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Iris Murdoch, (303)“Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals,” Allen Lane The penguin Press, New York, New York, 1993, ISBN 0-7139-9100-3

Iris: Miramax films
Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch

 "Good is good."
----- Iris Murdoch
        Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals


(303)  The conception of an absolute requirement,   whether  or not adorned with metaphysical justification, is shared with religion whether it is connected with and absolute ground, that is some  idea of  a  persisting and necessarily existing reality.  How far can a demythologized religion go in that direction, and still be called religion? The “ reality"   or “ ground" , traditionally  thought of picturesquely   as “ elsewhere",      may  be seen as available to ordinary cognition, veiled   and so on.  Some Kantian views, and part of the mind of Kant himself, would wish to check for questioning any movement from morality into religion because this would be to accept a heteronomous principle.  It is easy to see this dilemma.  If we recognize an absolute which is more extensive than our own sense of right we are giving away our judgment to an external authority.  If God appeared physically before us on His throne and said ‘Do this” we would still be able to wonder if we ought to.  Wittgenstein, commenting on the old question of whether something is right because God will it or willed by God because it is right, preferred the former because it ‘cuts off any road to an explanation’.  That is, any explanation or justification (pictures, accounts, dogmatic formulations) of religion is a kind of lie, a misleading clutter; a religious person does not explain what ‘God” is, he goes there directly and not through any external paraphernalia.  God, the Divine, is unique, not a thing among others to be given ‘place’ in the world.  Properly understood this point is like that of, properly understood, the Ontological Proof.  We may feel that Wittgenstein’s aphorism silences us too quickly, and (especially protestant) theologians like to emphasise that the only acceptable religion must be one which could accord with a purified conception of autonomy.  These are very old and ever new problems to which I shall return later when talking about religion and the Ontological Proof.  I look here at the question of duty in thee context of the possible charge that the sort of neo-Platonic moral view on which I have been reflecting is really a sort of aesthetic view, a kind of wander through pleasant groves of quasi-religious experience.  I spoke just now of a move from morality on into religion.  I could think rather in terms of a move from religion into morality, that is rediscovery of religious modes of thought deep inside morals.  That religion and morals somehow overlap or ‘blend’ may seem obvious: yet in the secular atmosphere of today may need stating as well as studying.  The exercise of duty is not a cold look at the facts and a jump to a moral intuition or dictate of reason:  the picture implied by a sharp distinction between fact and value.  We are all the time building up our value world and exercising, or failing to exercise, our sense of truth in the daily hourly minutely business of apprehending, or failing to apprehend, what is real and distinguishing it from illusion.  The absolute may be thought of as a distant moral goal, like a temple at the end of a pilgrimage, a condition of perfection glimpsed but never reached.  Or of course it may be thought of as being, or being the property of, a personal God.  But the idea of absolute, as truth and certainty, is contained in ordinary exercises of cognition, it is already inherent in the knowledge which suggest our duty, it is in our sense of truth; however feeble or ‘specialised’ our response to it may be.  Our justifications of our moral failures pay it homage.  It should not be seen as a dangerous possibly heteronomous property of religion (or a kind of transcendent ‘thing’), but as something innate in morality which can also bind or  connect morality with a certain understanding of religion. 

            I have suggested  that we may look at these matters by making use of a concept of consciousness.  Of course, as I said above, we may properly reflect upon our conditioning, our deep prejudices, our received ideas, etc. I mean ‘consciousness’ in a common-sense understanding of ‘where we live’.  Many states of consciousness are touched by art, and not only  in  a sentimental or weakening sense.  Art is a mode of cognition, the artist in us is aware of the problem of formulating what is true.  The good artist destroys false work.  We depend on intuitions which go beyond what is distinctly seen, we are out on frontiers where methods of verification are at stake.  We exist in many different ways at many different levels at the same time.  There are qualities of consciousness and levels of cognition.  We think and speak of ourselves in hypothetical dispositional terms.  There are unconscious good habits, an aspect of civilization.  But we also know that we are not just a network of dispositions.  This knowledge is part of our sense of our freedom.  We need and want to come home to what is categorical not hypothetical, to return to the present, where we also and essentially live.  There are patterns and there are events, there are moments and ‘long presents’. There is busy preoccupied activity, obsessed gazing, concentrated watching, attention, meditation.  We look at trees and at television sets. These fundamental uses of our time may be hard to delineate.  We ‘make them our own’; we can move from fine shades of behaviour to finer shades, we can move toward what is less readily identifiable but indubitably present.  The question of ‘the inner’ can be seen as one of identification.  We are involved in the mysteries of lived time, our being here and elsewhere.  This is, in my view, not a problem which philosophers can successfully analyse into any sort of minute or quasi-scientific detail. 

‘Temporalisation’ or (French) teporalisation is an extremely unclear concept.  But philosophers might be wise to deal with time-problems as aspects of particular contexts.  An example would be; can we properly condemn a man of seventy for crimes he committed when he was twenty?  We can attempt to clarify this.  A general philosophical theory of time is likely to be unbearably abstract.  The argument is not just Moore versus McTaggart.  The mountain walker can be aware of very many things ‘at the same time’. Our present.  ‘What this is like’, what I ‘see it as’ is not a problem which can be, as it were, handed over to empirical psychology and then received back in a helpfully sorted state; non-scientific concepts, value concepts, philosophical concepts are involved in setting the scene, indicating what we want to characterize and why.  Here ordinary language is best, and to describe the indescribable we must resort to it.  Serious discussion of state of consciousness, thinking, moral reflection, quality of being tends to use imagery and resort to art.



Joseph Malikail 

Joseph S. Malikail is Professor Emeritus of the University of Regina Canada, and is now active in The International Society For The Study Of Human Ideas On Ultimate Reality And Meaning.


Among the philosophers and novelists of the last half-century, Iris Murdoch is remarkable for her preoccupation with the conception of morality or the vision of the Platonic Form of the Good; her novels depict characters in different versions and degrees of moral goodness, plausible in a contemporary setting. That preoccupation is the subject of this paper.


Murdoch is a moral realist. Moral realists, whatever their differences, hold in common that there are moral truths which we are capable of recognizing and which are there for us to recognize; their existence does not depend upon our recognition of them. In a 1956 paper, "Dreams and Self- Knowledge" (ie. "Vision and Choice in Morality", Conradi 1997, 92, 95-96), she discussed the ontology of moral Goodness. How should the idea of moral Good be conceived? She stood on the side of Vision against Choice. Juxtaposition of the terms was intended to clarify her Platonic (Evans 1993, 35) perspective of post-Kantian moral philosophy, and focus a critique, positive and negative, of positions held by G.E. Moore, and of the various blends of Kantianism, utilitarianism, behaviourism and existentialism prevalent among her language-analyst contemporaries.

According to Murdoch, G.E. Moore has had a major impact on ethical discourse in the century. He was one of the "Cambridge Apostles", of a generation previous to hers. The members were consistently naturalistic in their approach to moral problems and to the definition of morality, as—to quote Stuart Hampshire—being "free from transcendental cant... dismissed the idea of salvation whether in this world or the next" (1980, 53). As Wolfhart Pannenburg says:

Whether as Kantianism or as some form of utilitarianism, moral philosophers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did in fact replace religion among the intellectual elite and those whom they influenced. [However] Both the Kantian and utilitarian forms of moral philosophy continued to affirm the public authority of moral norms, as well as their rational power to convince (1998, 2-9).

Utilitarianism, the legacy of 19th century philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, found general acceptance among the "Apostles". Some like Moore were dissatisfied with its consequentialist definition of the moral good in terms of happiness, a non-value concept. Moore, as Sidgwick did before him, distinguished between the functional and the moral use of good. In his influential book Principia Ethica (1903) Moore proposed that the word good (in its moral sense) is indefinable and stands for a non-natural quality of states of affairs. Murdoch held that Moore was essentially right on this point (1970, 3-4; cf. Schneewind 1997). The good could be perceived in empirical experience, but its ground transcended experience. In deploring the state of moral discourse after Moore, she says:

A great deal has happened since he wrote, and when we read him again it is startling to see how many of his beliefs are philosophically unstatable now. Moore believed that good was a supersensible reality, that it was a mysterious quality, unrepresentable and indefinable, that it was an object of knowledge and (implicitly) that to be able to see it was in some sense to have it. He thought of good upon the analogy of the beautiful and considered goodness to be "a real constituent of the world" (1970, 14-15; cf. 59-75).

In a 1957 paper Metaphysics and Ethics (Conradi 1997, 59-75) Murdoch explained that Moore "in spite of himself was a naturalist", in the sense of "realist" or "descriptivist" (ibid. 62-63), though it was Moore who coined the phrase naturalistic fallacy (1903, 10, 10-17; cf. Williams 1985, 121-24; Midgley 1989, chs. 15 & 16 ). Murdoch would of course disagree with Moore in his citation of Hume (Treatise of Human Nature III, I.1) that values cannot be derived from facts (Conradi 1997, 64 seq.). Murdoch fears that Moore's seeming endorsement of the Humean separation of value from fact may lead to a "diminished, even perfunctory account of morality... and with the increasing prestige of science may lead to a marginalisation of the ethical''(1992, 25). With no substantial vision of the good, the moral becomes a matter of will's choice. However, she thinks that Moore might (1970, 62) have been citing Hume merely to counter a logical fallacy committed by the utilitarian J.S. Mill, who had held that what is desired is what ought to be. In her 1957 paper Murdoch is emphatic that the Is-Ought or fact-value separation—often called the logical argument—has had a baneful effect on ethical thought. She disputes its faulty pedigree as well as its implications:

Why has it been so readily assumed that the stripped and behaviouristic account of morality which the modern philosopher gives is imposed on us by philosophic considerations? I think this is because the antimetaphysical argument [re: Hampshire, op. cit.] and the logical argument ("naturalistic fallacy") have been very closely connected in the minds of those who used them with a much more general and ambiguous dictum to this effect: you cannot attach morality to the substance of the world. And this dictum, which expresses the whole point of modern ethics, has been accorded a sort of logical dignity. But why can morality not be thought of as attached to the substance of the world? Surely many people, who are not philosophers and who cannot be accused of using faulty arguments since they use no arguments, do think of their morality in just this way? They think of it as continuous with some sort of larger structure of reality, whether this be a religious structure, or social or historical one (Conradi 1997, 65).

As Murdoch conceives Morality to be real, it is an object of knowledge as there is no ubiquitous gulf fixed between factual reality and value. In her Idea of Perfection, she says

... at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals, it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge... with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one's eyes but a ... familiar kind of moral discipline (1970, 38).

Is the transcendence of Moore's good the same as the Plato's? In Moore's transcendental empiricism (Conradi 1998, xii), what is the transcendent he invites one to contemplate (Moore 1903, 188 -189)? Midgley makes a distinction:

Plato held the ideal Forms that were the source of the world's order were also the source of all value and the proper object of worship. ..Moore, by contrast, was trying to assert the supremacy of human contemplation without allowing any substantial value to the non-human world at all except so far as it provides material for human experience, and without invoking any kind of divinity either. He wants an attitude which does not and cannot have any transcendent objects (1989, 151).

Where Murdoch's moral realism stands in relation to that of Plato and of Moore may be the key to an understanding of what she means by real.

For Murdoch, almost all our concepts involve evaluation - the Form of the Good. The activity of discriminating any fact as really relevant to judging a situation involves a prior sense of values. Unlike in the "is-then-ought" conception, factual and moral judgements do not follow one after the other.

Reflection on this concept enables us to display how deeply, subtly and in detail, values, the various qualities and grades between good and bad, seep through our moment -to-moment experiences (1992, 265).

To emphasise that moral evaluation is intrinsic in the way we experience the world, she uses the term Incarnate: "... the good and evil that we dream of may be more incarnate than we realise in the world within which we choose" (Conradi 1997, 200). Or as Pannenburg explains, moral consciousness and moral argument are intrinsic:

There are several reasons why this is the case, not the least being the invincible propensity of human beings to judge the conduct of others... Moral judgement is inextricably entangled with our very nature as social beings... Situations demand it , whether we want to judge or not. It does not matter, at least at this level, whether the normative ideas presupposed in our judgement are fair or not... (1998, 3/9).

Murdoch's term incarnate for the pervasive presence of values does not mean immanent in a pantheistic sense. For Murdoch the Platonist, the good is transcendent. (1986, 106), as well as real. She alludes to the words of Pope John Paul II (The Acting Person) with reference to Oxford positivist A.J. Ayer's "metaphysical belief that values have no real existence (evaluative nihilism)" and "the epistemological belief that values are not an object of cognition (acognitivism)". (1992, 229).

Her affinity to Moore, as we have seen, was only partial, and she also disassociated herself from the moral philosophy of many of her contemporaries. At the meeting of the Aristotelian Society in 1956 (Conradi 1997, 76-98.), she criticised aspects of Kantianism dominant among her Oxford peers. She held that the procedures of universalization leading to categorically imperative action were not grounded in any substantial form of the Good or Perfection. She believed that the emphasis on the Will had inevitably led to not Kantian "universalisability", but to the "supremacy" of an individual's own criterionless (existentialist) choice (Murdoch 1992, 34), as Nietzsche had predicted and wished to happen (Conradi 1997, 224 ; Cf. J. Hare. 1997, Ch.1 & Section 5; Schneewind 1997).

