Whom we bond with in terms of shared values and the way in which we find and affirm values is now undergoing major change. The current challenge is to find shared values that can allow us to be both a “me” and a “we” in our wired, interconnected, multicultural, pluralistic world.

To achieve that duality, we will need to balance the needs and rights of individuals and those of the community. In the recent past, depending on our own values orientation, many of us chose between strong individualism and strong communitarianism, with the former prevailing in Western democracies over the last 40 years. Today, we need a new integration of the “me” and the “we”, which might be emerging as a “third way”, one manifestation of which is the concept of “retro-progressive values.”

That concept captures the idea that we make a serious error in simply abandoning traditional values for what we see as “avant garde” ones. We need to balance and blend the old and the new. That requires identifying traditional values we still need and integrating with them the new ones that will guide us into the future. To do that we must engage in an ongoing process that I call “searching for a shared ethics,” which I discuss a little later

In short, “retro-progressive values” represent a combination of the ancient wisdom and the new knowledge that we need if we and our world are to survive. It captures the wisdom of the First Nations, who look back seven generations (consulting human memory, that is, history) and look forward seven generations (using imagination as a way of knowing) in making important communal decisions. While much progress is good, worshipping it—that is, uncritically acclaiming the new and unhesitatingly abandoning the old—is not be the best way to survive into the future, either physically or morally.

Thinking about a shared ethics caused me to remember a cartoon I’ve often laughed at. It shows a line of birds on a wire all facing forward, except for one bird which faces in the opposite direction with his back to the viewer. The bird next to him says, “Can’t we talk about it?” This image carries a powerful message in relation to ethics: First, that in searching for ethics often we are, indeed, balancing on a wire, in the sense that we must deal with complexity and uncertainty—we are in ethically grey areas. And second, it captures the idea that we need to talk to each other to find ethics and that we need to start from our agreements rather than our disagreements.

I believe it’s important to protect our universities as spaces where open dialogue can be engaged in, especially in relation to ethics, and for us to be aware that those spaces are at substantial risk of being shut down in some of our universities, because of the impact of political correctness on Canadian university campuses.

Let me, however, make three preliminary points:

  • First, I’m using the term “politically correct” as a shorthand term to cover a variety of identity-based social movements and the neo-liberal values that they espouse. I am not using it, as can sometimes happen, to describe people or their views or values derogatorily, which is not to say I agree with all of them.
  • Second, I believe we are all people who want to avoid harm and do good, but when our values conflict, we don’t always agree which of those two should be given priority in order to achieve that outcome—and that disagreement engenders conflict among us. It is essential, no matter how intense that conflict, that we always act with mutual respect.
  • Third, we should keep in mind the concept of “moral regret.” It requires that when, for reasons of ethics, something we do or stand for offends or hurts others—for instance, my opposition to same-sex marriage—we should deeply regret that our doing so causes others pain.

It is sometimes said that all movements go too far—but that might be necessary for them to have any impact at all. However, they need to pull back or be pulled back at a certain point, if they are not to do more harm than good. My specific concern is the negative impact of the various politicallycorrect movements on freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and academic freedom in our universities.

The paradox of intense tolerance

Many people are expressing their deep concern in these regards with the question, “What’s happening in our universities?” One such happening is that an extreme of moral relativism is leading to a loss, on the part of university students, of substantive values, certainly shared ones, or even ethics nihilism, in the sense that ethics becomes nothing more than personal preferences.

Post-modernism is now de rigueur in the humanities and social sciences. Post-modernists adopt a relativistic approach. In ethics, moral relativism translates into a view that there is no grounded truth; rather what is ethical is simply a matter of personal judgment and preference. Moral relativism means that values are all of equal worth, and which ones take priority, when they conflict, is merely a matter of each person’s perception and preference. That approach deconstructs values—they lose their substance. The result, paradoxically, is that “the equality of all values” itself, becomes the supreme value. This stance ultimately leads, at least in theory, to extreme or intense tolerance as the “most equal” of equal values. But does that happen in practice?

That is where political correctness enters the picture. It excludes politically incorrect values from the “all values are equal” stable. The intense moral relativists will tolerate all values except those they deem to be politically incorrect— which just happen to be the ones that conflict with their values.

