Mary Midgley

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Mary Midgley

Mary Beatrice Midgley (née Scrutton; 3 September 1919 – 10 October 2018) was an English moral philosopher.


  • We are not just rather like animals; we are animals. Our difference from other species may be striking, but comparisons with them have always been, and must be, crucial to our view of ourselves.
    • Introduction, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • Still, people have a lot of obvious and important things that other species do not–speech, rationality, culture and the rest. Comparison must deal with these. I have tried to discuss some of the most important of them, not attempting at all to deny their uniqueness, but merely to grasp how they occur in what is, after a primate species, not a brand of machine or a type of disembodied spirit. I have tried to show these capabilites as continuous with our animal nature, connected with our basic structure of motives.
    • Introduction, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • Philosophy, like speaking prose, is something have to do all our lives, well or badly, whether we notice it or not.
    • Introduction, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • Other areas were being mapped by anthropologists, who seemed to have some interest in my problem, but who were inclined (at that time) to say that what human beings had in common was not in the end very important; that the key to all the mysteries did lie in culture. This seemed to me shallow. It is because our culture is changing so fast, because it does not settle on everything that we need to go into these questions.
    • Introduction, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • Consideration of motives brings up the matter of free will. I had better say once, that my project of taking animal comparisons seriously does not involve a slick mechanistic or deterministic view of freedom. Animals are not machines; one of my main concerns is to combat this notion. Actually only machines are machines.
    • Introduction, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • But understanding and explaining motives does not compromise freedom; nor does even predicting acts necessarily do so. A person committed to a political cause may vote predictably, and intelligibly in an election. He does not vote less freely than someone that flips a coin at the last minute. So if we find comparison with animals any help in understanding motives, it will not mean that conduct is not free. And since animals are not (as Descartes supposed) automata, the issue of freedom does not make comparing man with any other species and downgrading irrelevance.
    • Introduction, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • The notion that we "have a nature" far from threatening the concept of freedom, is absolutely essential to it. If we were genuinely plastic and indeterminate at birth, there could be no reason why society should not stamp us into any shape that might suit it. The reason people view suggestions about inborn tendencies with such indiscriminate horror seems to be that they think exclusively in one particular way in which the idea of such tendencies has been misused, namely, that where conservative theorists invoke them uncritically to resist reform. But liberal theorists who combat such resistance need them just as much, and indeed, usually more. The early architects of our current notion of freedom made human nature their cornerstone. Rousseau's trumpet call "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains," makes sense only as description of our innate constitution as something positive, already determined, and conflicting with what society does to us. Kant and Mill took similar positions. And Marx, though he officially dropped the notion of human nature and attacked the term, relied on the idea as much as anybody else for his crucial notion of Dehumanization.
    • Introduction, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • Every age has its pet contradictions. Thirty years ago we used to accept Marx and Freud together, and then wonder, like the chameleon on the turkey carpet, why life was so confusing.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 1.
  • The future will not "be with" anybody in the sense of falling to them as a conquest. The need for many different methods is not going to go away, dissolved in a quasi-physical heaven where all serious work is quantitative...Quantification, like surgery, is an excellent thing in the right place, but a very bad topic for obsession. Unless you know just what you are counting--unless you are sure that the things counted are standard units--and unless you understand what is proved by results of your counting, quantifying provide you only with the outward show of science, a mirage, never the oasis.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 87-88.
  • Selection does not work by cutthroat competition between individuals, but by favouring whatever behavior is useful to the group. People with crude notions of "Darwinism" make an intriguing blunder here. They refuse the mere fact of competing, that is, of needing to share out a resource with the motive of competitiveness or readiness to quarrel.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 132.
  • The trouble with words like "fit" in these discussions is that, if taken in a wide sense they are liable to become vacuous, and if taken more narrowly they easily become tendentious. Thus the phrase "survival of the fittest" does not mean much if it means only "survival of those most likely to survive." If on the hand it means "survival of those whom we should admire most" or the like, it describes a different state of affairs; we shall need different arguments to persuade us that this is happening. In just the same way, Wilson equivocates with the notion that to be "fit" is an advantage to anybody. If it means "healthy" or "able to do what he wants to do" then it usually is so. But if it only means "likely to have many descendants," then there is no reason for treating it as an advantage at all.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 139.
  • If we ask how creatures [bees] that act so elaborately against their private advantage can have evolved, the answer lies in their mode of reproduction. Most workers are sterile. The unit of selection is normally the whole community. Its prosperity depends on the efficiency of the workers. An uncooperative strain would simply revert toward the solitary life these insects started from and in which many would still remain..So it is natural to understand their evolution, as we would that of a plant, without reference to the plans or wishes of the individual bees.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 147.
