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I read this book in a class for school called "The Philosophy of Evil". The book, as I recall, was a historical account of wickedness, what consitutes it and how it difffers from humans and animals. The book was well crafted and created an anchor for the class as we also read Ayan Rand, LaVey and Dawkins, the book "Dark Nature", among other. I suggest the book for those interested in studying the less than pleasent aspects of human nature.
"Who's Mary Midgley?" "She's a moral philosopher." "Isn't moral philosophy dead?" "Obviously you've not read the book yet." In my unhumble opinion, Mary Midgley has done us a great service by being one of the few to write great books on moral philosophy (others include Philippa Foote, Alistaire McIntyre and Owen Flanagan). Actually, this book couldn't have come at a better time. Ever since the "war on terror" - as with most morally difficult times - we are quick to condemn bad acts, using the word evil not so much as a label but as a dismissal. Rarely do we a.) face up to the fact that evil tendencies seem inherent and b.) after having done that, be honest enough with ourselves to introspect on what exactly evil "is". MIdgley is an astute introspecter and goes through many arguments that she disagrees with and gives us just as many that she finds satisfying. First, and this is the subtracted star, though, she tells us that our examination of evil as a positive trait (as opposed to the abscence of one) is misguided. The first chapter is spend by in large walking us through why she feels it easier to examine evil as more a degree of abscence of goodness, than as a positive trait unto itself. This I find entirely unconvincing. Not that I think it is a positive trait, just that I'm not sure why it is either. Introspection doesn't seem to tell us. What is entirely welcome - and this accounts for the four stars - is that her discussion never strays from discussing evil as a natural part of us, rather than dismissing it as either something that we learn via a blank slate effect, or something that only some of us really have. Yes, we've come a long way from Rousseau's natural man and Locke's tabula rasa. More or less, the book focuses, as apropos of Midgley, on the seemingly endless conflict and irreducibility of the human predicament. We are animals. We are moral. We are self serving. We are altruistic. We are sympathetic. We are ruthless. We are NOT formulas. It's just amazing that philosophy took this long to figure it out.