Undercutting Egalitarianism

Two new books expose dogmas that rationalize the attempt to make everyone equal


A Rational Animal and Other Philosophical Essays on the Nature of Man, by Antony Flew. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1978. 245 pp. $14.95.

Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, by Mary Midgley. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 1978. 377 pp. $12.50.

When at last we have achieved perfect justice,

• The primary business of government will be the payment of reparations to the lazy, the stupid, and the vicious for the dirty deal they got in being born and brought up that way.

• Citizens will pay no more attention to other people's sex than they now do to their eye color—not even when deciding whom to make love to.

Archie Bunker might guess that the preceding emanated from a mescaline potlatch in some commune out in the California chaparral. But those in the know will recognize in them major pronunciamentos of eminent Establishment intellectuals, professors of philosophy and of law in prestigious universities, listened to respectfully not only by other professors but by the federal judges who have taken it upon themselves to set social policy. While there is no simple explanation for the prevalence of such gospels, still, insofar as they can be said to have logical support, they lean heavily on two props.

One is what we may call the No-Choice Dogma: the view that man is a machine. In the late-20th-century version of this 18th-century insight, man is a digital computer. He is a piece of hardware (genetic constitution) with a lot of input channels for the culture to feed software (data and programs) into. His output (action) follows of necessity; his feeling that he chooses what to do, if he has that feeling, is illusory. So nobody can ever help doing exactly what he does do. Therefore nobody deserves anything, really. Fairness then requires Society to divvy everything up equally, subject only to such modifications as may lamentably be absolutely necessary in order to keep the producers producing something.

The second proposition of advanced social thought is the No-Nature Dogma: unlike the beasts, the human animal has no repertoire of instinctive behavior worth mentioning. "Intelligence has replaced instinct": all human behavior is learned—that is, socially conditioned. Given an effective training procedure, any kind of behavior whatsoever can become "natural," just as pigeons can be taught to play ping-pong. Deplorable propensities such as aggressiveness result from bad social conditions; reform society so that they are removed, and presto change-o—the aggressiveness will disappear. Traits now rare but required by truly enlightened morality, such as complete bisexuality, can be made universal once the social engineer is granted enough money and power. You can change human nature—or, more accurately, there is no human nature to change, really.

These dogmas are in direct opposition to the Aristotelian view of man. According to the Philosopher, life is a business of making choices; virtue is the disposition to choose rightly; and what the right choice is, must be determined by a study of human nature: what kind of animal man is, what he needs to bring to fruition the potentialities peculiar to the species. The first debate between the two conceptions of man took place when Aristotle criticized Plato's proposals to abolish private property, marriage, and the family, on the ground that doing so would deprive human beings of their most fundamental motivations in a futile attempt to turn them into a sort of mammalian bee.

The books under review are, in different ways, Aristotelian counterattacks against these two fashionable dogmas. Midgley primarily takes on No-Nature, while Flew seeks to vindicate the reality of choice.


Mary Midgley, who is professor of philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, is a woman of great courage. Opposition to the No-Nature dogma nowadays incurs the fanatical hatred that leaders of thought formerly reserved for religious heresy. Nevertheless, she goes calmly ahead in the spirit of Aristotle, whose method in the Ethics, she says, is exactly the one she is trying to follow. "He understands morality as the expression of natural human needs."

And light on what natural human needs are is shed, she believes, by the ethologists—those Bad Guys of the No-Nature dogmatists—Morris, Lorenz, Tinbergen, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and chief of all Edward Wilson (who, however, calls himself a "sociobiologist"). She by no means accepts all their conclusions uncritically, administering in particular some well-deserved rebukes to Wilson for his scientific imperialism that would let the new science of sociobiology "cannibalize" psychology and ethics, for his too-Hobbesian critique of altruism, and for his lapses into "crude and unregenerate" behaviorism.

But she repeatedly defends him against political attacks from the New York Review of Books crowd, toward whose motives she is perhaps too lenient when she suggests that they may be afraid "that any notion of inborn active and social tendencies, if extended to man, threatens human freedom." She adds: "The notion that we 'have a nature,' far from threatening the concept of freedom, is absolutely essential to it. If we were genuinely plastic and indeterminate at birth, there could be no reason why society should not stamp us into any shape that might suit it." Indeed there is not, and a less sympathetic assessment of No-Nature motives would suggest enthusiasm for totalitarian social engineering, not tender concern for freedom, as the principal ingredient.

Midgley's critical review and summation of ethological research is sufficient to convince any unprejudiced reader that man does indeed have a nature. She does not try to put her conception of that nature into a few words, warning us salutarily that living creatures are "quite unlike mathematical terms, whose essence really can be expressed in a simple definition." Most of her book is devoted to working out the conception in detail. The guiding idea is the wholeness of human nature, partial examples of which are the interdependence of reason and feeling and the surprisingly close connection between aggressiveness and capacity for loving.