Further, Murdoch charged that even the voluntarist rationalists who claimed to be following Kant had misunderstood him. Kant did not hold that the Good was created by human reason, least of all that it was a creation of the individual will. Thus she says that

Reason itself is for him [Kant] an ideal limit: indeed his term`Idea of Reason' expresses precisely that endless aspiration to perfection with its characteristic moral activity. His is not the 'achieved' or 'given' reason which belongs with 'ordinary language' and convention, nor is his man on the other hand totally unguided and alone [existentialist]. There exists a moral reality, a real though infinitely distant standard: the difficulty of understanding and imitating remain. (1970, 31, 1-46; cf. MacIntyre, 1982, 15).

Murdoch would certainly acknowledge Kant, Steiner says, as one of her masters "among whom Plato towers"; it is probable that her Platonism brings her closer to Kant than to Aristotle (Williams 1993, 158, 216). Hume too appealed to her for his "robust clarity and unworried good sense" (Conradi, 1997, xii). Hume stated

Nature has not left to [our] choice and has doubtless esteemed an affair of too great importance to be trusted to our uncertain reasoning and speculations (Treatise, I. IV.2).

As David Pears rephrases it,

Reason cannot defend the principles which we need to steer us through our lives, and so nature takes over and engraves them on our minds. When rational justifications run out, we just go on in the way we find natural. (cited in Cotttingham 1991, 27).

Murdoch's view that the Good is transcendently real thus has affinity in different ways to Plato, Moore, Kant, and also possibly to Hume.

Murdoch's negative view of prevailing moral discourse may thus be summed up in four points:

1. The Utilitarian definition of moral goodness is inadequate, even as qualified by J.S. Mill or by Richard Hare (Antonaccio 1996, 84-95), because of lack of substance in that conception of the Good. This inadequacy was only partly remedied by G.E. Moore's indefinability condition.

2. Murdoch alleged that a natural consequence of 'Oxford philosophers' not recognising the Good as real was an undue emphasis on 'ordinary language' analysis or on 'language games' played within the court rules of a Kantian morally autonomous will or freedom of choice.

3. She considered Gilbert Ryle's (1949} behaviourist picture of the mind unreal and unhelpful in understanding or advancing moral life.

4. 'Oxford philosophy' had failed to develop a defensible theory of moral motivation; she asked: if the moral quality of an action depended on choice, should not what prepares a person to make that choice be important? (1970, 53). For Murdoch it was the quality of consciousness (Vision) that does and should determine the choice. A discriminating Vision of the Good is achieved by attending.



By stating that moral values are 'incarnate' in the world, Murdoch emphasises that they are real (1992, 250, 259, 398), but not in the sense a Christian may understand that the divine good was incarnate in Christ. How does she see the relationship of the Good of her moral realism to the concept of a personal God? She explored the relationship of the ontology of the Good to the concept of divinity, particularly in the thought of Plato, St. Anselm and Kant. Before an intensive treatment of the subject in 1982 and 1992, she made a forthright avowal in an earlier lecture, "On 'God' and 'Good'":

If someone says, 'Do you then believe that the idea of the Good exists?', I reply, 'No, not as people used to think that God existed' (1970, 74).

She concludes the lecture:

I have throughout this paper assumed that 'there is no God' and that the influence of religion is waning rapidly. Both these assumptions may be challenged. What seems beyond doubt is that moral philosophy is daunted and confused, and in many quarters regarded as unnecessary (ibid. 75-6).

For Murdoch as for Plato, the Good belongs to Plato's Realm of Being not the Realm of Becoming: "value is everywhere, [that] the whole of life is movement on a moral scale, all good, which is a transcendent source of spiritual power, to which we are related through the idea of truth." (1992, 56); and "Good is what every soul pursues and for which it ventures everything..." (Republic: 505 E). However, Murdoch does not read Plato as declaring his faith in a divine being when he says that the Good is

the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and the lord of light in the visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which [one who] would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eyes fixed (Republic 508).

Though she acknowledges the influence of Simone Weil in her reading of Plato, her understanding of Plato on Good and God is not Weil's (1952, ch.7). For Murdoch,

Plato illumines with stories which are deliberately cast as explanatory myths and must not be taken for anything else. Plato's 'sun' (Republic Bk.6) is separate and perfect, yet also immanent in the world as the life-giving magnetic genesis of all our struggles for truth and virtue. Plato never identified his Form of the Good with God (the use of theos in the Republic 579B is a facon de parler), and this separation is for him an essential one. Religion is above the level of the 'gods'. There are no gods and no God either. Neo-Platonic thinkers made the identification (of God with good) possible; and the Judaeo-Christian tradition has made it easy and natural for us to gather together the aesthetic and consoling impression of Good as a person (1992, 38).

As she understands Plato:

The Form of the Good as creative power is not a Book of Genesis creator ex nihilo ... Plato does not set up the Form of the Good as God, this would be absolutely un-Platonic, nor does he anywhere give the sign of missing or needing a real God to assist his explanations. On the contrary, Good is above the level of the gods or God (ibid., 475).

If Murdoch does not see that Good is personified as God by Plato, what is the transcendent Reality of the Good on which her Vision is focused? She examines at length St. Anselm's Ontological argument for the existence of God and its relevance to the existence of the Good in her 1982 Gifford Lectures (which were not formally published), and at greater length in her magnum opus of 1992. In her 1982 lecture, Murdoch paraphrases Anselm:

For purposes of the Proof, God is taken to be En realissimum, ali quod nihil maius cogitari possit, that than which nothing greater, or more perfect, can be conceived. The first formulation [by Anselm] distinguished between what exists (or is conceived of) in the mind (in intellectu) and what exists in reality, outside the mind (in re). To exist in reality is taken to be a quality (or predicate), which is extra to existing only in the mind. So we can understand that God exists, since if he did not he would lack the one important quality, that of existence, and fail to be that than which nothing greater can be conceived (1998, 2).

Murdoch considers that Anselm's argument about En realissimum is derived from Plato, through Plotinus and St. Augustine, through the neo-Platonic transformation of Plato's Form of the Good into a supreme spiritual being and thus to a metaphysical conception of the Christian God (my emphasis, ibid., 3 ; cf. Evans 1993, 51-66).

She attributes to Kant the prevailing view of Anselm's proof: one of uneasiness among "modern secularists", and of dislike by "some modern believers and theologians". Both in the Gifford Lectures and in 1992 (393-394), Murdoch reviews Kant's 'disproof' of Anselm:

Kant's refutation of Anselm summed up as 'existence is not a predicate' runs very briefly put, thus. We do not add anything to the idea of something by saying that it exists. We do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that the thing is. Otherwise it would not be exactly the same thing that it exists'. There can be no 'necessary' existence which is contrasted with 'contingent existence' (1998, 4-5).

However, she sees two parts in Anselm's argument, of which only the first on the necessary existence of God is dependent on logic. Kant's objection could be a response only to that logical part. But Anselm's ancillary argument (in Monologion), based on experience rather than logic, interlocks with and supports the first. Murdoch deplores that Kant and the moderns have taken the logical argument as primary, "as if one could talk of God without reference to morality; and [could] have regarded the Platonic background as a mere historical phenomenon" (ibid., 4).

She traces the line implicit in the experience argument:

... as we can recognise and identify goodness and degrees of good, we are able to have the idea of the greatest conceivable good. The definition of God, as non-contingent, non-accidental, is given body by that general perception and experience of the fundamental, authoritative (uniquely necessary) nature of moral value, that if God exists, he exists necessarily, we conceive of him by noticing degrees of goodness, which we see in ourselves and in all the world which is a shadow of God. These are aspects of the Proof wherein the definition of God as non-contingent is given body by our most general perceptions and experience of the fundamental and omnipresent (uniquely necessary) nature of moral value, thought in a Christian context as God (1992, 396).

This recognition is of course a religious vision (ibid.). But unlike Anselm, Murdoch holds that in Plato's mind moral value has "nothing to do with a personal God or gods. "The idea of Good is not God " (1998, 4).

The importance of experience in the vision of the real, Murdoch says, is implicit also in Kant who

introduced his own form of moral necessity and Ontological Proof supported by appeal to experience, in the form of the Categorical Imperative, thereby supplying the unconditional element in the structure of reason and reality... Kant's command of duty, linked to the idea of freedom, is unavoidable in the same sense as Anselm's God or Plato's Good (ibid., 5).

How should one understand Kant's words, that one is not "totally unguided and alone"?

Now a divine legislative will commands either through laws in themselves merely statutory or through purely moral laws. As to the latter, each individual can know of himself, through his own reason, the will of God... The concept of a divine will, determined according to purely moral laws alone, allows us to think of only one religion which is purely moral, as it did of only one God (1960/1934, 91).

As Murdoch sees it:

... in a way it is a matter of tactics and temperament whether we should look at Christ or Reason... The argument for looking outward at Christ and not inward at Reason is that self is such a dazzling object that if one looks there one may see nothing else (1970, 31).

She returns repeatedly to the subject of God or/and the Good. In her novel, Time of the Angels (1966), the issue is raised if one can be a theist without succumbing to the lure of false consolation that may be found in religious belief. Marcus is writing a book called Morality without God in which he attacks those who tried to understand moral judgements as expressions of Will or Choice, a view that Murdoch herself repudiated in her writings. If the alternative to Choice is Vision, should that Vision be of God? If there is no God, is there no morality either? Murdoch said that she had been "more than half- persuaded" (1970. 72), but rejected the view that if God is not credible, then Good too is a superstition (MacIntyre, 1982).

Mary Warnock, her friend and fellow-philosopher, sums up Murdoch's metaphysical view of the Vision of the Good:

She [Murdoch] holds that goodness has a real though abstract existence in the world. The actual existence of goodness is, in her view, the way, it is now possible, to understand the idea of God (1995, 598).

Or as Murdoch herself puts it, "Good represents the reality of which God is the dream" (1992, 496).



Though not a theist, Murdoch is far from subscribing to Lucretius's "such evil deeds could religion prompt" (De Rerum Natura, l. 101), or to our contemporary, Richard Dawkins, who has stated that religion is one of the great evils, comparable to "the smallpox virus, but harder to eradicate" (Wood 1999, 15). She challenges the almost automatic assumption of modern philosophy that ethics is autonomous of religious claims and beliefs (Antonaccio 1996, xii). Though she sees no need for a formal creed, nor postulates a generalised deism, Murdoch deeply respects those who believe "supersensible "(Conradi 1997, xli). She writes:

Our general awareness of good, or goodness, is with us unreflectively all the time, as a sense of God's presence, or at least existence, used to be for all sorts of believers (1992, 509).

Of the historical relationship between morality and religion Murdoch wrote:

Morality has always been connected with religion and religion with mysticism. The disappearance of the middle term leaves morality in a situation which is certainly more difficult but essentially the same. The background to morals is properly some sort of mysticism, if by this is meant a non-dogmatic essentially unformulated faith in the reality of the Good, occasionally connected with experience (1970, 74).

To Murdoch, the most evident bridge between morality and religion is virtue. In the religious tradition, virtue has been treated as something precious to be positively pursued. Has this ideal been fading with the dilution of a religious world-view? (1992, 481). She might agree with the reformed epistemologists that 'bad faith' is the product of unbelief (Philips 1989, 8).

Murdoch emphasises the quality of consciousness generated by the vision of the good (Cora Diamond in Antonaccio 1996, 95 ff.; cf. Mulhall 1997, 6). How describe this mental self?

To describe the self may seem to involve the self as a moral being, to discuss consciousness to involve discerning qualities of consciousness. The self or the soul in these traditional [religious] images is seen to live and travel between truth and falsehood, good and evil, appearance and reality. The theological idea of the soul has been a support to the concept of the soul in philosophy. Now as theology and religion lose their authority the picture of the soul fades and the idea of the self loses its power (1992, 166).

Marxism or existentialism, which she sees as characteristic of our age, deny the concept of the self as a whole person (ibid., 154). She emphatically rejects the prevailing idea of freedom, conceived as unimpeded movement of the Will. To her freedom is true vision which leaves no choice (1970, 53-55, 93-97). On this she agrees with Sartre: "Quand je delibere les jeux sont faits" (ibid., 36). Further, Murdoch does not consider moral life to be easy—what is true in Freudian theory, according to her, is its pessimistic but realistic view of human nature, where the psyche is seen

as an egocentric system of quasi-mechanical energy, largely determined by its own individual history, whose natural attachments are sexual, ambiguous, and hard for the subject to understand or control (1970, 51; 89-91).

