Author of Animals & Why They Matter
NEWCASTLE ON TYNE, United Kingdom––“The symbolism of meat-eating is never neutral,” wrote Mary Midgely on page 27 of her 1983 opus Animals & Why They Matter.
“To himself,” Midgely observed, “the meat-eater seems to be eating life. To the vegetarian, he seems to be eating death. There is a kind of gestalt-shift between the two positions which makes it hard to change, and hard to raise questions on the matter at all without becoming embattled.”
Influenced rise of animal rights activism
Having diagnosed the focal issue for animal rights and vegan/ vegetarian activism almost before either cause had coalesced into visibility as a movement, Midgely went on to address many other conundrums of human existence.
Though animals were never far from her thoughts in her long career as author and moral philosopher, Midgely never became a superstar of the animal rights and vegan/vegetarian causes, nor of any of the many other causes she influenced.
But Midgely, 99 at her death at home in Jesmond, Newcastle on Tyne, on October 10, 2018, lived long enough to inspire a generation of much younger thinkers working in many directions––and to see publication of her last book, What Is Philosophy For?, on September 20, 2018.
“Took seriously idea of ethical obligations to other species”
The title of Midgely’s last book speaks to what might have been the focal question of her own existence, as a retired “ivory tower academic” who spent her last 40 years making moral philosophy accessible and relevant to others.
Recalled Food Ethics Council founder Kate Rawles, of Cumbria, United Kingdom, “At a time when ethical theory was still firmly entrenched behind human lines, Midgely wrote Animals & Why They Matter: A Journey Around the Species Barrier, joining Peter Singer in taking seriously the idea that ethical obligations extend beyond our own species.”
Voice of experience
But Singer, 29 at publication of Animal Liberation in 1975, was then an upstart young radical. Tom Regan, seven years older than Singer to begin with, and age 45 at publication of The Case for Animal Rights (1983), began the work of mainstreaming animal rights theory. Midgely, 64, brought to the discussion a calming voice of experience.
More-or-less channeling Midgely, Rawles recently retired from academia to become, like Midgely, a “freelance philosopher.”
Continued Rawles in her appreciation of Midgely, “Seeing things in their context has enabled her to show that apparently conflicting positions are in fact complementary aspects of a wider whole; and that these positions can and should be reconciled,” even if they are as apparently polarized as the question of whether one is eating life or death.
Argued against polarism
Midgely “has argued in this way against the polarization of animal welfare and environmental concerns which, tragically, have frequently been understood as presenting a need to take sides,” Rawles recalled.
For example, “When James Lovelock’s book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth was first published in 1979, it was widely considered to lie somewhere between fantasy, lunacy, and, worst of all, spirituality,” Rawles wrote. “Midgley read it and immediately saw that it made sense. We are part of ecological systems and not apart from them.”
The Gaia hypothesis, in simplest form, holds that the earth itself is a living organism, with each life form and even each individual life having a part in sustaining the whole.
Cofounded the Gaia Network
After addressing the Gaia theory in her book Science & Poetry (2000), Mary Midgley and one of her three sons, David Midgley, joined Coventry University biologist Tom Wakeford in founding the Gaia Network, for which Mary Midgely served as first chair.
Born Mary Scrutton on September 13, 1919, to Lesley (Hay) and church curate Tom Scrutton, of Dulwich, England, the future Mary Midgely was introduced to academia when her father became a chaplain at King’s College, Cambridge. He later became vicar of Greenford, a London suburb.
“When she was 12,” wrote New York Times obituarist John Motyka, “Mary attended Downe House, a progressive boarding school that had begun in Charles Darwin’s home, though it later moved to Ash Green, near Newbury. She began classes at Oxford University in 1938,” studying philosophy alongside longtime friend and noted novelist Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) and two other philosophical writers of note, Philippa Foot (1920-2010) and Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2011).
Produced first book at age 59
Continued Motyka, “In 1950 Mary Scrutton married philosophy instructor Geoffrey Midgley (1921-1997), whom she met at Oxford. The couple had three sons in five years,” David, Martin, and Tom, who announced his mother’s death via Twitter.
With her three sons to raise, Mary Midgely abandoned a brief teaching career, but remained active in intellectual life as a reviewer of novels and children’s books for The New Statesman. She returned to teaching in 1965 as a lecturer in philosophy at Newcastle University.
Midgely published her first book, Beast And Man: The Roots of Human Nature, in 1978, at age 59, later remarking that it was “the trunk out of which all my various later ideas have branched.”