Following Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Midgley shows how many distinctively human attitudes and preoccupations are understandable as derived from the basic fact that we are creatures who are by instinct caring for our offspring. Perhaps Plato could be excused for having supposed that we could eliminate this whole aspect of our lives, which he deemed responsible for so much mischief, and still retain, indeed enhance, our better sides; but only willful ignorance can account for similar proposals by the "moral surgeons" (Midgley's apt phrase) of our times. "Central factors in us must be accepted, and the right line of human conduct must lie somewhere within the range they allow."


In keeping with the Aristotelian approach, Midgley holds that values are based on wants, and ethical questions are to be resolved by attending carefully to those wants, assigning priorities by the exercise of good judgment—not arbitrarily, but in accordance with our nature. We have to make choices; nothing can get us off that hook; the Existentialists are right in their "acceptance of responsibility for being as we have made ourselves, the refusal to make bogus excuses." But they are wrong, indeed absurd, in claiming that we make ourselves "out of nothing."

But how can we make real choices, if everything has a cause, everything is determined? (The No-Choice dogma.) Midgley's treatment of this question, which she admits "will not suit everybody," is "brutally short," incidental to a discussion of genetic determination. "Reasons and causes," she writes, "are parallel ways of explaining conduct. They do not compete." And with that she turns to the "practical" advice to "treat oneself as free and other people as determined." We shall return to this topic in connection with Flew's book.

Understanding of human action must be in terms of motives (reasons), not of causes. Midgley is particularly good in illustrating this point by asking, "What do we mean if we say that Smith laughed at somebody?" To understand what laughing is you have to be capable, yourself, of laughing. And "frowning, weeping, smiling, waving, pouting, bowing, nodding, stamping, slouching, grunting, and so forth are not just names for bodily movements, but for those movements carried out with certain general kinds of feeling or intention." Nevertheless, these activities can be the subject of truly scientific study—although not of physics or physiology.

In the culminating chapters Midgley shows with marvelous perceptiveness how man's special traits—language, reason, culture—grow out of, and complete, the "underlying emotional structure in which we so much resemble other species." Throughout the book emphasis is on the continuity of the genus Homo with the other animals—and when it is observed that chimpanzees have not only learned to converse in Ameslan but have taught themselves to swear, who can deny it!

This is a wonderful book—sensible, wise, witty, written with beautiful clarity. The world will be a better place if Midgley is as widely read in our day as Benedict and Mead were a generation ago.


Now to Flew's new book. Antony Flew, professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, is or ought to be well known to readers of REASON. He is one of the most consistent, dogged, and—the word must be brought out of retirement to honor him—heroic defenders of freedom in the world today. Not just nonce freedoms, but the basics—to think as you please, to run your own life, including your economic life, to investigate even topics such as the genetic component of intelligence. And, in this book, metaphysical freedom: the reality of choice.

A Rational Animal, unlike Beast and Man, is a collection of previously published essays (now extensively rewritten, the author assures us) on various people and topics: Darwin, Malthus, Hume, Sartre, Skinner, Freud, Lenin; historical necessity, free will/determinism, mind/brain, the explanation of action. But they are (mostly) unified by a common concern to vindicate the reality of human choice.

Free will, over which statisticians tell us more ink has been spilled than any other philosophical problem, calls forth in our era less frenzied emotions than does the No-Nature dogma and its denial. After so many centuries, discussion has become rather technical. There is not just one but a whole array of alternatives to the No-Choice position. But Flew takes his stand at the extreme opposite end: we do make real choices; making choices always presupposes that we could have chosen otherwise; but if every event, including our choosing, has a determining cause, then we never could have chosen otherwise; therefore, not every event has a determining cause.

This is an uncomfortable position to take, at any rate for a nonreligious thinker like Flew, for it seems to imply that man is discontinuous from the rest of nature, in which universal causality reigns—an implication that Flew denies when he says that "there cannot have been any gross discontinuities in the development of humankind from non-human ancestors." But Flew thinks the facts force this conclusion on him. We do (sometimes) make free choices: that is guaranteed, Flew thinks, by our frequently making obviously true statements such as, "Dick and Jane got married of their own free will." And that certainly means they could have chosen not to get married.

Here, many a philosopher would interject that "could have" is short for "could have if…"—for example, if Lulu had unexpectedly arrived back in town, or if Jane had taken more to heart her mother's warnings of Dick's philandering nature, or if…In which case it would still be true to say that they could have remained celibate, even if the causes that actually existed determined them to get married. But Flew will have none of this: "even given those same conditions, that agent, in our fundamental sense, could have done otherwise" (emphasis added). "The upshot seems to be that there cannot be laws of nature which embrace the behaviour of agents as such." This, says Flew, is "the decisive objection to the programme of assimilating explanation in the social sciences to explanation in the natural sciences."


Flew's conclusion is no doubt right: to the extent that they ape physics by talking of "laws," etc., the social sciences merely degenerate into triviality and irrelevance; there is no reason to be ashamed of reason and motive talk. But I think Flew is right for the wrong reason.

