Mary Midgley on How to Get Our Relationship With Nature Right

Are we a part of nature or separate from it? Perhaps you think the answer to this question is clear, yet for many of us, the way in which we view the natural world differs widely from individual to individual. Even within ourselves we carry a number contradictory beliefs regarding nature. Is it sacred or is it mere material? Should it be preserved? If so, how much? Do animals fall under the same category as say a forest? Where is the line between responsible use as a resource and blatant disregard?

Rather than adhering to either/or categories, British philosopher Mary Midgley believed we should engage nature with a holistic attitude, not only for the survival of the human species, but because morally it is the right thing to do. By not doing so, we are missing out on a richer, more expansive experience. Gregory S. McElwain covers much of this wonderfully in his book Mary Midgley, An Introduction. 

Problems related to how we view ourselves in relation to nature have had a long development. For some time now, we have mainly seen ourselves as separate from nature to some degree. Of course the world did not begin with us thinking of ourselves separate from nature, but rather one among the many aspects of the natural world. Greek, Roman, and other nature-centered religions, such as Native American or Druidic/Celtic traditions, have all venerated nature, creating and observing traditions of care and fellowship, often viewing earth as a life-giving agent.

Once it became the primary religion after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianity had a tremendous impact on the evolution of Western attitudes towards nature throughout the Early and Late Middle Ages.  Though there is a rich tradition of sects within Christianity which venerate nature, such as the Franciscans, the idea that humans were given dominion over it (Genesis 1:28) or to tend and keep it (Genesis 2:15) greatly influenced the western ecological perspectives. 

This largely came about due to two interrelated ideas revolving around the rejection of the here and now. The first was that, though communing with God’s creation is a good, the spiritual world should be given preference over the material world. The second is the Pauline/Augustinian idea that the world is a place of temptation and part of the battle between flesh and spirit. The further away we can move from our untrustworthy urges, the better. The overriding message became: we can take some inspiration from God’s creation, but don’t get too attached. In fact, best keep your eyes on heaven.  The physical world is a temporary stop, or as the old hymn goes: 

“This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through,

My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;

The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” 

From there entered the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, sometimes referred to as the Modern Era. These largely humanist reform movements promoted the idea that outside of ourselves exists an objective world that could be known through empirical, rationalistic observation; a mechanistic place where all matter obeyed laws, placing nature squarely in the material realm. This was further, or perhaps foundationally, bolstered by the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, whose dualistic mind/matter spit was established with his infamous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), creating ‘us and them’ categories; the ‘us’ being humans, the ‘them’ consisting of every other object in the universe.

Eventually Darwin appears with the Origin of Species (1859), the impact of which furthered the mechanistic view of nature as the thinking world developed the concept of natural selection. In other words, we and the rest of nature do what we do because it is baked into the very essence of who we are by way of evolutionary development. Look around and you will begin to see everywhere explanations for human behavior based on what our caveman brains tell us we must do so that we might survive and help perpetuate the species, negating any sense of free will, making ourselves and the rest of nature ordered automatons. 

These are all aspects that lead to the establishment of our current problem: our relationship to nature. The following question remains: what should we do about it?

Some argue that a successful approach to nature could come from the position of self-interest; that we should take care of the earth so we might, as a species, continue to survive, from which would result in the positive byproduct of earth being saved from destruction. While a self-interest approach can perhaps start turning the ship in a better direction, self-interest has always seemed to fail on some level. Take individual human beings as an example. Though we claim our actions are largely made in the interest of our self-preservation, we frequently contradict such a claim. We do things that negatively impact our long term physical health and financial stability, such as smoke or drink alcohol. We take unnecessary risks such as driving erratically when in a hurry. And unquestionably we use our financial resources poorly, such as impulse buying. We are our own saboteurs. And none of his addresses the actions we take that harm our mental health. 

