Happiness is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one’s ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self.
Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good, (1968), chapter 22.
For Murdoch, the most crucial moral virtue was a kind of attentiveness to detail, a wise, trained capacity for vision, which could see what was really going on in a situation and respond accordingly. The sort of psychological insight and attentiveness to detail necessary for writing fiction was also, for Murdoch, what enables a person to live a morally good life. ‘It is obvious here,’ she wrote, ‘what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision: unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention. It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.’
For Murdoch, what so often keeps us from acting morally is not that we fail to follow the moral rules that tell us how to act; rather, it is that we misunderstand the situation before us.[…] As [Jonathan] Dancy once described it, to give one’s justifications for responding in a certain way ‘is just to lay out how one sees the situation…The persuasiveness here is the persuasiveness of narrative: an internal coherence in the account which compels assent. We succeed in our aim when our story sounds right.’ Murdoch the novelist would have approved.
From Godless yet good, a piece on secular ethics by Troy Jollimore in Aeon Magazine.
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.
When the great Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch took up the old ontological argument that Anselm and Spinoza wrestled with, she came out not with Anselm’s God the Father, or Spinoza’s Nature, but, simply, Good. For her, “No existing thing could be what we have meant by God”; the God of religions is just a shadow of what beauty points us toward. (“Only an atheist can believe in what is unintended,” a novelist friend once told me.) What are we left with? “The unavoidable nature of morality,” Murdoch says. No matter how we try to avoid them, right and wrong pervade the universe. The Good exists, which is precisely why she believed that God does not.
Marcus after the disaster reflects: ‘Would he go on working on his book? Perhaps it was a book which only a genius could write, and he was not a genius. It might be that what he wanted to say about love and about humanity was true but simply could not be expressed as a theory.’
What this suggests is not only that a truth may be uttered so that it is a lie, but that moral truth may be such as to evade any theoretical expression – perhaps with the consequence that all theoretical expression of it will be to some degree a lie. Iris Murdoch’s novels are philosophy: but they are philosophy which casts doubts on all philosophy including her own. […]
When I say that Iris Murdoch’s novels are philosophy, then, my claim has very little to do with the fact that her characters sometimes talk about Wittgenstein or quote Heidegger or Kant or go to dinner with Oxford philosophers, or that she makes philosophical jokes (‘There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent’).[…] What her novels systematically embody is a theory about theories, a theory which is to some degree against all theory – including itself. And if this does not entail that she had to be a novelist, it is at least clear that such a point of view could never have received adequate expression merely at the level of theory.
Murdoch’s negative view of prevailing moral discourse may thus be summed up in four points:
1. The Utilitarian definition of moral goodness is inadequate, even as qualified by J.S. Mill or by Richard Hare (Antonaccio 1996, 84-95), because of lack of substance in that conception of the Good. This inadequacy was only partly remedied by G.E. Moore’s indefinability condition.
2. Murdoch alleged that a natural consequence of ‘Oxford philosophers’ not recognising the Good as real was an undue emphasis on ‘ordinary language’ analysis or on ‘language games’ played within the court rules of a Kantian morally autonomous will or freedom of choice.
3. She considered Gilbert Ryle’s (1949} behaviourist picture of the mind unreal and unhelpful in understanding or advancing moral life.
4. ‘Oxford philosophy’ had failed to develop a defensible theory of moral motivation; she asked: if the moral quality of an action depended on choice, should not what prepares a person to make that choice be important? (1970, 53). For Murdoch it was the quality of consciousness (Vision) that does and should determine the choice. A discriminating Vision of the Good is achieved by attending.
From Joseph Malikail, “Iris Murdoch on the Good, God and Religion”, Minerva, Vol 4 (online).
Our conversation meanders back to the matter at hand, is there a renaissance in Iris Murdoch Studies? “She is being included increasingly in books from many disciplines.” Frances thinks that times are changing and that there is a “complete change in the way literature is viewed … the idea that western literature should be seen as better is absolutely shot to pieces now …. or people are saying there isn’t a canon at all”. She also makes the valid point that there “tends to be a pattern that after writers die they fall away a bit and then they come back”; this could be true for Iris just the same as for any writer.
Evidence of the growing interest in Iris Murdoch can be seen through the social media: “people are reading about her” and she has more than two thousand followers online on Twitter, and a lively appreciation page on Facebook. Frances becomes suddenly animated at the talk of the growing interest. “People chatting away [on Twitter] saying ‘oh my favorite character is Charles I really really love him’ and someone else saying ‘no I can’t stand him he is so full of himself!’ It’s very very nice the way people are just talking about the books.