Servitor remembers Mary Midgley


The philosopher Mary Midgley, who died this October aged 99, taught at Newcastle University for many years and, after her children had grown up, published many books and articles. Those who were taught by her and by her husband Geoff knew them as a remarkable pair in a remarkable team of teachers in the university’s philosophy department. Over time, Mary became known for her ongoing commentaries on science, ethics, animal rights, and philosophy of the mind.

In her work on science and ethics she found herself engaging in combat with two extreme and opposing views: ‘Social Darwinists’ hold that the fact of evolution proves we are ‘no better than’ other species; at the other extreme, there are those who insist that we are radically ‘different’ from other species. Mary points us to a ‘middle way’ between these two opposite ways of seeing what it means to be human. So, for example, in The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom & Morality (1994) she argues for acceptance of our human complexity. There cannot (she says) be a single fundamental description of what human beings are like, nor need there be. (She touches on this in a 2014 interview at the RSA, available on YouTube).

We constantly deal with different ways of looking at ourselves and others, guided by practical or theoretical concerns. Astrophysicist Professor Brian Cox and, say, a biologist see the human race from very different points of view. That’s their job; Cox sees a speck made from stardust, the biologist discerns a fantastically complex bio-system. These different perspectives aren’t in competition with each other. We are complex creatures and should expect our ‘story’ to be many-sided.

Mary did not think it futile to try to bring these complicated threads together; there is an underlying unity that holds human nature together. A rector’s daughter, she did not embrace Christianity, though she argued that the world’s religions cannot be ignored: ‘It turns out that the evils which have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution. Nor is it even clear that religion itself is something that the human race either can or should be cured of.’ (Myths We Live By, 2003).

Mary would have seen genuine traction in the Judaeo-Christian concept of ‘made in the image of God’ in Gen. 1.26. There is a ‘mix’ of features in our human nature that is particular to our species. The eye of faith discerns something of God in this. Mary would rightly insist that this divine spark will be ‘earthed’ in our biological makeup. No contradiction there, though, for it chimes with the Christian belief that the Divine Mystery has taken hold of our human nature in ‘the Word made flesh.’

Mary Midgley’s final book, What Is Philosophy For? was published in September this year.