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The purpose of this book is to suggest how the ethical sense of humans is likely to have developed in the course of evolution. Many so-called Darwinians have seen this development as "merely" another mechanism in the struggle for survival. They have argued that morality, properly understood, is nothing other than a more or less enlightened codification of self-interest, a view that had already been put forward by Hobbes and by Bentham. For Herbert Spencer moral feelings that weaken the human species in the struggle for survival were aberrations to be corrected: on these grounds he thought that the desire to help the unfit poor should not find a place in a proper system of ethics. Man was part of Nature; Nature was "red in tooth and claw"; and this fierce competition was supposed to make for evolutionary progress. (Social Darwinists never really bothered to study animals, or they would have seen that in the natural world cooperation and interdependence are at least as important as competition). Another Darwinian, like T.H.Huxley, was so appalled by this approach to ethics that he removed ethics from the evolutionary process altogether: Man's moral ends, he said, were not those of the ruthless cosmic process.
Mary Midgley rejects both these reactions to Darwin's work: the Hobbes-Bentham-Spencer view because it is reductionist and Huxley's because it is untenable. The thrust of her book is to show that genuine altruism is as much a product of evolution as are other developments; it is partly rooted in our physical instinctual inheritance, but it is also the result of the special way in which humans are conscious of themselves and can enter imaginatively into the feelings of others.
She develops these ideas in the last third of her book, after having devoted the first two thirds to a comprehensive attack on all reductionist theories of behaviour - that is, theories which purport to explain complex human behaviour in terms of something simpler and fundamental, such a purely physical processes. I have not the space to comment on this part of her powerful arguments here.
In the last third of the book, then, Midgley considers how in evolutionary terms our moral sense might have developed. Her starting point is a hitherto little noticed comment of Darwin's: indeed, most people did not seem to know that he had written anything at all about ethics. Darwin had observed that parent swallows follow one of their instincts in joining migrating flocks while being apparently untroubled by the rival instinct not to desert nestlings who are left behind to die. In this case an instinct which is temporarily very powerful quite blots out one which Midgley describes as "a habitual feeling which is much weaker at any one time, but is stronger in that it is far more persistent and lies deeper in the character." The reason why the swallows evince no hesitation or feeling of conflict between the two courses is that their intellectual power is not highly enough developed. It is, Darwin wrote, "exceedingly likely that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed, as in man." Morality develops when creatures become conscious of the inevitable conflict in their feelings; and in the more highly developed animals the signs of the struggle between opposing impulses are quite clearly observable.
Human thought brings with it a number of characteristics which, if they exist at all in animals, do so to a much weaker degree: humans have a well developed possibility of imaginative empathy with the feelings of other creatures: they become not merely self-conscious but also conscious of others. They care about what others are thinking and feeling, not least about themselves. They understand the consequences of actions. When they have violated what the weaker but deeper feelings tell them, they feel guilt; when they observe others violating them, they become judgmental. They understand the consequences of actions. They want to have some control over their conflicting emotions - not just for mechanically "evolutionary" reasons, but because they value the freedom which may prevent them from being passively swept hither and thither by their instincts like a piece of flotsam on a powerful wave. Having become conscious of their instincts clashing, they want to establish for themselves a system of priorities; and the purpose of a moral code is to establish that system of priorities. The priorities they establish bear some signs of "selfish" evolutionary programming: to put the interests of one's children before those of the needier stranger, for example; but it is the capacity of thought and of feeling (Midgley constantly stresses that theories which set these two in a hierarchical scheme are badly reductionist) which gradually widens the range of creatures towards whom we accept increasing degrees of responsibility.
I am not in a position to pronounce on the validity of the origins of morality as Mary Midgley presents them. I would suspect that reductionist arguments cannot be quite as crass as she suggests, were it not for the devastating quotations she adduces from some of their academic exponents. As usual, she writes extremely well and lucidly. She is totally devoid of philosophical jargon; and almost every page has a memorable phrase or striking image, as well as a fine sweep of reference to which a short review like this cannot do justice. It is a deeply humane and attractive book.
In the year or so that I've been acquainted with her work, Mary Midgley has quickly become one of my favorite philosophers (outside of Karl Popper and John Dewey). This here is philosophy for the real world. As such, she starts with real questions: How does morality fit into the evolutionary schema? Science's answer: game theory and self interest became self-interested cooperation. How does the mind (our first person view) fit into naturalistic accounds of the body? Science's answer: it doesn't, really. The mind is the brain and that first person 'viewpoint' is an illusion propogated by the genes. If I had to give a brief summation of what Midgley does in this book, I'd say this: she takes on reductionism in all of its scientistic forms. Those who want another evolutionary psychology account of the evolution of morality will not find this book comfortable (that's why the title might be misleading). Rather Midgley comes to pluralistic conclusions that when asked to choose between moral libertarianism and reductionistic fatalism, answers: why not a little of both? Why are scientists so eager to do away with the mind as either an illusion or as merely a 'propogation center' for memes? Answer: because they want a unified physicalist view that can't tolerate anything (like the mind) that doesn't disappear into purely physical terms. But, Midgley asks, does that erase the fact that the mind, despite all the 'explaining away' is still there? Anyhow, another way this book's title may be misleading is that Midgley's concern lies mostly with the issue of how free our moral agency is. Thus if the reader is looking for a book to answer specific moral questions like: Why do we share? Why do we like doing things for others? Why do we fight? and such, the reader won't find that here. Teh essential questions are: How can we give a non-reductionistic account of the mind in a physical world? and How can any form of freedom be compatible with a world of determinism. Enjoy.