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The Sovereignty of Good (1970)

af Iris Murdoch

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Iris Murdoch once observed: 'philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious'. What was obvious to Murdoch, and to all those who read her work, is that Good transcends everything - even God. Throughout her distinguished and prolific writing career, she explored questions of Good and Bad, myth and morality. The framework for Murdoch's questions - and her own conclusions - can be found here.… (mere)
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In three essays, Murdoch challenges the prevailing view in moral philosophy. This she describes as the Kantian / Existentialist world view, where moral choices are made by a free agent who comes to a dispassionate view of the situation, sets out the options available, then chooses from among these after much consideration and thought, thereby expressing their personal moral character. Murdoch challenges the tenets of this view, and introduces a new framework of moral philosophy here that provides an appealing alternative, with a focus not on the moment of choice, but on the use of attention of the moral agent.

In this system the description of the situation (the moral problem) is coloured by the personal history, limited knowledge, biases, prejudices, and perhaps ignorance of the moral agent, and this results in a default choice among the available alternatives that is more or less unavoidable given their understanding / framing of the moral situation. Here, the moral burden is placed on the agent in their use of attention. If they attend to the situation, and strive to understand it properly, give it dispassionate attention with the aim of understanding it correctly and without prejudice, then this will result in their having enough information available so that a just action will naturally result. Where the agent does not give attention to understanding the situation, for example if their focus of attention is influenced by ego, or prejudice, or laziness, or no desire to see the truth, then what results is an inaccurate framing of the situation, and thus often a morally bad choice results. This also brings in the role of language, the language we use in our head perhaps, or that we hear from other people discussing a situation. Words are always value-laden, and a situation can often just as accurately be described in words with negative affect, or that carry derogatory connotations, as those with positive overtones, or that are psychologically neutral.

Murdoch then builds upon this system to claim that what drives attention to the truth of reality is Love. Love is central here in the moral agent's use of attention, and Murdoch supports this with some resurrection of Plato's ideas on this topic. Hence Love becomes the path toward right action, and she restores its central position in philosophy to the prominence it once held under Plato.

Overall this is a very stimulating group of essays that present a coherent and plausible alternative to the predominant view of moral philosophy. They are clear and easily readable, with helpful illustrations. As a work of moral philosophy this is original and productive in its explanations within the sphere of moral philosophy. ( )
  P_S_Patrick | Feb 18, 2019 |
Iris Murdoch, following G.E.M. Anscombe’s foundational 1958 critique of modern moral theories, refines and narrows the critique to address the specific problem of the ideal moral agent in The Sovereignty of Good (1970). She critiques the formulation of the moral exemplar as a generic, abstract, independent, rational, and emotionally neutral being who creates value exclusively by fiat of will. While she begins with Kant’s infamously formal view of moral agency, she finds these problems to be present in traditions as diverse as British analytic philosophy and Existentialism. In all cases, the agent allegedly creates value for himself, rather than recognizing, discovering, or responding to value as a potentially given feature of our place in the world.

Murdoch unpacks Anscombe’s call for an adequate psychological account of ethics by focusing on moral perception, specifically how an accurate view of the world requires an attention to it that is already invested in seeing it for itself, in its particularity--she calls this particularity its “reality” and she calls this attention “love.” Loving, according to Murdoch is an act of “unselfing”: of seeing the other (and the world) from an unselfish, unoccluded perspective. Love, not disinterested reason, offers us the only accurate picture of reality.

According to Murdoch, understanding ethics as a way of perceiving requires “the liberation of morality, and of philosophy as a study of human nature, from the domination of science: or rather from the domination of inexact ideas of science which haunt philosophers and other thinkers.”(26) The worst of these ‘inexact ideas’ is the idea that morality has access to objective facts that can be impartially and “empirically” relied upon for moral judgment. How we evaluate any given moral situation is ineliminably a product of one’s own perspective--the “facts” of a moral situation are already judgments. There is no impersonal perspective to occupy when we perceive our moral lives, and therefore neither the facts nor judgments of morality can conform to the requirements of scientific objectivity and impartiality.

While these concerns may appear abstract and theoretical, Murdoch illustrates their everyday relevance through a detailed example of the moral difficulties of a mother (M) who disapproves of her daughter-in-law (D), and undertakes the moral work of changing her perception of D. Murdoch provides many possible accounts of M’s motivation to see D in a favorable light, ranging from the self-interested desire to simply abide D’s intrusion in her life to the moral desire to see D fairly and honestly. From the outside, M appears no different, despite her change in moral perspective. While modern moral theories dispute the value of inner life in favor of concrete action, Murdoch wants to say what M has done is a morally commendable act of loving, and that she has in fact undergone a significant change that needs to be recognized by moral philosophers. ( )
1 stem reganrule | Feb 23, 2016 |
Iris Murdoch's collection The Sovereignty of Good comprises three chapters originally published separately as academic papers: "The Idea of Perfection", "On 'God' and 'Good"", and "The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts". The three essays, taken together, give a concise introduction to this author's iconoclastic views on moral philosophy. Murdoch characterizes modern moral philosophy as "existentialist", denying the existence of subjective mental experience that can be accessed by introspection and reducing all moral action to the arbitrary exercise of will. There are good reasons for this existential turn in modern philosophy, of course - an earlier generation of philosophers tended to overvalue the importance of intentions and subjective experiences, and eliminating such concepts from philosophy helps to solve some of the problems generated by Descartes's famous cogito. Yet a philosophy which dismisses as illusory all interior mental experience seems far removed from the intuitions of actual people; for Murdoch, such a philosophical system fails either to correspond to reality, to hold scrutiny as an intellectual argument, or to produce a guide to moral behaviour worth following.

