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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

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...

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