In this guest post Elizabeth Mackintosh explores Mary Midgley’s integrated and relational notion of the self and how this drives her vision and conception of a ‘mixed’ moral community. A Midgleyean mixed moral community is one where we appreciate the many types of relationships and communities we are in. Midgley not only connects human beings and sentient life through relationships, but also connects sentient and non-sentient life via social-ecological community concepts, each with their own sets of overlapping claims.
Mary Midgley, Persons and The Moral Community
Mary Midgley’s pursuit of a notion of the self is an approach that recognises that it is our culture, our moral communities and our relationships that make us who we are. Midgley’s notion of the self is that of a social, relational and embedded being and one deeply connected with other animals and the natural world. Recognizing ourselves as human beings, participants ‘in moral context’ and interconnected ‘moral communities’ must be our starting point and our framework for navigating ethical dilemmas. Like Midgley, I take issue with the term ‘person’ and argue that this separation of persons and non-persons allows ethical debates to languor in the abstract; it creates morally dangerous exclusions and an ‘us-and-them’ mentality which has been perpetuated by various forms of concentric circle models of ethics. Midgley’s notion of the self and her connected conception of the (mixed) moral community is an essential framework as we rightly move our attention to non-human actors in an increasingly post-human world. Midgley offers an approach that will ensure we are expansive and imaginative in our vision and one that will attend to issues of marginalisation and take context and relationships seriously.
Building on the reflections of Midgley, who knew that man needed a culture to complete him1, I would argue that the loss of ethical context and culture to which she and others refer, has meant we have come to view ‘persons’ and human beings as individual, independent units, abstracted from their relations with others. Philosophers have sought to analyse and elevate the concept of the ‘person’; competing conceptions of personhood have pursued the specific individual qualities that grounds a being’s claim to having a morally significant life. This predilection of the personhood literature has limited ethical dialogue and prevented richer and varied understandings of our layered nature from emerging. Midgley worried about such ‘competing conceptions’ and believed this ‘debate’ like approach, where one position would triumph, is often highly detrimental to what philosophy is really about. Taking account of our nature as socialised beings in a range of relationships is key to understanding our moral existence and to grasping the intricacies of certain ethical dilemmas, and as Midgely said, ‘life is essentially messy.’2
Midgley wrote extensively about the philosophical fascination with differentiating between humans and animals and how ‘emotional fellowship, not intellectual capacity, is what makes creatures our fellow beings, entitled to moral consideration.’3 Midgley wrote about these excluded groups outside of the moral community and in the ‘outer darkness.’4 She alerted us to this morally dangerous us-and-them mentality, which can be perpetuated by various forms of concentric-circle models of ethics, and stressed the moral relevance of ‘sensibility, social and emotional complexity’ and most importantly our relationships in context. Gregory S. McElwain has explored relationality within Midgley’s writings and stresses this important central element of human life and how it must ‘feature more in our imaginative visions of the world.’5 Midgley’s work offers us a robust approach and conception of ‘beings in a moral community.’ A Midgleyean conception of the moral community helps us break free of the personhood deadlock and transforms our approach to animals and the environment.
Persons, Non-Persons and moving on from personhood ‘debates.’
The pursuit for the determination of personhood is undeniably a controversial matter as it is a process of asking who or what does or does not have moral status. The conception of personhood could also be viewed as pivotal to ethical discussions about the beginning and end of life and when considering our moral obligations to entities that some would view as ‘non-persons,’ but also susceptible to many varying obstructions. Part of the issue is the origin and evolution of the ‘contested concept’ of the person, and the fact that the term ‘person’ cannot attend to the many varied aspects of our nature.
Midgley, in ‘Persons and Non-Persons’, explores how our idea of persons derives from two main sources: the theatre and the mask an actor ‘wears’ (his persona), and secondly its origin in law, reminding us of Locke’s famous forensic definition. A person comes to stand above and behind his choices; the idea of the person is the idea of a unified centre of choice and action, the unit of legal and theological responsibility. However, this is not the whole of who we are, far from it, and this leads to a ‘persons’ versus ‘other’ or ‘object’ mentality.