As an example of what she means, Murdoch proposes the thought experiment of a woman who harshly judges her daughter-in-law (believing, for example, that the younger woman is childish, uncultivated, and unworthy of her son). Suppose, however, that the mother-in-law later comes to regret her hasty judgment and realizes that the negative qualities she perceived in her daughter-in-law were merely the creation of her own unconscious prejudices. If the mother-in-law never gives away her dislike by any outward action, it is hard to say how an "existential" moral philosopher could have anything to say about the situation at all, since the mother-in-law's change of heart takes place entirely in an inward realm whose existence the philosopher denies. Yet such situations clearly belong to the realm of moral philosophy, and the average person would have little difficulty describing what would have happened: the woman learned to view her daughter-in-law through the lens of charity. For Murdoch, a satisfactory account of moral philosophy needs to include a concept of moral perfection (the "Good") to which our activity is directed, and must have a place for the virtue of love.

Murdoch's account is inspired by Platonic ideas (she likens her concept of the "Good", for instance, to the sun in Plato's famous allegory of the cave). The Good is ultimately unknowable because no human can look at it directly, even as we orient our actions by it; perfection is only an ideal to strive for, never something actually realized in this life. Her use of Plato is not uncritical, however, and many readers will be surprised by her flat insistence on the impossibility of traditional theistic belief; the third essay takes it as axiomatic that humans have no telos or overarching goal to which they ought to orient themselves. This is all the more surprising because her account of a transcendent, perfect ideal of "the Good" would seem to harmonize with the traditional theistic understanding of morality as grounded in the divine nature. One suspects that, like her model Simone Weil, Murdoch found her way to an unconventional sort of belief in God despite her inability to affirm religious beliefs in their traditional form.

Brevity is a virtue for the philosopher, and The Sovereignty of Good gives the reader much to think about in its 101 pages. Readers should probably have some background in analytic philosophy (a basic acquaintance with Wittgenstein would be particularly helpful), but the language is sufficiently clear to be comprehensible to a non-philosopher like this reviewer. The first essay, which sets the stage for the two that follow, is also the longest and most difficult; anyone who finds the book initially difficult should persevere, since the remainder of the book is somewhat easier going and will clarify some of the points made previously. ( )
1 stem hauptwerk | Mar 13, 2011 |
The nature of goodness is an issue today in the writings of Iris Murdoch. The Sovereignty of Good includes three essays by her. In reading her essay, "The Sovereignty of Good over other concepts", I found her returning to the allegory of the cave and the metaphor of the Sun that I first read in Plato. Murdoch claims that "'Good is a transcendent reality' means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is." (p 91) For Murdoch this is a claim that Art is the way that humans can reach this unity in that,
"The mind which has ascended to the vision of the Good can subsequently see concepts through which it has ascended (art, work, nature, people, ideas, institutions, situations, etc.) in their true nature and in their proper relationships to each other." (p 92)
The discussion of the good by Iris Murdoch reconsiders this and other themes found in Marcus Aurelius and Plato. It is a difficult but worthwhile read. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jul 27, 2010 |
Contemporary historian, political biographer and educationalist Anthony Seldon has chosen to discuss Iris Murdoch ‘s “Sovereignty of Good” on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - How to be Happy, saying that:
“…The book appeals to me because it is fundamentally about trust. She is making the case that, whereas there are many reasons not to trust people, we should have an active sense of whether we can trust people or not. And her book is re-emphasising that underneath all else there is goodness. And she is also talking about the fact that creativity comes when we allow the goodness to flow through us, when we let it come through our pen or through our voice or, if we are a violinist or a pianist, through our fingers. And that this is the prevailing fact of the universe, this sense of harmony, goodness and oneness for which we become the vessel.…”.
The full interview is available here:
http://thebrowser.com/books/interviews/anthony-seldon ( )
  FiveBooks | Jan 30, 2010 |
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Iris Murdoch once observed: 'philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious'. What was obvious to Murdoch, and to all those who read her work, is that Good transcends everything - even God. Throughout her distinguished and prolific writing career, she explored questions of Good and Bad, myth and morality. The framework for Murdoch's questions - and her own conclusions - can be found here.

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