Mary Midgley’s Moral System: Not The Answer I Was Looking For
In my previous posts on Mary Midgley’s view of morality, I noted my appreciation for her unwillingness to accept reductionist explanations (especially for human experience), and her nearly answering a lifelong question of mine: is there really no way to ground a solid sense of morality apart from God? At the end of each post I wrote that there was nevertheless something lacking. As I put it most recently,
Thankfully, what is lacking is not interest, for as I said, it is the closest I’ve found to a positive answer for my lifelong question. Yet there are at least two specific and serious shortcomings that I will return to in my next post on this topic.
So I proceed now, with respect for the questions she raised. Let me reprise my two-sentence summary of her take on morality:
Morality is the means by which a reflective species arbitrates the competing demands of various naturally derived motives/motivations, which are in some way shared with or consistent with motives/motivations of related creatures, and which have a genuine reality of their own, not susceptible to scientistic reductionism. This takes place both individually and socially, and its chief benefit is in allowing the reflective being to make decisions and to behave consistently with long-term social and individual motives higher than short-term motives.
Does this suffice? The question I had early in college was this, quoting again from my last post on this:
Why couldn’t I just do anything at all? What was really wrong with getting drunk, having all the sex I wanted (whether the woman wants it or not), cheating in class? I couldn’t think of any reason not to do those things, other than that I’d been raised differently. That wasn’t enough.
I had not read Dostoyevsky yet, but I was running into what he said so succinctly: “Without God, everything is permitted.” But that just seemed impossible to me. There had to be some difference between right and wrong. Yet I couldn’t think of any way that difference could make sense without God.
It’s time now to explore how well she answers questions like mine.
I was describing Midgley’s book The Ethical Primate to my seventeen-year-old son, and he fairly cut me short, saying, “Ask her how she knows what’s right and what’s wrong.” Now, he hadn’t read the book, and I hadn’t given him a very thorough description, but that was a great question anyway, because until he said that, I hadn’t noticed that the words right and wrong never appear in the book, in the context of moral evaluation—not that I’ve conducted a full computer-assisted search, but I’m pretty sure they don’t appear anywhere in there. For Midgley, morals are apparently not about right and wrong.
Yet her morality is not relativistic, it is objective; but it is contingently objective. Morality is a set of rules summarizing what we works for the long-term good of the species. If through evolutionary contingencies the species had turned out different than it had, the long-term good might very likely have been different; and therefore if anything like morality had appeared in that case, such morality would also be different. It’s hard to imagine it being so different that, say, total wanton mutual destruction was advantageous. It is not so hard, however, to imagine evolution leading to a world where theft, total selfishness, hatred, incest, Machiavellian power maneuvering, race-centrism, and so on were applauded. Our own attitudes on these ethical issues could have come out differently than they did.
To which Midgley simply says, “but they didn’t.” We have the ethics we have because we are what we are. “Live with it,” she might add (I’m putting words in her mouth here), “Our sense of morality is the contingent product of our contingent evolutionary history, but the way it is, is the way it is.” I find there is something attractive about that answer. (This is why I found her book so captivating.) It’s reality-based, within limits I’ll come to later. And it’s objective, in that it’s focused on something very definable, something almost concrete: the longer-term motivations of the organism and species, grounded in what evolution has made us to be. Why should I ask for more than that?
Here’s why. First, what Midgley offers is, in the end, the morality of what works; or, more accurately, it’s the morality of what has worked, in proto-fashion for our evolutionary relatives and forebears, and now in full fashion among humans. We developed rules because they helped us keep our behavioral motivations in line with our longer-term interests. The rules have nothing to do with what is right or wrong, for there is no such category for Midgley. Perhaps she uses those terms elsewhere, but surely if she does, they function only as a language shortcut to “that which guides/does not guide us to behave consistently with our long-term motivations.”
Some of my correspondents on this blog have responded to this kind of statement in the past by saying, “That view of right and wrong is sufficient, Tom. You’re stacking the question in your favor when you call for something beyond that for right and wrong.” Perhaps, but I think I do it justifiably, because I am quite sure that most of the time when we (including my correspondents) say, “That was just wrong!” we don’t mean, “that didn’t work for the long-term interests of the species!” If right and wrong really mean to us, “what works for the long-term interest of the species,” then I would say Mary Midgley’s account of it was more than adequate. I just don’t believe that’s what we mean when we use the words.
Or are we just confused? Maybe right and wrong actually should mean to us,”that which works for the long-term good of the species.” Here we approach my second objection to Midgley’s ethics. It’s one I am loathe to register, because it’s so closely related to something I appreciate so much about her. It’s her insistence on explaining human experience non-reductively. As I wrote before, she won’t accept reductivist physical/chemical explanations for who and what we are, because (like all of us) she just knows better. Our freedom, our human agency, our thoughts, our decisions, our emotions—in all these things we know that it is we who are doing the acting, deciding, thinking, feeling. We are not unwitting and unwilling passengers on a train of physical/chemical reactions.
