Mary Midgley, that prolific, contentious champion of the campaign to bring philosophy out of its ivory tower and into ordinary life, has tackled confusions about morality before. Never afraid of controversy, she hurtles straight at her old adversaries at her usual breathless pace and in her usual racy, colourful style, leaping over the cross-headings and scattering asides and handfuls of epithets in all directions.
Midgley attempts a "both . . . and" model of the wholly human and of morality. As in her earlier works, Beast and Man and Heart and Mind, she derides reductionism's follies as derived from an illegitimate faith that there must be a single, unifying and all-encompassing scientific account of everything via simplification to some fundamental substratum. Different kinds of description do different kinds of work, she maintains, and there is indeed "no general reason to expect one description to be the only right one and to reduce all others to it".
Reductionism is not just a formal, logical practice. Since the rise of modern science in the 17th century, it has been an ideology as well, an imaginative habit linked with a wide variety of faiths and moral attitudes: the myth of reductionism extends the concept until it seems that all rationality depends on such an approach. Sociobiology with its "crude, cocky, omniscient, debunking tone" provides Midgley with some particularly blatant examples. E. O. Wilson: "The organism is only DNA's way of making more DNA"; and Richard Dawkins: "We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes."
This is melodramatic talk of mechanisms in whose deterministic hands we are helpless. Midgley has been hitting this kind of thing off the pitch for years: "Organisms do not have a designer: their own DNA, which is part of them, cannot act as one. Neither could the abstraction called evolution. In biology, evolution is not considered as a vast designer but merely as a large process showing certain general tendencies." And: "Human affairs are in fact rather complicated and our powers of understanding are limited. Whatever else evolution may have accomplished, it plainly has never put any pressure on our species that would be likely to give us faculties capable of grasping morality or any other subject matter completely (her italics). Indeed it is hard to imagine what kind of evolutionary pressures could do this . . . Evolutionarily speaking, it would be quite extraordinary if we had faculties capable of finding a universal explanation."
But the seductive myth seems not to be open to criticism. Its propagandists and the non-scientific with faith in it do not seem to notice how far its metaphysical claims stretch beyond anything that can reasonably be called science, nor how much of what is conventionally regarded as science consists, necessarily, not of facts but of convenient assumptions that change from time to time.
Midgley is equally dismissive of the dramatised claims of Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism, B.F. Skinner's behaviourism, social contract theory and contemporary neuroscience and information theory, which boasts that it has finally found the key to the explanation of everything - by reducing humans to programmes running on computers made of meat.
On the other hand, there are apologetic myths about human morality that refuse to acknowledge genetic factors can have any effect at all on people's mental lives. Midgley examines and rejects Sartre's existentialist morality with its language of radical freedom and pure spontaneous activity wholly detached from the brain and the nervous system, excluding reference to innate tendencies such as natural affection as providing motives for action. Such dominance of thought or will over feeling is presented as freedom from our animal natures: a greater gap between ourselves and other species than biology can deliver. Myths are not lies, nor need they be taken as literally true. They are symbolic stories that play a crucial role in our imaginative and intellectual life by expressing the patterns that underlie our thought. Midgley is not opposed to myth, indeed she incorporates one of her own in this book.
To resolve the crude separation of mind and body, subjective and objective perspectives on the world, she taps Darwin's largely neglected writings on the roots of morality. Darwin thought it "exceedingly likely that 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".
Morality emerges as a response to natural conflicts of motive. This is a unique response, made both necessary and desirable by humanity's uniquely clear awareness of those conflicts. Human beings are distinctive in being enormously more aware than other creatures of their individuality and of the factors, both inside and outside them, that compromise it. They can think and talk and argue about these things, so they can share much of their experience and help one another with these problems. They can be aware of forces that are prolonging or changing their ways of life and can, if they wish, direct their efforts towards supporting or resisting them. This is Midgley's thesis about human distinctiveness and the grounds for her insistence on the inadequacy of any theory of the human that fails to do justice to the moral significance of humans having naturally social dispositions like other animals. This thesis supplies the raw material for the moral life - the general motivations that lead towards it and give it its rough direction - while still requiring the work of intelligent reflection, and especially of speech, to organise it, to contribute its form.
Freedom, then, for ethical primates, is, in Midgley's view, not essentially a matter of the unrestrained creation of entirely new values, nor of a total detachment of choice from feeling, nor of freedom from our evolutionary inheritance. Although our selves are in many ways divided, we share the difficult project of wholeness with other organisms. What matters is our recognition of our agency, our slight but nevertheless genuine power to grasp and arbitrate our inner conflicts.
J. M. Kerr is warden of the Society of Ordained Scientists and teaches ethics and science at Winchester College.
The Ethical Primate:: Humans, Freedom And Morality
Author - Mary Midgley
ISBN - 0 415 09530 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £17.99
Pages - 193pp