"Unselfing" is a prerequisite to gradually directing the moral agent's consciousness towards what Murdoch, following Simone Weil, would call loving attention. "Attending with Love" enables one to counter the powerful and natural egocentric mechanism, to purify and direct its energy towards choosing rightly when occasions arise. She acknowledges as real and contemporary the Pauline challenge: "The good that I would do I do not, but the evil which I would not that I do". What mental exercises can help to meet this challenge? To improve the quality of one's consciousness, what are the objects worthy of attention? Murdoch defers to St. Paul:

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatever things of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things (1970, 56).

Virtue is not a matter of luck but comes as a reward for a "morally disciplined attention" (1992, 23). Though she emphases the importance of the concept of duty (1992, 8-9), her hope is for the union of thought and exercise, as David Tracy, in an excellent contribution on Murdoch, points out:

[her hope] is not focused upon a Kantian abrupt call for the will to abide by duty... or a radical transformation or conversion of the self from evil to good. Instead her hope is directed to a slow shift of our attachments, a painful education of desire - an education like that which Plato foresaw as our best, perhaps our only, hope for both living and thinking well (Antonaccio 1996, 73, 192).

Endorsing Simone Weil, Murdoch suggests (1992, 500-506) that spiritual exercises inherited from both the classical and various religious traditions are available to anyone—disciplined practices and exercises developed to aid one to lead a life of virtue. David Tracey explains:

Exercises for philosophy [conducive to living well ] were understood by all the ancient schools as analogous both to the exercises employed by an athlete for the body and to the application of a medical cure. In contemporary Freudian culture one could expand the analogy (Murdoch certainly does) to the exercises needed to appropriate one's feelings in therapy. Among the ancients, such exercises include intellectual exercises: recall the use of mathematics to help the exercitant to move from the realm of the sensible to the realm of intelligible in Pythagoras and Plato (and Lonergan).... Among the ancients, in sum, all reflection on the relationship between theory and practice must be understood from the perspective of such exercises, especially but not solely meditation (Antonaccio 1996, 70-71).

Murdoch dwells on the significance of traditional religious practices as devices for attending to worthy objects. Among these, the most practised is prayer:

With it [prayer] goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavour which overcomes empirical limitations of personality. ... can those who are not religious believers still conceive of profiting by such an activity? ...I shall suggest that God was (or is) a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention [italics as in the original]; and I shall go on to suggest that moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics (1970, 55).

In the second of her Platonic Dialogues, Acastos, the character Plato tells Socrates that prayers need not be addressed to a person:

Learning can be praying, breathing can be praying. Prayer is keeping quiet and hoping for the light (1986, 108).

The slave in the play sees no point in asking the gods for anything. One may say that the slave's attitude to the gods meets the highest level of contemplation or perfect communion with the divine. For him the awareness of being in the presence of the gods is sheer joy: "What could they give me better than just to be there with me?" (ibid., 129).

Murdoch asks in dialectic self-examination: Pray to whom in a world without God? The religious believer prays to a personal God, in adoration and thankfulness, for consolation and encouragement, and in petition, with a loving and humble sense of dependence. Murdoch reflects on the apparent irony of her advocacy of the practice of prayer, given her "demythologisation" of a personal God:

[Is it not] [to] speak of Good in this portentous manner... simply to speak of the old concept of God in a thin disguise? … It makes sense to speak of loving God, a person, but very little sense to speak of loving Good, a concept ... The picture is not only purely imaginary, it is likely to be ineffective (1970, 72).

But Murdoch would disagree that all specialised or traditional ethical vocabularies are false and should be let go "together with the outdated concept of God the Father" (ibid.).

For Murdoch just to be in loving and patient attention to true art would be prayer too as is contemplation of the Good (Murdoch 1992, 20-25; 1970, 86; Murdoch 1977; cf. Burnyeat 1998 & Scarry 1999). Art should assist one to attend to other persons with imaginative sympathy and love:

To Sartre l'enfer c'est les autres (Hell is other people), for Murdoch by contrast, hell is being walled up inside one's own fat cosy ego without means of egress to the other or to the Good; heaven is the place of true and selfless vision; purgatory is the place of moral effort that attempts to deliver us from the one to the other (Antonaccio 1996, 37).

Murdoch speaks of art as a sacrament:

A sacrament provides an external visible place for an internal invisible act of the spirit. The apprehension of beauty, in art or in nature, often in fact seems to us like a temporarily located spiritual experience which is a source of good energy (1970, 69);

and in its religious context

... images wherein, rightly or wrongly, we rest, and others which are promptings to work. Religious myths are metaphors which come in many kinds. Rituals are images, often simple (washing, eating) often complex (doing the Stations of the Cross). The attention of the devotees is part of the rite. Here the inner needs the outer because, being incarnate, we need places and times, expressive gestures which release psychic energy and bring healing, making spaces and occasions for spiritual activity or events. Plato connects imagery with the work of Eros, the magnetism which draws us out of the cave. (1992, 306-7).

She says that art has helped us to believe not only in Christ and Trinity, but also "in the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, innumerable saints and a whole cast of famous and well-loved scenes and persons" (1992, 82).

She notes that

Absence of ritual from ordinary life [also] starves the imagination; institutions, schools, universities, even churches abandon it. But when we say that 'religion is disappearing' part of what is disappearing is both the occurrence of certain experiences, and also our tendency to notice them and, instinctively or reflectively, to lend them moral or religious meaning. A lack of Eros (1992, 307).

What Murdoch has to say on the value of suffering and renunciation as means to the good is cautiously discriminating. She sees no value in suffering for its own sake (1970, 73). But some suffering can be redemptive: the suffering of Cordelia is redemptive while that of Ophelia and Desdemona is not (1992, 132).

One may claim that Murdoch's ideas on moral consciousness have reached more people through her literary work than her philosophical writings. She did say that

... indeed, I think that though they are different, philosophy and literature are both truth -seeking and truth revealing activities. They are cognitive activities, explanations. .. Of course, good literature does not look like analysis because what the imagination produces is sensuous, fused, mysterious, ambiguous and particular. Art is cognition in another mode..... (Conradi 1997, 10-11).

The significance Murdoch attaches to religious structures and practices are made palpable through situations and characters in her novels. For example, in Nuns and Soldiers (1980), Anne Cavidge, who has left the convent and returned to secular life is living with her a-religious former university friend, now a widow. Though she thinks that she has lost her religious faith, Anne looks back nostalgically to her life as a nun, of self-discipline, to symbolism of the liturgical seasons and ceremony:

Anne thought, it is Lent. What will happen to me at Easter? Easter had always seemed to her like a slow great explosion of dazzling light. She looked at her watch. She knew exactly what they were all doing now back there in the precious holy repetition of their worship of God. 'You have put on Christ like a garment'. Garments can be taken off and laid aside. Had she thrown away the essential, kept the inessential, given herself to an ineluctable corruption? It was very possible (ibid., 241-42).

Anne retains in her sub-conscious association of goodness with Jesus:

Jesus Christ came to Anne Cavidge in a vision. The visitation began in a dream, but then gained a very dreamlike quality. And later Anne remembered it as one remembers real events, not as one remembers dreams...

Anne called after them [angels], 'Tell me, is there a God?...'

When the angels had vanished she heard a sound behind her. She could distinctly hear the crunch of footsteps upon the gravel. She knew that the person following her was Jesus Christ...

He spoke briskly. 'As for salvation, anything you can think about it is as imaginary as my wounds. I am not a magician. You knew what to do. Do right, refrain from wrong.' (ibid., 293-297).

For Anne, Christ is the image of perfect goodness and unselfish love. Does it matter if Anne believes in a personal God? Murdoch believes that

...there is a place both inside and outside religion for a sort of contemplation of the Good, not just by dedicated experts but by ordinary people... an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of untrammelled energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue (Murdoch 1970, 101).



Murdoch is drawn by "the calming whole-making tendencies of human thought "(1992, 7), and to monism, or at least a search for unity (1970, 50). While allowing that a search for unity may be natural, she thinks that like so many natural things it may result in nothing but illusions (ibid., 75-76), and so she resists an attraction to integrate the Good in a coherent "larger structure of reality". In her reflection on an integrated world-view, she alludes to F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality (1893):

According to Bradley both morality and religion demand an unattainable unity. 'Every aspect of the universe goes on to demand something higher than itself.' This is [Bradley's] dialectic, the overcoming of the incomplete, of appearance and illusion, the progress toward what is more true, more real, more harmoniously integrated. 'And, like every other appearance, goodness implies that which, when carried out, must absorb it'. Religion is higher than morality, being more unified, more expressive of a perfect wholeness (1992, 488).

However, for Murdoch,

... both morality and religion face the same insuperable difficulty. Morality-religion believes in the reality of perfect good, and in the demand that good be victorious and evil be destroyed. The postulated whole (good) is at once actually to be good, and at the same time to make itself good. Neither its perfect goodness nor its struggle may be degraded to an appearance (something incomplete and imperfect), to make itself good. But to unite these two aspects consistently is impossible (ibid.).

There exists no comprehensive metaphysical framework in which all separate realities or Platonic Forms cohere; Judaeo-Christian religious doctrines such as divine creation, incarnation, redemptive mediation with their elements of fantasy are not credible to the contemporary mind. Murdoch considers it "unfortunate" that the ordinary traditional religious believer is not confused about the object of his or her worship. Though credibility as such is a questionable epistemological criterion (Griffiths 1999, 10-11), her scepticism has been shared in a variety of forms by many in the last few centuries (Quinn 1998, 127-129).

Some, observing Murdoch's advocacy of certain religious attitudes and traditional practices, may be puzzled by her support for demythologisation (cf. Don Cupit in John Hick et al 1977). One may also see an apparent contradiction between her emphasis, well exemplified in her novels, on attention to concrete circumstances and contexts on the one hand and on the other her distaste for incarnational religion (IMNL 1998:11, 10). Though Murdoch often distinguishes the positive imaginative from the neutral imaginary (and imagery) and the negative fantasy, she would probably not admit that imagination is a crucial wheel of the vehicle of faith, that faith is imaginative not imaginary (Gallagher 1984, 117). The religious believer brings imagination to the vision of God as creator of experienced reality, as Murdoch to her vision of Good incarnate in the world.

Of relevance to understanding Murdoch's denial of God, but affirmation of the Good, the words of the American poet, Wallace Stevens, are insightful:

If one no longer believes in God (as truth), it is not possible merely to disbelieve; it becomes necessary to believe in something else. Logically, I ought to believe in essential imagination, but that has its difficulties. It is easier to believe in a thing created by the imagination (Gallagher 1984, 115).

As Gallagher says, often the atheist poet can have more in common with the imaginative modes of scripture than the demythologising theologians (ibid., 116). Murdoch states that "Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture" (Conradi 1997, 75). Is then her Good in a religion without God just a picture made by the human imagination? Is the reality of her Good no more than a form of life? To Wittgenstein,

Religious belief [faith] could be only like a passionate commitment to a system of reference. Hence although it's belief [faith], it's really a way of living, or a way of assessing life. It is passionately seizing hold of this interpretation (Kaufman 1999, 410).

Murdoch's 'religion' may bear comparison also with R.B. Braithwaite's, treated in his 1955 essay An Empiricist's View of The Nature of Religious Belief. Braithwaite says:

The kernel for an empiricist of the problem of religious belief is to explain in empirical terms, how a religious statement is used by a man who asserts it in order to express his religious conviction... I shall argue that ... the religious assertion is a moral assertion (77-78).

Despite the similarity (see Murdoch's 156 Vision and Choice in Morality in Conrad 1997, 76-98), she makes no reference to Braithwaite. Murdoch, of course, is no pure empiricist! It has even been suggested that Murdoch is a "Platonic pragmatist" (Antonaccio 1996, 180).

She refers to Kant's statement: Art having "purposiveness without purpose" as she speaks of the pointlessness of the Good (1970, 86). To quote her:

[that] human life has no external point or telos is a view as difficult to argue as its opposite, and I shall simply assert it. I can see no evidence to suggest that human life is not something self-contained. There are properly many patterns and purposes within life, but there is no general and as it were no externally guaranteed pattern or purpose of the kind for which philosophers and theologians search. We are what we seem to be, transient mortal creatures subject to necessity and chance. That is to say that there is, in my view, no God in the traditional sense to the term; and the traditional sense is perhaps the only sense (1970, 79).

More than once, Murdoch confesses to a sense of the Void (Antonaccio 1994, 279-80).

She means by Void those occasional visitations of a sense that the Good is not real. Even Murdoch with her Vision of the Good must sense an emptiness if, in the words of Pope John Paul II, there is no vision of

... an absolute which might serve as the ground of all things... a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning (John Paul 1998, 18).

In the absence of a teleological explanation, survival of individual identity, without the 'larger hope'(Tennyson), enshrined within "larger structure of reality" (Williams 1998, 40), can there be any Ultimate Meaning to existence?

Murdoch's "for-nothingness" of virtue (1970, 87), and the self-contained character of moral life can be contrasted to Kant's belief as well as to that of Dostoyevsky (whom she often cites and with whom she feels a particular spiritual affinity), who says that if there is no God, everything is permitted.

