The Sovereignty of Good

by Iris Murdoch

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Critical Context

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The Sovereignty of Good offers not only an alternative to the picture of self that finds its source in Enlightenment rationalism; it separates the moral world from the scientific world and seeks to liberate philosophy as a study of human nature from the domination of science. Because of this move, The Sovereignty of Good has been considered a groundbreaking book in modern moral philosophy. As she reconsidered the nature of the moral personality, offering an analysis of goodness, a mysterious and indefinable concept so important to the work of the philosopher and the artist, Murdoch initiated a rethinking of the moral life itself, placing the ideas of character, of virtue, and, as Murdoch would argue in other works, even the idea of the story as the center of attention in philosophical deliberations about the nature of the moral life. Although Murdoch’s Platonism has its detractors—philosophical Idealism is not without problems and always finds competent critics—the call for a return to an axiological ethics of virtue has met with a receptive audience. Murdoch stands with such philosophers as Stephen Toulmin, who has written often on the need for thinking about ethics as practical wisdom or phronesis, as Aristotle termed it; and Alasdair MacIntyre, whose significant book, After Virtue (1981), brought a resurgence of interest in an ethic of vices and virtues. In the realm of religious ethics, the Christian ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, has explicitly acknowledged a debt to Murdoch as he, too, has called for a turn from Kantian and utilitarian ethics to an ethics of virtue in which “story” is valued as a primary ethical category (narrative ethics).

Some critics have found the tone of The Sovereignty of Good to be severe, puritanical, even pessimistic; others have found ambiguities in the work itself. For example, although Murdoch has disclaimed belief in the Christian God and suggests that the concept of God is outdated, she seems inconsistent in suggesting that the practice of attending to God does serve to help persons in the modern era come into true selfhood. One could also ask whether Murdoch’s invocation of the Platonic realm of ideas necessarily neglects the physical and bodily realm so important to certain ethical perspectives. The issue, then, is whether her moral theory preserves a form of the very moral isolation she has herself attacked so vigorously in The Sovereignty of Good.

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