The contested concept of persons and the predilection of the personhood literature has severely limited moral dialogue and prevented the richer ethical dialogue that Midgley espouses. Midgley acknowledges that personhood, in her case notions of the self, are situated quite firmly in the lives of human beings and that those lives are not to be abstracted, but rather seen as part of the whole of our world.
‘This ‘whole person’ of whom we have been talking is not, then, a solitary, self-sufficient unit. It belongs essentially within a larger whole, indeed within an interlocking pattern formed by a great range of such wholes. These wider systems are not an alien inference with its identity. They are its home, its native climate, the soil from which it grows, the atmosphere which it needs in order to breathe. Their unimaginable richness is what makes up the meaning of our lives. The self’s wholeness is not, then, the wholeness of a billiard ball but that of an organism, a transient, struggling creature which has, of course, it own distinct shape but which still belongs in its own context and background.’6
Midgley was critical of narrow individualistic visions, ‘atomistic and egoist’ visions of the self and indeed of our world, as isolationist and barren. Such a view of ‘persons’ fails to appreciate our relational, social an interdependent nature, and whilst she acknowledges that aspects of our nature are egoistic and individual, this is not the whole of who we are – we need an integrated understanding of the self.
Midgley, along with the likes of Val Plumwood, was committed to this integrated sense of self, challenged the stifling dualisms present within western philosophy, and developed robust critiques of this bifurcation.7 Animal and environmental ethics and related discussions can all fall prey to these fixed divisions. There is the very real risk of a battlefield approach between two warring camps promoting a particular conception, and the ‘debate’ can often entirely, and incorrectly, operate around the issue of categories, inclusion and membership criterion. We find an ethical arena of either ‘knowing’ or ‘reason-centred’ beings and entities that are fully operating agents, or instead we have incomplete, passive, moral patients whose membership can only ever be secured by others on their behalf.
Midgley and others have been right impress upon us the importance of expanding our moral circle, and transcending minimalist views of morality.8 Plumwood, like Midgley, develops a full critique of anthropocentrism and Western dualisms that creates privileged human groups and thus dismisses or ignores the concerns of marginalized groups. She argues that the ‘reason-centred’ Western worldview fully divides the world into separate realms of active, knowing ‘subjects’ and passive, knowable ‘objects.’ The result is a ‘radical discontinuity’ between humans (as the sole possessors of reason) and their nature and non-human nature. Midgley, Plumwood and Care Ethicists, such as Eva Feder Kittay, have all criticised the long history of mind-body, rational-emotional and male-female dualist and ‘antithesis’ thinking which elevates one side of the dualism. Such thinking has been used to subjugate those regarded as more ‘fleshy’ and less rational or ‘knowing’ in society, including women, people with disabilities and animals.
Rather than place personhood at the heart of the debate, a Midgleyean approach would suggest we should emphasise our relationships and our membership in an already-existing moral context and community, and that we should reflect far more fully on these and ‘whole’ settings. Rather than considering what kinds of entities qualify as persons, we should instead consider the notion of a being existing in a moral community and thereby situated in a wide and complex web of relationships. We belong to many interlocking and permeating moral communities, it is unhelpful and wrong to talk of ‘the’ or ‘one’ moral community.
The Midgley ‘Mixed’ Moral Community.
Midgely, in a similar vein to Plumwood, has argued that trying to identify the properties an entity must possess if it is to be a member of ‘the’ moral community, can lead to the creation of an ‘us-and-them’, ‘subjects-and-objects’ or ‘persons versus things’ mentality which has been perpetuated by various forms of concentric circle models of ethics. Much of philosophy, claim Plumwood and Midgley, fails to see the existence of humans and animals as an embodied existence; we look at the world from the approach of the philosophy of mind, an abstraction that renders our daily existence inconsequential. Animals and the environment come to represent the limits of the moral community and we must be alert to this, as it has been part of the way that we have justified excluding others from our community.