Milosz Czeslaw, a Nobel Laureate, says of moral deserts:

Religion, opium for the people! To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death - the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged... there is a scale to weigh sins and good deeds. In Tibetan Buddhism the judge is the Master of Death and in coming to his verdict he is assisted by pebbles, black ones cast on balance by the Accuser, white ones cast by the Defender. All religions recognise that our deeds are imperishable (1998, 17).

Where does Murdoch stand? I quote the final paragraph of her last explicitly philosophical work:

We need a theology which can continue without God. Why not call such a reflection a form of moral philosophy? All right, so long as it treats of those matters of 'ultimate concern', our experience of the unconditioned and our continued sense of what is holy. Tillich refers to Psalm 139. 'Whither shall I go from thy spirit, whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend into heaven thou art there, if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take wings of the morning and dwell in the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.' (1992, 511-2).

Anthony Castle was recently quoted as saying of Karl Rahner, the great theologian:

Towards the end of his life Karl Rahner was questioned by an interviewer as to why he believed in God in spite of so many intellectual difficulties over faith today. The interviewer persisted in this line of inquiry to a degree that annoyed the famous theologian, who replied: 'Listen, I don't believe in God because I have worked everything out to the satisfaction of my mind. I continue to believe in God because I pray everyday' (Tyson 1999, 18).

We cannot doubt that Murdoch did pray. Perhaps not every day!



Antonaccio, Maria & William Schweiker. Editors. 1996. Iris Murdoch And The Search For Human Goodness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Antonaccio, Maria, 1994. Review of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals by Iris Murdoch (1992). The Journal of Religion 74:2, 278-280

Braithwaite, R.B. 1955. 'An Empiricist's View of The Nature of Religious Belief', Reprinted in The Philosophy of Religion. (Ed. Basil Mitchell) 1971, Oxford. 72-91.

Burnyeat, M.F. 1998. 'Art and Mimesis in Plato's 'Republic'', London Review of Books 20: 10, 3 and 5-9.

Conradi, Peter. Editor. 1997. Existentialists and Mystics. Allen Lane, Penguin Press.

Cottingham, John. 1991. Review of Hume's System: An Examination of the First Book of His Treatise by David Pears. The Times Literary Supplement (T.L.S.), August 9, 27.

Czeslaw, Milosz. 1998. Discreet Charm of Nihilism, as quoted in The New York Review of Books XLV: 18, 17.

Evans, G.R. 1993. Philosophy & Theology in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge.

Gallagher, Michael Paul. 1984. Imagination and Faith. The Way. 24:2, 115-123

Griffiths, Paul. 1999. 'How Epistemology Matters to Theology', The Journal of Religion 79:1, 1-18

Hampshire, Stuart. 1980. Review of Moore : G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles by Paul Levy. The Times Literary Supplement (TLS). January 18, 53.

Hare, John E. 1997 The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God's Assistance. Oxford: Clarendon Paperbacks

Hick, John. 1977. (Ed.). The Myth of the God Incarnate. S.C.M.

John Paul, Pope. 1998. Fides et Ratio. On Line: Vatican: www.

Kant, Immanuel (trans. 1960/ 34 by Greene and Hudson). Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone. New York: Harper Torchbooks TB 67.

Kaufman, Gordon D. 1999. 'Reading Wittgenstein: Notes for Constructive Theologians', The Journal of Religion 79: 8, 404-421

MacIntyre, Alasdair 1982. Review of Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit by Elizabeth Dipple. London Review of Books. 3-16 June, 15-16.

Marenbon, John. 1991. Early Medieval Philosophy (480 -1150). London: Routledge

Midgley, Mary 1989. Wisdom, Information & Wonder. London: Routledge.

Moore, G.E. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murdoch, Iris. 1986. Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues. Penguin Books.

--------- 1998. 'The Ontological Proof', in The Iris Murdoch Newsletter, Issue 11: 1-8.

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--------- 1992. Metaphysics As A Guide To Morals. London: Chatto and Windus

----------1970. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

--------- 1954. Under the Net. Penguin Books

--------- 1966. The Time of The Angels. Penguin Books.

--------- 1980. Nuns And Soldiers. Penguin Books.

Mulhall, Stephen 1997. Review of two books on Iris Murdoch, The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), August 22, 6.

Pannenburg, Wolfhart. 1998. 'Where Everything is Permitted', First Things 80: 26-30. (On Line, 1-9).

Pegis, Anton C. (ed.) 1948. Introduction to Saint Thomas. New York: Modern Library

Philips, D.Z. 1989. 'What Can We Expect From Ethics?', The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume LX111, 1-21.

Quinn, Philip L. 1998. Review of Revelation and Reconciliation by Stephen N. Williams (1995) in The Journal of Religion 78:1, 127-29.

Ryle, Gilbert 1949, 1963. The Concept of Mind. Penguin Books.

Schneewind, J.B. 1997. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Scarry, Elaine. 1999. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton University Press.

Tyson, Steve. 1999. 'What is a 'peritus'', The Catholic Register, March 1, 18.

Williams, Bernard. 1985. Ethics And The Limits Of Philosophy. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.

--------- 1993. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

--------- 1998. Review of Thomas Nagel's The Last Word (1998). The New York Review of Books, XLV:18, Nov. 19, 40-44.

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Wood, Garth. 1999. 'The 'Final' Death of God', The Ottawa Citizen (March 3) 15.


Copyright 2000 Minerva. All Rights Reserved.


Joseph S. Malikail is Professor Emeritus of the University of Regina Canada, and is now active in The International Society For The Study Of Human Ideas On Ultimate Reality And Meaning.




Dr. Ana Lita is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Lincoln University of Missouri, USA. She studied History of Philosophy at The University of Bucharest, Romania, Sociology at the Central European University in Prague and Applied Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA. Currently she is interested in virtue ethics, especially the connection between ethics and aesthetics.




I want now to speak of what is perhaps the most obvious as well as the most ancient and traditional claimant, though one which is rarely mentioned by our contemporary philosophers, and that is Love. Of course Good is sovereign over Love as it is sovereign over other concepts, because Love can name something bad. But is there not nevertheless something about the conception of a refined love, which is practically identical with goodness? Will not 'Act lovingly' translate 'Act perfectly,' whereas 'Act rationally' will not? It is tempting to say so (Murdoch 1997, 384).


1.1 Introduction

Noted literary critics consider Iris Murdoch to be an excellent novelist, but she is less known as a philosopher. Nevertheless, the philosophical work of Iris Murdoch occupies a distinctive place in the field of contemporary moral inquiry. Her main claim is that an adequate understanding of the moral self requires a connection between ethics and aesthetics. The purpose of this article is to evaluate the plausibility of Murdoch's claim. This article also demonstrates Murdoch's contribution to the field of ethical theory through her account of the moral self as becoming suitably other-directed through the dual practices of aesthetic perception and ego "unselfing." The process is analogous to art appreciation. Murdoch discounts the ego as the chief obstacle to seeing others clearly, and instead of emphasizing the rewards of virtue, she argues that it must express selfless love. A chief advantage of her account is that it explains how the aesthetic "seeing" of the other (and the de-centering of the self that follows) is virtue-developing and can be applied in our endeavor to ethically treat others as they really are.

Murdoch argues that liberalism, romanticism, existentialism and linguistic empiricism fail to articulate a criterion for morality that goes beyond choices and the will. Instead of a solitary agent who creates value by choices alone, the moral self, according to Murdoch, ought to efface its ego in seeking to perceive the others as they really are in order to respond to them in a morally adequate way.

The questions I am addressing in this article concern: (a) the realism of Murdoch' s view of regard for others and (b) the development of virtue through aesthetic perception. Murdoch proposes a cognitive meta-ethics to justify her moral realism, which claims that virtue is knowledge of the good. Nevertheless, the question remains: If virtue is knowledge of the good, and aesthetic perception as knowledge of the good is virtue developing, how can this provide a foundation by which to evaluate goodness in others? For, unless it clearly articulates a standard by which to evaluate the quality of our knowledge of goodness in others, Murdoch's theory is open to the charge of subjectivism. In defending Murdoch's view, what is at stake is the issue of what kind of realist and cognitivist Murdoch is, and whether her account of the moral self as other-directed succeeds, in turn, in providing a realist standard for the moral appreciation of others.

The analysis performed in this article will demonstrate how aesthetic perception as an imaginative construal (understanding) of the goodness and tragedy of others can help to increase our awareness of their reality. Murdoch focuses upon the nature of virtue as not related to human interests or eudaimonia, but as intrinsically other-directed. Developing virtue is a matter of transforming consciousness through moral struggle. The resulting “virtuous consciousness,” Murdoch advocates, should become the central element in developing our moral regard for others. To explain the process of acquiring virtue through aesthetic perception, Murdoch appeals to an analogy between the novelist and the moral agent. Thus she reveals some aspects of perceiving the beauty/goodness in nature and art that apply to understanding human beings. The constructive implications of the nature of aesthetic perception will justify Murdoch's assertion that virtuous consciousness is fundamental to the moral self.


1.2 Virtue and eudaimonia


Murdoch confronts the neo-Aristotelian view that moral virtue is a matter of acting rightly with an appropriate motivation, which results in the beneficial disposition needed for the agent to live well or flourish. Contemporary Aristotelian ethics starts with the question of what constitutes the good and worthwhile life, and therefore, the issue of moral virtue usually relates to practical reasoning and individual choice. Contrary to the Aristotelian conception, Murdoch's rhetoric of virtue primarily concerns our understanding of others through the development of virtuous consciousness. Furthermore, as subject to necessity and chance, human beings become virtuous not because it is advantageous to flourishing and living well, but because being virtuous is intrinsically good. Murdoch claims, unlike Aristotle, that human life has no external point or telos. Considerations of specifically human flourishing are therefore irrelevant to determining whether a given act is right or wrong:

There are properly many patterns and purposes within life, but there is no general and as it were externally guaranteed pattern or purpose of the kind for which philosophers and theologians used to search … equally the various metaphysical substitutes for God – Reason, Science, History - are false deities. Our destiny can be examined but it cannot be justified or explained … And if there is some kind of unity in human life, and the dream of this does not cease to haunt us, it is of some other kind and must be sought within a human experience which has nothing outside it (Murdoch 1997, 365).

Therefore, if virtue has an instrumental value, virtuous people must have their own individual conceptions of what constitutes a life of eudaimonia as the starting point for their moral deliberations. Though Murdoch does not exclude “happiness” from the agent's life, she does not understand happiness as living well or flourishing; instead, she argues happiness is obtained through a perfected goodness with a constant orientation towards the needs of others. Following Rorty, she believes that contingency is the watchword of our lives, making us subjects of necessity and chance, and telos a misnomer (1989). This contingency of our reality explains why moral judgments cannot be primarily a matter of constructing and extending a priori moral principles. Such moral idealizations provided by theories isolate the general properties of the situations ethicists want to discuss, while discounting the “messy details” that bring ambiguity and complexity into our moral life. Although we can attempt to provide responses to non-ideal situations when we are confronted with our imperfections, we hardly know how to respond to them by using such abstract moral principles. While certitude can be the home of particular existence, it can also be a cage in which an inevitable ignorance sings and dies imprisoned. To master the actual “messy details” of our life, the best way is to rise above them, Murdoch claims, by continuing to move through our moral life, figuring it out as we go along, living experimentally, trying out different moral attitudes, changing our minds, sometimes coming back to the beginning.

What is at stake in this account of virtue is the attempt to articulate and defend the value of the contingently existing individual. As the life experience of each individual is unique, the application of abstract rules or patterns of moral thinking is insufficient for the moral agent to apprehend the reality of others. Therefore the knowledge obtained by virtuous consciousness is a necessary condition because only its moral perception is sufficient to motivate humans to have full regard of others:

But I would suggest that, at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals, it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one's eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline (Murdoch 1997, 330).


1.3 The nature of “virtuous consciousness”


Thus, virtue consists in searching for, seeing and knowing the goodness in others, and not in discovering the permanent truth of abstract values and norms. So, according to Murdoch, the modern philosophers' focus on human will fails to dismantle selfishness, the central dilemma of moral life, which distorts the moral agent's perception of others. As Murdoch's moral psychology locates egoism directly at the image-creating processes of human consciousness, this process must be disrupted: “increasing awareness of the 'goods' and the attempt to attend to them purely, without self, brings with it an increasing unity and interdependence of the moral world” (1997, 375). Hence, virtue consists partially in the complex movement beyond the self, toward what Murdoch calls “virtuous consciousness,” and partially in the developed capacity for love. While Murdoch believes that virtue is the movement beyond the self, nonetheless life often shows that we constantly look after ourselves, day-dreaming in seeking consolation, for, "We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world” (1977, 369). Such fantasies about ourselves and the world around us, in Murdoch's judgment, inflate the ego to the point of becoming a world unto itself preventing us from ever achieving the real knowledge of other people.

