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Wickedness (Routledge Classics)

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To look into the darkness of the human soul is a frightening venture. Here Mary Midgley does so, with her customary brilliance and clarity. Midgley's analysis proves that the capacity for real wickedness is an inevitable part of human nature. This is not however a blanket acceptance of evil. Out of this dark journey she returns with an offering to us: an understanding of h To look into the darkness of the human soul is a frightening venture. Here Mary Midgley does so, with her customary brilliance and clarity. Midgley's analysis proves that the capacity for real wickedness is an inevitable part of human nature. This is not however a blanket acceptance of evil. Out of this dark journey she returns with an offering to us: an understanding of human nature that enhances our very humanity.


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To look into the darkness of the human soul is a frightening venture. Here Mary Midgley does so, with her customary brilliance and clarity. Midgley's analysis proves that the capacity for real wickedness is an inevitable part of human nature. This is not however a blanket acceptance of evil. Out of this dark journey she returns with an offering to us: an understanding of h To look into the darkness of the human soul is a frightening venture. Here Mary Midgley does so, with her customary brilliance and clarity. Midgley's analysis proves that the capacity for real wickedness is an inevitable part of human nature. This is not however a blanket acceptance of evil. Out of this dark journey she returns with an offering to us: an understanding of human nature that enhances our very humanity.

30 review for Wickedness (Routledge Classics)

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sharad Pandian

    Midgley's argument is that we have to stop thinking about wickedness as some sort of alien value system and instead see it as a malfunction in the usual set of motivations and impulses all humans share thanks to our evolutionary heritage. She summarizes this method nicely when she says: "This kind of account lays the main stress on the arrangement of the motives. It does not accept that human beings can invent new motives, or ‘invent values’ to which those new motives would correspond Midgley's argument is that we have to stop thinking about wickedness as some sort of alien value system and instead see it as a malfunction in the usual set of motivations and impulses all humans share thanks to our evolutionary heritage. She summarizes this method nicely when she says: "This kind of account lays the main stress on the arrangement of the motives. It does not accept that human beings can invent new motives, or ‘invent values’ to which those new motives would correspond. Even the most startling innovations do not seem to call for this sort of origin; they can all be seen to be built out of familiar materials. Instead, it takes the main directions of impulse, the general kinds of praise and fear and delight which are open to us, to be given by our constitution. But it stresses that this still leaves enormous scope for reshaping particular motives, and for combining and separating them in different ways." For example, a genocidal motive is simply an obsessive fixation of purity and aggression which drowns out all restraining motives like respect and care. There is no need to posit any supernatural source for the evil involved, nor is there any need to give up our tendency to make moral judgments simply because human behavior is rooted in the biological. She argues for this by using Freud, Jung, close readings of texts like Paradise Lost and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and engaging with issues of determinism and social scientific explanations. It's not a bad book, but it comes off as a bit unambitious and consequently underwhelming.

  2. 4 out of 5

    E.

    I have not read Midgley before, but will definitely read more of her work. I appreciate the way she writes, including her wit, but mostly for the clear way it reveals a good, analytical mind at work. This particular book has many keen and useful insights on human motivations and the way we get ourselves into trouble. I did think the final chapters failed to drawn to any sort of grand conclusion, but her basic thesis--that we can explain (and therefore address) human wickedness by stud I have not read Midgley before, but will definitely read more of her work. I appreciate the way she writes, including her wit, but mostly for the clear way it reveals a good, analytical mind at work. This particular book has many keen and useful insights on human motivations and the way we get ourselves into trouble. I did think the final chapters failed to drawn to any sort of grand conclusion, but her basic thesis--that we can explain (and therefore address) human wickedness by studying natural human motives--is one I agree with.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Oran

    I picked this up from the library on a whim and I was glad I did. She is exactly the sort of philosopher I want to be reading. It might be tiresome to say that we live in very divided times. One of the major polarities I've seen often is the false dichotomy of social forces and the effects they have on the individual, and the individual acts of a person. The former is usually a liberal view, the latter conservative though positing one or the other necessarily misses a lot of what Midg I picked this up from the library on a whim and I was glad I did. She is exactly the sort of philosopher I want to be reading. It might be tiresome to say that we live in very divided times. One of the major polarities I've seen often is the false dichotomy of social forces and the effects they have on the individual, and the individual acts of a person. The former is usually a liberal view, the latter conservative though positing one or the other necessarily misses a lot of what Midgley does in this book, namely that these two views are not opposed but interrelated. In a way the book acts as an intermediary between the two and greatly elevates them instead of being a watered down compromise. Her wit laces every chapter and footnote (fairly rare in a good portion of philosophy I've read) and is I think part of a tradition that pulls apart some of my frustrations with the dualistic (it's either "Us" or "Them") ways in which we perceive and interpret the world.  One of the ideas that struck me is the notion that understanding someone is not the same as accepting their point of view. In general, we resist this notion because understanding involves identification on some level and in doing so makes us seem like we side with them. It's easy to dismiss someone who does something wicked as someone who is "evil" or a "monster" but as is often the case, these people are typically banal, (in the sense that Arendt uses it, someone Midgley draws fairly freely from). She argues that what we do not understand we cannot detect or resist. The nuances of the argument get unpacked better in the book but has definitely helped streamline my thoughts surrounding these kind of topics, and someone's whose cognitive framework we will need. My major criticism is that while having a central thesis, it is not a cohesive book but rather a collection of interrelated ideas that don't tie up in any way. It doesn't ruin it but does leave you wanting.  In every other way, however, this is brilliant and I would argue essential reading.

