Seeking the Sun: Murdoch and the Good

Dame Iris Murdoch Bill Strain/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Dame Iris Murdoch
Bill Strain/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Murdoch and Nietzsche start from with the same assumptions when considering morality. But interestingly, they end up in different places.

Iris Murdoch, in the essay The Sovereignty of Good over other Concepts, gives her starting assumptions as follows (p. 76-7)

That human beings are naturally selfish seems true on the evidence, whenever and however we look at them, in spite of a very small number of apparent exceptions. […]

That human life has no external point or Telos is a view as difficult to argue as its opposite, and I shall simply assert it. I can see no evidence to suggest that human life is not something self-contained.

These principles are ones Nietzsche would agree with. Added to this the disagreement among those who consider the matter as to what principles morality is based on, lead Nietzsche to scepticism about the existence of morality (see the upcoming paper by Leiter which outlines Nietzsche’s position in full).

Murdoch takes another path. She agrees that modern attempts to analyse moral concepts without success, but argues that the failure is due to the abandonment of images and metaphors, which are “the fundamental forms of our awareness of our condition”. Though such philosophy does not arrive at a conclusion, it does contain concepts which lose substance when an attempt is made to remove the metaphorical aspects.

Such attempts are natural to make, given the path philosophy has taken. Murdoch cites Kant who “wanted to find something clean and pure outside the mess of the selfish empirical psyche he followed a sound instinct but, in my view, looked in the wrong place. His inquiry lead him back to the self”.

Murdoch instead wants to look at the question, “how can we make ourselves better”? Rather than the philosophers view of will directed towards action, Murdoch turns to the ordinary man’s conception of morality with emphasis on states of mind, which act as the source and background to action. So the problem is to change our minds and (p. 82)

if quality of consciousness matters, then anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.

So what things take us out of our self-reverie? Murdoch first cites nature, and the experience of forgetting ones own concerns by being lost in the sight of a soaring kestrel. She then turns to art which (as Nietzsche would agree) can be corrupted into pure consolation, but at its best allows us to see reality clearly (which Nietzsche would also agree with). Tragedy shows the chanciness of life, its uncertainty, the inevitability of death and what actually matters in life

Science and scholastic work too allows the person to leave themselves behind in concentration on something else. The seeking for truth which for Nietzsche is the last fantasy that obscures the lack of any overall values is for Murdoch the stepping stone to discovering the true value. As the person learns to be humble, accepting what they do not know, accepting the primacy of data over their theories, learning about the reality behind appearance, they start to approach the type of frame of mind that underlies morality (p. 89)

Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to see the world as it is. A philosophy which leaves duty without a context and exalts the idea of freedom and power as a separate top level virtue ignores this task and obscures the relation between virtue and reality.

The image which joins all this together is the Good. Murdoch uses the Cave, the image used by Plato in the Republic. Just as the prisoner in the cave loses his chains, sees the fire, then passes the fire to exit the cave and see the sun, the mind passes through concepts (nature, art, science, people, ideas, institutions etc) to understand the Good. Once the Good is grasped, the concepts the mind has passed through can be properly understood in relation to each other and in their true nature. And as the mind travels, it gets a stronger intuition of unity between virtues that becomes less and less misleading (we learn to distinguish courage and recklessness for example, and see the relationship between courage, love and wisdom. Ultimately this understanding is used in everyday life, just as the prisoner returns to the Cave (p. 93)

in so far as goodness is for use in politics and in the market place it must combine its increasing intuitions of unity with an increasing grasp of complexity and detail. False conceptions are often generalised, stereotyped and unconnected. True conceptions combine just modes of judgement and ability to connect with an increased perception of detail.

Murdoch denies that Good is a space defined by human freedom, against Nietzsche and the existentialists. She sides with the ordinary person who thinks some things are really better than others. But summing up human goodness is difficult, because “the world is aimless, chancy, and huge, and we are blinded by self”. We also, despite having the intuition that there is a convergence towards the Good. But we “probably cannot know, conceptualise, what it is like in the centre”.

This is merely a taste of this essay, which is collected with two others in “The Sovereignty of Good” (1970, Routledge). Brian Leiter’s paper, Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement in Nietzsche, is to be published in Oxford Studies in Metaethics.

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