While Murdoch opposes idle fantasy she elevates creative imagination, for the faculty of imagination and our aesthetic sensibility help us to generate and rehearse possible situations in which the reality and uniqueness of others can be revealed. The disciplined, creative use of attention and imagination, as opposed to fantasy, becomes central to our aesthetic perception of others, disrupting fantasy-beliefs about them resulting in the transformation of consciousness.
1 Given these considerations, it is not surprising that Murdoch sees unselfishness as an acquired condition through knowledge of the good because, “Objectivity and unselfishness are not natural to human beings … In the moral life the enemy is the fat, relentless ego” (1997, 341-342). For Murdoch, the fundamental moral problem is to acquire clarity of vision as the condition of virtuous consciousness. Virtue comes then through a complex process called “unselfing.” 2 A shift occurs through knowledge of the good, from focusing on others' outward conduct to cultivating one's own inner life of virtuous consciousness, from choice to vision, from will to consciousness, from outward conduct to inward knowledge.

Murdoch holds that the primary moral faculty for knowing the good is vision or perception. Her answer to what virtue is grounds value in the nature of reality. We know the good first by seeing it through a complex form of moral vision. As virtue is partially “unselfing” through knowledge of the good, we must first understand the meaning of the good. The reality of goodness is not grounded in an epistemology according to which the good is directly apprehended through reason (as in Plato's view); instead, for Murdoch, the good is mediated through a reflexive and linguistic turn with respect to her account of consciousness.
3 The good for Murdoch becomes real and absolute and not relative and optional; therefore, it cannot be related to human choice as in the Aristotelian tradition. Murdoch is a cognitivist in that goodness is an object of knowledge. For her, the crucial connection of the good is with what is real. And what is real is necessarily true. However, this connection does not depend on the postulation of a supersensible world of forms as in Plato's view. Murdoch's connection of the good with what is real hic and nunc links the concept of value to human life as a whole. All human life is lived under the aspect of the good as it is the framework and the background of all existence. It is indefinable because we cannot see it; instead, it facilitates our seeing. The good cannot be known as other things are known:

Asking what Good is, is not like asking what Truth or courage is, since in explaining the latter the idea of good must enter, it is that in the light of which the explanation must proceed… And if we try to define the Good as X we have to add that we mean of course a good X. If we say that Good is reason we have to talk about good judgment. If we say that Good is love we have to explain that there are different kinds of love. Even the concept of truth has its ambiguities and it is really only of Good that we can say 'it is the trial of itself and needs no other touch.' And with this I agree (Murdoch 1997, 380).


1.4 The idea of perfection


In considering the connection between the good and virtue, Murdoch is concerned with the relationship between language and reality. The good is a concept which occurs whenever we speak about seeking it, or loving it and implies a quality greater than the particular referent: “We may also speak seriously of ordinary things, people, works of art, as being good, although we are also well aware of their imperfections”(Murdoch 1997, 376). As concepts transcend reality and exist beyond representation, the nature of Murdoch's view of virtue as knowledge of the good resides in the need to maintain a belief in certain a priori truths, transcendent and indefinable. 4 She argues, “The concept good … is not a mere value tag of the choosing will, and functional and causal uses of 'good' (a good knife, a good fellow) are not, as some philosophers have wished to argue, clues to the structure of the concept”(1997, 376). Instead, Murdoch associates the good with what she calls 'the idea of perfection': “the proper seriousness of the term [good] refers us to a perfection which is perhaps never exemplified in the world we know ('There is no good in us') and which carries with it the idea of transcendence.“ (Ibid.).

For Murdoch, the good as transcendent operates through the idea of perfection, and thus has a connection with what's real and necessarily true. The posited connection with the idea of perfection runs through all human activities, because it is the ideal standard of performance. This standard of perfection is directly related to the nature of virtue as “unselfing.” Particular cases of various human activities exemplify the idea of perfection which corresponds to the standard of perfection appropriate in each instance. For example, the activity of teaching requires such a standard of perfection that every conscientious teacher aspires to. As an idea of perfection, goodness is also connected, by analogy with the attempt to see oneself in relationship with others; this practice of seeing and responding to the real world of others develops a virtuous consciousness by overcoming the tendency of the (selfish) ego to efface the reality of others. Accordingly, moral perception presupposes a fundamental relation between consciousness and morality. Murdoch attempts to save the epistemic and cognitive value of metaphysical beliefs in order to reaffirm the connection between morality (value) and knowledge (cognition). Such a connection is at the very center of Murdoch's view of the moral self. Murdoch's connection between the transcendent good and what is real does not depend on the existence of an intelligible world of Ideas or Forms (as in Plato's view), nor on the virtue of duty (as Kant maintains). Rather, Murdoch links the transcendent good with a virtuous consciousness:

Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the 'unself,' to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness, in the light of the idea of perfection. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. '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 (1997, 375).

Furthermore, the idea of perfection as a standard for all human activities emphasizes the objectivity of the good:

… the Good functions not only transcendentally, as the fundamental and necessary condition for human knowing, but also as a transcendent object that guides the direction of our knowledge. This represents one aspect of the metaphor of the sun [Murdoch uses] - as the “magnetic center” towards which knowledge strives. The Good represents [is reflected by] the ideal standard of perfection by which we measure our knowledge of the real as we come to know it in diverse forms of human activity (1997, 361).

Claims about human goods can be divided in two types: subjective and objective or perfectionist ones. Subjective claims make each person's good dependent on personal desires. By contrast, for perfectionists such as Murdoch, certain states of humans are objectively good.

She maintains that what is important for ethical inquiry is the development of human nature, since all humans possess certain essential and distinctive dispositions to perfect themselves morally. Such dispositions have to be considered in any ethical endeavor. In Murdoch's view, the main disposition is the learning ability all humans possess. All people have the ability to apprehend the idea of the good, and thus become virtuous. For this reason, everyone can experience moral change and progress. Murdoch holds that knowledge achievements and deep personal relations are intrinsically good and selfless. This results in moral virtue as the perfected knowledge of the good. Murdoch supports this common perfectionist claim by discussing at length the “selflessness” and “pointlessness” of virtue as it is displayed in good works of art and in the lives of humble people:

The indefinability of Good is connected with the unsystematic inexhaustible variety of the world and the pointlessness of virtue. In this respect there is a special link between the concept of good and the ideas of Death and Chance … a genuine sense of mortality enables us to see virtue as the only thing of worth; and it is impossible to limit and foresee the ways in which it will be required of us … there are few places where virtue really shines, great art and humble people. And can we, without improving ourselves, really see these things clearly? … We cannot then sum up human excellences for these reasons; the world is aimless, chancy, and huge, and we are blinded by self (Murdoch 1997, 381).

Conceiving virtue as intrinsically good, Murdoch considers vice as intrinsically evil. Benevolence, courage, love, etc. make life better; malice, envy, gluttony, etc. make it worse. Nevertheless, Murdoch's claim does not suggest that virtue is the only intrinsic good; she does hold that moral virtue is among other intrinsic goods. The main objection one might have to Murdoch's perfectionism is that such moral virtue is not related to human desires or interests. That is to say, her account makes any standard of perfection not a hypothetical imperative but a categorical imperative, similar to Kant.

1.5 Moral realism - imagination and attention

Murdoch's conception of value influences her account of virtue as she claims that we apprehend goodness in terms of virtues which belong to a continuous process of knowing the other. To better understand the nature of the good it is necessary to consider her argument for the reality of values. 5 This consideration will serve to clarify the nature of virtue as knowledge of the good. Murdoch's argument runs as follows: We find things of value not only in intellectual disciplines but also in nature as well as in products of human art:

There are important bridge ideas between morality and other, at first sight human activities, and these ideas are perhaps most clearly seen in the context of virtue … In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly … The value concepts are here patently tied on to the world, they are stretched as it were between the truth-seeking mind and the world, they are not moving about on their own as adjuncts of the personal will. The authority of morals is the authority of truth that is of reality (1997, 373-374).

Beauty found in a landscape as well as in music, painting or literature provides aspects of our experience of value traditionally ascribed to the field of aesthetics. On the other hand, the value of our lives or the evaluation of a person or of an action as good or bad, just or unjust, has been relegated to the distinct field of ethics. Murdoch synthesizes the two fields by recognizing that humans usually think about moral questions not in terms of abstract principles, with an aim to systematize some large moral experience, but contextually in terms of concrete relationships with other people. These relationships find value in people through lived experiences. Given this complexity of life, a realistic ethical view of the regard for others requires essentially viewing them through aesthetic perception and reflection. Such an investigation calls primarily for moral perception, which requires discipline to accomplish just as such disciplined training is necessary in art creation and appreciation. This is Murdoch's claim concerning the development of virtue as knowledge of the good in others.

Goodness, therefore, unites value and cognition in the perceptual and evaluative activity of consciousness. Thus, the concept of Good exists as a fundamental background of human knowledge and existence; understanding how such a background operates may prove a better way of understanding a moral situation. Since goodness is a unified perceived object of knowledge, Murdoch argues there is no pervasive gap between factual reality and individual value. Accordingly, judging right and wrong is mainly a matter of situational sensitivity. This is her unique moral claim.

If this is the case, the philosophers' moral task then becomes to say what it is for a moral viewpoint to be objective, or in Murdoch's terms, how we can best perfect our vision of the good through imagination and love. Murdoch is aware of this difficulty, which makes distinguishing between imagination and fantasy vital:

What counteracts the system [of self-centered fantasy] is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love. In the case of art and nature such attention is immediately rewarded by the enjoyment of beauty. In the case of morality, though there are sometimes rewards, the idea of a reward is out of place. Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will, but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions action … All just visions, even in the strictest problems of the intellect, and a fortiori when suffering or wickedness have to be perceived, are a moral matter. The same virtues, in the end the same virtue (love), are required, and fantasy (self) can prevent us from seeing a blade of grass just as it can prevent us from seeing another person (1977, 354-357).

Murdoch understands the conceptual process of imagining as an activity that implies the responsibility of stripping away individual selfishness, and thus allowing for the exploration of the reality of others. 7 The process of imagining corresponds to a sort of a personal venture into the outside world. Because we make the world as it is by imagining and attending to it, we are therefore responsible for what we see. This is to say that the concept of moral responsibility is not isomorphic with the sphere of action but with perception. We are responsible for engaging in this “imaginative seeing” as much as we are responsible for the world we create. The work of imagination is thus what produces moral vision, a vision that bridges facts and values: “The value concepts are here patently tied on to the world, they are stretched as it were between the truth-seeking mind and the world, they are not moving about on their own as adjuncts of the personal will. The authority of morals is the authority of truth, that is of reality” (Murdoch 1997, 374).

Even though reality and value are not logically distinct and separable, yet this synthesis is not an invitation to endorse all sorts of reductive realism. The kind of realism that Murdoch elaborates is not, strictly speaking, the Platonic kind of realism usually (if mistakenly) attributed to
Moore; the view that normative realities do not exist unless we make them. For Murdoch, reality is made normative through the operations of our mind, in a constructive work of the imagination, with the patient and humble exercise of attention and love. In intellectual disciplines as well as in the enjoyment of art and nature, we discover value in the world around us through our ability to forget ourselves, to be oriented towards the real, and to perceive it justly through love. In view of that, we use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this unity exhilarates us because it collapses the usual distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and the apprehension of the real. The same can be said about our relationships with others.

1.6 Love as “unselfing”


In one journal entry (July 9, 1976), Murdoch says, “Like Socrates, perhaps, love is the only subject on which I am really expert ?” (Conradi 2001, 6). The world of love is one of freedom and uncertainty, and humans' capacity to love — though it contains the desire for possession — can be separated from the urge to dominate. Murdoch does not provide a theory of love per se which seeks to explain how a person is in some respect the paradigmatic focus of our love while defining love. Perfectly aware that love is a concept too complex to fully explain, she seems to imply that one is loved not only as a bearer of loveable qualities but that love must encompass the totality of the beloved: “There is a paradox here about the nature of love itself. That the highest love is in some sense impersonal, is something which we can indeed see in art, but which I think we cannot see clearly, except in a very piecemeal manner, in the relationships of human beings” (1997, 361). How can love (as an imaginative construal of the other which engages attention and imagination) help one to overcome selfishness, as Murdoch claims? How does love come to be a virtue and also a means to virtue?

Murdoch contends that patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, thing, or situation, directs the will not only as unimpeded movement of reason but as something very much more like “obedience.” To illustrate the idea, Murdoch's personal experience of learning a foreign language is relevant for considering intellectual disciplines as a locus of exercising moral discipline. Learning a language requires attention, imagination, and also love. Learning a language certainly requires the apprehension of grammar rules which we also associate with public rules of usage. Nonetheless, if in the process of apprehending a language we refer only to the grammar rules, we do not appreciate entirely what the activity of learning a language is about such as in understanding idiomatic expressions. In giving this example, Murdoch especially insists on the notion of exercise. Patient study is the non-moral counterpart of the spiritual exercise of attending to the reality of something without incorporating it into one's consciousness:

I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure, which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which is independently of me. Attention is rewarded by knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something that my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal (Murdoch 1997, 373).

