There were protests last week when Ryerson University gave an honorary degree to “ethicist” Margaret Somerville. I insert quotation marks since I dislike adding syllables to a simple, rich term such as ethics. It’s like calling starvation, racism and murder in Darfur, “humanitarian,” and not just human, issues.

The protesters may have assumed that an expert in ethics should be particularly ethical herself and that Dr. Somerville’s restrictive views on marriage, child-raising and abortion, didn’t meet that test. Personally I think the problem lies in the assumption.

During my lengthy adolescent religious quest, I had a Bible teacher in Israel named Nehama Labovitz. I once asked her if she thought a person lacking faith could understand the Bible. “I think it is like a blind person could be the world expert in optics,” she mused. “He would know everything about it. He just wouldn’t know what he was talking about.” That’s how I’d feel about ethicists, if I thought their discipline actually existed.

But I’m inclined to think it doesn’t. It has no established body of knowledge or technique — unlike neurosurgery or auto repair. By its nature, ethics belongs to each person; all claims to expertise diminish that broad application. So do attempts to squeeze it into academic compartments such as bioethics, medical ethics (the Somerville niche) or journalistic ethics, in which I once held a “chair” at, come to think of it, Ryerson.

The best writers on ethics are notably vague. Immanuel Kant, my fave, never tried to prove right and wrong exist; he said each of us knows that from “the moral voice within.” Any rules he offered were dead simple: The only unambiguously good thing is the will to do good. Act as if your conduct could be a guideline for everyone. Treat others as ends, never as means.

I don’t mean you can’t explore ethical topics or speak usefully about them. Dostoevsky wrote brilliantly on moral issues, but I don’t think anyone would call him an ethicist or go to him for advice. When I held that comfy chair at Ryerson, I took it on the understanding that I felt there was no such thing as journalistic ethics. I didn’t mean that in a snarky way. Just: Ethics is ethics, here, there and everywhere; we are all our own ethicists because that is our moral duty.

Black, meet Mac: Conrad Black is not the first controversial Canadian newspaper owner to grow disillusioned with the U.S., as described in Lawrence Martin’s column in The Globe and Mail yesterday. William Lyon Mackenzie, the “firebrand” journalist who led the 1837 rebellion against the British Empire, wrote, “My darling wish for 20 years was to see one great federal union of the nations of North America.”

When the rebellion failed he fled to the U.S., to continue stirring the embers. But he, like Conrad Black, was charged there — and, in his case, jailed — on what he felt were trumped-up, politically motivated grounds. Once out, he began investigating and attacking the corruption of U.S. politics by wealth.

When he returned home years later, he said there was not a “living man . . . who more desires that British government in Canada may long continue.” Of course there are differences. Mr. Black never advocated outright annexation. And Mr. Mac was a tribune of the people rather than an élitist ideologue. But history, you know, plays its own games.

Imbalance of power: Is there anything different in the current Israeli military attacks on Palestinian territory? Only this: The imbalance of power has never been as clear. It’s in those intimidating shots of steroidal Israeli tanks massed farther than the eye of the camera can see, at the Gaza border. Against what — guys in balaclavas waving their guns?

A reluctance to acknowledge this imbalance, especially in the West, is largely responsible for the failure to resolve this resoluble conflict. In its way, it is like the war on terror, which is not a war because there is utter non-equivalence between the sides. Each side is not even a side in the sense that the other is. So the result of waging such a “war” can only be to increase the terror, and the terrorists.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.