  4. 4 out of 5

    John David

    Religious thought, and especially the formalizing aspects of theology, can have the effect of what I call “theologizing the natural.” When you theologize the natural, you take a perfectly earthly, human, natural occurrence or state and you attribute it to a higher power or function. This is what has essentially been done with the problem of human evil, or as Midgley calls it to avoid these overtly theological implications, “wickedness.” Instead of looking at the motivations for human behavior, w Religious thought, and especially the formalizing aspects of theology, can have the effect of what I call “theologizing the natural.” When you theologize the natural, you take a perfectly earthly, human, natural occurrence or state and you attribute it to a higher power or function. This is what has essentially been done with the problem of human evil, or as Midgley calls it to avoid these overtly theological implications, “wickedness.” Instead of looking at the motivations for human behavior, we look for causes of “sin,” or transgressions against the will of God (note the religiously loaded language). Midgley thinks morality and wickedness are human phenomena. One of the strongest things this book has going for it is that it fights again this theologizing, and looks at human behavior for what it is. One of points Midgley drives home from the very beginning is that we need to stop seeing wickedness in a Manichean way, as the opposite of goodness. Rather, it needs to be envisioned as a lack of certain capacities: we need “to think of wickedness not primarily as a positive, definite tendency like aggression, whose intrusion into human life needs a special explanation, but rather as negative, as a general kind of failure to live as we are capable of living.” For emphasis, and she does emphasize this point, she wants to see evil not as something that is present, but rather something that is absent: a “general denial and rejection of positive capacities” (p. 16). She’s just as interested in combating the idea of moral skepticism, that is to say the idea that moral problems as such might not even exist, or if they did exist, that they would not have solutions. Due to the difficulty of moral problem-solving, many solutions (Midgley calls them “overly romanticized solutions”) have been proposed, the most popular of which has been the skepticism that there is no possibility of addressing these problems. But even Nietzsche (commonly and incorrectly regarded as an “immoralist”) knew that such problems existed, and that if there was something even resembling a slight unity in human motive, that they could be adequately answered. Midgley assumes that we can answer these questions because there is something about the nature of human behavior that makes it, for the most part, reliable and predictable. So she assumes a kind of sort determinism (as opposed to the hard kind, which is often assumed to be the position of many natural scientists) and says that these problems can in fact reconcile ourselves to moral problem-solving. More importantly, being able to predict moral behavior does not threaten the possibility of human freedom since we live in a world rife with contingency. We often try to see wickedness as having one kind of cause, but she wants to argue against this, too. Perhaps one of the more popular causes of human wickedness is aggression. But while aggression is a tendency to attack, it’s not always a violent or destructive one. Aggression no more implies destructiveness than having a foot means wanting to kick someone else. Aggression itself might be the root of some evil, especially if uncontrolled; however, controlled aggression is essential to proper socialization and many other human processes. To imagine a world without aggression (or fear – another emotion commonly reputed to be the source of much evil) – would be to live in a Utopia where we were disconnected from our humanity, if only because our brain chemistry would need to be drastically altered. In the end, Midgley ends up looking like a certain kind of Aristotelian, at least insofar as she thinks that wickedness is related the incapacity or unwillingness to live in accordance with true human nature. She spends a lot of time arguing against certain strains in contemporary moral thought (reductionism, skepticism, et cetera), but ends up with I’ve always thought was a rather attractive and convincing idea: that thinking through moral problems involves a set of certain capacities including but not limited to empathy, compassion, and understanding which enable real self-understanding and self-realization without which we cease both to be able to know these problems and to offer rational, reasonable, secular solutions to them.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Katia M. Davis

    I don't normally read philosophical theory because it tends to make me angry. I feel it tends to reflect the views of the educated few and therefore cannot speak for everyone despite producing all encompassing social and moral theories. Consequently, I didn't find this particularly stimulating and felt that it rambled. I did like the section on the notion of the death-wish, but that was about it. I wasn't too keen on the deeply religious overtones relating to the idea of wickedness, as that is a I don't normally read philosophical theory because it tends to make me angry. I feel it tends to reflect the views of the educated few and therefore cannot speak for everyone despite producing all encompassing social and moral theories. Consequently, I didn't find this particularly stimulating and felt that it rambled. I did like the section on the notion of the death-wish, but that was about it. I wasn't too keen on the deeply religious overtones relating to the idea of wickedness, as that is a social construct and varies through time and from culture to culture. Additionally, I felt the book focussed on relatively modern Western notions of good versus evil. There was little or no discussion of differing cultural ideals. I would also liked to have seen a section on historical changes in perceptions of morality and whether or not those changes benefit or pose a challenge to modern humans. For instance, the ancient Greeks would not have seen anything wrong with abandoning a deformed baby to die from exposure, however this would horrify the majority of people today. So read this if you are interested in a discussion of relatively modern Western notions of what makes us bad, but if you are after something broader, don't bother.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jesse