Additionally, though self-interest and survival can be powerful motivating factors, Midgley argues that the planet is entirely too complex for such a simplistic notion. It can also lead to what Midgley refers to as “enlightened-egoism” which embodies the attitude of “I’ll only do for others as long as it benefits me”.  This approach has resulted in terrible economic consequences for many people. And finally, it also continues to promote the notion that nature is, “…mere, lifeless, valueless matter, a dead world of objects without subjects, fit only to be appropriated by us.” It is for these reasons that Midgley rejects the self-interest argument.

For Midgley, the path forward must be a moral one that requires human beings to understand two foundational concepts: that nature and its many aspects are intrinsically important and that human beings are holistically part of, rather than apart from, nature. 

In the past 50 years there have been attempts at justifying the need for a rights-based approach to nature, specifically non-human animals. Many strides have been made on the grounds that sentient life has an internal experience of some kind, thus meaning, among other things, they can suffer. To cause a thing to suffer is immoral, therefore non-human animals should be protected by some degree of rights similar to humans. This approach has been partially successful and helpful to the preservation and respect towards nature, but still lacks a degree to which Midgley believes she has an answer; that nature in and of itself should be considered intrinsically a good, meaning worthy of moral consideration for no reason other than its own self-evidential status. As McElwain says, relating Midgley’s stance, 

“Preserving a rain forest is really good for everyone involved. Yet, on the other hand, we can also see the rain forest as important in itself – as valuable in its own right, non-instrumentally. Whether it be because of the characteristic, capacities, and/or purposes of organisms (individualism), or because of the emergent value of collectives, systems, and the whole (holism), philosophers have compellingly argued that there is value in nonhuman organisms and entities.” 

The second and perhaps stronger argument is that we are simply a part of the whole; at once an example of nature and a part of nature. Again, from McElwain, “We exist as individuals, but we are parts of wider collectives of varying types and intensities – families, communities, ecosystems, and so on. As individuals, we are deeply entangled with each other and these overlapping collectives.”

This stance directly opposes the dualistic perspective our heritage has provided us with, and will certainly bristle the backs of those who subscribe to a type of hyper-individualism, yet it seems to make so much sense. And all this is not to say there is no consideration of the individual, as Midgley says, 

“Of course, human beings are distinct individuals. But they are also tiny, integral parts of this planet – framed by it, owing everything to it, and adapted to a certain place among its creatures. Each can indeed change its life, but does not originally invent it.”

But very simply, one cannot escape the fact that they are at one point a whole and at other points many parts of a greater whole. Midgely appeals to the Gaia theory, which takes its name from the ancient Greek earth goddess; that the earth is a singular organism maintained by multiple parts and communities all interconnected through wildly “complex interactions and dependencies” across many micro, local, and global environments. Life is simply not, as Midgley says, “a loose, chance jumble of competing entities but an interdependent system, a symbiotic whole that keeps itself going by a constant interchange of benefits between its parts.” 

Massive shifts in 20th century physics and sciences dealing with environmental systems have shown the dualistic, mechanistic view of the Enlightenment and preceding paradigms to simply be wrong. We are not individuals upon an inert rock floating through space upon which our human dramas are to be played out, but rather a small member of a very large family, and this should be good news! Midgley says this relational view of the earth is, “pretty important because people really do need this sort of inclusive place within which everything takes place. We really do need this unity.” 

In classic Midgleian fashion, however, she rejects hyper-holism just as much as hyper-individualism. Her argument does not advocate the viewpoint that we are identical or even subservient to ecological concerns. For Midgley, the working out of philosophical issues such as this is in the working out itself. There is no hard and fast stance other than that these competing poles should always be in conversation with each other. The acknowledgement of this, that they are actually inseparable, is largely the point. We must harmonize both stances, both sets of claims, to arrive at what is most important.

What should our approach to nature be? Whatever the answer to that question is, it should be couched in the notion that human beings are not separate from nature, but rather a part of it, not to the neglect of ourselves and our species, but for its greater benefit. 

*Note – all quotes are taken from Mary Midgley, An Introduction by Gregory S. McElwain.

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