Article Summary: “Trying Out One’s New Sword” by Mary Midgley

Midgley, Mary. “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” from Heart and Mind. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1981.

Summary

Midgley argues that not only is moral isolationism – the view that one ought to respect other cultures but not judge them – incorrect, it is logically incoherent. She does so by presenting four self-contained arguments: that judgment is logically antecedent to respect, that outsiders can judge foreign cultures, if on a provisional basis, that moral isolationism leads to a complete inability to make moral judgments of any kind, and that cultures are not, as moral isolationism holds, subject to isolating barriers.

Midgley’s first argument is as follows: if moral isolationism is correct, then one can respect a culture without judging it. Yet, this is logically incoherent, because judgment, which Midgley sees as the formation of opinion – is logically antecedent to respect. One must judge a culture, to some degree, in order to respect it. Further, once one has an understanding of a culture, one can make positive and negative judgments; the two go hand in hand. The moral isolationist’s injunction that we are only allowed to be positive (i.e., respectful) of foreign cultures is thus impossible to uphold.

Midgley’s next argument is actually a simple – and reasonable – assertion: outsiders can, in fact, judge foreign cultures. These judgements will be provisional and limited in scope, but they can still be fair. In particular, she cites the judgments made by anthropologists as a paradigmatic example. Moral isolationism is thus simply wrong about the matter.

Midgley then argues that moral isolationism leads to a general ban on moral reasoning – an unpalatable conclusion. She says that judging one’s own culture requires the ability to judge other cultures, as a frame of reference. If we cannot judge other cultures, then we cannot judge our own. This would lead to an inability to judge anything of moral significance whatsoever, which is patently absurd. Moral judgement is a necessary part of existence, and thus moral isolationism cannot be correct.

Finally, Midgley says that the assumption on the part of moral isolationism that cultures exist in isolated bubbles from one another is factually incorrect. Cultures intermix all the time, and now more than ever. This intermixing dilutes the tenability of moral isolationism by making distinct, isolated cultures less extant than ever before. But if isolated cultures do not exist, then neither can isolated moral communities, and moral isolationism becomes irrelevant.

Logical Outline

Argument One (Judgment comes before respect)

  1. If moral isolationism is true, then we ought to respect cultures and not judge them. [58L]
  2. Judgment is logically antecedent to respect. [59L]
  3. It is impossible to simultaneously affirm and antecedent and deny its consequent.*
  4. One cannot respect a culture without judging it. [2,3]
  5. Therefore, moral isolationism is false.

Argument Two (Outsiders can judge)

  1. If moral isolationism is true, then outsiders can never judge a foreign culture (to any degree). [59L]
  2. Outsiders can judge foreign cultures, to some degree. [59L]
  3. Therefore, moral isolationism is false.

Argument Three (On moral reasoning)

  1. Moral isolationism holds that one cannot judge foreign cultures. [58L]
  2. If we cannot judge other cultures, then we cannot judge our own. [59R]
  3. If we cannot judge our own culture, we cannot judge any culture at all, and moral reasoning becomes impossible. [59R, 2-3]
  4. Therefore, if moral isolationism is true, then moral reasoning is impossible. [1-3]
  5. Moral reasoning is not only possible, it is necessary. [59R]
  6. Therefore, moral isolationism is false. [5,4]

Argument Four (Cultures are not isolated)

  1. If moral isolationism is true, then cultures are isolated groups, separate and distinct from one another. [58L]
  2. Cultures are not isolated groups, but rather intermix all the time.
  3. Therefore, moral isolationism is false. [1,2]

Symbolization

Argument One
1. (∀x)(∀y)[(Cy ∧ Ox ∧ Uxy) → [Jxy ∧ (Jxy ≡ Rxy ∧ Dxy)]]
2. M → (∀x)(∀y)(Rxy ∧ ¬Dxy)
3. Therefore, (∀x)(∀y)(Cy ∧ Ux ∧ Uxy) → ¬M
4. (∀x)(∀y)(Cy ∧ Ux ∧ Uxy)(CP)
5. (∀x)(∀y)[Jxy ∧ (Jxy ≡ Rxy ∧ Dxy)](4, 1,MP)
6. (Cb ∧ Ua ∧ Uab)(4, UI)
7. [Jab ∧ (Jab ≡ Rab ∧ Dab)](5, UI)
8. Jab(7, SIMP)
9. (Jab ≡ Rab ∧ Dab)(7, SIMP)
10. M → (Rab ∧ ¬Dab)(2, UI)
11. [[Jab → (Rab ∧ Dab)] ∧ [(Rab ∧ Dab) → Jab]](9,EQUIV )
12. Jab → (Rab ∧ Dab)(11, SIMP)
13. Rab ∧ Dab(12, 8,MP)
14. Dab(13, SIMP)
15. Dab ∨ ¬Rab(14,ADD)
16. M → ¬(¬Rab ∧ Dab)(10,DeM)
17. M → ¬(Dab ∧ ¬Rab)(16,COMM)
18. ¬¬(Dab ∨ ¬Rab)(14,DN)
19. ¬M(18, 17,MT)
20. (∀x)(∀y)(Cy ∨ Ux ∨ Uxy) → ¬M(4 − 19,CP)

Where O=Outsider, C=A culture, Uxy=X understands Y, Jxy=X can
judge Y, Rxy=X can respect Y, Dxy=X can disrespect Y, M=Moral
isolationism is true.

Argument Two
1. I → ¬J
2. ¬J → ¬M
3. ¬M → ¬R
4. R, therefore, ¬I
5. I → ¬M(1, 2,MT)
6. I → ¬R(5, 3,MT)
7. ¬¬R(4,DN)
8. ¬M(6, 7,MT)

Where I=Moral isolationism is true, J=The ability to judge other cultures, M=Ability to judge our own culture, R=Ability to engage in moral
reasoning.

Argument Three
1. M → (∀x)(∀y)(Cx ∧ Oy ∧ ¬Jyx)
2. (∀x)(∀y)(Cx ∧ Oy ∧ Jyx)…Therefore, ¬M
3. M(IP)
4. (∀x)(∀y)(Cx ∧ Oy ∧ ¬Jyx)(3, 1,MT)
5. Ca ∧ Ob ∧ Jba(2, UI)
6. Jba(5, SIMP)
7. Ca ∧ Ob ∧ ¬Jba(4, UI)
8. Jba ∧ ¬Jba(3 − 7, IP)

Where C=A culture, O=An outsider, Jxy=X can judge Y, M=Moral
isolationism is true.

Argument Four
1. M → I
2. ¬I
3. Therefore, ¬M(2, 1MT)

Where M=Moral isolationism is correct, I=Cultures exist in isolation from one another.

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