The Sovereignty of Good

by Iris Murdoch

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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...

(This entire section contains 1609 words.)

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to counter such tendencies by helping persons “attend” to reality, an idea Murdoch takes from Simone Weil.

For Murdoch, attending to reality means contemplating goodness. Contemplating goodness leads the self away from itself, away from self-assertion, away from “the consolation of fantasy, romanticism and self-consciousness” to a vision of goodness, which she identifies as “a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue.” This is the ideal of a perfect transcendent reality; this identifies the form of The Good. Murdoch’s case is that the self achieves its true end and affirms its true nature to the extent that it attends to the form of goodness that announces itself in the human yearning for perfection. The will, for Murdoch, appears not as that which defines the essence of the self but as that which occasions “the disciplined overcoming of self.” Murdoch’s position is that an adequate theory of human nature must take into account the human propensity to selfishness and self-deception, for which the necessary tonic is “seeing the order of the world in the light of the Good” and achieving through humility “selfless respect for reality.”

Murdoch identifies other implications of the Enlightenment idea that the will identifies the essence of the person as moral being. For example, if the will constitutes the essence of the self, the “inner life” is relegated to being merely an introduction to the outward action. In other words, persons’ thoughts and beliefs are not morally relevant. Murdoch offers a counter-example to this assumption, showing in a brief story how a person (M) changes her attitude toward her daughter-in-law (D), not by a change in outward behavior but by the kind of moral reflection and reconsideration that directs M toward becoming more just and compassionate in her evaluation of D. From this example, Murdoch is able to argue that the inner life is directly relevant to moral life and that as such, thought and belief cannot be separated from action and will in any instance of moral evaluation.

A distinctive contribution of The Sovereignty of Good is the eloquent plea it makes for restoring the “vision” metaphor to ethics. Stuart Hampshire offered the idea that the metaphor of “movement” best captures the reality of the moral life, since the person can be considered “an object moving among other objects in a continual flow of intention into action.” Murdoch objects, arguing that this is not true to the reality of human persons: People are not like that and should not be like that. Her alternative view is that the moral person is not an isolated will moving from intention to outward act. She argues for a picture in which the self presents itself as a complex of emotion, belief, thought, and volition seeking unity. Rather than enjoying a context of perfect freedom, persons are bound by the particularities of historical circumstance and condition, and from this position they seek the integration or unity which the idea of perfection—the lure of goodness, the yearning for excellence—provides. Murdoch’s case is that the moral life is constituted not by movement but by vision.

The vision that unifies the moral life and makes the moral life in both its inner and outer dimensions possible is the vision of perfection, the vision of the Good. Murdoch offers an exposition of goodness in order to show that goodness exerts an influence on persons as they struggle to progress and improve, as they go about the work of “‘reassessing’ and ‘redefining’ which is a main characteristic of live personality. . . .” Murdoch draws on the aesthetic experience to support a case that goodness “is a kind of intellectual ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression of self,” thereby reclaiming goodness as a moral rather than a logical concept. Goodness, which Murdoch construes as the disinterested awareness of the world outside the self, reveals the truth about the moral personality as it is grounded in the reality of historical persons. Contrary to Kant, Murdoch holds that the moral life is misconstrued if considered as the product of thinking clearly, making rational choices, and acting. The moral life, rather, is vision; that is, it is a way of seeing the world, attending to it, looking at it, beholding it. With these alternative metaphors, Murdoch offers an aesthetic ethic that returns to pre-Enlightenment thinking, to the philosophy of Plato in particular, to find, as Plato found, that the ideal form of The Good is indispensable to moral thought and to the cultivation of moral excellence (virtue). Attending to The Good, directing one’s “just and loving gaze . . . upon an individual reality,” is the self’s most ennobling and realistic activity, the activity that can overcome the self’s natural tendency to spurn objectivity and unselfishness. The self that attends to the transcendent Good achieves realistic understanding not only of goodness and all the values for which goodness is the wellspring. The self that attends to The Good finally comes to see the self’s own insignificance and accept death: Made humble by this insight, the self comes to understand that what should concern the self is all that is not the self.

Murdoch’s picture of the moral personality makes clear its own assumption about human nature, namely, that despite the natural selfishness of human persons in an aimless and purposeless world, “we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good.” This idea, associated with Plato and with Platonic thinkers such as Saint Augustine, places Murdoch in a premodern ethical tradition, one in which the moral life is inseparably tied to a vision of excellence itself, The Good. This vision, according to Murdoch, yields an understanding of the moral personality and even reality itself, reality untainted by the human tendency to be blinded by self. In developing an ethics of virtue around a vision of goodness, The Sovereignty of Good claims finally to be offering an ethic of reality.


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