The study of a language requires patience and humility, the acknowledgment of ignorance (as Socrates considers virtue to require) and, most importantly, an understanding of the “otherness” of a foreign language. In studying, we also appeal to a standard of perfection, which transcends the reality of the subject as applied in the real world. To learn a language means to not only learn its grammar rules and how to apply them, but also to appreciate its individuality, its uniqueness and its independence. This fosters the love that is necessary for deeply understanding a foreign language. Thus the process of learning a language is both cognitive and affective with the capacity to learn requiring us to orient ourselves towards it in a sort of practical obedience. Selfish thoughts and interests must be put aside even when there is a practical value in learning a language. While learning a language for its intrinsic value, the effort displays virtue for it is an example of loving something real outside the self.

Similarly, the act of perceiving others through love especially engages attention and imagination. A loving gaze, however, needs to be qualified according to the role of love in cognition. Murdoch assimilates love of others into Plato's concept of Eros, which is also oriented toward seeing things in so far as they participate in the good. However, given that love is a movement toward the good, love may nonetheless be identified as a “knowable” goodness. The unity of the good as the unity of the virtues is realized through love. Virtue is goodness insofar as a human being participates in the good.

In Murdoch's view, it is love as the primary virtue that reveals the fullness of others. It is in loving others that one is just to them; justice resides in the realism of this love that does not project ideals of what others should be, but accepts them as they are. This accepting love needs to be disciplined by the aesthetic perception of the object of art or person, which implies exercising detachment to renounce the desire to own what you see: "What is truly beautiful is 'inaccessible' and cannot be possessed or destroyed" (1997, 348). Neither detachment nor the achievement of aesthetic perception through attentiveness toward others is easy to accomplish. However, through the force of disciplined love, the contemplation of beauty involves a movement towards transcendence. Ultimately, for Murdoch, morality is the perception of goodness through love. Realism and the idea of transcendence are, however, closely related in this view of love and goodness. Goodness is real in the person, but it cannot be grasped through concepts alone since it is particularly immanent in each person. The idea of the transcendence of goodness is connected in Murdoch's work, on one hand, with perfection.
8 Though somehow problematic, perfection is not an unattainable ideal; it is just a matter of the possibility of change toward the good. The possibility of change that the very idea of perfection might imply comes from the capacity to love that inspires us. The indefinable good expresses itself through the idea of perfection which organizes our understanding of how we should see the world.

Attention is the effort to counteract states of delusion that come from self-serving interests. Such an attempt to see others in an unselfish way as both the artist and the Good man do renders virtue selfless. And the struggle to do so takes place in the mind, at the level of consciousness. Virtue, then, is knowledge of the Good by love of others which allows for moral progress through spiritual struggle. The difficulty of attaining the “absolute virtue,” as I call it, which means the seeing of others selflessly, stems from the fact that those elements of our experience that are owed to the idiosyncrasies of our vision and those elements that reflect the way the other person really is are intertwined. It requires a continuous process of “unselfing” and reflection even to realize that the two can be separated. Under this model, we should not expect that our moral experience should arrive as a pre-packaged piece of observation followed by a rational response.



The main argument of this article is that to be moral is above all to have a regard for others. Murdoch conceives of the perfection of virtue through aesthetic perception as essential for the moral self in the process of learning how to see others as they really are. There is a connection between the good and seeing in that we always act on the good we see or perceive to be so: “I would suggest that the authority of the Good seems to us something necessary because the realism (ability to perceive reality) required for goodness is a kind of intellectual ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression of the self” (1997, 353). This kind of moral perception leaves room for moral progress and moral change. Thus, the fundamental background of virtue is not the will: it is the good, and seeing the good corresponds to the right description of moral situations. In order to be realistic, the perception should not be related to personal desires or interests; its relations with desires and interests are only contingent.

If we accept Murdoch's account of the moral significance of virtue as exclusively the regard for others, we are forced to challenge the traditional distinction between what is morally required and obligatory and what is, for Murdoch, an “ideal” moral self. Murdoch suggests that when a morally admirable person sees a situation as being one which requires a selfless action, his character is such that all other reasons are overridden by his perception of the moral requirement and thus he is motivated to act selflessly.

Murdoch does not think of the virtuous self as ascetic, or as one whose appetites for worldly things are weakened by training or by natural inclinations. Where the dictates of morality do not forbid it, the virtuous person can relish pleasure with as much zest as anyone. However, virtue requires a certain moral discipline, through struggle, which would, if circumstances were different, disregard any other course of action incompatible with what is morally right. Her perception of what is morally required silences her own desires, interests, needs, etc. Thus, the virtuous person for Murdoch, does not decide that, on balance, the path of virtue is to be preferred to that of vice. Simply, vice has nothing to put into the balance which could weigh against virtue. Similarly, self-interest could not weigh against virtue either. Consequently, virtue needs moral discipline and change of consciousness so as to better see the others, without being influenced by desires or interests. Thus seeing the Good of others is in itself the framework of the ethical life of humans.

If we conceive of virtue as Murdoch does, we also seem to cut ourselves off from any understanding of moral weaknesses or akratic phenomena. Common sense tells us that people often are knowledgeable of what morality requires for their actions towards others, yet they are tempted by other considerations (interests, desires, needs, etc.) and fail to comply with the standard of being moral as suggested by Murdoch. It looks like there cannot be a moral case where the moral person as Murdoch conceives of it, clearly perceives the right thing to do but fails to do it. Only the lack of clarity of moral perception results in doing wrong.

It is important to mention that beyond her emphasis on morally perceiving others, Murdoch does not deny the importance of acting morally by following moral rules. For her, facts and values are morally related and the clarity of vision of the situation becomes the condition of the right action towards others. Perception itself is a mode of evaluation so that for Murdoch, virtue is merely a matter of perception and change of consciousness. Thus the moral self as other-regarding does not only respect the virtues in others; it has a regard for others especially when they suffer or fail to come up to a standard of virtue.

One might argue that there is something superhuman about such an account of the moral self. In fact, we may never attain it. It represents, however, Murdoch's conclusion of what she thinks is a realist account of morality. The distinctive ways that virtuous ones see situations which enable them to clearly perceive the demands of morality regarding others, distinguish them from less moral people. The less those considerations of what would be in their interest or would satisfy some craving distract them from looking at a situation, the more truly moral they become. Concerning the claim that Murdoch's view disregards phenomena of weakness of will, an answer is possible. One might assume that inattentiveness to others is related to a weak will in her account. The moral struggle must involve the will, at least to the extent that attention must be properly directed if it is to become a real form of seeing. Murdoch claims it is the function of the novel to develop this kind of attentiveness to others. It may well be that some problems related to weakness of will may alternatively be understood as failures of a consciousness that is not adequately, not comprehensively, engaged in acquiring a vision of others. For “seeing” others is not simply like seeing an orange. It is a matter of coming to a sense of the others' life as a whole, of understanding actions and attitudes in relation to the others' understanding of what is good and whom they are. We all have had the experience of not being able to put a novel down. One way of interpreting this attitude is to say that one cannot be drawn away from the book, precisely because one is so thoroughly and deeply engaged with its characters. Perhaps there would be an analogous phenomenon when it comes to morals, of not being able to put others aside, so much does one's vision of others engage one's concern. So, on this view, weakness of will is just a superficial attention.

Nonetheless, one of the most difficult points to grasp in Murdoch's account of moral virtue is the claim that the idea of the good is transcendental for knowledge. As we recall, Murdoch fills in, albeit without definition, the way in which we should understand love. Since we do have experience of the tragedy and triumphs of others, the concepts that make this experience possible must be shared. Fundamental in this context seems to be the idea of the good. Without such an idea, we cannot acquire knowledge of others. Hence, the good is a universal necessary condition for the possibility of such knowledge of others. Murdoch's attempt to find such a universal condition appears to be question-begging. It assumes that we have an experience that is knowledge of the relevant sort. That is what grounds the claim about the concept/idea being universal and necessary. But is it clear that our ideas of the tragedies and triumphs of others is knowledge? Perhaps we have such ideas of them only in virtue of projecting upon them a sense of our own good that comes from the map of fundamental approvals which we have been socialized to and/or adopted, in the creative reinvention of ourselves. The experience of tragedy and triumph might, arguably, be more a function of an idea of beauty (Kantian-like) tied to certain, ultimately, subjective ideas of whom we are as ends, than an idea of a necessarily objective good. In conclusion, Murdoch's transcendental argument seems unable to provide the metaphysical understanding of morality she requires.



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1.  In a dialogue with Bryan Magee about the relation between philosophy and literature, Murdoch makes the distinction between fantasy and imagination. "It may be useful to contrast 'fantasy' as bad with 'imagination' as good ... fantasy is the strong cunning enemy of the discerning, intelligent, more truly inventive power of the imagination, and in condemning art for being 'fantastic' one is condemning it for being untrue." See Talking Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2001, 236.

2.  The process of "purifying" (this is the term Murdoch uses) consciousness from selfish desire involves the change of perception through imagination. The process is normative and requires moral struggle. Like all novelists, Murdoch makes a distinction between a good character, which, if real we consider virtuous, and a good characterization of a fictional character, which is well presented regardless of its behavior. Good novelists ought to love all their characters no matter their behavior, Murdoch states. The world of the novelist is always metaphorical of our own. By means of metaphors the novelist organizes areas of human thought and feelings thus creating unique characters. In contrast to the scientist who organizes observations of the natural world of facts through a system of mathematical and logical connections, the novelist recreates the facts about characters through imagination. Differently conveyed through imagination, the truth does not presuppose rational argument as it does in science. The novelist does not describe a world of facts through observation; instead, she constructs a world of characters similar to our own through imagination. We should not confuse real people with fictional characters. Real people exist in a context of other people and have their own history. The novelist must struggle to depict (represent) characters by paying particular attention to how people's stories create their own images. Though fictional characters exist only in the language of the novel in which they are presented; for the novelist, it is worth paying attention to what those images of real people assume about human character precisely because the process of creation is similar to the way we get to know and understand real people and because we, too, constantly make and act on assumptions about human character. That is why Murdoch claims that people make images of themselves and others and then they attempt to assemble them in a way that renders them unique.

3.  Maria Antonaccio qualifies Murdoch's view of morality as "reflexive realism." She uses the term to contrast both the meaning of moral realism and that of literary realism. Murdoch's realism seems to be reflexive in nature because reality exists for her not only outside us but also as mediated through our consciousness and perception. If so, the good is revealed through the medium of consciousness as it reflects on itself; yet, this act of reflexivity renders the good as an ideal-limit or perfection that transcends consciousness. In Murdoch's view consciousness contains an implicit ideal of perfected moral knowledge by which it is also evaluated in actual attitudes towards others. Murdoch's kind of realism is not analogous to the empirical assumptions of the scientific kind. Scientific analogy in her "reflexive realism" is replaced by aesthetic analogy. For more details, see Antonio, Maria and Schweiker, William, (eds.) Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

4.  For both Plato and Murdoch, morality is not only about conduct. Murdoch states: "Human nature, as opposed to the nature of other hypothetical rational beings, has certain discoverable attributes and these should be suitably considered in any discussion of morality. Secondly, since an ethical system cannot but commend an ideal, it should commend a worthy ideal. Ethics should not be merely an analysis of ordinary mediocre conduct; it should be a hypothesis about good conduct and about how this can be achieved. "How can we make ourselves better?" is the question moral philosophers should attempt to answer" (Murdoch 1997, 364).

5.  The main claim of classical moral realism is that, whether or not our moral beliefs are true depends on the way things are. Whatever their differences, moral realists hold in common that there is a moral reality independent of our moral beliefs, which determines if they are true or false. There are moral truths which can be recognized, and it depends on us to discover and recognize them. Their existence does not, however, depend upon our recognition of them only. The central idea of the realist is that in moral experiences we are genuinely sensitive to moral properties. Moral properties of things or actions are essentially part of the configuration of the world. The alternative view is the so-called "moral irrealism." There is no moral reality, its advocates claim; hence, our moral convictions are not best thought of as moral beliefs. We invent our personal moral values, consequently, there is no moral reality independent of us. To believe something is to believe that it is true, and moral opinions cannot be true or false ipso facto. As a moral realist, Murdoch supports that there is moral reality and its existence is independent of our moral beliefs. Our moral task then consists in discovering existing values, rather than attaching them to facts by acts of will and choices. Murdoch's account of realism, though different from the classical one, conceives the nature of the good to be without separation of values from facts. Goodness is an object of knowledge, desire and love. Goodness is conceived metaphysically, as a value, which we discover in the world. Goodness is indefinable not for reasons connected with human will and choice, as Moore and his successors argued; it is indefinable because understanding goodness partakes of the difficulty of apprehending the reality (Murdoch 1997, 336). Murdoch insists that human beliefs and judgments -- aesthetic, moral and religious -- are not subjective utterances but rather modes of knowledge and meaningful explanations of the world. By conceiving the idea of goodness as primarily connected with questions of truth and knowledge, rather than the will, Murdoch appeals to a cognitivist conception of the Good influenced by a Platonic understanding of reality. Murdoch believes that moral properties are real properties: therefore, moral questions are as much questions of fact as are any other questions. Murdoch disregards as mistaken the distinction between descriptive and evaluative meaning. The answer to the metaphysical question, "What is the Good? " grounds value in the nature of reality therefore she claims that moral evaluation is inherent to the way we experience the world. As a moral realist, Murdoch maintains that we should take the way our embodied experience represents the world very seriously, for this experience reveals moral beliefs as objective entities, independent of our feelings about them. This requires in turn, careful moral perceptions, a careful seeing. There is no human experience apart from the good as all human life is, as Murdoch thinks, lived in the light of the good. Thus, the moral self as other-directed has sense only as a part of the framework of reality that is configured in the light of the good. And by good, Murdoch means virtue, which is not an object of sense, or an abstract concept: it is the fundamental background of human life itself.

