I can heartily recommend this book for its sheer readability alone, its the first book I read by Midgley and I've gone on to read many of her other books.
Midgely brings significant literary talent to bare on the topic of moral philosophy, considering and condensing a wide range of sources which have attempted to provide objective accounts of wickedness and evil in human nature. There is an introduction by Midgely which considers how well it has aged and developments since the time of writing.
There is a great contents and index too, allowing anyone pressed for time reading it in the course of their studies to cut to the passages which interest them, for instance consideration of Freud and Lorenz.
This is definitely a book I can recommend to any reader, academic or generally interested reader, it is more accessible for the general reader than either Heart and Mind or Evolution as a Religion also in the Routledge Classics range. This read will prove interesting to anyone who muses about human nature.
on 2 February 2010
Mary Midgley, one of the world's finest moral philosophers, addresses the unfashionable question: does evil really exist? Or are we doomed to admit that what we see as evil is in fact merely a product of our cultural values, or, in fact, is 'evil' really just aggressive acts that are biologically determined?
Midgley recognises the difficulties in creating a universally applicable 'moral code' that could make clear what acts are moral and which are immoral. Instead of constructing a code of ethics, she takes the view that evil is essentially a failure of responsibility to others, the world or perhaps even oneself. For example, anti-semitism is evil, for its failure to treat responsibily those it negates, Jewish people.
Her dealings with aggression are very well thought through. She draws heavily from ethology (in particular the work of Konrad Lorenz) in giving a clearer understanding of what aggression is and that it is not the same as evil. She also debunks the Freudian concept of the 'death-drive' convincingly.
Perhaps the most important thing I have learnt from Midgley is the inadequacy of a prevailing view of 'determinism', which sees it as the same as 'fatalism'(acts are performed through us, rather than by us, we have no agency). Determinism is so often treated as an alternative to making choices, rather than its pre-condition. The idea that, for example, I am determined by prior causes external to me to choose a coffee when I go to starbucks does not make it any less my decision. It is just the recognition that 'I' am not an independent island unto myself (as thinkers such as Satre held). Determinism doesn't prevent hostile prejudices such as anti-semitism or violent acts of abuse being wicked. Our interconnectedness with the world is a reason for seeing wickedness as a failure to live in harmony with our world as best we can. Our decisions do have an effect, just as much as they have roots in our surrounding social and physical environment.
To summarise, Midgley is a superb writer, extremely thought-provoking and highly rewarding. This is one of her most engaging books.