Essential Mary Midgley, The

by Mary Midgley


Any author who uses both Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt (two of my favorite thinkers) to support her position within the first 100 pages is going to earn brownie points with me. And those citations were definitely a harbinger of good things to come. Midgley, much like Arendt, has a totally refreshing way of reframing a discussion to put the conflicting parts into perspective as a unified whole.

Here, she touches upon many different topics: animal rights, ecology, moral philosophy and metaphysics, but the general theme of all of these essays and excerpts is that our dichotomous thinking is fundamentally flawed — there is a middle of the road that both sides of the materialism/idealism debate have been recklessly ignoring for too long. In this way she sort of comes across as a mediator between two bitter parties in a domestic dispute. She has the wisdom to see that the household will function much more smoothly if both partners open up fresh lines of communication in an effort to resolve their differences.

The book takes a little while to pick up steam, but I was fully engaged by the end of Part I and that carried into Part II. It’s in Part I that she makes such wonderful points about the way we unfairly malign animals by referring to particularly atrocious human actions as “bestial,” “savage,” or “like an animal.” She adroitly points out that animals rarely if ever treat each other as shamefully as humans regularly do, therefore this idea that we are behaving in a “base” way is quite ill-informed; we routinely behave much worse than animals and they do not deserve to be mis-categorized as such.

One of my favorite things she does in this section is to rescue the use of emotions and sentiment in rational argument. She points out the way in which a discussion is often won/loss based on if one of the participants begins to “get emotional,” or isn’t calm enough, and she calls BS:

Accordingly, anyone accused of being emotional about injustice or oppression or war or bad science or anything else can quite properly reply, “Of course I feel strongly about this, and with good reason. It is a serious matter. Anyone who has no feeling about it, who does not mind about it, has got something wrong with him.” Strong feeling is fully appropriate to well-grounded belief on important subjects. Its absence would be a fault. This is the element of truth in Emotivism; morality does require feeling. . . It might be better if we made this move of admitting appropriate feeling more often. As it is, the idea does sometimes get around that merely having strong feelings is, in itself, a fault in controversy. The real fault must lie, not in the presence of feeling, but in the absence of thought, or in the unsuitability of feeling to thought.” 112-13

The next section is when she (successfully, IMO) attempts to rescue moral philosophy from the recent fad in academic thought of refusing to make moral judgments about anything. She convincingly argues that it is not only within our right to make moral judgments on actions, but it is the duty of philosophers to develop a framework (a la Aristotle) by which we can know which actions are or are not morally acceptable. Amusingly, she also points out that deciding that moral judgments are bad (the position of these philosophers that she objects to) is itself a moral judgment, so any such argument is simply hypocritical. The highlights of this section are “Philosophical Plumbing?” and “On Trying Out One’s New Sword on a Chance Wayfarer,” the latter a devastating attack on moral relativism/isolationism.

Unfortunately, the book begins to lose steam starting in Part III, or about halfway through. She continues to make good points about the ways in which scientists are becoming more religious about their own field, and cautioning against the unwavering faith in science and technology, particularly concerning evolution and genetic engineering (“Biotechnology and the Yuk Factor” is a highlight). The last section, “Gaian Thinking,” also provides a much-needed perspective on ecology and the need to reconsider how we treat nature.

But overall I began to notice that most of her arguments stayed maddeningly superficial. I kept expecting her to really delve into a subject, but it seemed like she kept talking about what she was going to talk about without actually talking about it. And what she did talk about began to get repetitive: basically, the need to eliminate our dichotomous way of thought, whether the dichotomy be materialism/idealism, rationalism/emotivism, heart/mind, reason/faith, science/religion, etc. I agree with the sentiment but got tired of hearing about it in slightly different ways.

My first problem, the superficiality, could very well be due to the nature of the collection, which just gives excerpts from Midgley’s best books. So it stands to reason that they wouldn’t contain as much meat as the excerpted volumes themselves. But still, it made for a frustrating read, sort of continuously tantalizing but then ultimately disappointing, over and over again. That’s the only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars, although I would fully expect to love any of her individual books should I decide to pick them up some day.

Original Review 


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