Iris Murdoch

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In the essay “Morality and Religion,” Iris Murdoch implies that certain political complexities suggest there might be a need to have “clear rigid rules” of behavior in order to establish morality. She implies that even clerics are viewing contemporary moral standards as flexible, perhaps alterable in some circumstances. Should morality follow the “rules” approach of the Ten Commandments? Or is there a more flexible, “realistic” alternative?

In the essay "Morality and Religion," Iris Murdoch discusses the relationship between morality and religion's role in shaping it. An approach based on values allows a more flexible approach to morality than lists of rules. Since these rules are themselves subject to values-based critiques, the rules become superfluous.

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Iris Murdoch observed that in the nineteenth century, even writers who disagreed with the prevailing notion of morality based on divine command lived within it, as a fish swims through water. In the twentieth century, however, all moral systems appear contingent and flexible. This appearance of flexibility may be a question of rules existing in a hierarchy, with minor rules which can be broken when they conflict with more major rules. However, it may also be indicative of an approach to morality based on values.

It is clear that many elements of Christian theology conflict with some of the most widely-held values of the modern era, including those laid down in the Ten Commandments. Few people particularly care about the first four commandments, for instance. As for the tenth commandment, it would probably be regarded by most modern-minded people as immoral in several different ways.

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor's.

In the first place, this commandment treats women as possessions in exactly the same way as livestock. In the second place, it judges people for thoughts over which they have no control. In the third place, one might well argue that wanting what others have is a good thing, since this desire motivates hard work and productivity. Such an approach involves applying one’s values (equality, fairness, industry) to the rules. This renders the rules superfluous so long as the values themselves are strong and clear, since these values can be applied directly to any moral issue.

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