I agree with her on that, but I cannot credit that evolution got us here. There is too great a disconnect between the presumed processes of evolution and the observed result. Midgley carries on fierce disputes with Richard Dawkins with respect to his Selfish Gene idea, and with other reductivists for similar reasons. She has little positive to say for Daniel Dennett’s views on consciousness. She differs with them for good reason, because their positions clearly do not accord with life as we observe it and experience it. Yet they have a powerful position in the secular debate nevertheless, for they take seriously what evolution is and what it says. Given naturalism as a starting point, where from the beginning there has been nothing but matter and energy, and their interactions by necessity (natural law) and chance processes, human agency and freedom could only appear by magic. That which makes us human was never in the building blocks, nor in the mortar, nor even in the blueprint from the beginning; for the only blueprint was, try one thing after another and keep what reproduces successfully (and even that is unacceptably anthropomorphized, but it sure is hard to keep that out of one’s language on these things).
Thus Midgley’s morality must—I hate to say it but I must—reduce to “what motivates/does not motivate our species to long-term reproductive advantage.” If there is any other motivating force besides that, where did it come from? For evolution itself knows of no other force directing behavior (I am of course speaking of naturalistic evolution). Midgley’s take on human freedom is likewise cut off from the reality of its roots. It’s there, but on her terms it is completely unexplained. It popped out of thin air, and no less so if it “popped” gradually, having appeared first in the whales, dolphins, octopi, and lower primates. It still appeared from nowhere. Atoms and molecules, genes and proteins—they do what they must do according to chance and necessity. Who are we as humans to think we can interfere with that?
Our longer-term motivations are not toward the longer-term good, unless we say that good means “for reproductive advantage, of the individual, group, or species.” But there is a further problem. I made an unannounced shift in terms a few paragraphs ago. I said, “Maybe right and wrong actually should mean to us, ‘that which works for the long-term good of the species.'” Before that, though, I had been using Midgley’s terms, describing morality as “”that which guides… us to behave consistently with our long-term motivations.” Without notice or explanation, I shifted from talking about long-term motivations to long-term good. Shame on me! But—did you notice? Or were you yourself ready and willing to equate long-term motivations with long-term good? It’s an easy mistake to fall into, but what are these motivations? Does the term good really apply to them? How so? They’re what evolution gave us. What makes that good? No matter what evolution had given us as motivations, that’s what we would have. If whatever you get from evolution is what you’re going to call “good,” then “good” just means, “whatever you have.” That’s pretty weak.
So now I will circle back around again to my short statement of Midgley’s moral theory. She says morality is what allows us, as reflective organisms, to manage our behavior according to the long-term good. But we have discovered that this really means that morality is what allows us as reflective organisms to manage our behavior according to long-term reproductive advantage. From where did we gain our intelligence, language, and capacity for reflection? From evolution, which, you recall, has no motivating force but reproductive success. We’re about to spin in a dizzy circle now: The advantage morality gains us is reproductive success. The reflective abilities we have were formed by a process that had no end in mind but reproductive success. The development and propagation of those reflective abilities has been driven by one force: reproductive success.
There are no philosophers more reductivistic than Paul and Patricia Churchland. I believe it was Patricia who said everything in the natural world comes down to natural selection’s four Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing. (Pardon me, but that’s what she said.) Midgley wants to accept the reality of human experience, while also accepting evolution as our creator. Unfortunately for her, the two really cannot be melded. Her version of morality doesn’t fit her picture of reality, for her picture of reality is itself hopelessly disjointed; nothing could fit it. So like all other non-theistic moral systems I’ve had opportunity to survey, this one, too, falls short.
Finally, and very quickly and without developing them, I must mention two last problems I have with Midgley’s moral system. First, the longer-term motivations of organisms make for an incredibly vague starting point for moral theorizing. What does this tell us about, say, supporting or opposing homosexual rights, or abortion? I think that any answer could be argued.
Second, I must raise a reminder here of what I wrote last time. My search for a satisfactory secular morality comes from a specific source: I was looking for it in college, I never found it then, and I’ve been curious since then whether such a thing exists. It seemed incredible to me at that young age that nothing of the sort was possible, and that sense of surprise has never quite let go of me. As I said once before, it also surprised me, and in a way worried me, that this was something I more or less figured out as a very green college freshman!) Along the way, though, I found another source and system for morality, in the triune God and his word. I’m certainly not dissatisfied with that. I’m very confident that God exists and he has spoken; thus Midgley’s morality, which excludes that reality, fails on that count also.
The Ethical Primate, though possibly the best book I’ve read on evolution and human experience as we know it, still fails to explain how the one could realistically have led to the other.
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