6.  As well known, both Aristotle and Plato see virtue as the expression of good inner motives or states. Aristotle thought that practical reasoning is connected to a complex perception of one's situation and he relates the correct moral choice to perception. In the essay, "The Discernment of Perception -- An Aristotelian Conception of Private and Public Rationality," Martha Nussbaum notes that Aristotle's statement, "The discernment rests with perception," reflects the priority of perception of a more informal and intuitive kind over learning general moral rules. Thus, through experience, deliberative, emotional and social skills enable the moral agent to choose in a way which is suitable to each particular situation. For more details see the essay in Love's Knowledge- Essay on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford University Press, 1990, 54.

7.  Murdoch refers to an analogy between our moral sensibility in perceiving others and the aesthetic sensibility of a good novelist whose disciplined capacity to appreciate the reality of others inhibits the temptations of personal fantasy in portraying characters. The reflexive power of moral imagination that Murdoch insists upon in her view of the moral self as other-directed reveals the crucial connection between aesthetic experience and moral sensibility through perception and imagination. Murdoch develops at length her view of the role of imagination in her literary theory. Imagination allows good writers to explore the reality of their characters' mode of existence but, most importantly, it engages the readers by allowing them to learn about real people from the characters in fiction. In real life imagination is also a very important way of understanding others by projecting ourselves in their situations. There is also a response to others' situations in our imagination. On the basis of our imagined response to others' realities we are able to understand their thoughts and actions. According to Murdoch, a novel possesses realism when it enables us to engage in a kind of empathic and compassionate understanding with its characters. When we are responding that way to its characters, we are responding to fiction as to life. Moral objectivity or realism is not divorced from the perceiving subject. The realism of a great novelist is not a photographic realism it is essentially a perception of others, which implies both love and justice. The novelist's realism is devoid of any interest or selfish desire; it is based on attention to the reality of characters through love.

8. Murdoch substitutes perfection for Kant's notion of "idea." For Kant, we cannot have knowledge about freedom, about God, about cosmos, etc. as a whole. Nevertheless, because of the faculty of reason we can have ideas about them. The ideas of reason are regulative ideas necessary to grasp the world as a whole. While we cannot form a concept of the Good, we can have an idea of it through the idea of perfection. The idea of the good therefore becomes a regulative idea for seeing human life as a meaningful whole. To illustrate the impossibility of defining the good, Murdoch uses an analogy between human conduct and the artist's idea of perfection. Both are related through love of others. Their relation springs from the aesthetic apprehension of beauty.

Copyright 2003 Minerva.
All rights are reserved, but fair and good faith use with full attribution may be made of this work for educational or scholarly purposes.

Dr. Ana Lita is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Lincoln University of Missouri, USA. She studied History of Philosophy at The University of Bucharest, Romania, Sociology at the Central European University in Prague and Applied Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA. Currently she is interested in virtue ethics, especially the connection between ethics and aesthetics.

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Iris Murdoch


Iris Murdoch

The Sovereignty of Good

Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools:


Iris Murdoch is best known as a novelist. She is the author of 26 novels as well as a few plays and a volume of poetry. You would do well to read one or two of her novels during the course of the year – perhaps during the holidays. (More philosophical wide reading.) Murdoch did not write a great deal of formal academic philosophy. Instead, like Sartre, she preferred to communicate her ideas through literature. However one of her philosophical works that may be useful is her book on Sartre – Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (Vintage 1999). It is a valuable opportunity to see what one of our authors thinks about another.

Murdoch worked as an academic philosopher for most of her life. In her later years, she suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. Her husband, the critic John Bayley, has written a memoir of her life entitled, Iris. This book has been turned into a movie which was released in January 2002.

Like Nietzsche, Murdoch’s initial education was in Classics and like him, her philosophy is heavily influenced by the Greeks. In contrast to Nietzsche, however, her major influence was Plato. In fact in the circles of philosophy she is seen as a modern day Platonist. She attempts to provide a more secular reading of the apparent mysticism that can be found in the works of Plato, what she calls an “unesoteric mysticism” (The Sovereignty of Good, p 92). Since we began with Plato’s Gorgias, we could say that, with Murdoch the course has turned full circle.

Murdoch on the Sovereignty of Good

We will be reading an extract from Murdoch’s essay ‘On the Sovereignty of Good over other Concepts’ which is one essay of four in a collection published as The Sovereignty of Good in 1970. For our purposes, there is no need to use the full title of the essay; The Sovereignty of Good will suffice.

We can divide the extract (roughly) into three parts:

        Murdoch outlines two requirements for moral philosophy along with two fundamental assumptions (pp 78-79)

        A diagnosis of the weaknesses of the dominant (Kantian) model of morality. (pp 79-83)

        Murdoch’s own answer to the practical question of how to live well. (pp 83-93)

Two requirements and two assumptions

Read pp 78-79 (up to “… a human experience which has nothing outside it”.)

According to Murdoch, moral philosophy must manage at the same time to be both realistic and idealistic. How?

You often hear it offered as a criticism of a given moral theory that it is idealistic. “It’s all very well but how many people are going to act like that?” As we will soon see, this can be a fair criticism. And yet, surely it would equally be a criticism of a moral theory to say that it does no more than describe how humans actually behave. A moral philosophy should be normative and not merely descriptive. It is meant to offer an ideal, to offer us challenges.

By the same token, it certainly would be a criticism of a moral theory if no person could behave as that theory suggests that they should. Nothing can be an ideal unless it is at least partially or sometimes attainable by beings like us. A moral philosophy must present an ideal that humans could conceivably obtain without losing their humanity. Hence a moral theory must be true to what we know about human nature.

So what do we know about human nature? There may be a great deal else to be said but here Murdoch offers two crucial assumptions: (1) that humans are by nature selfish and (2) that human life has no external telos (pronounced tell-oss). That is, human life has no goal, end or purpose.

This idea of a telos is what Sartre was rejecting in rejecting the idea of human nature. As we saw, he seems to believe that to believe in human nature is necessarily to believe in a telos. Consequently if we reject the idea of a telos, we must reject that of a nature.

Murdoch here disagrees and she is surely right. We can say a great deal about what humans are without implying anything about our purpose.

A question that we will have to keep in mind is whether Murdoch’s non-religious claims about human nature provide a sufficient foundation for morality.


      What can be said about human nature without appeal to religious faith?

      Brainstorm a list of common human qualities. Do these constitute ‘human nature’? Why/why not?

      Are these claims about human nature sufficient foundation for morality? Why/why not?

Murdoch’s rejection of telos, like Sartre’s, springs from her atheism. Again like that of Sartre and Nietzsche, Murdoch’s atheism is not defended here but assumed.

Murdoch’s other assumption is that human beings are naturally selfish. To quote a memorable phrase from an earlier essay in this collection: “In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego.” (‘On “God” and Good”,’ The Sovereignty of Good p 52)

Note that Murdoch is not saying that human beings are always selfish. Nor can she be saying that we are radically selfish. If that were true, why would we admire unselfish behaviour? I suppose we might admire unselfish behaviour in others because of its tendency to benefit us. However our admiration for unselfish behaviour in others often leads us to imitate it or at least aspire to imitate it.

All other things being equal, left to our own devices, our behaviour tends to be selfish. In most cases, unselfish behaviour requires us to push against the tide of our nature.

Note Murdoch’s own elucidation of this point.

 consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain.”(78f)

She is not merely saying that we have a Walter Mitty-like tendency escape from reality into a fictionalised world. No doubt that is also true. She is saying something stronger, that our perceptions are almost always distorted by our own interests and desires. No doubt this is particularly true of other perceptions of ourselves and other people. Spend a few moments considering the implications of this view.

Note also Murdoch’s atheism is hinted at already in her suggestion that religion is one species of motivated self-deception (“fictions of a theological nature”). Although we will find that Murdoch is somewhat more sympathetic to the religious impulse, there is a close parallel between what Murdoch says here and Nietzsche’s views. Go back and re-read sections 346 and 347 of The Gay Science in the light of Murdoch’s remarks here.

Does Murdoch have an argument for this claim? Like her rejection of a telos, it is an assumption. She invites us to measure this claim against our own experience.

I think we can probably recognize ourselves in this rather depressing description.” (p 79)


      To what extent is Murdoch’s “depressing description” true to your experience?

      To what extent do you accept Murdoch’s other assumption and her two requirements for morality?

The problem with Kant

Read pages 79 – 83  (up to “… good political philosophy is not necessarily good moral philo­sophy”)

Kant himself was not an atheist, however, as Murdoch notes, he decisively undermined the traditional proofs of the existence of God. He showed how each of these ‘proofs’ rests upon an unfounded leap of logic.

Many people today assume that Christians have always universally believed in an absolute gap between faith and reason. They assume that Christians have always regarded the search for proofs of the existence of God as a failure of faith. While there have always been Christians who have believed these things, it is by no means essential Christian doctrine. In fact, it is official Catholic doctrine that “God, the principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world, by the natural light of human reason . . .  those things, which in themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, can, in the present condition of the human race, be known by all with ease, with firm certainty, and without the contamination of error” (First Vatican Council, 1870).  Probably the majority of educated Christians, including many Catholics, would doubt that confident claim. This is undoubtedly a legacy of Kant.

According to Kant, moral goodness depends upon the good will. Everything else that we call ‘good’ – good actions, good consequences – these are only good to the extent that they spring from a good will.

And what is a good will? It is a will that is guided by the Categorical Imperative.

Note that although the Categorical Imperative is a constraint on the Good Will, it is nonetheless a self-imposed constraint. When reason recognizes what are the conditions of our own free action, we legislate for those conditions. Because the will creates these constraints for itself, the will remains sovereign.

Murdoch does not dwell on the mechanism of Kantian ethics. Instead she turns to the qualities of ‘Kantian Man’: Rationality, Courage, and Alienation.

Alienation has two aspects, alienation from nature and from other people.

From nature. Religion had taught Mediaeval Man to see himself as the pinnacle of creation. All creation exists to serve man. In contrast, Kantian Man finds himself in a world that is at best indifferent to his purposes and schemes. Again, go back to Nietzsche or the poem Dover Beach.

From other people. According to Kant, one of the characteristics of the Enlightenment is the rejection of tradition. Aquinas had said that authority is the weakest argument; Kant says that it is no argument at all. So Kantian Man is alienated from his past. This alienation from tradition means that he owes no essential allegiance to any community. He does not say as the American patriot is supposed to say, “My country right or wrong”. His allegiance is to abstract values – liberty, equality, justice – which he may or may not find instantiated in his own community. If he does find them realized in the institutions of his society, they will always be imperfectly realized.

Note the genealogy that Murdoch traces from Kant through Nietzsche to Sartre. Murdoch’s reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost is the first of a series of literary examples in this essay. Throughout, Murdoch assumes familiarity with a good deal of literature. Although the point of the examples is lost if you do not know the works in question, still her general point is clear enough.

Sovereignty of the Will or of Good?

“The sovereign moral concept is freedom, or possibly courage in a sense which identifies it with freedom, will, power.” (80f)

It is easy to miss the importance of this sentence. Murdoch has chosen her words carefully. Remember that the title of this essay is ‘The Sovereignty of Good over other concepts’. What are these ‘other concepts’? Here they are: ‘freedom’, ‘courage’, ‘will’, ‘power’.

For Kant and his successors, as we have seen, the ‘will’ is sovereign. The will is the source of all value; it is the will that makes things ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

According to most modern philosophers, the idea that there is Good ‘out there’ in the world is one of the ideas that is supposed to have died with the death of God. Morality is something that we make rather than something that we find in the world. At this point in the essay, we don’t yet know how but it is clear that Murdoch is going to challenge this view. Our will does need to be subject to something outside itself – the Good. Our freedom is not absolute.


For Kant, no action that is motivated by emotion can be rational. The moral emotion Achtung (respect for the moral law) is a by-product of acting morally; it cannot be the motivation. There are some similarities between Kant’s view and the role of pleasure in Aristotle’s Ethics. For Aristotle thought that the virtuous person takes pleasure in doing the right thing, even though this pleasure can never be the motive for acting well. 


During the eighteenth century, the Sublime was a major focus of discussion in aesthetics along with the Beautiful. What is beautiful inspires a kind of pleasure or delight in us, while the Sublime inspires feelings of awe, even fear. We encounter the Sublime when these emotions are inspired by what is huge and powerful in nature. Hence a tranquil lake nestled amid snow-capped mountains may be beautiful but the same scene on a stormy day with the waters of the lake agitated by a tempestuous wind might be sublime. Mountains and oceans in general tend to be sublime.