The boundaries of the moral community should be an area of robust attention for the philosopher, as it was for Midgley, as should the subtle and more varied ways we exclude humans from what really matters – their moral context and their moral communities. I recommend that we move away from the language of the moral community, as if there is just one ideal and mythical realm, and instead explore just how complex the idea of a moral community, among many, is given the many relationships and connective webs we find ourselves in. We need to appreciate the complexities of talking about any moral community, but also embrace the idea of lots of different moral communities in different contexts. A Midgleyean mixed moral community is one where we appreciate the many types of relationships and communities we are in. Midgley not only connects human beings and sentient life through relationships, but also connects sentient and non-sentient life via social-ecological community concepts, each with their own sets of overlapping claims.9
The species-barrier, imposing though it may look, is rather like one of those tall wire fences whose impressiveness is confined to their upper reaches. To an adult in formal dress, engaged in his official statesmanly interactions, the fence is an insuperable barrier. Down below, where it is full of holes, it presents no obstacle at all. The young of Homo sapiens, like those of the other species present, scurry through it all the time. Since all human beings start life as children, this has the quite important consequence that hardly any of us, at heart, sees the social world as an exclusively human one.10
Relationships matter because we are community dwelling beings, and in community with many other beings and indeed entities, including animals and the environment. Relationships and community are central to our understanding of agency, that is to say relationships are not simply valuable things, but rather fundamental to who we are. McElwain writes:
‘She (Midgley) provided a shift from conceiving of animals in individualistic terms (e.g. bearers of rights or interests), highlighting the dynamic inter-relationality and interdependence that binds individuals and the various communities and collectives in which they are located….Her prominent concept of the mixed community envisions animals as part of our wider community on earth and central among the many parts that constitute the valuable whole of our lives.’11
We need to embrace our social identity and ‘agency’ and see ourselves as members of varied communities of beings, as socialised, relational and emotions beings in worlds of other beings. We should not ‘test’ to see who belongs to a moral community or forward particular qualifications for membership. Instead we should explore and see ourselves as members of a range of moral communities of beings. Our relational status as a socialised being situated in a moral community is both a social fact and a moral vison we must forward within ethical dialogue. We need to be prepared to adopt an approach that allows for some blurring of the boundaries at the edge of moral communities and when considering membership and agency therefore.
Midgley is critical of a concentric circle ethics model and the idea that the closer or nearer you are to the centre the more of a claim you have to a morally relevant life or a life worthy of protection.12 Our closest relationships are of course an important consideration when facing certain moral dilemmas, but there may well be wider and ‘distant’ claims that outweigh closer ones. Again, to think of the moral community with a neat algorithm that can be used to manage any competing claims may well be practical and efficient, but it is not accurate or right when it comes to our ‘moral universe.’ We are part of many interconnected moral communities and the circumstances and unique context will help us navigate these dilemmas or claims. An algorithmic approach will fall short and it will fail to grasp who we are, where we are, and what matters.
- Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, (New York: Routledge, 2002), 279.
- Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry (London: Routledge, 2006), 183.
- Mary Midgley, ‘Persons and Non-Persons.’ In Defence of Animals, ed.Peter Singer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 61.
- Mary Midgley, Animals and Why they Matter, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983), Chapter 6.
- Gregory S. McElwain, ‘Relationality in the Thought of Mary Midgley’ in RIP Supplement 87 2020 235-6.
- Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry (London: Routledge, 2006), 20.
- Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture, (New York, Routledge), 2002, p.100
- Gregory S. McElwain, Mary Midgley: An Introduction (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 91.
- Mary Midgley, Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: Problems of Philosophical Plumbing (London: Routledge, 1996), 117.
- Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983), op cit 17, 118
- Gregory S. McElwain, Mary Midgley: An Introduction (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 15.
- Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, (New York: Routledge, 2002), 23.
Dr Elizabeth Mackintosh is a visiting research and knowledge exchange fellow at the University of Winchester where she is currently teaching a Bioethics course and recently ran an academic seminar series exploring eco-philosophy and eco-apocalypse. She is also the Head of Philosophy and Theology at Winchester College and has been teaching in both the secondary independent sector and higher education for nearly 20 years.
For further reading and to find out more
Feder Kittay, Eva. ‘At the Margins of Personhood.’ Ethics 116 (October 2005): 100-131.
McElwain, Gregory S. Mary Midgley: An Introduction. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Midgley, Mary. ‘Persons and Non-Persons.’ In Defence of Animals, edited by Peter Singer, 52-62. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.
– Animals and Why They Matter. Athens, GA: Universityof Georgia Press, 1983.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge, 1993.
– Environmental Culture: The ecological crisis of reason. London: Routledge, 2002.