Mary Midgley: Trying Out One’s New Sword

March 2, 2009

Book: Contemporary Moral Problems by James E. White (7th Edition)

Library Reference: N/A

Amazon Reference:


Quote: “Morally as well as physically, there is only one world, and we all have to live in it”


In Mary Midgley’s ‘Trying Out One’s New Sword’, she was able to explain what moral isolationism is all about. As what she defined it, moral isolationism “consists in simply denying that we can never understand any culture except our own well enough to make judgments about it” (Midgely). She also shared some of her insights with regards to morality. She state that, “those who recommend this hold that the world is sharply divided into separate societies, sealed units, each with its own system of thought”. (Midgley).

In this chapter, Mary Midgely was also able to explain that the people who take up this idea of moral isolationism think that it is being respectful to other cultures and societies. “Nobody can respect what is entirely unintelligible to them.” (Midgely) She disagreed to that kind of notion people are thinking. According to her, “to respect someone, we have to know enough about him to make a favorable judgment, however general and tentative. And we do not understand people in other cultures to this extent. Otherwise a great mass of our most valuable thinking would be paralyzed” (Midgley).

Mary Midgley was able to illustrate her arguments in this chapter. First, she argued that “there is a contradiction between the claim that we cannot understand these rules, and the claim we must respect them.” (Midgely) This only means that we, ourselves, can understand people in other cultures. In the following paragraphs, Midgely was able to illustrate some relevant examples to explain the importance of analyzing other culture’s morals in order to form educated judgments about them. She gives an example of ancient Chinese samurai warriors whom before going off to battle would test the sharpness of their swords on innocent strangers. (Midgely)

Midgely was able to introduce the important distinctions between judgments – two judgments – one talking about being ‘crude’ and one talking about judgment itself. She also pointed out that “there is much that we don’t understand in our culture too.” (Midgely) In this kind of thinking, we allow ourselves conclude that we cannot judge within our culture we still don’t understand – just as asking our self “if we can’t we judge other cultures, can we judge our own?” (Midgely)

Midgely was able to clearly explain herself that ‘isolating barriers simply cannot arise” with this kind of notion. Accepting something that is ‘moral truth’ from others, which are ‘morally’ approved’ by foreigners or other countries, is something inevitable. The chapter also explained that ethical relativism is internally self-contradictory. There might have diversity between cultures and principles, in the end, we must learn to take each one of them seriously.

What I’ve learned:

  • What is moral isolationism?
  • What is the distinction between crude judgment and judgment itself
  • What are isolating barriers?
  • Is it moral to intervene with other’s culture?


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