Mary Midgley

Roger Scruton applauds a philosopher who seeks to make sense of the human condition

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Mary Midgley belongs to the extraordinary group of women philosophers educated at Oxford during the war, when the men who might have bullied them were absent from the university, either defending their country from the Nazis or betraying it to the communists, according to taste. A contemporary of Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Warnock and Philippa Foot, she has not enjoyed the recognition accorded to those illustrious women, despite being a major philosopher whose work has had a far-reaching impact. One reason might be that she was a late developer, publishing her first book, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, in 1978, when she was already 59 years old. Another reason is that she has not devoted much attention to the areas of philosophy that are regarded in academic circles as central – language, knowledge and metaphysics – and focused instead on the question of the nature of Man. This was, for the Greeks, the central question of philosophy, and remained so until the logical atomists and positivists swept it from the table.

Midgley’s view – and it is one with which I concur – is that philosophy, in leaving the question of human nature to the biologists, has betrayed its mission. Beast and Man is devoted to showing the way in which the science then known as sociobiology (but which would be called “evolutionary psychology” today) has misdescribed what is distinctive in the human condition. This is a theme that Midgley has pursued in subsequent books – notably The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality and Evolution as a Religion – taking to task those like Richard Dawkins who believe that the science of genetics contains the clue to understanding the emotional and moral life of human beings. For Dawkins and his many followers, we are “survival machines” in the service of our genes, and must be understood through the “adaptations” that are perpetuated in our behaviour – adaptations which are rarely unique to us since they can be traced to the evolutionary environment that we share with other species.

Midgley’s response to such views is to suggest, first, that they depend on a one-dimensional view of science, assuming that all phenomena are to be understood in terms of what they start from, rather than what they become. Second, that they falsify the human condition by reducing it to something far simpler than it is. We are all familiar with one example of this: the reduction of human charity to the thing called “altruism” by the ethologists, and explained by evolutionary psychology as an adaptation that promotes the reproductive strategies of our “selfish” genes. This explanation can be generalised to cover 1,000 forms of animal behaviour, from the soldier ant marching into the flames that threaten the ant-heap, to the she-bear fighting to protect her cubs. And by assimilating human charity to those things, the evolutionary psychologist both reduces it to something less than itself, and also “disenchants” it, so that it loses its character as a free and sacrificial act. As Midgley points out, the evolutionary explanation leaves out all such facts as the following: the moral motive which tells us to do as we would be done by; the amplification of that motive by Christ, who commanded us to love those that hate us; a person’s conscious decision to overcome fear, to put another’s interest before his own, and to “lay down his life for his friend”. All those are sufficient to generate charitable behaviour, so that the evolutionary “explanation” fails to identify a necessary condition. It seems to provide a sufficient condition only because that conduct has been described in language which leaves out all that is distinctive of the charitable motive, including the concepts of self and other. A condition that is neither necessary nor sufficient is a pretty poor shot at an explanation.

Midgley’s confrontation with evolutionary “scientism” is the negative aspect of a philosophy which is far more interesting in its positive aspect. Believing that philosophy has been wrongly described as the handmaiden of the sciences, she seeks instead to approximate it to art, poetry and religion, as part of a systematic attempt to make sense of the human condition and to show the place in the natural world of beings like us. We are animals certainly, but animals with self-consciousness, freedom, morality, religion and culture. We live not merely as organisms, but as persons, in conscious relation with our kind. All our emotions take their sense from this goal, which can only be misrepresented by the language of biological science.

Midgley has courageously ploughed her furrow and has never tried to be fashionable. In one matter, however, she coincided with fashion, and that was the disastrous attack on hunting with hounds which, to my dismay, she joined with a passion that was not matched by any understanding of the subject. However, I take it as proof of human frailty, that a philosopher who has done more than most to stress the distinction between humans and other animals, should in this instance make common cause with the sentimentalists for whom that distinction is imperceptible.