Guide Iris Murdoch and Morality

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Ethics, Evil, and Fiction.

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Connie S. Attention, Self, and The Sovereignty of Good.

Christopher Mole - - In Anne Rowe ed. David Robjant - - Philosophical Investigations 35 1 Iris Murdoch and the Nature of Good. Elizabeth Burns - - Religious Studies 33 3 Iris Murdoch and the Moral Imagination: Essays.

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Maria Antonaccio - - Oxford University Press. David Robjant - - Heythrop Journal 52 6 Is Iris Murdoch a Closet Existentialist? Some Trouble with Vision, Choice and Exegesis. David Robjant - - European Journal of Philosophy 21 3 Iris Murdoch's Everyday "Metaphysical Entities". Christopher Cordner - - Journal of the History of Philosophy 51 1 Margaret Weldhen - - Journal of Moral Education 15 2 She took on the most profound moral questions that we ordinary, flawed, troubled creatures grapple with: the battle between good and evil within ourselves and within society; the possibility of faith and the death of God; the occasionally delightful and playful, occasionally dangerous and destructive urges of erotic desire; the compulsions of amorous and intellectual obsession; artistic creativity and the artist's ambition to create the one ultimate and universal work that addresses every moral dilemma with its overarching theory.

All that makes it sounds as though reading her work is like finding oneself in the middle of an endless Brothers Karamazov-like rumination. Yet lightly thrown over these huge issues were plots of a disarming playfulness, creativity and joy: realistically daft adults making buffoons of themselves, androgynous girls, tough but unimaginative women, happy dogs, tortured gay priests, angry clever bullies and power-holders, hypocritical husbands, melancholy wives.

Murdoch's characters are fallen, her world post-lapsarian, full of contingency and realistic illogic. Her characters act against their own happiness with frustrating frequency. But then, that is what people are like. They behave absurdly, yet Murdoch does not write absurdly. She examines human silliness with her own clever, tolerantly smiling seriousness. There is another aspect of her work that is difficult to touch upon.

Somewhere between the plot and the themes and all those other staples of GCSE lit-crit terminology, one finds scenes of heart-freezing sublime and poignant beauty. Michael kissing Toby in The Bell. The charged discourse on Hamlet during a lesson in The Black Prince. If it did, then we would know what it is to love once we have mastered the use of the word "love," which is a public skill : "No doubt Mary's little lamb loved Mary," Murdoch quips, but this does little to teach us what it is to love.

Switching gears, Murdoch then speaks of love as a value concept and contends that such concepts can only be grasped "in depth": in the thick of the engaged activity itself. A person's grasp of what it is to love will under any normal circumstances deepen, or at least become more nuanced and complex, over time. Courage provides Murdoch with a vivid example: "we have a different image of courage at forty from that which we had at twenty," as we "come to distinguish a self-assertive ferocity from the kind of courage which would enable a man coolly to choose the labour camp rather than the easy compromise with the tyrant.

This brings us into the ballpark of the third implication of the privacy claim - only the compelling example makes the whole idea go down suspiciously smoothly. So let's consider the statement that best encapsulates the third implication of the privacy claim:. We do not simply, through being rational and knowing ordinary language, "know" the meaning of all necessary moral words.

We may have to learn the meaning; and since we are human historical individuals the movement of understanding is onwards into increasing privacy, in the direction of the ideal limit, and not back towards a genesis in the rulings of an impersonal public language.

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M's activity, and the understanding that guides it, is peculiarly her own. Hence her activity might be essentially singular, not actually sharing anything in common with anyone else's activity. This is the third implication of the privacy claim.

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As I see it, it raises a question that occupies Murdoch for the remainder of The Sovereignty of the Good : why think that there is any exemplifiable form of thought that makes M's activity what it is? Presumably the categorical imperative is meant to be an exemplifiable form of thought if anything is.

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With this we enter territory where the prospect of finding deep confluences between Murdoch's and Kant's ethics looks quite dim. Murdoch seems to say that moral activity is essentially singular; Kant seems to say that moral activity necessarily instantiates a timeless form of thought. And Kant might have the upper hand here. Murdoch wants to argue that love is the central moral activity, and yet the privacy claim seems to deny that there is any common core to what 'loving attention' involves. She speaks of continuous, progressive effort : "The task of attention goes on all the time and at apparently empty and everyday moments we are 'looking', making those little peering efforts of imagination which have such important cumulative results.

Does anything and anyone deserve such efforts of just and loving attention? One response to this worry - one that tempted me for a long time - is to point to the Kantian ideas about fundamental value that seem to be at work in The Sovereignty of the Good.

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These are familiar ideas, rooted in the Kantian ontological distinction between persons and things. What Murdoch stresses, though, is that we do not learn this lesson in one go, because one day we gasp at the bold fragility of an orchid, or find ourselves moved to tears by a Giorgione. The understanding that here is a person, and not a thing, admits of degree: we learn the lesson progressively, with continuous effort:. The more the separateness and differentness of other people is realised, and the fact seen that another man has needs and wishes as demanding as one's own, the harder it becomes to treat a person as a thing.

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Murdoch certainly is drawing on Kantian ideas about the value of persons. But how are these ideas put to work? The Kantian who reads Murdoch sympathetically might think that they are pressed into service to block the worries about arbitrariness that arise with the privacy claim. Here's how that interpretation might go. First, we observe that love seems to be a paradigmatically private activity, if anything is. For it is quite natural to think that the quality of consciousness involved in loving is essentially singular, even when the beloved is one and the same.

The mother's love is not the father's love, though they both love the same child deeply, and as we commonly say "equally. The privacy claim simply acknowledges that we can only appreciate this value in the thick of some set of contingent attachments, which give the activity, in each case, its singular valence and texture.

The chief problem with this Kantian reading of Murdoch is that it aligns the privacy claim with contingency.


There is something we are all doing when we love; and that something is the necessary and universal aspect of this activity. It is the morally significant bit, the requisite appreciation of a timeless and universal value. The privacy claim then deals with the contingent bit, the particular attachments that could perfectly well be otherwise.

David Velleman's work on love falls into this category. For Velleman, respect is the "required minimum" response to the value of persons, and love the "optional maximum" response to this value.

Iris Murdoch

Both are ways of appreciating a timeless and universal value, but love has a distinct phenomenology, in which the beloved does not figure as an interchangeable "anyone. I have been arguing that Murdoch arrives at a distinctive view of the nature of moral activity because she takes love to be the focal moral activity. The lesson from love is that moral activity is essentially singular: this is the third implication of the privacy claim. Prima facie , this is among the most un-Kantian ideas in Murdoch.

So it is no surprise that the Kantian reading of Murdoch under consideration fails to take its measure. But take its measure we must, if we are to stand any chance of correctly appreciating the connections between Kant and Murdoch - which I think run deep - without distortion to either.

Murdoch remarks that her point about the singularity of moral activity is not entirely new, and suggests that her view - indeed the whole project of The Sovereignty of the Good - "might be put by saying: moral terms must be treated as concrete universals. And perhaps for good reason: it is a difficult idea with a murky history; to take it up is to risk explaining the obscure through the more obscure.

But let's take a closer look. The remark says something about treating moral terms as concrete universals. Which moral terms? She has been talking about concepts of mental activity: at first, tracking Hampshire, of things like decide ; and then, speaking for herself, of love and justice , courage and ultimately humility - that is, concepts of the virtues, as continuous ways of being actively minded. These are presumably among the moral terms to be "treated as concrete universals. Let's begin with what we already know. M's activity is love ; and it is peculiarly her own, the details of this personality, and so forth.

Hence I suggested that, by Murdoch's lights, moral activity is essentially singular.

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  4. Thus when Murdoch says that moral terms should be treated as concrete universals, she may mean that, for example, the term "love" names resembling particulars.