Mary Burton Midgely

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Mary Burton Midgely

Modern British philosopher Mary Burton Midgely (born 1919) wrote widely on topics involving freedom and determinism, the philosophy of human nature, and the nature of morality. Her work focused primarily on human nature in relation to animal behavior and the philosophy of human motivation and ethics.

Mary Midgely was born Mary Burton in London, England, on September 13, 1919, the daughter of Canon Tour and Evelyn (Scrulton) Burton. She was educated at Sommerville College, Oxford (first class honors, 1942). She taught at the University of Reading in Great Britain, 1949-1950, and after 1951 at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, also in Great Britain. Here she began as a part-time lecturer, later becoming a senior lecturer in philosophy. She also served as a visiting professor in the United States. Meanwhile, in 1950 she married Geoffrey Midgely, also a university lecturer. They raised three sons.

In addition to her teaching, Mary Midgely's contributions to contemporary philosophy were wide ranging, but in two areas she made important contributions to current thought: the philosophy of human nature and moral philosophy.

Midgely criticized much 20th-century philosophy of human nature for failing to take the systematic study of animal behavior seriously as a basis for constructing a philosophical understanding of human beings. Existentialism is especially guilty of this offense. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the leading exponents of existentialism in the 20th century, argued that human beings create or define themselves and, as a result, it is necessary to view humans as radically free. For Sartre and Camus radical freedom means that humans "have no nature" and that humans are infinitely plastic in the sense that they can take on any shape they choose. For Sartre and Camus, humans can be free only if we assume there are no fundamental restraints on what humans can become. For the existentialists, if human nature exists then persons cannot be free.

Midgely rejected this image of humanity because it rejected the major assumption of evolutionary theory, namely that humans are on a continuum of development with animals. For Midgely, existentialism is ultimately grounded on a false dualism between humans and the animal kingdom; nearly all scientific research since Darwin rejects this radical dualism. But more important, if humans were radically free, then society would be able to shape us in any way it saw fit, and this belief flies in the face of history and experience. For Midgely, human variation or plasticity was broad and deep but it was not infinite.

But while Midgely rejected the view that humans are disembodied "choosers" who can form themselves in any way they decide, she also rejected the polar opposite of this view, namely that humans are completely determined by their genetic and biological history. If humans were completely determined by their genetic heritage, then we would be machines. A machine is something whose parts and purposes and behavior can be read off an engineering diagram or schema. But, according to Midgely, human behavior and motivation is simply too complex, unpredictable, and environmentally fixed to satisfy this condition. In short, to say that humans have a nature does not imply that humans are fully determined. Men and women can powerfully determine the course of their own lives, but their ability to define themselves is not historically and biologically unbounded. Human nature is continuous with the animals in the sense that there exists a set of inborn, active, and social tendencies that shape human behavior. However, these tendencies do not determine the details of human behavior.

An example of a natural tendency is altruism. Altruism is the ability to do good for others. The classical egoists argued that men and women were always acting for their own interests and were incapable of acting for others. Altruism was inconsistent with human nature. But animal behavior undermines this egoistic vision of humanity. Animals are constantly dying for their young. They are constantly defending the members of their group. For Midgely, animals do what "doesn't pay," and if we are to understand humans as being on a continuum with animals, then we must see human altruism not only as possible but also as being fundamental to human survival.

Midgely argued that moral theory must go hand in glove with ethology and evolutionary theory. She rejected the idea that there is a complete separation between facts and values. For example, we cannot demand or require people to do that which is inconsistent with their human nature, but this does not mean that we cannot oblige them to be altruistic in some situations. Biology and evolutionary theory can help us understand the limits and extent of altruism, and it is therefore essential. However, while these disciplines are necessary to morality, they are not by themselves replacements for ethics and moral philosophy. The facts of evolutionary theory can assist but they cannot substitute for a philosophy of value.

We can apply these ideas to social philosophy. Many philosophers such as Karl Marx have argued that we should create a social and economic order that requires men and women to work for others. Classical communism maintained that men and women are only apparently selfish because they were taught to be selfish by the greedy society in which they were raised. Communism attempted to create a society that would allow persons to be fully altruistic. One was only permitted to act for the "good of the proletariat." Midgely would argue that communism is a radical form of altruism that attempts to develop an ethic that is incompatible with human nature. But strict capitalism is also incompatible with human nature. Strict capitalism assumes that men and women are always selfish and that altruistic behavior is impossible. But altruism is present throughout the animal kingdom. As noted earlier, animals regularly die for their offspring, and primates are constantly acting in ways that benefit their group. In short, the major economic philosophies of humans are both incompatible with our knowledge of the animal kingdom.

For Midgely, animals point the way toward a more coherent social structure for men and women.

Further Reading

Among Mary Midgely's best known works are Beast and Man (1978), Evolution as a Religion (1985), and Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay (1989). Another book which explores her views on the theory of knowledge and information is Wisdom, Information and Wonder: What Is Knowledge For (London, 1989). □

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Mary Burton Midgely

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