Political correctness operates by shutting down nonpolitically 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 against a politically correct stance is not addressed; rather people labeled as politically incorrect are, themselves, attacked as being intolerant and hateful simply for making those arguments. This derogatorily -label-the-person-and-dismiss-them-on-the-basis-of-thatlabel approach is intentionally used as a strategy to suppress strong arguments against any politically correct stance and, also, to avoid dealing with the substance of these arguments.

It is sometimes said that all movements go too far— but that might be necessary for them to have any impact at all. However, they need to pull back or be pulled back at a certain point, if they are not to do more harm than good.

It is important to understand the strategy employed: speaking against same-sex marriage, for example, is not characterized as speech; rather, it is characterized as a discriminatory act against homosexuals and, therefore, a breach of human rights or even a hate crime. Consequently, it is argued that protections of freedom of speech do not apply.

Another part of the same strategy is to reduce to two the choices of position that are available: one has to choose, for example, between being either pro-choice on abortion and for respect for women and their rights, or pro-life and against respect for women and their rights. The possibility of being pro-women and their rights and pro-life is eliminated. That is not accidental; it is central to the strategy that has been successfully used in Canada to maintain the complete void with respect to having any law governing abortion.

Political correctness is being used as a form of fundamentalism, and fundamentalisms—especially “warring” fundamentalisms as manifest, for example, in the battles between religious fundamentalists and neo-atheist fundamentalists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Fundamentalists are a grave danger to democracy and, hence, to our Western democratic societies because they vastly widen the divides between us. They create an unbridgeable “us” and “them,” when what we need is a “we.”

We need to look at what “pure” moral relativism and intense tolerance, as modified by political correctness, mean in practice. So let ‘s look at the suppression of pro-life groups and pro-life speech on Canadian university campuses. Whatever one’s views on abortion, we should all be worried about such developments. Pro-choice students are trying to stop pro-life students from participating in the collective conversation on abortion that should take place. In fact, they don’t want any conversation, alleging that to question whether we should have any law on abortion is, in itself, unacceptable.

In some instances 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. The Ontario Human Rights Commission recently advised the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to this effect.

Political correctness is being used to try to impose certain views and even actions that breach rights to freedom of conscience; to shut down free speech; and to contravene academic freedom. I do not need to emphasize the dangers of this in universities. The most fundamental precept on which a university is founded is openness to ideas and knowledge from all sources.

The further concern is that shutting down freedom of speech in our universities might be an example of a much larger problem outside the universities. We can’t hold a society together in the long-term without shared values; that is, without a societal-cultural paradigm. We need a story about ourselves that supports our most important values and beliefs, one we tell each other and all buy into, to form the glue that holds us together. Tolerance alone, especially if unbalanced by other important values, is nowhere near enough to be that story.

To ensure our story does not disintegrate, we must engage in respectful conversation. The public needs academics to speak freely—respectfully, openly, and without threat of repercussions— about contentious, important, societal problems. That requires academic freedom, which is meant primarily for the benefit of the public by allowing academics to feel confident that they can speak the truth, as they see it, to power.

Our universities should be models for narrowing the divides that separate us, not for widening them, as presently seems to be happening. In our contemporary pluralistic democracies, we must engage in respectful conversation across those divides. To do so, we need to search for a shared ethics.

Likewise, we need to extend the scope of our analyses to consider the needs and rights of future generations.

Searching for a shared ethics

Just as the birds on the ethics wire are not limited by boundaries, we need to be able to cross our traditional divides, if we are to find this shared ethics. Because the concept of a shared ethics is central to protecting the world of the future, I believe, it is important that I explain what I mean by that concept.

First, let me note what I don’t mean by a shared ethics. I do not mean that we will have one universal ethic. Nor do I mean that we will all just accept one another’s ethics—what is called an “ethical pluralism.” I do not accept moral relativism, which argues that there is no grounded truth or deep base to ethics and, therefore, everyone’s views on ethics are as good as anyone else’s. Nor do I accept ethical cosmopolitanism, if that means that we must be equally concerned for and equally bonded to everyone.

Humans have evolved to bond to special others, such as family, friends or pets, or to a homeland. We bond more strongly or in a different way inside these parameters than outside them. Ethics must accommodate those realities.

