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Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay is a 1984 psychological and, as the title suggests, philosophical essay written by British philosopher Mary Midgley (née Scrutton). It is an analysis of itself, and it explores the idea that moral evil and wickedness are notions of which we as humans are undoubtedly and, perhaps, inevitably capable of, but we seldom acknowledge them for what they truly are.

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In her essay, Midgley writes that “wickedness means intentionally doing acts that are wrong;” but, she also asks the question: “can this ever happen?” She argues that evil and wickedness are, basically, a part of human nature. They are not some special, unique set of values or concepts which are unfamiliar to us, nor they are unexplored parts of the human psyche; instead, they are "misshapen impulses and motivations" which come as a consequence of our evolutionary development.

For instance, the impulse or the motive to harm someone is simply exaggerated aggression, in which we disregard the notions of respect and kindness. In other words, we are incapable or unwilling to accept the positive concepts and capacities of life. Essentially, “wickedness is caused by an imbalance in our natural human motives.”

Midgley explores several other philosophical theories of evil; for instance, she explores the psychoanalytical theory on aggression in which Freud contends that aggression is a "direct manifestation of the death instinct" and Nietzsche’s opinion that the concept of evil originates in the power-hungry individuals who worship ideals which they themselves have created to satisfy their impulses.

She carefully analyzes these theories and, in contrast, presents a rather humanistic, realistic, and moralistic definition of wickedness, stripped from the mythological and biblical concepts, and she describes evil simply as the ‘absence of good.’ She encourages the readers to "think of wickedness not primarily as a positive, definite tendency like aggression, whose intrusion into human life needs a special explanation, but rather as a negative, as a general kind of failure to live as we are capable of living.”

We as humans are prone to have different reactions to various different situations, and we are often driven by our emotions, such as fear, panic, anger, curiosity, and so on. Thus, it is natural for us to let these feelings affect us and influence our actions and decisions; if we fail to control them, they will certainly become a motive for doing something bad or aggressive but not necessarily evil. Moreover, Midgley argues that some of the kindest and well-meaning individuals are guilty of the worst of crimes because they were motivated by "good" notions such as respect, loyalty, or justice.

This kind of account lays the main stress on the arrangement of the motives. It does not accept that human beings can invent new motives, or ‘invent values’ to which those new motives would correspond. Even the most startling innovations do not seem to call for this sort of origin; they can all be seen to be built out of familiar materials. Instead, it takes the main directions of impulse, the general kinds of praise and fear and delight which are open to us, to be given by our constitution. But it stresses that this still leaves enormous scope for reshaping particular motives, and for combining and separating them in different ways.

The essay received generally positive reviews. However, some readers did criticize Midgley for her repetitiveness, her tendency to focus primarily on the Western definition of evil and aggression, and the lack of a grand conclusion for her theory.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 112

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.

Dealing with Evil

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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.

Freud and Motivation

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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 person. This, Midgley notes, implicitly recognizes an outer-directedness in human motives, a recognition that deserves further development. Human motives and concerns are naturally outer-directed in such a way as to favor good for at least some others as well as for oneself. Freud’s later conception of a death wish as a basic human motive also rejects the doctrine that self-interest dominates human motives.

Midgley joins Freud in this rejection, adding that among human motives are some that target the best interests of others. Further, she argues that someone’s having sheer destruction as an aim is a matter not of one’s having a death wish as a fundamental motive but of various natural desires combining to produce aims that are not found among those targeted by those desires taken singly. She asserts that the combination of desires that aim at self-destruction becomes obsessive. Once obsessive, they are in effect detached from the rest of one’s motives that would otherwise draw attention to themselves and counterbalance the desire to see harm done to another or oneself. An obsessional combination of desires exercises something like autonomy over the behavior of the person whose obsession they form. According to Midgley, there is no need for a death wish as a basic motive. There is instead a combination of motives that together, in obsessional isolation from the rest of one’s system of motives, seek an end not among those sought by any of its constituent members. Motives for positive things combine to target a destruction none singly would seek, and when the combination of motives becomes obsessive, it breaks loose from the balancing influence of other motives that would otherwise and ordinarily limit the scope and depth of the destruction that is sought. Thus one can explain evil without subscribing to anything like a death wish. Further, there is no evolutionary necessity for a death wish; unlike child rearing, it is not something one needs to learn to do or can escape from.

The possibility of a negative connection between predictability and freedom is also discussed. Midgley argues that a free action may also be predictable, particularly if the action is one that the agent is known by the predictor to consciously have a good reason for performing. It seems correct that it is logically possible for an action to be predictable and free. Unless a prediction of an action is based on the predictor’s knowledge that something will make it impossible for the person to act differently from the way predicted, a correct prediction of a freely performed action is possible. Therefore, divine foreknowledge of free human action also seems quite possible.

Possible Flaws

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

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 by the word “determinism.” It would be hard to find anyone who actually meant by “determinism” what Midgley means by the term. This is out of accord with her usual practice; she does not typically use familiar terms in peculiar senses.

Fatalism, determinism’s main competitor in Wickedness, personalizes natural forces, treating them as things that control us. Construed as Midgley describes it, determinism is no enemy of freedom, whose opposite is sometimes slavery and sometimes lack of normal, rational control. It is fatalism, Midgley says, that opposes freedom. The resulting conceptual map has no obvious place for the classical dispute between (full-blown) determinists and libertarians.

Consider a fatalist view in which personalized natural forces result in a person’s shouting curses. Replace it by a determinist view in which depersonalized physical forces result in a person’s shouting curses. In the fatalist case, the personalized forces bring about something that they foresee and intend to occur. In the determinist case, the depersonalized causes bring about something that they do not foresee or intend; there is nothing such causes foresee or intend. However, in each case, the thing that brings something about is necessary and sufficient for what is brought about. Given this, and given that neither the forces nor the physical causes are under the shouter’s control, can the person be free in his or her cursing? The question is perfectly intelligible, as is the libertarian contention that the answer is negative. Yet on Midgleyian terms, the issues involved here cannot be so much as raised.

Consider also a version of fatalism that takes natural forces to be influences but not determining causes. In this view, there is room for libertarian freedom; one can personalize natural forces in such a manner that a fatalistic (full-blown deterministic) view results, and one can personalize natural forces in such a manner as not to produce such a view. If fatalism is the view that natural forces are somehow properly personalizable, fatalism can be metaphysically deterministic and it can be metaphysically nondeterministic. Midgley’s map leaves out plainly possible alternatives, some at least of which are centrally relevant to the overall case she wishes to make.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 149

Additional Reading

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.

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