Mary Midgley

Mary Midgley recently retired as lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. She is the author of Beast and Man and Heart and Mind.

Who did you say was dumb?

Mary Midgley, 5 February 1987

The Lord, having apparently grown tired of hearing a certain sort of behaviourist boloney talked about animals, seems to have designed a most unusual missile for dealing with it. The warhead consists of a skilled, experienced, professional animal trainer. The directive system – which is the most surprising component – is an acute, trained student of contemporary philosophy, psychology and literary criticism, who has paid particular attention to the work of Wittgenstein. The propellant is a general dislike of humbug and a particular commitment to the proper treatment and understanding of nonhuman animals. While any two of these elements have at times been found in combination before, the whole set certainly has not, any more than watches have been found on uninhabited planets or monkeys have typed out the Bible. My present business, however, does not extend to the theology of the matter: it is simply to consider the job as it has been done.

Shouting across the gulf

Mary Midgley, 18 October 1984

Is there anyone who can keep in focus both sides of the debate about armaments, who can see fully what is meant by both armers and disarmers? To the armers, who occupy most of the positions of power, British arms, and Western arms generally, appear as the natural and only possible response to a pressing danger. They look like a roof over our heads. To the disarmers, they appear as the main source of that danger. They look like a pile of explosives in the loft just over that rickety, explosive old stove, our foreign policy. Neither side is much surprised at this discrepancy, since each has a tribal category ready for its opponents. Armers know that disarmers are well-meaning, ignorant amateurs and probably women. Disarmers know that armers are narrow-minded, ignorant bureaucrats obsessed with out-of-date fantasies of military glory. It is terribly hard for them to communicate at all.

The Limits of Humanism

Mary Midgley, 7 June 1984

Out of the ivory tower troop the English-speaking moral philosophers, blinking a little, but certainly invigorated by their new freedom. Their imprisonment was a stiff one. The notion that it was rather unprofessional for them to mention the real world, and doubly so to take sides about it, became obligatory more than fifty years ago, and has only gradually loosened its grip. Rawlsian discussions of justice made the first large breach in the walls; medical ethics widened it, and many other important topics have now followed. The move is admirable. But there are still serious problems of method. Like a lot of other academic problems, they seem to centre on the matter of contentiousness. Scholars tend to be occupied with attacking each other and dividing into factions, crying sic et non. In ivory towers, this does not particularly matter; it is simply a ground rule of the game. Out in the world, however, it matters a lot. Where real moral questions are involved, attacking people sharply is usually not the best way of persuading them. And a real moral question is necessarily one where there is something to be said on both sides. It was these awkward facts which produced the tower-dwelling policy of neutrality in the first place. Philosophers saw their abstention from moral judgment as a contribution to public freedom, a laudable refusal to ‘distort a relatively neutral study into a plea for some special code of morals’, as C. L. Stevenson put it. Yet this justification is itself merely a moral judgment like any other, and, when you come to think about it, a very odd one. In a confused world crying out for explanations, discreet silence cannot really be the best possible use for high-class talents and intellectual training. The mighty dead, from Socrates to Mill, did not mind taking sides about the hard problems of their day, and on the whole what they said has been useful. Is there something about the status of a modern academic which makes it impossible to follow their example?

Animal, Spiritual and Cerebral

Mary Midgley, 18 August 1983

In what ways are people similar to other animals, and in what ways are they different? There are real problems of method about the right approach to this question, but they are nothing to the emotional ones which rise, like a buzzing cloud of insects, as soon as we approach its frontiers. The need to determine answers in advance of investigations is perhaps felt more strongly in this area than in any other outside political history – if indeed it is outside it. Time and again scholars have determined to get this disorderly province of the mind finally under control and to issue a clear map of it. Peter Reynolds, in his admirable book, cites one such map, from an American anthropologist writing in 1901:

Updating Freud

Mary Midgley, 16 September 1982

If Freud were now – much against his principles – to poke his head out of the tomb and look in on us, what would he say? The appalling state of the world would of course not surprise him. But what about his own therapeutic and theoretical empire? He need scarcely be disappointed at its size, or at the number of his entries in indexes. He would still find himself named as prime mover of the movement he fought so hard to keep under his own control. But one thing which would sharply hurt him would be the widespread determination of modern scientists to keep him out of their province. Here he would be justified. His scientific reputation has fallen a victim to a highly confused defensive attempt by scientists to narrow and consolidate their own empire. It is impossible to limit the word ‘science’, as theorists have wildly hoped, to the experimental collecting of detailed facts – still more so, of course, to that of purely negative facts. Science has to include the background conceptual schemes within which those experiments were conceived and selected, and through which their results will be interpreted. It is only because physical scientists are often unconscious of these schemes, and take them for granted like the air they breathe, that this was ever overlooked. In psychology, where getting the conceptual scheme right is half the battle, nobody ought to overlook it. Once it is seen, Freud’s scientific standing becomes clear. He wanted a scheme which would map something real and important enough: namely, the relation between human motives. He wanted it in order to grasp more fully what is happening when they go radically wrong. He rightly thought that the everyday approach to this problem – though incredibly rich in some areas – was patchy, and blurred by a good deal of self-deception. He asked: what is the general structure and connection of human motives, including the unconscious as well as the conscious part of them? There is nothing wrong with this question, any more than with Darwin’s about the Origin of Species. Both ask for very general causal and structural maps. Without such maps, science cannot start. But it must also continually improve the maps as it goes on. How good were Freud’s methods and his answers?

Why are we bad?

Paul Seabright, 15 November 1984

‘Of all the creatures that were made,’ wrote Mark Twain, ‘man is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one, the solitary one, that possesses malice. That is...

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Private Lives and Public Affairs

Onora O’Neill, 18 October 1984

Liberal thinkers are keen on self-criticism, a necessary discipline for those who don’t accept intellectual authority. But it can have embarrassing moments, when too much is stripped away...

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Human Nature

Stuart Hampshire, 25 October 1979

Biology​ as a guide to ethics has been an intellectual fad of the last decade, and Mrs Midgley is trying to restore a sense of proportion. Sociobiology has had its home principally in the...

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