In the essay Trying Out One’s New Sword, Midgley addresses a way that many people have chosen to deal with strange cultures. Midgley refers to the view as “moral isolationism” and says it involves denying that one can ever understand any other culture well enough apart from their own to make moral judgments about it. The reason many people have opted to adopt the view is because they think it is respectful. According to Midgley, that is not the case, and she firmly discourages it. In the essay, Midgley’s has this to say about moral isolationism, “People actually take it up because they think it is a respectful attitude to other cultures. In fact, however, it is not respectful. Nobody can respect what is entirely unintelligible to them (Midgley).”
Example and Arguments
Moral isolationism demands that we refrain from criticizing such a culture since we are not its members and do not understand it. The first argument Midgley makes is that moral isolation should also block praises as it blocks blames. Sometimes there is a need to appreciate a culture’s positive attributes, but these praises would be worthless if the one cannot be free to criticize the culture as well. Midgley states that “Now, we certainly do need to praise other societies in this way. But it is hardly possible that we cold praise them effectively if we could not, in principle, criticize them (Midgley).” This is because, in order for one to make positive judgments concerning a culture, there must be a certain degree of understanding of the culture for the praises to have any relevance. Once one has an understanding of a culture, then one can make either positive or negative judgments as the two go together.
Midgley also argues that moral isolationism forbids us from judging cultures on the basis that we do not understand them. There is so much about our cultures that we do not understand. This means that if we cannot form opinions concerning other cultures, then we cannot judge our cultures. To get an opinion on where our cultures stand, we need to judge other cultures and use them as a reference frame to get an understanding of where our cultures stand.
Weaknesses in the Essay
Midgley compares the rights of science’s experimental subjects to the wayfarers who gave their lives during the samurai sword test. This is a poor comparison that does not have a clear meaning on what Midgley meant by the statement. The two situations have no similarities and too many differences. Differences between these two situations include; in science experiments, the subjects’ welfare is given precedence over the needs of the society and science while the ancient Japanese placed little value on individual human life. Science test subjects are also volunteers, and anyone is free to offer their services and withdraw at will compared to the samurai test where the subjects were ambushed randomly with the samurais exempted from the test.
Midgley also is unfair in calling Nietzche an immoralist, this is because morality can be perceived as relative to different people. So what Midgley views as immoral, Nietzche may view it as moral according to his set of values. Also if Nietzche was immoral he would never have written the book on morality called “On the Genealogy of Morality.”
Midgley, Mary. “Trying Out One’s New Sword.” In Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1981. 35–38. Print.