Tom Gilson

Mary Midgley’s Near-Answer To My Lifelong Question

Series: Mary Midgley and Ethics

I was not a believer in Jesus Christ when I left home for college in 1974. My brother and I had both been very interested in the occult, and around that time I must have read dozens of books by people like Ruth Montgomery and Jeanne Dixon, purveyors of belief in psychic phenomena. My recent church experience had not been at all good, and I didn’t know of any reason to believe in Jesus Christ.

I had no real beliefs about ultimate reality at all, in fact. So, being on my own for the first time, and having the opportunity to do whatever I wanted, I very quickly realized all limits were off. I’m sure I was not the only college freshman who has discovered that! But there was a question that haunted me: 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.

Several months later I decided to follow Jesus Christ. There were many of reasons for that decision, including the genuine love of Christians I had come to know there at school, and the evidences for Christ’s resurrection they shared with me. One contributing factor, though, was that I knew that in Christ there was a genuine answer to this question of right and wrong, that there was real grounding for real ethics.

I couldn’t leave it there, though. The same question still followed me like a specter: Is there really no way, apart from God, to make sense of right and wrong? Could I have missed something? I took an ethics course to find out what the philosophers said. We concentrated on modern philosophy in that course, starting with Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, continuing through John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, and ending up with de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity. What I recall most clearly was that they were all significantly flawed, even in the opinion of my very secular professor, who said plainly that there was no solid plane on which to ground an ethical system.

Even that was not the end of it. Maybe he was wrong, too. Ever since then, I’ve kept my eyes open for other moral explanations that could conceivably make sense apart from God. I’ve never been able to let the search go. Part of the reason for that, I think, is knowing how young I was when I first thought this through, and how unlikely it was that a really uneducated college freshman like me could have gotten this right. Knowing how I first came to my conclusion, I’ve remained somewhat suspicious of it.

So over the years, not constantly, perhaps, but at least persistently, I’ve been looking. I’ve gone back to Plato and Aristotle, and I’ve spent time with other modern thinkers. I’ve learned that the current secular consensus seems to be either (a) that there are objective moral values, genuine right and wrong, anchored in virtually nothing at all (Michael Martin is an example of that thinking), or (b) that there is no right and wrong at all. Michael Ruse, for example, says morality is nothing more than a useful evolutionary fiction. Such relativism is extremely common among evolutionary thinkers, and it dominates the arts and humanities—and thus most of Western culture today.

Mary Midgley is different. That’s why I’ve read her book The Ethical Primate not once but twice this week (twice for the latter half, that is, where she details her ethical theory). More than any other writer I’ve encountered, she comes close to showing how genuine ethics could exist without God. This book has been a significant contrast to (for example) Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker, which was well written all the way through, but in the end very disappointing for its insanely weak anti-theistic argumentation. Migley made it very interesting for me, because she almost got there.

What makes her account of morality compelling is that she takes the data of humanness very seriously, while also recognizing what evolution says about our continuity with the animal kingdom, and with that she has developed something very much like an objective version of morality. I’ve tried to distill her account of ethics down to two sentences:

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.

In other words, we, like all animals, have numerous competing drives and motivations. Some of them are short-term (she calls them “acute”) and some long-term (“chronic”). The longer-term motivations, like care for one’s family, are more advantageous in the long run, but as driving forces they are not as immediately powerful as the short-term ones. An intelligent, reflective species such as ourselves needs moral rules to guide us toward keeping the long-term motivations in charge of our behavior. Thus Midgley’s version of morality is grounded in a genuine recognition of who we are as humans, while also connected to our evolutionary roots. It may be a contingent morality, in that the species we are could have turned out differently than it did under other evolutionary circumstances; but we are what we are, and not (as she says) “Aldebaranians or Daleks.” Given who we are, morality is not arbitrary or relative, because it points us towards the long-haul good, for ourselves and our species.

So what is lacking in it? 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.

Series Navigation (Mary Midgley and Ethics):<<< Mary Midgley: Evolutionary Origins of Genuine Humanness?Mary Midgley’s Moral System: Not The Answer I Was Looking For >>>
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2 thoughts on “Mary Midgley’s Near-Answer To My Lifelong Question

  1. It sounds like one unanswered question is why we should remain as we are. Why shouldn’t we mutate ourselves into Daleks or some other amoral monster, for example?

    Has she gotten past the implicit self-deification of modern dualism?

    One doesn’t need supernatural revelation to realize that we are not our own masters, but it’s sure a big help! It seems to me one needs to recognize some sort of super-human intelligence behind the cosmos if one is not to claim the ability to transcend all morality (cf. Nietzsche). How does she, as an atheist, avoid that trap? Or has she already assumed a theistic premise without knowing it?


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