Stood up to E.O. Wilson & Richard Dawkins
Among Midgely’s later books, besides Animals And Why They Matter and Science & Poetry, were Wickedness (1984), Evolution as a Religion (1985), Science as Salvation (1992), and The Ethical Primate (1994), followed by an autobiography, The Owl of Minerva, in 2005.
Summarized Motkya, “Midgley unhesitatingly challenged scientists like the entomologist Edward O. Wilson,” who coined the term “sociobiology” in his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, “and the biologist and noted atheist Richard Dawkins,” best known for his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.
“By her lights,” Motkya wrote, “they practiced a rigid ‘academic imperialism’ when they tried to extend scientific findings to the social sciences and the humanities. In place of what she saw as their constricted, ‘reductionistic’ worldview, she proposed a holistic approach in which ‘many maps’ — that is, varied ways of looking at life — are used to get to the nub of what is real.
Emphasized Midgely, “We do not need to esteem science less. We need to stop isolating it artificially from the rest of our mental life.”
Midgely described the whole premise of sociobiology as “biological Thatcherism.”
Agreed animal rights attorney Gary Francione in his 2012 book New Atheism, Moral Realism, & Animal Rights, “It is fascinating to note that Dawkins’ book became popular precisely at the time that the [Ronald ]Reagan/[Margaret] Thatcher notions about the desirability of selfishness, independence, and individualism became popular.”
Midgely may have been best known for challenging Wilson and Dawkins, arguing alongside the molecular biologist Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) and others that cooperation is at least as influential an engine of evolution, even at the cellular level, as competition.
“Changed how I approach ethics”
But those who knew Midgely tend to recall Animals & Why They Matter as the work most profoundly influencing them.
Posted William S. Lynn, director of the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to the Centre for Compassionate Conservation page on Facebook, “I had the pleasure of spending many days with Mary on several occasions. Reading her book Animals & Why They Matter was a thunderclap for me, shifted the trajectory of my career, and changed how I approached ethics.
“I always return to the root metaphor of her work — the ‘mixed community’ of life — which she explored not only through her work on animals and Gaia, but on what it means to use ethics and philosophy in practical ways to help people, animals, and nature flourish.”
“Aware of being an animal”
Midgely in 2007 praised University of Colorado professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff as “one of those rare scientists who can talk real sense about animals because he is aware of being an animal himself.”
Bekoff returned the compliment in 2018, recalling in one of his Psychology Today blogs that “The great moral philosopher and animal rights pioneer Mary Midgley said in Animals & Why They Matter, ‘What does it mean to say that scruples on behalf of animals are merely emotional, emotive or sentimental? What else ought they to be?’”
“End of the queue” regard
Discussing the paradoxes of animal and human co-existence, Brandon Keim, a frequent Anthropocene magazine essayist, wrote in 2017 that “We absolutely do [love and respect animals], and that fact brings into relief the unevenness of our relationships with them: a state of affairs that could be described as an ongoing form of colonialism, sometimes beneficent and often not, predicated on animals having minimal moral value. Not zero value, but what moral philosopher Mary Midgley [in Animals & Why They Matter] called an ‘end of the queue’ regard, in which even small inconveniences outweigh the worth of most animal lives.”
Rebecca Clough’s cat
Perhaps the most telling vignette about how Midgely influenced others, however, came from former New York Times “Beliefs” columnist Mark Oppenheimer, in 2013.
Wrote Oppenheimer, “’There was a time when Rebecca, our eldest, was desperate to have a pet,’” [University of Chester theologian] David Clough told me when we met at the American Academy of Religion conference. ‘And she was in the unhappy position of having a father who had reflected ethically on the question at some length’ — a father with misgivings about the human use of animals, even for companionship.
“Did Rebecca, Professor Clough’s daughter, get her pet?
Cats exercise free will
“She did,” Oppenheimer assured readers. “Rebecca can thank Mary Midgley, the English philosopher who wrote Animals & Why They Matter. Riding a train with Professor Clough, she suggested he consider a cat. ‘She said, ‘Surely a cat is okay,’ Professor Clough recalled. ‘If you allow them to go outside, they can come and go as they please. If they hate it, they can pick someone else, or go feral.”
Midgely’s advice of course conflicts with most current advice about the ethics of cat-keeping.
But it did resolve a philosophical dilemma in favor of the cat who found a home, was almost certainly well cared for, very likely became an indoor cat in time, and may still be among us.