    A grounded, reasonable approach to a complex and dramatic philosophical theme. Midgley's argument ranges over several topics in the general theme of "what is evil, and how does it come about in a world of reason and self-consistency?" Midgley never downplays the difficulty of the question. Instead, she strips away all evasions, dispensing with determinism and limpid relativism, and she addresses the question from an unrepentant realist point of view: there is truth and value in moral A grounded, reasonable approach to a complex and dramatic philosophical theme. Midgley's argument ranges over several topics in the general theme of "what is evil, and how does it come about in a world of reason and self-consistency?" Midgley never downplays the difficulty of the question. Instead, she strips away all evasions, dispensing with determinism and limpid relativism, and she addresses the question from an unrepentant realist point of view: there is truth and value in moral reasoning, evil is a force with effects in the world, and it's a complex topic that we can nonetheless navigate, guided by our intuitions. There have been a whole range of theories about evil: that it's a positive, pseudo-divine force in the universe (Manichaeism), that it's a manifestation of a destructive impulse inherent in human psychology (Freud), that it's the result of some form of self-denial or deception (Jung), and that it's a tool used by institutions to dominate freedom- and power-seeking individuals (Nietzsche). Midgley covers these with patience and perspective, eventually coming around to a theory of morality that relies on the concept of balance between rational motivations. One of the benefits of this approach is that it gives a certain intelligible model to the imagination. It's hard to imagine any realistic experience of BEING EVIL in our rational, well-structured world... as a fiction author writing dramatic characters, I have this trouble quite a bit... but through Midgley's lens of motivation and imbalance and the collapse of self-awareness, there's a certain insight that you don't get from other, more romantic theories. If Midgley was simply laying out a simple model for moral thinking, it would be a fairly boring book, because she is eminently reasonable and unpretentious. However, she understands and respects the intellectual struggle here, highlighting dramatic philosophies and working through their implications, and she acknowledges the vast, unsolvable dissonance that comes with thinking about evil from within a moral framework. It's this respect for the conversation that makes the book engaging, and honestly, I'd say my four out of five stars is actually a pretty conservative rating.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Craig

    This book takes a common sense, humanist view on the subject of defining the application of wickedness. Defined outside a religious conception and from an arguably British school of thinking, the concepts flow from Aristotle and Plato through Kant, Sartre, and Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Milton to Darwin, C.S. Lewis, Erich Fromm and others to give a mostly coherent view of what wickedness or evil isn't and is. The review stops short of a full-blown, multi-di This book takes a common sense, humanist view on the subject of defining the application of wickedness. Defined outside a religious conception and from an arguably British school of thinking, the concepts flow from Aristotle and Plato through Kant, Sartre, and Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Milton to Darwin, C.S. Lewis, Erich Fromm and others to give a mostly coherent view of what wickedness or evil isn't and is. The review stops short of a full-blown, multi-disciplinary review of the subject. While accomplishing much in removing mythology and bringing a rational treatment to wickedness, that wickedness is definable as the absence of a discernible, positive good does not feel like a full enough definition. Midgley does indicate that cultural priorities in ranking change; and cultural gaps along with new information from the culture will drive further definition. So, in providing such a framework, and in taking in such a full cross-section of thought, I rank these extended essays highly.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Andreas Sekeris

    Good book about wickedness. Interesting concepts about evil not being a positive force eg devil but more a negative version of other characteristics eg. Lack of helping ppl. Not caring enough to stop hitler. Resonates with how we treat asylum seekers. Also great quote about needing to have no values if a great politician to concentrate on believing what ppl want or be a great communicator which is rare.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Tucker

    An old favorite, re-read again after five years. Clear explanation of a lot of foundational issues. Really well written. Some quotes on Dead Men Blogging.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Fabiola

    read it for work. i thought it was very interesting. i didn't really get the central thesis until someone smarter than me told me. but, its the old, all you need for evil to triumph is for men to do nothing. sins of omission people!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Katrina

  12. 5 out of 5

    Diana Gonzalez Rodriguez

  13. 5 out of 5

    Haneen

  14. 4 out of 5

    Frank D'hanis junior

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ιωάννης Πλεξίδας

  16. 4 out of 5

    Brian Loane

  17. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jo Bowler

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ashleigh Stokes

  20. 4 out of 5

    Danu Poyner

  21. 4 out of 5

    Merhan

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sarah_emily Smyth

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  24. 5 out of 5

    Meg

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kristofer Petersen-Overton

  26. 5 out of 5

    Frederick

  27. 5 out of 5

    Naree

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tonytheprof

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ian Thompson

  30. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Bjerregaard

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