Books : reviews

Mary Midgley.
Wickedness: a philosophical essay.
Routledge. 1984

Mary Midgley.
Science as Salvation: a modern myth and its making.
Routledge. 1992

Mary Midgley.
Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: problems of philosophical plumbing.
Routledge. 1996

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 19 January 1997

In this book of essays written over the last ten years, here edited together to provide rather more coherence than is usual in a collection, the well-known moral philosopher Mary Midgley explores why philosophy is a necessity, not a luxury. She does this by showing areas where our current philosophical plumbing (ignored and forgotten when it works, desparately important when it springs a leak) is currently breaking down.

The philosophy she is attacking in particular is that of the Social Contract -- the idea that each person is a completely free, independent, choosing individual. This philosophy was an important advance when it was invented: it helped provide a moral basis to counter the idea of Divine Right of Kings, and the worst excesses of the Church. It lead to democracy. But today the leaks are becoming threatening, and if we do not realise this is just a philosophical view, one of many possible views, and not 'the truth', we will have problems.

Problems are arising because this view makes it difficult (if not downright impossible) to acknowledge that we exist in an interdependent community, consisting of not only of other people, but also other components of the environment -- animals, natural resourses, and the like -- all of which have the right to be considered. The view also makes it difficult to justify supporting cultural activities such as Art and Science.

She does not propose some new, overarching moral philosophy: no Grand Unified Theory of Morality here. Instead she emphasises that partial answers, with overlapping areas of applicability, are a perfectly acceptable starting point. What is important is to understand there is a problem, to realise that problem is due to using an inappropriate philosophical model, and to start finding, and using, better models.