  • Rightly did Darwin pin up a paper warning himself to be careful about using such words as "higher" and "lower." What is downward about the trend that has produced elephants, chimpanzees, wolves, dolphins, and jackdaws by comparison with ants and bees?
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 148.
  • The point cannot be just survival, nor even survival in numbers. Survival is just as well achieved by much less ambitions creatures which go in for sheer number. (In fact a cost-benefit-conscious gene that really understood its business would, no doubt, have remained on board something like the amoeba; it will probably be amoung the last to go.) Nor is it survival-as-society, since many animals achieve this despite a lot of bickering.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 148.
  • What do we mean when we speak...of higher and lower animals? ...What too about communication (a respect in which, Wilson says, we much exceed the insects)? What is so good about communicating? How are we sure that it constitutes and excellence? Is it even clear that in respect we do exceed the corals and the colonial jellyfish? With them, there are no internal barriers; information flow freely from unit to unit wherever it is needed. The unrestrictedness of the communication much exceeds that among people. Why does this fail to impress us?
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 151.
  • The issue is not between bad guys who use and "adversary" approach and good guys who are scientific and impartial...Everybody, including himself is partial in the sense of starting somewhere, of selecting something for emphasis. The fatal thing is not this. It is being confused about ones reasons for doing so. Particular insights and principles of inquiry must be set in the context of other possible alternatives.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 165.
  • Arguments can always be answered. Moral philosophy, unlike straight moralizing, arises from and trives on plurality of values.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 167.
  • 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. It must be so because, in evolution, all sorts of contingincies and needs arise, calling for all sorts of different responses. An obsessive creature, constantly dominated by one kind of motive, would not survive.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 168.
  • "Cognition" cannot be "translated into circuitry." Learning and creativeness cannot be "defined as specific portions of the cognitive machinery." They cannot be because translating and defining are operations performed, not on the mean in any thinker's brain, but on language. Learning, knowing and so forth are words to describe the relation of a thinking subject (as a whole) to the things he thinks and talks about. Defining these words is clarifying their proper use, so as to get rid of whatever ambiguities and confusions dog them. Since these words describes functions of the whole thinking subject, they cannot be used to describe changes in "portions of the cognitive machinery" he uses to perform them. This would again be like saying that the carburetor had won the race, instead of the car of the driver. Carburators do not even know how to enter races, let alone win them. Winners need carburetors, and thinkers (including neurologists) need brain cells.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 172.
  • We must face unconsidered possibilities and ask ourselves alarming questions–for instance, must we perhaps let the self-destroyer go if he really wants to? Trying to answer this by collecting information about our own neurones would be no more use than doing it, like the Roman augur, by inspecting the entrails of a goat.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 173.
  • People did not proceed, as the theory of evolution really requires by demythologizing their symbolism about animals and the downward direction. Instead they resisted evolution at all costs, or accepted it with the provisio that the future was to lift them out of the degrading company that admittedly contaminated their past. The Future was seen as leading many away from the rest of nature as fast as possible, as giving him the hope of escaping continuity with it after all. Those who felt a sense of pollution at the thought of kinship with other animals could dwell on the hope of becoming less like them.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 198.
  • Many people fail to grasp this point, apparently because they think of "scientific" evidence as only that produced in laboratories by controlled experiments. This leads them to treat field studies, however careful, thorough and well-documented, as "anecdotal"--mere preparation for the real thing, therefore properly ignored till it bears fruit entitled to be considered by learned persons. This attitude was much like that of cavalry generals in the First World War, waiting patiently for the infantry to clear the ground so that they could make the dashing charges that alone they thought entitled the name of warfare. Because these creatures are complex, only a tiny fraction of important truths about them can ever be seen in laboratories of expressed in control experiments. The same, of course, is true of the human race.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979). 224.
  • But my present point is a much wider one. What we need, in order to feel at home in the world, is certainly not a belief that it was made for us. We are at home in this world because we were made for it. we have develped here, on this planet, and are adapted to live here. Our emotional constitution is part of that adaptation. We are not fit to live anywhere else (the possibility, such as it is, of surviving briefly, and at ruinous expense in space-craft and the like is just parasitical; it depends on extending the conditions we are used to into a few bizairre corners, not on our being able to live in other conditions.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • The symbolism of meat-eating is never neutral. To himself, the meat-eater seems to be eating life. To the vegetarian, he seems to be eating death. There is a kind of gestalt-shift between the two positions which makes it hard to change, and hard to raise questions on the matter at all without becoming embattled.
