Two amazing women passed away this fall: Judge Phylis Skloot Bamberger and Mary Midgley. While I knew Judge Bamberger well, I’d never met Mary Midgley. Yet, like Judge Bamberger, I admired her work immensely.
Phylis Skloot Bamberger was a jurist I appeared in front of countless times over an eight-year period during her tenure as a Supreme Court justice in the Bronx. She was brilliant, knowledgeable and always demanding of the highest level of advocacy. If you weren’t up to the task, she let you know it without hesitation. As one of my wonderful colleagues put it, she made all of us better lawyers.
Personally, what I remember about Judge Bamberger was her insistence on the utilization of mental health and drug programs decades before they became commonplace. She had a caring heart and a dazzling intellect. Appearing in front of her was often tense but always rewarding. I regret that, at that time, I didn’t really have a true appreciation of her life’s path.
Judge Bamberger was only one of a handful of female students in her New York University law class of 1963. Upon graduation, she joined the Legal Aid Society, where she remained for nine years. In 1972, she became the managing attorney of the Federal Defender Services Appeal Unit for the Second Circuit in New York. She was one of the first women in the entire nation to hold such a position. In 1988, she ascended to the bench. After she retired in 2005, she continued to teach and write, with a focus primarily on wrongful convictions.
Sadly, I lost touch with her after she left the bench. However, in 2016, she was brought vibrantly back to mind when I read Ann Thompson’s incredible work, “The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.” Patched together by the use of documents, court records, interviews, police reports and other records, all of which were accumulated over a 35-year-period, Ms. Thompson paints an intensely detailed narrative of those dark days in 1971 when a prison, bulging at the seams with inmates, exploded. It should be noted that much of the overcrowding consisted of nonviolent drug addicts who today would have been in treatment, not prison.
Ann Thompson’s historical account includes a depiction of the bloody reprisals that took place once order had been restored at the prison. This was not news to those of us who followed closely the reporting of the bloody events as they happened back then. What did surprise me was Thompson’s notation that it was attorney Phylis Bamberger, then a Legal Aid lawyer, who sought and eventually obtained a federal injunction to prevent further physical reprisals against the inmates. The federal appeals panel that ruled unanimously became convinced that the actions of the guards after the fact, “far exceeded what our society will tolerate on the part of the officers of the law in custody of defenseless prisoners.” Upon learning of Judge Bamberger’s death, Thompson praised her “tireless advocacy and her insistence that the legal and human rights of prisoners must be taken as seriously as those of us on the outside.”
Phylis Skloot Bamberger died of complications from Lewy body dementia last month at the age of 79.
Mary Midgley, for her part, was a fiercely combative British philosopher who wrote more than a dozen books, including, “What Is Philosophy For,” which was released this past September, when Ms. Midgley was 99 years old.
Midgley was known for her acerbic attacks on modern science, which she insisted should not be the sole arbiter of reality. Instead, she preferred a holistic approach to life, suggesting that there may be “many maps” on our journey of discovery.
In a time when the place of science in society continues to grow, Midgley stands out. Stepping around a scientific, result-oriented approach, she advocated a moral philosophy that utilized plain common sense. Quite strikingly, she laments what she describes as the “basic errors of modern scientific orthodoxy”: misplaced objectivity, the exclusion of purpose and motive and a propensity to depersonalize nature. I would describe her moral philosophy as humane and all-encompassing.
In her first book, “Beast and Man,” she did not waste time by attacking the impact that science has on our understanding of human nature. Instead of examining the differences between us and nature, she believed that scientists need to look at what we have in common with the world around us, especially the animal kingdom.
The main question she sought to examine was “the relationship between nature and culture in human life.” Many people see nature and culture as oppositional. For them, nature is something to be tamed or used as they see fit: for profit, recreation, self-indulgence or convenience. Midgley sees culture itself as a “natural phenomenon.” We are ourselves creatures who happen to have cultures. As she would say “we spin cultures the way spiders spin webs.” We are unique, of course, but we must see ourselves in the context of our evolutionary past, that is, as part of the framework of nature itself.
Given this pantheistic inclination, it is not surprising to me that when James Lovelock was attacked after publishing his Gaia hypothesis, it was Midgley who came to his defense. Lovelock’s idea—the Gaia hypothesis—was that all things, both living and inanimate, interact with each other forming a synergetic and self-regulating system, each dependent upon the other for a harmonious union.
As I read Midgley’s works, it becomes clear to me that her life’s mission was to “revive our reverence for the earth.” Unlike most philosophers who regarded it more like hocus pocus, she described Gaia as a “breakthrough.” Bringing Gaia into the orbit of her own moral philosophy, she is credited with taking Lovelock’s creation to the next level by suggesting that it carried with it a moral directive for all of us: that we act in the interests of the living system on which we all depend. Although she is labeled in philosophical circles as an analytic philosopher, for me, she is more accurately called a true environmentalist.
Mary Midgley died in October at age 99. Like Judge Bamberger, her contributions to our understanding of the world have left their mark, and they will both be sorely missed.