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Can't We Make Moral Judgements?

All great thinkers exaggerate, often wildly. So claims the British political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, who has likened Marx's overly generous reading of our human nature to a social scientist's unguarded generalization from observing flying fish: "All fish don't fly, and that finally is what is wrong with Marx." Marx falsely universalizes the presumed talents of the few and gives us a distorted vision of humanity and political possibilities.

The more serious and negative aspects of "false universality" are at the heart of Mary Midgley's little book, Can't We Make Moral Judgments? Midgley uses the occasion of a former student's confident assertion of the "post-modern" impossibility of moral judgment to launch a critical attack on overreaching strains of modern philosophic, moral, and political thought. She wishes philosophically to win back our historically evolved, if imperfect and limited powers of moral judgment, which have been radically called into question by the intellectual and political extravagances of "false generalizers and universalizers."

The false universalizers who particularly fall under Midgley's critical gaze are those who have trumpeted high standards of truth and the importance of individual liberty and freedom of choice: Descartes, Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre, and their contemporary followers (including Ayn Rand). Their strengths have become our weaknesses. Legitimate calls for particular intellectual and moral reforms, whether in scientific method or political life, have been widened, broadened, and "universalized" beyond their limited usefulness and have led to theoretical and practical distortions of our common human life. Calls for respect for individuals, liberty, and truth have led to modern distemper and corrosive, intermingling forms of radical skepticism, cultural relativism, and individual subjectivism (if not self-regarding egoism) that leave us in moral and intellectual paralysis or that seriously undermine our sense of communal moral obligations and responsibilities.

Mary Midgley intends to put things straight, to get our heads screwed on right and to place us back on our morally reforming feet. Over the course of her informal (and accessible) philosophic reflections and arguments, she juxtaposes two worldviews: a social, political, and economic world characterized by extreme, "atomistic" individualism and a more complexly interdependent world characterized by human individuals within particular communal, cultural, and natural settings. The former is the worldview cumulatively bequeathed to us by the false generalizers, with their simplified editions of moral, cultural, and natural reality. The latter is the world inhabited by Midgley and the rest of us.

The human individuals of the "atomistic" worldview are essentially isolated from one another. They cannot confidently know one another, and thus cannot legitimately judge one another morally. They are 'amoral' or 'acommunal' vis-a-vis one another, save for a minimal obligation to leave one another alone. Here is the attenuation of substantive communal obligations and responsibilities before an ethics of 'indifference' or negative tolerance.

For Midgley this worldview, carried to its logical extremes, collapses under the weight of its own exaggerations, inconsistencies, and incoherences, both theoretical and practical. In its place emerges the world of Midgley's good philosophic and common sense. We as human individuals are situated within families, communities, and historically or temporally deep cultural and natural settings. We are essentially tied to one another, to a communal past and future, and to the rest of the human and natural world. Natural rhythms and cultural habits, mores, symbols, and norms are a part of our very individual selves. They are what sustain us in our efforts to become and be human individuals among other individuals. This is the general "global" context of experience out of which we morally decide particular issues in all their worldly complexity (including conflicts of values and obligations). The power and the ongoing need of circumspect moral judgment is part of our communal and individual being. They are constitutive of who we are in our togetherness.

It is within this metaphysical and moral context that Midgley wishes to set the importance of moral reformers and to recognize the circumscribed usefulness of practicing skepticism, acknowledging cultural differences, and honoring the inner subjective life and "autonomous" freedom of individuals. Midgley calls us to attend, amidst the urgings of our best critical philosophic and moral insights, to the rich interplay of individuals and communities both human and natural. She asks us to continue morally to reform ourselves and our world while we pursue, explore, and define our common humanity and our place within the wider animate world.

This little book is meant for everyone, philosophers and nonphilosophers alike. It should particularly interest bioethicists and others who are theoretically and practically concerned with overcoming the biases of an extreme individualist ethics and who wish to understand their patients, clients, and themselves within wider worldly, cultural, and moral settings. Indeed the book's final importance may be its informal boldness: its thinking in new metaphors and images, particularly in taking up contextualist and "ecosystemic" perspectives and in closing the conceptual gap between the human and natural world. (Midgley recurrently and judiciously employs natural metaphors to describe human individual, communal, and cultural life, especially with respect to fundamental, intertwined themes of continuity and change.)

This little book should take its place next to the other "little book," Strunk and White's Elements of Style. The latter is a continuing resource for good sense, clarity, and forcibleness in writing prose. Midgley's book serves a similar purpose for philosophic and ethical reflection.
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Author:Donnelley, Strachan
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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