To be sure, Luther, when he said that he could do no other, "was presupposing that, in the most fundamental sense, he could!" He could have capitulated. And he could have, even given the same conditions, external to Luther. But surely common sense and Flew part company if the latter goes on to claim, as I (perhaps wrongly) take him to be claiming, that there would still have been an open possibility of his recanting even if his particular-at-that-moment attitude, brain condition, metabolism, digestion, and everything else had also been exactly the same.

Moreover, Flew fails to point out that the phrase "could have done otherwise" has uses with reference to machines and inanimate objects: the missile could have shot down the bomber (though it didn't); the earthquake was so severe that the dam could have burst. "Analysis" of sentences like these might tell us something about the "could have" of human agency.

Where does this leave us? Right back in the old quandary, I'm afraid. But perhaps a more fruitful approach would be to regard "could have done otherwise," not as a piece of retrospective metaphysical speculation, but as a reminder of possession of an ability which, God willing, will be more happily exercised on the next go. Which brings us back to Mrs. Midgley's practical advice.


It comes as a disappointment that Flew's few remarks concerning ethology are, on the whole, hostile and dismissive. They come at the end of his essay on Darwin, in a few pages "recycled" (Flew's word) from reviews of books by Desmond Morris.

While admitting that "the enormous and ever-accelerating environmental changes of the last ten thousand years or so have not been accompanied by any significant mutational additions to the human gene pool, as opposed to distributional changes within it," Flew nevertheless rebukes Morris for "a systematic depreciation of environment as opposed to heredity, of what is learnt as opposed to what is instinctual." It is a "perverse presentation," Flew contends, "minimizing precisely what one would expect any biologist to pick out as the most remarkable peculiarities of our species—the extraordinarily long period between birth and maturity, the incomparable capacity for learning. This learning capacity, together with its main instrument and expression, language, provides our unique species with an excellent substitute for the inheritance of acquired characteristics."

Moreover, Flew protests, "evolution implies changes: if, therefore, this evolved from that, then that is not now, and cannot be, the same as this. In a word: oaks are not, and cannot be, really acorns; and civilized men—whether for better or for worse—are not, and cannot be, really primitive apes."

It is strange that Flew, at the conclusion of a brilliant essay vindicating Darwin's scientific procedures and mode of explanation, should fall even momentarily into speaking of "apes" in a derogatory tone reminiscent of Bishop Wilberforce and that he should invent the totally anti-Darwinian analogy—apes : men :: seeds : plants. Even worse: dismissing with a wave of the hand all the lessons of ethology as if they were only creations of Morris's overblown rhetoric, he comes dangerously close to embracing the neo-Lysenkoism that he so justifiably denounced 12 pages back. We come from an animal background, alas (Flew is telling us), but happily, education can change all that.

True enough, we—you and I and Flew—are not "apes" (read, presumably, Eoanthropi), and while we can make our way in cities, plunked down in the jungle we would starve if we weren't eaten first. But so would the baby Eoanthropus. Surviving as a hunter and food-gatherer is not easy; it takes a long time to get the hang of it, and for at least 99.7 percent of man's sojourn on the planet, his and her extraordinarily long period between birth and maturity, and incomparable capacity for learning, have been devoted to just that. Nowadays, to be sure, they are devoted instead to business administration, driver education, and the aesthetics of the film.

The ethologist's point, however, remains valid: to these changed tasks the civilized child still brings the attitudes, motives, and value framework built into the germ plasm through 150,000 generations of tribal hunting. That is what makes so poignant Morris's comparison (which displeases Flew) of college graduations to tribal initiations. And that is what educational and political theorists have ignored, and brought us to disaster by ignoring.

There is, of course, ever so much more to say about Flew's book. But I would rather conclude by quoting at some length from the splendid remarks on justice in the brief Epilogue, which are not irrelevant to the famous enlightened view that I paraphrased at the beginning of this review:

Whatever may or may not be true of that newfangled party political shuttlecock social justice, traditional without-prefix-or-suffix justice is a matter of people getting and keeping, and allowing or helping others to get and to keep, their various and often different deserts and entitlements: 'Suum cuique tribuere'; which, being translated, is 'To each their [sic] due'. What is thus due is frequently disputatious. But certainly it must always depend at least in part upon the peculiarities of the individual. People are entitled to, though they have not earned and may not even need, parts of their own bodies: where half the people are born with two eyes and half with none it is charity not justice which requires that the two-eyed make one of their eyes available for transplant.…

We have here the beginnings perhaps of another book. So let this one end with the suggestion that egalitarians…should, albeit at the cost of sacrificing a powerful propaganda advantage, present their profoundly authoritarian, illiberal and bureaucratic ideal as, what it truly is, a rival to what they should see as the reactionary, backward-looking, anomalous, gothic notion of justice.…

Wallace Matson is a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of several books, most recently, of Sentience.