Ideological convenience is the order of the day if the Brexit debacle is anything to go by. I had stopped listening to Brexit news, but due to an infection, I haven't been outside or done very much this week, so have been watching more TV than usual. It remains bewildering that the UK is inflicting such harm on itself. For what? It is so outrageously damaging that I can't fathom how what is happening now is a reasonable response to whatever the question was in the first place.
On Monday, in her speech in London, Nicola Sturgeon effectively laid bare the government's incompetence and its worse-than-useless Brexit 'strategy', point by point. As one commentator put it, Sturgeon appears to be the only adult in the room. Her fluency, reasoned common sense and promotion of a sensible way forward through the morass will, of course, be ignored. That's how far this country has fallen. I've started fantasising a version of who you would love to have at your ideal dinner party (mine would be Jesus), but involving the ideal Brexit negotiators. I would choose Nicola Sturgeon, Yvette Cooper, Anna Soubry, Angela Merkel and Frances O'Grady, with Cat Boyd hustling and the late Mary Midgley advising. In fact, with the inclusion of Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai, I'd have them running the goddamn world.
The news has become unbearable. Look across the Atlantic to the monstrous being that inhabits the White House. Actually, don't bother. I'm done with Trump. I know he's there, but such is the visceral disgust, I switch off any radio or news programme where I have to listen to that whining high-pitched, grammatically-challenged galoot. As he punctures the airwaves with his 'thoughts' on climate change – 'we can change it back' – the rest of us are confronted with the death-throes of a global capitalism which is hell-bent on destroying the planet by choking us to death with plastic.
James Lovelock once predicted that the human species will destroy itself, but he doesn't mind, as Gaia will survive. I remember being shocked at his extreme misanthropy, and that he wasn't at all perturbed by what now seems evident – his prescience.
And then, finally and worst of all, there is Yemen. Why in God's name is this onslaught of killing, maiming and the ensuing famine – predicted to be the worst in 100 years – allowed to continue when so much could be done, and quickly, to prevent it? Why? I'm with Lovelock: let some future intelligent species clean up the destruction that instant economic gratification, violence and greed of this species seems incapable of fixing, even to ensure its own survival.
I did cheer up a bit, mostly due to listening to the excellent Glasgow band, Harry and the Hendersons (not to be mistaken for the TV series) and reading a bit of Nietzsche, whose birthday fell on Monday. That the latter is light relief says much about my state of mind. 'Tired of shit not killing me and only making me stronger,' could be a lyric worthy of Harry and the Hendersons. A seven-piece Americana, folk, blues, rock and country group reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash among others, but with a distinctive contemporary sound and superb musicianship. Seeing and listening to them live is uplifting, makes me feel better, and reminds me that, even if a tiny example, how creative, collaborative and joyful us humans can be if we put our minds to it.
Finally, back to the esteemed Mary Midgley, one of the most important philosophers in English in the 20th century, but who died last week. By 'important' I do not mean 'recognised within the profession' – although she was. I mean something altogether more significant: she tackled serious issues in a way that professionals and non-professionals alike could profit from, and she contributed to debates of interest beyond academe at a time when it was not fashionable to do so.
Her book, 'Wickedness', is a case in point. Midgley explores the vexed issue of why human beings continually cause avoidable suffering, to themselves and to others, and often on a grotesque scale. She rightly points out that we need to understand why humans behave this way if we are to identify, predict and prevent, the next atrocity early enough and to respond in an effective manner. We don't make this easy for ourselves, says Midgley, because we continually make at least two fundamental errors. The first is to think that wicked people are easy to identify because their moral depravity must somehow be obvious: that wicked people have horns, or have the mark of Cain upon their brow, the devil's mark, or look like Hitler. No, wicked folk look quite normal, and are not usually without at least some positive traits, so harder to spot than we think.
The second mistake is to deny that evil or wickedness exist at all. We do this in at least two ways, says Midgley. First, we often take refuge in determinism or fatalism. We do what we do either because of our genes or our enculturation. Either way, determinism is true. And if determinism is true, then we never choose to do what we know to be wrong because our choices are not in our control.
Wickedness involves choice, and determinism denies precisely this. The other way to deny the existence of evil is to admit that we have choices, but deny that anything is objectively good or bad, right or wrong. And if we are particularly perverse, perverse as, say, Nietzsche, we might even say that wicked people are really moral heroes, bravely setting out new values in some fashion deemed to be 'authentic'.
The value of Midgley's contribution is to have none of this hooey. She calls out the philosophers for accepting explanations or evasions of responsibility far too quickly. And she takes the task seriously, delving into the roots of our moral character, and facing up to the causes of our own depravity. The bottom line for Midgley is that our vices have the same root as our virtues. What makes it possible for us to be brave is precisely what makes it possible for us to be cowards, and so on for the other paired virtues and vices. But the feature I am most drawn to in Midgley's work is that she never lets wishful thinking or ideological convenience determine her views on any matter. Oh, how we need more thinkers like her now. Right now.