by Mary Scrutton

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

In her exploration of “wickedness,” a term she believes has fewer connotations than “evil,” Mary Midgely stresses that a view of two separate extremes will block our full understanding of the phenomenon. Further, she encourages us to understand wickedness as an absence more than a presence and to analyze it by addressing what is lacking. We should, therefore,

think of wickedness not primarily as a positive, definite tendency like aggression, whose intrusion into human life needs a special explanation, but rather as negative, as a general kind of failure to live as we are capable of living.

Midgley points out that the motivations for positive acts and atrocities may not be very far apart. When human beings cannot understand or accept those motivations, they tend to label the perpetrators as “mad” and their behavior as not being within the social realm. She sees this as a failure of addressing their context, because humans do not want to admit to such capabilities within themselves as normal people. This makes us to distance ourselves from wickedness and to treat it as

something quite alien to ourselves, something belonging only to certain lunatics in black hats , the other guys, who are always the cause of the trouble. . . . [T]here seems to be an element of bad faith, of unreality in this distancing of evil. . . . Exploiters and oppressors, war-makers, executioners and destroyers of forests do not usually wear distinctive black hats, nor horns and hooves. The positive motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfillment and professional conscientiousness.

What she finds “appalling” is that other motives to balance the bad ones have been removed or displaced; key among those is “a proper regard for other people and . . . a proper priority system which would enforce it.”

Returning to the theme of presence versus absence, Midgley points out some of the problems in viewing evil as a something of which people must be rid. This in turn suggests that the quality is extrinsic to human nature or alien, like demonic possession. As individuals do not want to admit something like that about themselves, they also do not want to consider it among others. The failure to confront it within oneself seems vain, but also

we try to avoid “owning” our bad motives, not just from vanity (though that is important) but because we feel that to own or acknowledge is to accept. We dread exposure to the hidden force whose power we sense.

If we accept that this force can exist within us, then it seems we are authorizing it to be unleashed on the world. One of the problems there is that an unexamined sense of menace fear adds fuel to the destructive forces brought by “irrational fears and hatreds.” She sees, therefore, that the difference is more of degree than kind in people who seem far gone; we should not give up trying to understand because they are not evincing a “special alternative morality.”

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