Second, we must be realistic and recognize that groups at either end of a broad spectrum of values will never buy into a shared ethics. However, the vast majority of people can find common ground. Universities are one of the most important places in which to learn and model how we can do that. That means we must actively preserve them as intellectually open spaces. In order to do that, we need to be careful not to confuse liberal values with open-mindedness or traditional or conservative values with close-mindedness, as is common in the mainstream media. People can have liberal values and be close-minded and conservative values and open-minded.

Third, I propose that we must start our conversation from consensus and move to disagreement, not, as we currently do, focus entirely on our disagreements. That will set a different tone for our interaction. Searching for a shared ethics from that starting point will help us to emphasize what we have in common and allow us to experience belonging to the same moral community. In the past, when we took commonality for granted, we could afford the luxury of focusing on our disagreements, but this is no longer our situation.

Fourth, we must recognize that we are all trying to do the right thing, trying to be ethical, and where we disagree is what that is. The vast majority of people are not evil. That designation must be reserved for cases in which there is no doubt it applies.

Fifth, we need to balance intense individualism with a robust concern for the community, and we need to consider the collective impact of our individual decisions. In our interconnected world, an order unavoidably emerges from thousands of individual decisions. For example, Quebec is proposing to offer all pregnant women screening for Down’s Syndrome. Whether or not, as individuals, we think that is good and ethical, the cumulative effect at the societal level of each woman’s individual decision (including the decisions not to abort when the fetus is “normal”) is to implement a 21st Century form of eugenics. Only the decision not to abort when the fetus has Down’s Syndrome is not a eugenic decision.

Likewise, we need to extend the scope of our analyses to consider the needs and rights of future generations. And we must hold in trust for them, not just our physical world, but our metaphysical one—the values, principles, beliefs, and stories that create and represent the “human spirit,” that which makes us human. In light of the unprecedented power of the new techno-science to radically alter the nature of Nature, including human nature, we must address the question, “What is the essence of our humanness that we must not destroy?”, which is a far from easy question to answer.

Sixth, not only can we, but we must, cross the secular/religious divide, the science/religion divide and the divide between religions, if we are to find a shared ethics. This is where I believe both the fundamentalist religious people and the fundamentalist neo-atheists are wrong because they demand that we choose between religion and science. We must accommodate both.

Some would like to reduce religion to being seen as nothing more than a personal fantasy or superstition. But that’s not realistic. At best it will fail; at worst it will do serious harm because it will exacerbate the acrimony of the values conflicts and make it more likely, not less likely, that religion will become a focus of serious conflict. Also, because culture and religion are linked, even within democratic, multicultural, pluralistic Western societies, it will increase the number and intensity of the current values clashes and may contribute to culture wars.

Shared ethics means establishing a base or starting point that consists of ethical concepts and values that we already share and on which we can build; I am not suggesting that we all have to agree on everything. Rather, I’m looking for limited areas where some of us can agree. Who constitutes a group will vary with each issue. The idea is to find what we have in common ethically so that we can experience ourselves as belonging to the same moral community. As those experiences accumulate we will be more able to find common ground.

Engaging in a collective search to find those limited areas is likely to produce greater agreement. Getting all of us to agree on everything is a utopian goal, not a realistic one. Unrealizable goals create a loss of hope, and cynicism about ethics and the need to be ethical.

I am proposing a thick overlap of borders concept—that we might start from different poles, but there is a big (one hopes) overlap of common territory in the middle, in which we all are, in fact, “at home.” Common humanity and universal responsibility link us. But much of the time we act as if this is not the case—we are in denial as individuals and societies. We need to search for a shared ethics for an interdependent world. The survival of the world of the future, at least as the kind of world most of us would want to live in, may well depend on our success in achieving the goal of finding a shared ethics.

As academics, especially in our engagements with students, we have an enormous privilege and responsibility to contribute to realizing that goal and serious obligations to ensure that we do not do anything to thwart it. That means we must hold both our physical and metaphysical worlds in trust for future generations, which does not mean that we must not change them. Rather, we have to be certain that if we do so, we are ethically justified in making those changes.

Can the future trust us? AM

Margaret Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor in the Faculty of Law and a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University and is the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. In 2004, she received the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science and in 2006 delivered the prestigious Massey Lectures.