An Ontario court judge will soon decide if Canada’s prostitution laws should be struck down. In British Columbia, the Supreme Court will decide if laws prohibiting polygamy can still be enforced. And in the House of Commons, a private member’s bill would make it legal for the profoundly ill to seek a doctor’s help to commit suicide. As a nation we are reinventing, refining—or undermining—our morality in dramatic fashion. In some instances we are asking the courts to do our thinking for us. But in most cases we forge a national sense of right or wrong in the millions of individual judgment calls we make every day—increasingly without the guidance of organized religion.
With so many moral issues at a crossroads, Angus Reid Strategies undertook a national survey last month asking Canadians to consider 21 ethical issues. Their answers—on issues as diverse as animal rights, prostitution, homosexuality and illegal drug use—show some profound divisions by gender and region. But taken together, they seem to reveal a rather astounding liberal tilt in our morality, albeit with some exceptions. Each Canadian steers by his and most certainly her moral compass, and the wonder is we don’t bump into each other more often.
Consider these six sticky moral situations. Which are the most and the least acceptable to you, and to most Canadians?
- You plan to have an abortion.
- You wear a mink coat.
- You favour killing convicted murderers.
- You think the dying have the right to commit suicide with a doctor’s help.
- You don’t care if the drugs you buy have been tested on animals.
- You support medical research using the stem cells of human embryos.
Let’s start by saying there’s never been a better time to be a Canadian mink, or a seal, or a lab rat. Canadians today are more likely to moralize about the treatment of animals than about the lives of our fellow humans. Just 22 per cent oppose euthanasia, but 41 per cent condemn medical testing on animals, the survey found. Abortion is considered morally wrong by 22 per cent of Canadians, fewer than the 31 per cent who have moral qualms about wearing fur. But while four in 10 oppose animal testing, only 17 per cent take issue with researchers using human embryonic stem cells. As for capital punishment, 53 per cent of Canadians consider it “morally acceptable,” a jump of six percentage points since Reid last asked the question in 2007.
As a nation, most of our sexual attitudes today would be shocking to earlier generations. Gay relationships, sex between unmarried men and women and having babies outside of marriage are “morally acceptable” to two-thirds or more of respondents. But that’s where it stops. Just 15 per cent condone marital infidelity. And pedophilia is universally condemned. Just one per cent considered sexual relations with minors to be “morally acceptable.” Moral views are liberalizing, but the public has said, “this is where I draw the line,” Mario Canseco, vice-president of public affairs for the polling group, says of infidelity and pedophilia.
Where and how the line gets drawn is something of a mystery. “Morality is actually very complicated stuff in terms of where it comes from and what we hang onto, and how we change,” says Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics, a clinical ethicist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto who deals frequently with end-of-life care, and a conservationist who has worked with great apes and chimps for 20 years. Bowman says ethical choices are shaped to an extent by a complex response to the issues of the day, but that a person’s ethical core goes far deeper, to an evolved instinct that predates religion and even humans themselves. “Contemporary religions, the great religions of the world, are really only a few thousand years old and they really would not resonate if they weren’t plugging into something that already existed,” says Bowman.
Still, it wasn’t much more than a generation ago when the answers to life’s Big Questions were handed to us. They came from our families, our good books and religious leaders, and from our monochromatic and like-minded circle of friends. Today, church attendance for most denominations has plunged, but scratch the surface and some 60 per cent of Canadians identify as Christians, says Andrew Grenville, chief research officer for Angus Reid Strategies. “Even though we’re unchurched, there is still a lot of religious faith out there. We’re believers, but not belongers.” And not necessarily followers. The greatest acceptance of abortion and euthanasia is in Quebec, despite the opposition of the Catholic Church, which dominated the province’s religious and social life for centuries.
We are inclined today to work out our moral answers from a more worldly point of view. Or, more cynically perhaps, we find a morality that justifies our lifestyle. We are an increasingly diverse nation, drawn from the full spectrum of races, religions and cultures. It’s no longer a case of living within a tight homogeneous circle where the orbit consisted of seeing the same people at work, at church, at the same clubs and at bowling on Thursday nights, says Grenville. Today sociologists talk of “network individualism,” where daily life takes people into a variety of social groupings. “The more you’re exposed to people of different beliefs and different ways of living, the more you realize, you know, they’re not really crazy,” says Grenville. “It’s not weird. It’s not bad. It’s not a threat to us.” And so, views change. Sometimes dramatically: