The Sovereignty of Good Essay - Critical Essays

Iris Murdoch


The Sovereignty of Good opens by critically examining certain assumptions that Murdoch believes modern philosophers have failed to assess adequately. The target of Murdoch’s attention is the work of philosopher Stuart Hampshire, author of Thought and Action (1959), whose ideas she regards as “fairly central and typical,” yet of greater benefit than most since they “state and elaborate what in many modern moral philosophers is simply taken for granted.”

Murdoch finds Hampshire arguing first, that the self can be identified with the will; second, that thought and belief are separable from will and action; and third, that the human being should be understood through the metaphor of movement. Murdoch challenges all these positions, which are, she argues, based upon an implausible picture of human nature, one that is inattentive to the historical complexity of actual persons’ lives. Furthermore, because these ideas confuse the moral world with the world of science, the moral life is reduced to almost exclusive concern with the will and with outward observable acts. For Murdoch, this view overlooks the positive role that thought and belief play for the developing moral personality.

In response to Hampshire, Murdoch proceeds to reconceive several notions important to ethics. Her task, like that of the artist, is to clarify what is real and what is illusion in the moral life. The Sovereignty of Good does not offer “new” ideas, if by that is meant Murdoch has a new theory of personality to advance. Actually, what Murdoch does is to reclaim a way of conceiving ethics long out of favor with professional philosophers. She argues for reestablishing at the heart of moral thinking the practical ethics of virtue which were so central to the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle. Finding the modern conceptions of the self inadequate, Murdoch offers a revision in contemporary thinking about such topics as the meaning of the will, freedom, and goodness itself.

Murdoch’s position rests on a particular analysis of the human will, which is a fundamental concept in Western ethics. Rather than accepting the familiar picture of the will as that endowment of personality wherein resides the power to make decisions in the vacuum of freedom, Murdoch defines the will as “obedience to reality.” She challenges the idea of the free will, that is, the will unencumbered by the weight of character and history and unimpeded by the lure of excellence, and ties this picture of the will to the rational scientific thinking of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment view that the self is ideally will and the will is the ultimate creator of values can be found, according to Murdoch, not only in the great rationalist philosopher of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, but in more modern thinkers similarly committed to a rational or scientific view of, for example, persons (Sigmund Freud), history (Karl Marx), consciousness (Jean-Paul Sartre), or even language (analytic philosophers such as A.J. Ayer). By emphasizing the will as the essence of self, these perspectives (Freudianism, Marxism, existentialism, behaviorism, and logical analysis) assert the primacy of self while sponsoring the ever-increasing degradation of goodness. Murdoch believes that “in the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego,” which is to say she singles out for criticism philosophical views that empower and authenticate the willful self. Such perspectives, she argues, distort reality, foster illusion, and obscure the role that goodness plays as the supreme value in human existence. Murdoch’s view is that moral philosophy, like good art, ought to remind persons of the self’s tendency to fall victim to its own act of blind deception. It ought also to encourage persons to counter such tendencies by helping persons “attend” to reality, an idea Murdoch takes from Simone Weil.


(The entire section is 1609 words.)