  • It would be quite false to say that competition is the only relation that obtains between species. Mutual dependence is in general quite as important. Each kind exists within an ecosystem, and needs the others to keep the system going. Thus, grazing animals on the African plains co-exist because each specializes in eating some particular kind of plant, and needs the others to keep the whole pasture at a balanced level. They depend, too, on each other's specialized capacities to give warning of danger. … each also depends for survival on innumerable others, such as the insects which pollinate the plants, the fauna of their intestines and of course their predators. It is unthinkable that any species should be an island.
    • Animals and Why They Matter (1983), ch. 2, 3.
  • 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 nothing to do with happiness.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • 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.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • 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.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • All moral doctrine, all practical suggestions about how we ought to live, depend on some belief about what human nature is like.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • Speaking of an institution such as marriage as natural is, of course, paying it a compliment, the compliment of saying that it meets a fairly central human need. The fact that it is found in some form in every human society is in a way enough to show. But it might be thought that marriage became thus widespread only because it was, like adequate sanitation, a means to an end. This is pretty certainly what Hume thought, as evidenced by his very confused contrast of natural with artificial virtues. He regarded human sagacity simply as the power to calculate consequences, and counted chastity and fidelity, with justice, as artificial virtues, devices designed merely to produce safety and promote utility. In a species as emotionally interdependent as man this view of marriage is nonsense. Pair-formation could never have entered anybody's head as a device deliberately designated to promote utility.
    • Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979).
  • Hubris calls for nemesis, and in one form or another it's going to get it, not as a punishment from outside but as the completion of a pattern already started.
    • The Myths We Live By (2003).
  • The contrary, literalist campaign within Christianity is actually quite recent. It developed among more or less extreme Protestants after the Reformation – largely indeed in the last century in the US. It was consciously designed as a competitor with science, providing equal certainty by comparable methods. It is thus a political phenomenon, acting in some ways like a cargo cult. It has enabled relatively poor and powerless people to use their Bibles (which the Protestant Reformers had provided) to shape a rival myth of their own. They see this as an alternative to the materialist glorification of science and technology which they have perceived – with some reason – as the oppressive creed of those in power.
  • Scientism exalts the idea of science on its own, causing people to become fixated on the assumptions that seemed scientific to them during their formative years. This prevents them from seeing contrary facts, however glaring they may be, that have been noticed more lately.
    • Are You an Illusion (2014). 5.
  • Let us start by considering why the attempt to glorify science on its own cannot work. This is because human thought operates as a whole. It is an ecosphere, a vast and complex landscape, including, but not confined to, common sense. Science itself is, of course, not a single compartment but a large, thickly wooded area comprising many sciences, an area that merges into those around it. Those sciences vary from physics to anthropology and all of them are shot through with problems coming from areas outside them, such as philosophy and history. Biology, for instance, has to deal with philosophical problems about the concept of life and also with vast historical problems about evolution for which it uses historical methods, not those of physics.
    • Are You an Illusion (2014). 6.
  • About all these things physics can tell us nothing. The idea of natural selection, which, as we shall see, is uaully called in to account for this vast creative surge, is already looking increasingly inadequate to explain evolution. The main trouble is, I think, best explained in the analogy of coffee. Natural selection is only a filter, and filters do not provide the taste of coffee that pours through them. Similarly, the range of evolutionary alternatives between which selection takes place has to be already in matter. How it comes to be present there is the real mystery about creation.
    • Are You an Illusion (2014). 16.
  • In fact, the whole idea of illusion seems to make sense only if we accept the reality of the illusory experience as an experience and question only what it seems to be telling us about the outside world. Optical illusions do really hapen. What they can’t do is provide accurate measurements of the outside world. The idea of having, so to speak, two successive layers of illusion here is unworkable.
    • Are You an Illusion (2014). 27.
  • A particularly strong assumption here has been scientists’ deep reliance on atomization; on finding the meaning of things by breaking them down to their smallest components. Atomizations illustrates the simplest, most literal meaning of the word “reduction”; it works by making things smaller. The illumination that follows does not, of course, flow simply from their being smaller but from the wider scientific picture into which they can now be fitted. That picture gives them a new kind of context, a wider whole within which they can be differently understood. And finding that kind of context is an essential part of what “understanding” means.
    • Are You an Illusion (2014). 29.
  • The preliminary outward movement of thought—holism—is everybit as necessary as the inward, atomizing one and in any investigation it usually needs to come first.
    • Are You an Illusion (2014). 30.

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