about. And my reply is that yes, indeed, if this is a definition of fundamentalism, then fundamentalist I am. It's a matter of terminology. But, in reality, as I said above, fundamentalism is something entirely different (and more unpleasant).

ADHR said...

Somerville's arguments are often terrible. However, please don't call her a "philosopher"; if Somerville spent much time engaging with philosophers, her nonsense would be shredded. She's a lawyer, by training and by affiliation. Which probably explains why her ethical arguments are so pathetically bad.

Robin Edgar said...

"I do not know exactly what she means by "fundamentalist" in this context,"

You might want to do a little research and look up the words "fundamentalist" or "fundamentalism" in a good dictionary or two. In one broad sense the word "fundamentalist" means -

strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.

I think that one can apply that definition to the "fundamentalism" of the extreme atheists whose anti-religious fervor is comparable to the religious fervor of religious fundamentalists.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Robin Edgar:

Thank you for suggesting a dictionary. I can assure you that I possess one.

The reason I was unsure what Somerville meant is that neither Dawkins, nor Harris, nor Hitchens demonstrate "strict adherence to a basic set of principles". All of them stress that their beliefs are provisional, as are mine.

Only someone who has not read these authors carefully could call them "fundamentalists".

Further, I disagree with you strongly that Dawkins et al.' "fervor" is comparable with that of religious fundamentalists. Religious fundamentalists think their religious principles bind everyone else, but this is not true of atheists.

Vladimir Levin said...

Specific points aside, the main thrust of her article seems to be that people with different moral and ethical values should start by looking at the areas where they agree in order to prevent disagreements from escalating into outright hatred. I would tend to go along with that premise. However, clearly at some point we have to come to concrete decisions. Should a doctor be allowed to refuse treatment to a person based on an objection to that person's morality? Should women be allowed to have abortions? Should creationism aka 'intelligent design' be offered in schools? Should parents be able to take their kids our of classes that teach material they object to?

One thing I do find interesting is that situations that seem at first glance to be pretty similar tend to elicit very different reactions. Here are some examples of things some people may want to do in a public building whereas others would object: If someone is smoking, does that person have a greater right to smoke than another person's right to breathe freely? How about if someone is offended and deeply troubled by red sweaters - should people be allowed to wear them around that person? What about perfume. If someone gets a headache or an allergic reaction from the scent of perfumes, should people be banned from wearing them? How about people holding hands or kissing? How about nudity or sexual intercourse in public? What if the people involved are same-sex vs. hetero?

My own answers:
smoking: not ok
red sweaters: ok
perfume: not totally sure (is there strong evidence of harm?)
holding hands: ok
kissing: ok
nudity: not ok
sexual intercourse: not ok
same sex vs. hetero: irrelevant

The funny thing is that I am not convinced my own position across these questions is consistent, but I bet most people would have similar answers...

Tim Kenyon said...

Three trends:

1. The tendency of Academic Matters to publish shoddily argued hackery. Note the frequency with which Tom Flanagan graces its pages, for example.

2. The tendency of Margaret Somerville to write poorly reasoned pieces the clunkiest parts of which seem designed only to bear up some of her preconceptions -- often religious, as it turns out, though it would be just as poor a practice were they otherwise.

3. The tendency of careless writers, primarily conservative or libertarian, to make vague and sloppy use of the term "political correctness" as a form of argument-by-labeling where they cannot, or in any case do not, give actual arguments. I submit that, overwhelmingly, anything approaching a restriction on speech at a Canadian university will invoke no deeper a justification than Somerville's own rather obvious point: "It is essential, no matter how intense that conflict, that we always act with mutual respect."

Anonymous said...

On exactly what basis does Margaret Somerville even refer to herself as an ethicist? As another poster mentioned, her training is in law and as a pharmacist, not in ethics.

She is often quoted as the founder of the "McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law", but I challenge anyone to find any reference to this centre that does not simply serve to provide credentials to Ms. Somerville. (For fun, try searching it in google).

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I truly believe that this centre exists only to provide a platform for Margaret Somerville's rambling ivory tower arguments - which I find are often merely a facade for her to promote her fairly well documented personal beliefs about how the world should exist.

Someone really ought to look into this. I think it would make a great movie.

MrFreeThinker said...

Are you going to make a response to Egnor's response?