MS: It’s not religion in the public square,
it’s whether people who are religious have
a voice in the public square. In a secular
society religion is not the base for our
public policy. But to exclude people with
values that may or may not connect with
their religious beliefs is wrong. I argue
that it is antidemocratic.
FT: You’ve gone on record to say that you think
religious people make mistakes in their public
square strategy. What mistakes?
MS: I think the mistake they make is when
they say in the public square, “I won’t
have you do this because it’s against my
religion.” Very often there are some
people who just use an unending series
of Bible quotes. That is wonderful information, but it’s in a language that someone who is not religious immediately
turns off. I ask people who are religious,
“Who are you trying to convince? Yourself? The people who agree with you?”
Both of which you don’t need to do. If you
want to convince those who disagree,
what is the language to which they can
relate? It’s certainly not the language that
alienates them from the start.
FT: What does work? You argue from a
nonreligious standpoint and still are accused of
hiding a religious agenda.
MS: That’s because the people don’t want
me to win. And I usually don’t win. Someone asked me recently, “Don’t you get
tired of always losing?” I don’t believe we
have an obligation to win. What I believe
is that our obligation is to try to put forward what we believe is right. Then we’ve
done what we need to do.
The language is very important. It is not
religious. It is not incompatible with religion. I think, coming back to the God-shaped hole you mentioned earlier, for
example, I wouldn’t call it that. I would
say that everybody, unless there is something terribly wrong, has a deep longing
to do the right thing, even when it may be
in conflict with what they think they want
at that time.
It is very hard to find the words that
will convey what I would call the deep
sense of mystery about who we are, why
we are here and where we are going, other
than through religion.
From a human point of view, for euthanasia, I would say if we legalize this now,
how do you think your great-great-grand-children are going to die? Why have we
held on trust this value that we must not
intentionally kill each other for thousands
of years, and then at the beginning of the
21st century, we throw that out and say,
“What were we talking about?” I was debating an Australian politician who said
that when we pass our best-before date,
we should be checked out as efficiently as
possible. We are not products to be kicked
out of the supermarket of life.
We’ve got to get people to think beyond
ourselves. We have this extraordinary
dominance of intense individualism, but
at the same time, one of the biggest longings of people is what is called a longing
for transcendence, the experience of belonging to something larger than yourself.
That is what people have lost.
FT: With euthanasia specifically, it seems we
can’t assume a person of faith will necessarily
be against it.
MS: We have in ethics what we call the
ethical yuck factor – when we first hear
about something, we have an unconscious
way of reacting to whether or not some-
thing is ethical. When you walk up to
somebody and say, “Do you think doctors
should be able to kill their patients?” It’s
a moral intuition, an emotional reaction
that warns us there is something wrong.
But if you do surveys and you don’t use
the word euthanasia or killing, and you
make it a nice thing someone in a white
coat will do, and you call it kindness and
mercy, and you call the alternative
cruelty, then it sounds okay. You’ve coated all those original moral intuitions and
emotions that tell you this is wrong.
There is a lot of wariness of ever using
the Nazis as an example, but it is a relevant question of how those Nazi doctors
could do what they did. You can sugar-coat evil. You can get used to it. As
familiarity increases, the ethical warning
FT: You hear the argument for euthanasia
that we are kinder to our dogs when they are
suffering. That seems to sum up some kind of
the acceptance out there toward euthanasia to
humans who are suffering.
MS: Whether you believe in human excep-tionalism matters – that humans are different in kind from other animals – or are
we just different in degree?
I believe that not seeing humans as
special in some ways is currently the
world’s most dangerous idea. If you’d do
it to your dog, you’d do it to your mother.
I think this is the single, biggest, val-ues-ethical-moral-philosophical decision of the 21st century, if we legalize
euthanasia. I can’t believe the Supreme
Court has done this. I was asked to help
draft legislation, only by people who are
concerned about it, not by the government. I wrote a letter to [Justice Minis-ter] Peter MacKay and said you can’t go
with this. I thought he should use the
It is a momentous decision. It’s a seismic shift in our most important foundational values, the respect for life.
FT: What would you want to see happen with
the legislation around euthanasia that is being
MS: Will we bring in legislation that is very
restrictive? I wish we weren’t having this
THE FT INTERVIEW
Echoing her often “lone voice,” the cover of
Somervile’s new book features this sculpture
made especially for her by renowned sculptor