The central theme of Mary Midgley’s Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay is that the traditional analysis of evil as a privation is correct. Midgley adapts and adopts this analysis of evil as something good gone bad, as a parasite feeding on goodness. In this view, the notion of a completely evil world is logically inconsistent; evil cannot occur save as the perversion of something good. This view has Platonic and Augustinian sources. In Wickedness, the view that evil is to be seen as something good gone bad is developed and defended in connection with evolutionary theory and a rather Aristotelian view of human nature. The major opposing views are described and critiqued.
One way of dealing with evil is to deny that it exists. This, Midgley notes, is often based on the view that to call anything evil is presumptuous and self-righteous; however, this entails assuming that being presumptuous and self-righteous is bad. Therefore, what begins as a denial of evil unintentionally ends up as an assertion to the contrary.
Another way of dealing with evil is to claim that its roots lie entirely in society and not in people, which suggests that evil can be eliminated if only one puts the proper social institutions in place. This view, Midgley clams, is typically associated with the view that human beings start out not as creatures with a determinate nature, but as blank tablets or fully malleable clay. This, she suggests, is not what we find; it is incompatible with evolutionary theory and the discoveries of basic human biology. Furthermore, the attempt to find the roots of evil in society and not in people tends to focus on the question of whether aggression is innate, to which the required answer is negative. This assumes that a single motive is the source of all evil and is mistaken in two ways: (1) aggression is not always an evil motive and its aims (for example, defending the weak) are not always bad, and (2) there are various evils that are not based on aggression. Aggression, the tendency to attack, typically from anger, is found in many animals; in none is it simply the motive to destroy. It occurs in a context of motives and conditions that constrain its uses and effects. Like fear, whether it is good or bad depends on how it is used and what its effects are. Both fear and aggression, like pain, are typically responses to evils. Both fear and aggression are normal and frequently occur, within constraints, among individuals who continue in the same family or remain friends and in society, without necessarily being destructive of persons or personal relationships. Hence aggression is not always evil in itself or in its consequences. Further, there are obviously evils that are neither instances nor consequences of aggression.
The attempt to find the roots of evil not in people but in society, Midgley claims, is not sufficiently realistic; it does not take evil sufficiently seriously. Evil is no temporary problem solvable by social engineering; it arises from our natural motivations.
In Midgley’s discussion of views that oppose hers, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud comes in for considerable discussion. Typically, Midgley argues, one explains any given human motive by reference to the good at which the motive aims. Indeed, she asserts, to explain a motive is to do this. However, obsessive self-destruction resists such explanation, and Freud offers an account of it that is incompatible with Midgley’s perspective.
Earlier Freudian theory, she explains, follows philosopher Thomas Hobbes in regarding persons in a state of nature (outside society) as being in a permanent posture of war with one another, from which they escape by making a social contract based entirely on individual self-interest. Each person is viewed as essentially solitary rather than as inherently social, and the self’s deepest wishes are thought of as always self-directed. The pleasure principle battles with the superego within each psyche. Society is viewed as alien to the self, not as the natural and positive result of people’s interactive, cooperative endeavors. In this account, people live in societies only because they need protection. Later Freudian theory, faced with the horrors of World War I, offered an explanation of the varieties of destructive behavior, including self-destructive behavior. Freud views people as battling between one basic motive, Eros, and another, the death wish, which is viewed as having no good at which it aims. Such a motive is obviously contrary to Midgley’s evil-as-the-perversion-of-good thesis and therefore invites her attention.
The doctrine that all motives aim at perceived self-interest is rejected even in Freud’s earlier view, in which he saw sex as warring with self-preservation in each...
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Along with its considerable strengths, there are also weaknesses in Wickedness. Some significant issues are not explored with convincing depth. There is, for example, a strong minority perspective among moral philosophers that favors moral relativism or otherwise rejects the view that moral propositions are true or false, that rests its case on the view that the world does not, or even cannot, contain the sorts of properties it must have if such propositions are to be either true or false. This view has been seriously presented in rigorous argument and deserves a careful discussion, which it does not receive in Wickedness.
In addition, some philosophical issues are simply not dealt with because, some critics suggest, they seem not to be topics one can even raise. Determinism is characterized as the belief that there is regularity in nature, a belief that makes engaging in science possible. Therefore, determinism will be true if people enjoy success in doing science. Determinism is thus described by Midgley as pragmatic and operational, not as a well-known metaphysical view that is concerned with a particular sort of relationship between earlier and later phenomena in which the occurrence of the earlier phenomena rules out any other later phenomena than those that actually occur. Determinism in this more robust sense is a concern to philosophers and nonphilosophers alike. Further, it is what most nonphilosophers and most philosophers mean...
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Griffiths, Sian, and Helena Kennedy, eds. Beyond the Glass Ceiling: Forty Women Whose Ideas Shape the Modern World. New York: Manchester University Press, 1996. This collection of essays, produced in association with the Times higher education supplement, portrays important and influential contemporary women. Includes a section on Midgley.
Irwin, T. Plato’s Moral Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977. This book discusses the ethics of Plato, the first great member of the evil-as-privation tradition to which Midgley’s book belongs.
Maritain, Jacques. Saint Thomas and Evil. Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 1942. The book discusses Saint Thomas Aquinas’s view of evil. Thomas, like Midgley, viewed evil as good gone bad.
Urmson, John. Aristotle’s Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988. Excellent discussion of Aristotle’s ethics, also relevant to Midgley’s theory of evil.
Warnock, Mary, ed. Women Philosophers. London: Everyman, 1996. This collection of essays on women philosophers contains a section on Midgley.