Iris Murdoch

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In Iris Murdoch's essay "Morality and Religion," she implies there's a need for "clear rigid rules" to establish morality. Should morality adhere to strict rules or be more flexible?

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In "Morality and Religion," Iris Murdoch guides us to an answer to the question of a rigid rule-based morality versus a more "flexible" realistic alternative. To her, the ideal upbringing indoctrinates a child in religious "axioms" such as the Ten Commandments while also teaching a sense of humor. This way the adult will have both internalized the strict moral precepts necessary for an orderly life along with the flexible character traits that allow for applying morality realistically.

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First let us look at what Murdoch says in "Morality and Religion" in her book Metaphysics a a Guide to Morals. In this chapter, Murdoch makes a case for the superiority of religious training and indoctrination over what she calls the development of non-religious "moral idealism." Given how "abysmally" sinful humans are and how difficult it is to keep "everything in mind" morally, she sees a value in the kind of "clear rigid rules" religion can offer as an way to produce good behavior without having to think through every decision. As she notes, "good decent men lead orderly lives." Imbedded religious principles lead to that kind of orderliness.

Therefore, "moral axioms" are important in establishing moral behavior. She points at Isabella in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, whose religion is such that she refuses to compromise her morality to save her brother's life. Isabella's behavior is partially appalling but also attests to the value of religion as a solid set of beliefs that provide real guidance in difficult life decisions. Murdoch notes, too, the many examples of religion indoctrination being stronger than irreligious idealism in the narratives of criminals whose religious upbringing comes to the fore at vital moments to stop them from committing a crime.

However, and this is key, Murdoch also points out the importance of a sense of humor. Adherence to rigid religious axioms, though valuable, must be tempered with the lightness of a sense of humor. At the end of the chapter, for example, she faults Heidegger for his lack of humor and praises Plato for his sense of humor.

In light of the question, Murdoch herself guides to us to an answer. Yes, there is a realistic alternative to the rigid Ten Commandments approach to morality. Children should be taught the Ten Commandments as axiomatic: they should memorize and internalize these rules. However, they should also be raised with a sense of humor. As adults, these two traits in combination will give them both the firm moral foundations that "idealism" can't provide and the flexibility of mind to apply moral precepts realistically rather than fanatically.

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