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Mary Midgley quotations

Mary Midgley

Mary Midgley, née Scrutton (born September 13, 1919), is an English moral philosopher. She was a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Newcastle University and is known for her work on science, ethics and animal rights. She wrote her first book, Beast And Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978), when she was 59. She helped me to better understand the uncertainties involved in all forms of moral philosophizing. Below are some of my favorite quotations from her writings:

Quotations from her review of Iain McGilchirstʼs “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”, The Guardian, Friday 1 January 2010

This is a very remarkable book. It is not (as some reviewers seem to think) just one more glorification of feeling at the expense of thought. Rather, it points out the complexity, the divided nature of thought itself and asks about its connection with the structure of the brain.

McGilchrist, who is both an experienced psychiatrist and a shrewd philosopher, looks at the relation between our two brain-hemispheres in a new light, not just as an interesting neurological problem but as a crucial shaping factor in our culture. He questions the accepted doctrine that the left hemisphere (Left henceforward) is necessarily dominant, the practical partner, while the right more or less sits around writing poetry. He points out that this “left-hemisphere chauvinism” cannot be correct because it is always Rightʼs business to envisage what is going on as a whole, while Left provides precision on particular issues. Moreover, it is Right that is responsible for surveying the whole scene and channeling incoming data, so it is more directly in touch with the world. This means that Right usually knows what Left is doing, but Left may know nothing about concerns outside its own enclave and may even refuse to admit their existence.

Thus patients with right-brain strokes – but not with left-brain ones – tend to deny flatly that there is anything wrong with them. And even over language, which is Leftʼs specialty, Right is not helpless. It usually has quite adequate understanding of what is said, but Left (on its own) misses many crucial aspects of linguistic meaning. It cannot, for instance, grasp metaphors, jokes or unspoken implications, all of which are Rightʼs business. In fact, in todayʼs parlance, Left is decidedly autistic.

Quotations from “Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature”

Neither ecological nor social engineering will lead us to a conflict-free, simple path… Utilitarians and others who simply advise us to be happy are unhelpful, because we almost always have to make a choice either between different kinds of happiness—different things to be happy about—or between these and other things we want, which have nothing to do with happiness.

. . . Do we find ourselves a species naturally free from conflict? We do not. There has not, apparently, been in our evolution a kind of rationalization which might seem a possible solution to problems of conflict—namely, a takeover by some major motive, such as the desire for future pleasure, which would automatically rule out all competing desires. Instead, what has developed is our intelligence. And this in some ways makes matters worse, since it shows us many desirable things that we would not otherwise have thought of, as well as the quite sufficient number we knew about for a start. In compensation, however, it does help us to arbitrate. Rules and principles, standards and ideals emerge as part of a priority system by which we guide ourselves through the jungle. They never make the job easy—desires that we put low on our priority system do not merely vanish—but they make it possible. And it is in working out these concepts more fully, in trying to extend their usefulness, that moral philosophy begins. Were there no conflict, it [moral philosophy] could never have arisen.

The motivation of living creatures does got boil down to any single basic force, not even an “instinct of self-preservation.” It is a complex pattern of separate elements, balanced roughly in the constitution of the species, but always liable to need adjusting. Creatures really have divergent and conflicting desires. Their distinct motives are not (usually) wishes for survival or for means to survival, but for various particular things to be done and obtained while surviving. And these can always conflict. Motivation is fundamentally plural. . . An obsessive creature dominated constantly by one kind of motive, would not survive.

All moral doctrine, all practical suggestions about how we ought to live, depend on some belief about what human nature is like.

The traditional business of moral philosophy is attempting to understand, clarify, relate, and harmonize so far as possible the claims arising from different sides of our nature.

One motive does not necessarily replace another smoothly and unremarked. There is ambivalence, conflict behavior.

Quotations from “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopherʼs Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001

Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

“Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection.… Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.”
[Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man]

That (he said) is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

These systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt — though of course usually an unsuccessful one — to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we — being creatures subject to gravitation — could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwinʼs idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention.

Quotations from “Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears”

As Darwin pointed out in The Origin of Species (opening pages of chapter three), the “struggle for existence” can often be described just as well as a mutual dependence. And harmless coexistence as parts of the same eco-sphere is also a very common relation.… Among social creatures, positive gregariousness, a liking for each otherʼs company, is the steady, unnoticed background for the conflicts.

People in society [were held by some] not to have any motive in their interactions other than self-interest. If this bizarre story had been true, the notion of selfishness could never have arisen. Had regard for others really been impossible, there could have been no word for failing to have it.

Quotation from “The End of Anthropocentrism?”

The trouble with human beings is not really that they love themselves too much; they ought to love themselves more. The trouble is simply that they donʼt love others enough.

Quotation from “Sorting Out the Zeitgeist: The Moral Philosophy of Iris Murdoch”

[Mary Midgley discussing two lines from Iris Murdoch]:

“We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, self-pre-occupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.”

What chiefly pierces that veil is a sharp, direct perception of things which are no part of our own being. For instance:

“I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.”

The veil, however, is persistent and terribly hard to detect. In every age it subtly provides new, unnoticed ways of evading reality. Detecting those new forms is a prime business of philosophy, but of course philosophers often find it no easier than other people. (It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher; “what are they afraid of?”)

Quotation from “Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature”

The world in which the kestrel moves, the world that it sees, is, and always will be, entirely beyond us. That there are such worlds all around us is an essential feature of our world.

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