The Sovereignty of Good

by Iris Murdoch

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 823

As a philosopher interested primarily in ethics and aesthetics, Iris Murdoch has contributed significantly to debates over the direction of modern philosophy. For many years a Fellow at St. Anne’s College in Oxford, where she taught philosophy, Murdoch has offered a distinct vision of how the contours of contemporary philosophical thought ought to take shape. She has presented her critical philosophical reflection in a few technical papers and in more extended formats, as her wellreceived philosophical books Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953) and The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1977) attest. Despite her stature as one of Great Britain’s leading moral philosophers, however, it is for her fiction, to which she devotes most of her writing time, that Iris Murdoch is best known.

Iris Murdoch is recognized as one of the world’s leading literary artists. She has penned four plays, including A Severed Head (1964), with J.B. Priestley, and several volumes of poetry, but it is as a prolific writer of fiction that she has received widespread attention and popular, as well as critical, acclaim. Murdoch has produced a novel every eighteen months after 1954, when her first novel, Under the Net, appeared. With subsequent novels, including such works as The Bell (1958), The Red and the Green (1965), Bruno’s Dream (1969), A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), and The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), her reputation as a serious, first-rate novelist was established. Critics have hailed her fiction for its intricate plotting, subtle symbolism, and philosophical complexity, and her nineteenth novel, The Sea, The Sea, published in 1978, earned for Murdoch the Booker Prize of that year. In recognition of her literary accomplishments, Great Britain’s “First Lady of Fiction,” as Murdoch has sometimes been called, was awarded a D.B.E. (Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 1987.

Although her philosophical work is certainly distinct from her fiction, Murdoch’s sensitivity to the artist’s role has shaped her vision of the philosopher and informed her view of the relation of ethics to aesthetics. The Sovereignty of Good demonstrates how the aesthetic dimension contributes to Murdoch’s understanding of moral philosophy. Moral philosophy, she argues, demands the philosopher’s commitment to a point of view, which is to say that the scientific spirit of detachment so prevalent in modern intellectual endeavors ought to be avoided: Murdoch denies “that moral philosophy should aim at being neutral.” In saying that, Murdoch is advocating a way of doing philosophy that seeks kinship with the essayist and novelist, with the imaginative and committed artist who attends to details, even the details of the nonpublic inner life. Because “the good artist, in relation to his art, is brave, truthful, patient, humble,” the good moral philosopher will in like manner bring virtue, not merely talent, to his or her work. The philosopher, that is, will be as concerned with virtue, love, and goodness as any artist who, by attending to such things, finally “alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism.” In this slender volume (104 pages), Murdoch exemplifies a way of thinking about values that reveals the aesthetic calling of the ethicist; for “art,” she says, “is an excellent analogy of morals; . . . it is in this respect a case of morals.”

The Sovereignty of Good assumes the form of the philosophical essay. The book comprises three essays (“The Idea of Perfection,” “On ‘God’ and ‘Good,’” and “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts”), all of which had previously appeared in print. The essays are unified by a common theme, namely, the supreme value of goodness, the preeminence or “sovereignty” of good. It is from goodness, Murdoch argues, that all other values derive their significance and worth. Furthermore, the human mind is attuned by nature to the form of goodness, which is to say that goodness, which affects every moral and aesthetic experience, is finally a need of the moral personality. Some literary critics have found that The Sovereignty of Good elucidates issues raised by Murdoch in her fiction, and clearly this text clarifies themes central to her theory of literature. Yet because The Sovereignty of Good assumes the form of a discursive philosophical reflection, it should be read as a work in moral philosophy. The book not only responds critically to issues of concern in contemporary philosophical debates, but also, as a constructive philosophical effort, offers its own perspective on the nature of value and on the issue of how the moral person is constituted. The essays are meant to address the contemporary philosophical community with a new vision of what is at stake in moral philosophy. In this study, which is both a critique of modern scientific rationalism and a proposal for an alternative moral psychology, Murdoch defends the importance of the idea of perfection and the role that goodness plays, or ought to play, in shaping moral thought and in advancing the moral lives of ordinary people.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91

Backus, Guy. Iris Murdoch: The Novelist as Philosopher, the Philosopher as Novelist—“The Unicorn” as a Philosophical Novel, 1986.

Conradi, Peter J. Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist, 1986.

Cummings, P.W. Review in Library Journal. XCVI (April 15, 1971), p. 1372.

Downey, Berchmans. Review in Best Sellers. XXXI (April 1, 1971), p. 8.

Hauerwas, Stanley. “The Significance of Vision,” in Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection, 1974.

McClendon, James W. “Three Strands of Christian Ethics,” in The Journal of Religious Ethics. VI (Spring, 1978), pp. 54-80.

Todd, Richard. “The Shakespearean Ideal,” in Iris Murdoch: The Shakespearean Interest, 1979.

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