For the first time, I’m re-reading a work of philosophy for this blog. As background, I’m going to have to do some autobiography (after all, that is partly the point of this blog) before I get round to the philosophy.
The year is 1994, and of the 25 books I listed as read that year I’ve chosen The Ethical Primate by Mary Midgley – which I may not have read from start to finish the first time. What I did do, though, was interview the author for a journalistic feature. Not only that, but the interview was reprinted two years later in Beyond the Glass Ceiling (subtitle Forty women whose ideas shape the modern world; Manchester University Press, 1996), an anthology of interviews with female academics. (There were some notable omissions from those 40 – e.g. Philippa Foot, Patricia Churchland …)
How did all this come about? 1994 was the year my job at Boston University came to an end. Clever Wife had already got a job back in London, while I stayed in Boston to keep Clever Son number 2 company until he finished his second year at the US university; but by June he and I were back in our old London suburban home. Meanwhile, I’d started writing features for the London-based Times Higher Education Supplement (these days called Times Higher Education) about the US academic scene, so once I was back in the UK I managed to continue writing for the weekly as a freelance. I can’t remember if it was the features editor’s (Sian Griffiths’s) idea or mine, but it happened that Mary Midgley had a new book out, and as a fairly high-profile (retired) academic she was a good candidate for a lengthy profile. So one day in September I took an early-morning train to Newcastle and then a taxi to where MM and her husband lived, in one of Newcastle’s leafier suburbs. I remember being treated to a lunch of Geoffrey Midgley’s home-made soup before I actually interviewed his wife. And I was back home in London the same day. …
The interview itself, as I wrote it up, is as much about MM’s career path as it is about her philosophy — looking at it again, I think I should have sought some quotes from others as to the impact and soundness of MM’s ideas; there’s not really anything critical in the piece, as there was in (for instance) a later interview I did with Bernard Williams for the same publication. But her career was interesting: she was at Oxford during the war, when women students had more opportunities to shine than usual, before going into the Civil Service. Later, having taken time out to raise three sons, she resumed academic philosophy, but very much from the viewpoint of someone who had meanwhile taken an interest in other topics such as animal behaviour.
If you look up what’s been written by and about MM, you’ll notice that her first book-length work of philosophy didn’t come out until she was well over 50 (she was 75 when I interviewed her); and that in the early 1980s she was involved in some serious disagreements with Richard Dawkins, among others, about the application of ideas about evolution to human behaviour. Kenan Malik in Man, Beast and Zombie (2000) writes of her “withering criticisms of sociobiology”, some of which is “the product of a misreading of modern Darwinian theory, and some is gratuitously hostile”.
There’s certainly a pugnacious air about some of The Ethical Primate (and a suspicion that in places she’s arguing with straw men) which perhaps didn’t worry me so much the first time round. In the book, to quote my 1994 self, MM “continues her arguments [begun in earlier books such as Evolution as a Religion] against the reductionism of various philosophers and scientists while seeking to reconcile free will with the apparently deterministic ideas of evolution”.
But the 1994 interviewer is not the same as the 2018 re-reader: I’d like to think that in revisiting MM’s book I’m doing so from a better-informed standpoint. How so? Because I’ve now completed a master’s degree in philosophy (strictly speaking ‘Ethics and Social Philosophy’). Having been roused by my journalistic work in academia into a revival of an interest in philosophy – which had been smouldering underground, as it were, since my undergraduate days – I finally went further in the subject academically a few years ago and took an MA course at Cardiff University (which I recommend). And as it happens one of the modules I took – which required a 4,000-word essay at the end of it – was labelled “Philosophy of Evolution”. My essay was on “morality and natural selection” and wasn’t entirely a success: of the four essays I had to write for the course, it was the one that got the lowest mark. But it did have some overlap with what I’d forgotten MM wrote.
One of the principal messages of The Ethical Primate (subtitle Humans, freedom and morality) is, as I have said, anti-reductionist. The idea of a “single fundamental explanation” for human behaviour, such as she attributes to sociobiologists or “selfish gene” theories, is mistaken; “questions about how people act and how they are moved to act are far more complex than we usually notice,” she writes (p.43). Apart from that problematic “we”, I would agree, and it’s interesting that just before this passage she suggests seeing human behaviour as “perhaps something like a mountain. Different approaches show this mountain from different sides.” Derek Parfit, a much greater philosopher, used a similar metaphor in his On What Matters (2011), claiming that apparently conflicting moral theorists were not really in disagreement but were “climbing the same mountain on different sides”.
As well as scientific reductionists, MM’s other target is the “egoistic theory” that she detects in Sartre and “unthinking Hobbism” (after Thomas Hobbes). And I was heartened to see her trace some of this back not to Darwin (whose Descent of Man she commends) but Herbert Spencer, who saw evolution as “the sole guide to morals” and thought that the “survival of the fittest” was a principle to be followed in human affairs. But I would have liked to draw her attention to an older opponent of Spencer’s who she may not have been aware of: the Russian anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin. I tried, perhaps mistakenly, to shoehorn him into my own evolution-of-morality essay; and I think MM would also have found useful support in Kropotkin’s classic Mutual Aid (1902) and its assertion, specifically aimed at Spencer, that “in the ethical progress of man, mutual support – not mutual struggle – has had the leading part”.
So am I glad to have re-read The Ethical Primate? Mary Midgley is a good, forceful writer, but I wasn’t convinced, this time round, by all her arguments. I think I have to agree with Susan Wolf in the Philosophical Review, who though generally laudatory thought that MM was “more concerned to stand up for her views and to expose the weaknesses in popular conceptions of the opposition than to carry the level of debate to a higher, more intellectually probing and rigorous plane”. But I am grateful for the intellectual stimulus this re-reading has provided. I think I must go back to reading more about the contractualist tradition in ethics, about which she is (unfairly, I think) somewhat dismissive. And continue to ponder a question about priorities in current philosophical ethics: is its aim descriptive or prescriptive? Is the point of ethics to examine why and how moral rules and judgements are made, or should it simply be an account of how we ought to live? Or can the two aims be achieved together?
Enough for now of this longer-than-usual blog. Mary Midgley is, I am glad to say, still alive – she’ll be 99 in September. And if you want to read anything by her, I’d suggest her Wickedness may be her best book.
In June I also read: Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (disappointing after his great first novel, Then We Came to the End); The Comedians by Graham Greene (why haven’t I read this before?); dipped into Richard Sennett’s latest, Building and Dwelling (especially interesting on Jane Jacobs and her impact), and have started reading Clair Wills’s interesting Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain.