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Mary Midgley Answers the Devil

Ville Kokko

Posted on July 19, 2018 02:14

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The devil's speech about God in "The Devil's Advocate" raises a good question about the justification of moral rules. Philosopher Mary Midgley's explanation of the nature of morality answers it perfectly.

There's a scene in the movie The Devil's Advocate in which the titular devil talks about how God is a perverse prankster. It's quite fun to watch, but it also raises a serious question about morality.

"Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He's a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does he do, I swear, for his own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look, but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow. And while you're jumping from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He's laughing his sick, f*cking ass off!"

It's a question that has just the same weight even if you drop religion or God out of the equation: Why are moral rules like that? Why are they always telling us to go against our instincts? Doesn't that mean they are against our nature? Or are our instincts bad?

Before I go to my real point, this needs to be said: Some so-called moral rules really are just pointless restrictions. Some rules seek to control us for its own sake. They tend to be on the more "conservative" end, and typically try to force people to conform to certain roles and power structures. So I'm not defending every "moral" rule here.

Nevertheless, even a more "liberal" morality still frequently tells us to deny our instincts. It turns out there's a very good reason for this.

In her book The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality, Mary Midgley presents a view of how morality works and why it's necessary. This view goes back to Charles Darwin's explanation for morality in The Descent of Man, but it works better as a philosophical than an evolutionary explanation.

According to this view, moral rules by their nature control and overrule our instincts and other impulses, but this is not because our instincts are somehow evil. It's because our impulses are various and contradict each other.

Various motivations manifest in the human mind at different moments at various strengths. Notably, some motivations (passionate impulses) are momentary but strong, whereas others (caring about things and people) last longer. If we were to always follow the strongest impulse at the moment, we would do things that we'd regret later. With every decision we make, we need to keep in mind how much we value different things overall. Decisions need to be based on an evaluation of how they affect the totality of our lives, not just on what our instincts tell us to do at the moment, or they will soon lead to unhappiness.

This leads to the conclusion that even if we hold our "instincts" in high regard and seek their satisfaction, even before we start taking other people into account as well as we should, we already need rules that sometimes rein in our instincts.

Ville Kokko

Posted on July 19, 2018 02:14

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