by Mary Scrutton

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Wickedness is an essay published in 2001 and written by British philosopher and author Mary Midgley, whose work focused on the role of the environment in philosophy and the flaws of reductionist thinking.

Wickedness aligns with the field of moral psychology, in which philosophers and psychologists evaluate the human psyche in order to better understand the driving forces behind human nature. Midgley's essay examines the relationship between moral evil and humanity, ultimately claiming that the capacity for evil is part of our internal human nature. This directly contradicts traditional ideas that there are defined internal and external forces behind morality, and that by removing societal evils, we can eradicate moral ones. Unlike many philosophers, Midgley argues that there is not a clear definition between "good" and "evil" in human nature, but rather an interaction between these two internal forces that can result in positive or negative actions.

Midgley argues that humans are inherently complex, and that it is this complexity that exacerbates negative emotions or actions into evil ones. She writes that humans have innate impulses—fear, anger, love, aggression, greed—that are not essentially evil on their own but are, in fact, a mosaic of positive and negative. "Evil" as we perceive it arises when these primitive emotions are unchecked and acted upon without regard for the consequences. This is exacerbated by external forces; social factors that also contribute to moral evil. Midgley claims that the source and/or motivation behind these emotions does not have to be a negative one; humans can perform evil actions but be driven by motivations that would be perceived as "good." Moral evil arises when the negative motives behind our actions are no longer balanced by the "good" ones. She gives the example that aggression becomes evil when we are driven to harm or destruction rather than channeling that emotion for something constructive (such as protection). Midgley doesn't use the innate capacity for evil as an acceptance for it; she concludes her essay by arguing that we can learn to control this part of our nature—that by evaluating and understanding it we can reject it and choose the moral "good."

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