The Limits of Humanism

Mary Midgley

  • The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan
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  • Rights, Killing and Suffering: Moral Vegetarianism and Applied Ethics by R.G. Frey
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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?

There is not, yet the difficulties are real. We must say something positive, or we waste our readers’ time. But we need to avoid two distinct sorts of arrogance – not only that of the academic expert, trading on his standing to silence opposition, but also that of the mindless prophet, handing out moral precepts to unquestioning followers from the mountain. Attitudes to those who disagree with one are crucial. Because morality is a personal as well as an intellectual matter, hasty denunciation and even the ill-considered, quarrelsome taking of sides are deadly here. (This is also true in many other disciplines, such as literary criticism and many branches of psychology, but ethics is the central case.) Seeing this, English-speaking philosophers withdrew to the tower – that is, to extremely general and abstract controversies about the nature of morality. But life is hard, and here they got the worst of both worlds. Even on these apparently remote and icy slopes the taking of positions involves moral considerations. When these are forgotten, total pointlessness descends. When they surface, moral indignation and the bitterness of controversy tend to accompany them. And since the general positions arise out of decisions made on more immediate and specific matters, it seems best to come back to the plains and attempt the necessary marriage of commitment with responsible criticism there, where the meaning of one’s view can be seen more easily. Neutrality cannot then possibly be the first requirement. A real neutral, a genuinely detached, uncommitted bystander, could not understand the issues in a moral conflict at all, any more than someone who had no views about the truth of any scientific theory could be a philosopher of science. Heart and head have to work together responsibly, and the critical eye must observe both equally. Is this so surprising? If we find it so, that seems to be a mark of the strange way in which our civilisation divides up our faculties and disintegrates our powers of judgment.

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