Philosophy as Plumbing and Saving the Environment

English philosopher Mary Midgely is known for several things.  She didn’t write her first book until she was 55, and now she’s 91. She went to Oxford with several other great women philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Mary Warnock (and I think I’m forgetting someone). She’s criticized Richard Dawkins. She has a sharp tongue. And she sees philosophy as being like plumbing.

Philosophy is like plumbing? Why plumbing? Well, Midgely gives a whole host of reasons.  Both are everywhere but not obvious. Both are extremely complex and have been often irregularly cobbled together. Both are typically unnoticed until something goes wrong, and then they make a mess and you have to call a specialist. Both are absolutely necessary if we want to have the kind of society that we currently inhabit. (All in her essay “Philosophical Plumbing”, from The Essential Mary Midgely, p. 146-7)

She goes on to say that while all acknowledge the need for skilled plumbers few even realize there is a need for skilled philosophers. Bad ideas just creep in and mess up our thinking and we don’t know what is going wrong. I can think of economics as a field that could use a few specialists who actually know what they are doing, for example.  But what about some other philosophical ideas in need of thought?

The question of whether nature is neutral or good I think is the greatest (or close to it) philosophical question of our day. The environmental crisis and everything about the human relationship to the natural world, including our own human nature hinges on this question. If nature is neutral, then we get to treat it as we see fit: it has no intrinsic worth, only instrumental value to us.  But if instead nature is good, then it has intrinsic worth and humans need to respect it.

Some may complain that this is an exclusively Christian view of nature (that creation is good) but it is not. Aristotle came up with it completely independently.  Nature is good because every living thing has its own purposes that it seeks to fulfill. They have their purposes whether humans exist to witness them or not. The study of purposes is called teleology, and Western science decided to throw out teleology back in the time of Francis Bacon (the 1600s). With no intrinsic purposes, nature had no “good” to seek. Nature neutralized. David Hume picked it up and spread it to ethics, and the bad idea has been growing ever since.

Now Hume’s law – the “you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'” – is considered gospel truth. Science has no relevance to nature, and good is whatever we decide it to be. This gives us license to wreck the Earth, among other things. Too bad for the environment.

And yet we sit here in the midst of an environmental crisis acting like we don’t know what’s wrong, like we don’t have the tools to fix it. Well we do. We admit that nature is good to go about it’s business, and that our role as humans is to respect nature, not shove it into our own little preconceived notions or destroy as we see fit. We could just say “nature is good” and work with nature rather than against it. That would take some convincing and some willpower, but it could be done.

There are many more things to be said about this. It’s not quite that simple, after all. But the basic problem is bad mental plumbing. Our ideational pipes are broken and the house is flooding.  Time to figure out what went wrong.

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