We experience the Sublime when we confront the awful contingency of nature or of human fate and return into ourselves with a proud shudder of rational power.” (The Sovereignty of Good, p81f)

What Murdoch is summarizing in this passage is Kant’s explanation of our feelings in the face of the Sublime. We find large mountains sublime not only because we recognize in them the blind power of the forces of nature but also because this reminds us of the nobility of our own reason. We find a tragedy of Euripides sublime because we recognize both the arbitrariness of Fate that raises men on high and brings them low and the nobility of human nature that faces this Fate.

It is this conception of the Sublime that Murdoch criticizes. Why? It is too self-regarding. Our reasons for admiring the Sublime or the Beautiful do not hinge upon the qualities of the things themselves but upon us. A little later (p 85), Murdoch quotes a poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “O Lady! we receive but what we give,/ And in our life alone does Nature live” (Dejection: An Ode,1802).

As the eighteenth century philosophers discussed these concepts, it is not clear whether the Sublime or the Beautiful are primarily the names of qualities in objects or of the feelings that these qualities inspire. Murdoch would have us go with the unphilosophical instinct that regards the feelings we experience as responses to real qualities in things – to real Beauty or Sublimity.


“When Kant wanted to find something clean and pure outside the mess of the selfish empirical psyche he followed a sound instinct …” (83)

Up to a point, Murdoch thinks that Kant was right to distrust the emotions. They are a powerful way in which our “fat relentless ego” asserts itself.

In discussing Sartre’s debt to Kant, we have already seen Kant regarded a good will as one that acts not from inclination but from duty. This distinction depends upon his distinction between the Empirical Ego and the Transcendental Ego:

      the Empirical Ego – the self that has inclinations – i.e., desires, interests, motivations, tastes, hopes and illusions. Everything that makes up our individual personality, the personality studied by empirical psychology.

      the Transcendental Ego – our rational self. This is the same for everyone – for Kant “the wild man of the woods, man in the state of nature and the bourgeois are all contained in the same definition and have the same fundamental qualities” (Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism). This common nature is not mapped out by psychology but by reason, that is, by logic and philosophy.

In other words, we are essentially thinking beings whose decision-making is clouded by our emotions. Kantian ethics urges us to strip back or set aside the empirical ego – our own particular desires, wishes, hopes and prejudices  – and to think with the Transcendental Ego. This is what we are doing when we apply the Categorical Imperative – when we imagine ourselves as legislators in a Kingdom of Ends.

Though Kant identified the problem correctly, Murdoch believes that his response was to produce another unrealistic theory of human nature (cf. 78). Kant’s theory does not help to overcome the influence of the “fat relentless ego” because the will is made sovereign.

Iris Murdoch: the way to the Good

Transcending the Ego

We have seen that Murdoch regards religious faith as one of the tricks of the ‘fat relentless ego’. In this, she agrees substantially with Nietzsche. However, Murdoch does think that many religious traditions get one thing right that is missed by the tradition to which Nietzsche belongs. If the problem is to develop a theory of ethics that identifies realistic strategies for overcoming our own selfishness, a theory that places the will at its heart is doomed to fail. (83) 

Read pages 83-84 (up to …..objectivity connected with virtue)

In fact, the religious view is more realistic than voluntaristic (i.e., will based) theories of human action. Many religious traditions believe that the path to virtue begins with the purification of the consciousness. Many religious traditions provide us with methods for transcending our own egos. Some of these methods include various forms of meditation (from the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius to Zen Meditation), charitable works or even simply performing your household chores in the right frame of mind (for instance, early Christian monasticism or Zen Buddhism).

Although Murdoch looks to Plato for her path to purification of the consciousness, I suspect that she was also influenced by some of these other traditions. Nonetheless, Murdoch’s conception of this road to purification remains more secular, less mystical than Plato or any of these religious viewpoints.


Remember, our purpose is to overcome our own ego, to strip back the selfish desires that cloud our vision. How can this be done? By finding some peephole onto reality, some moment in our experience when the ego is not dominant. Fortunately for us, there are several possibilities.

Read pages 84-85

Our first window on reality is natural beauty, those moments when we forget ourselves in delight at natural beauty. According to Murdoch, we have an instinct for beauty. For this reason, beauty can break through to us even when we are most preoccupied with our own selfish concerns.

Our second window is (Fine) Art. Fine Art – painting and sculpture, literature and music – can show us beauty; it can also force us to contemplate realities that we might prefer to ignore. Art can do these things but it can also do the opposite. It can help us to hide from reality; it can collude with the ‘fat relentless ego’. This is why Plato himself was suspicious of the Arts of poetry and music. In his Republic and in The Laws, Plato famously banned these arts from his vision of the ideal society. (Iris Murdoch has written a short book on this aspect of Plato’s thought, The Fire and the Sun, Oxford University Press, 1977.)

Read pages 84-88

From pp 85-88, Murdoch is exploring the distinction between Good Art that helps us to step out of ourselves and Art that leads us into a Fantasy world.

Read pages 88-90 (up to…no further has achieved the whole of virtue)

Our third window is to lose ourself in the practice of some techne. Techne (pronounced teck-nay; plural technai – teck-nigh) is often translated ‘art’. This translation is usually somewhat misleading but in the context of Murdoch’s argument, this translation would look completely odd. A techne is any kind of systematic human activity, any technique – that’s where our word comes from.

Any study that allows us to lose ourselves is conducive to living well. Murdoch mentions the study of a language. Plato’s favourite example is the study of mathematics. In Japanese culture, the practice of a Martial Art, when properly pursued, serves this function, as do Arts such as Calligraphy, Flower Arranging and the Tea Ceremony.

[Compare Murdoch’s comments on the necessity for virtue in science with Nietzsche, ‘How we, too, are still pious’ The Gay Science 344.]

You should not make the mistake of thinking that Murdoch is claiming that these pursuits are the Good Life. They may be constituents of a Good Life. However, they are also means to a greater end, namely the practice of virtue.

Read page 91 to end

All of these arts and technai can train us in virtue, if we approach them in the right spirit. Learning to overcome ourselves in our relations with other people is far harder than appreciating beauty in art and nature, far harder than learning Russian or calculus or earning a black belt. We may do these things for their own sake but we also do them so that we are more likely to succeed in the difficult realm of ethics.

These arts and technai are good training because in them we can learn to forget the self and see the world as it is. For the Good is always something that transcends our individual egos.


It is very easy to ‘lose oneself’ in a well-wrought piece of escapism, whether it be a book or a movie or a computer game. This seems like a setting aside of the ego. Surely, that’s a good thing, on Murdoch’s account.

What is the difference between escapism and the kind of ‘self-forgetting’ that she recommends? Clue: refer to her discuss of ‘fantasy art’.



Consider the following questions:

        Why is the contemplation of beauty the starting-point of Murdoch’s theory of the Good Life?

        Why is it easier to transcend the self in the contemplation of nature than in contemplating art?

According to Murdoch, what are the features of good art, that is art that is suitable for the kind of contemplation she has in mind?

Notes: art, literature, morality, virtue, etc.[13Sep99]                                                                                                                                 B. W. Jorgensen
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1970, 1996).

"The Idea of Perfection."

But the most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations. (34)

I have used the word 'attention,' which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality. I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent. (34)

I can only choose within the world I can see, in the moral sense of 'see' which implies that clear vision is a result of moral imagination and moral effort. (37)

But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices. What happens in between such choices is indeed what is crucial. I would like on the whole to use the word 'attention' as a good word and use some more general term like 'looking' as the neutral word. Of course psychic energy flows, and more readily flows, into building up convincingly coherent but false pictures of the world, complete with systematic vocabulary. . . . Attention is the effort to counteract such states of illusion. (37)

The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like 'obedience'. (40)

In particular situations 'reality' as that which is revealed to the patient eye of love is an idea entirely comprehensible to the ordinary person. (40)

        I said that any artist would appreciate the notion of will as obedience to reality, an obedience which ideally reaches a position where there is no choice. One of the great merits of the moral psychology which I am proposing is that it does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle. (41)

. . . we must come back to what we know about great art and about the moral insight which it contains and the moral achievement which it represents. Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely part of the same structure. . . . Virtue is au fond the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature: something which is easy to name but very hard to achieve. (41)

If apprehension of good is apprehension of the individual and the real, then good partakes of the infinite elusive character of reality. (42)

The task of attention goes on all the time and at apparently empty and everyday moments we are 'looking', making those little peering efforts of imagination which have such important cumulative results. (43)

We often receive an unforeseen reward for a fumbling half-hearted act: a place for the idea of grace. (43)

. . . attention is our daily bread. (44)

"On 'God' and 'Good'."

Objectivity and unselfishness are not natural to human beings. (51)

In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego. (52)

Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love. With it goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavour which overcomes empirical limitations of personality. What is this attention like, and can those who are not religious believers still conceive of profiting by such an activity? (55)

One might start from the assertion that morality, goodness, is a form of realism. . . . The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one. Rilke said of Cezanne that he did not paint 'I like it', he painted 'There it is'. This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline. One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals, or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals. We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need. (59)

Art presents the most comprehensible examples of the almost irrestistible human tendency to seek consolation in fantasy and also of the effort to resist this and the vision of reality which comes with success. Success in fact is rare. Almost all art is a form of fantasy-consolation and few artists achieve the vision of the real. . . . To silence and expel self, to contemplate and delineate nature with a clear eye, is not easy and demands a moral discipline. A great artist is, in respect of his work, a good man, and, in the true sense, a free man. The consumer of art has an analogous task to its producer: to be disciplined enough to see as much reality in the work as the artist has succeeded in putting into it, and not to 'use it as magic'. The appreciation of beauty in art or nature is not only (for [64/65] all its difficulties) the easiest available spiritual exercise; it is also a completely adequate entry into (and not just analogy of) the good life, since it is the checking of selfishness in the interest of seeing the real. . . . But the greatest art is 'impersonal' because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all. (64-65)

        It is important too that great art teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self. . . . Unselfish contemplation of nature exhibits the same quality of detachment: selfish concerns vanish, nothing exists except the things which are seen. Beauty is that which attracts this particular sort of unselfish attention. (65)

I would suggest that the authority of the Good seems to us something necessary because the realism (ability to perceive reality) required for goodness is a kind of intellectual ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression of self. (66)

The great artist sees his objects (and this is true whether they are sad, absurd, repulsive or even evil) in a light of justice and mercy. The direction of attention is, contrary to nature, outward, away from self which reduces all to a false unity, towards the great surprising variety of the world, and the ability so to direct attention is love. (66)

It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. (66-67)

What counteracts the system [of self-centered fantasy] is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love. In the case of art and nature such attention is immediately rewarded by the enjoyment of beauty. In the case of morality, though there are sometimes rewards, the idea of a reward is out of place. Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will, but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions action. (67)

What does seem to make perfect sense in the Platonic myth [of the cave] is the idea of the Good as the source of light which reveals to us all things as they really are. All just vision, even in the strictest problems of the intellect, and a fortiori when suffering or wickedness have to be perceived, is a moral matter. The same virtues, in the end the same virtue (love), are required, and fantasy (self) can prevent us from seeing a blade of grass just as it can prevent us from seeing another person. (70)

Action is an occasion for grace, or for its opposite. (71)

The Good has nothing to do with purpose, indeed it excludes the idea of purpose. 'All is vanity' is the beginning and the end of ethics. The only genuine way to be good is to be good 'for nothing' in the midst of a scene where every 'natural' thing, including one's own mind, is subject to chance, that is, to necessity. That 'for nothing' is indeed the experienced correlate of the invisibility or non-representable blankness of the idea of Good itself. (71)

The background to morals is properly some sort of mysticism, if by this is meant a non-dogmatic essentially unformulated faith in the reality of the Good, occasionally connected with experience. (74)

For both the collective and the individual salvation of the human race, art is doubtless more important than philosophy, and literature most important of all. (76)

"The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts."

By opening our eyes we do not necessarily see what confronts us. We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world. (84)

. . . I shall start by speaking of what is perhaps the most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for 'unselfing', and that is what is popularly called beauty. . . . Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. (84)

A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees. 'Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystical.' (85, quoting Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.44)

A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer's consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of what is great can have its effect. Art, and by 'art' from now on I mean good art, not fantasy art, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis and its enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. (85)

Art is a human product and virtues as well as talents are required of the artist. The good artist, in relation to his art, is brave, truthful, patient, humble . . . . (86)

These [representational] arts, especially literature and painting, show us the peculiar sense in which the concept of virtue is tied on to the human condition. They show us the absolute pointlessness of virtue while exhibiting its supreme importance; the enjoyment of art is a training in the love of virtue. The pointlessness of art is not the pointlessness of a game; it is the pointlessness of human life itself, and form in art is properly the simulation of the self-contained aimlessness of the universe. Good art reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolutely random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form. This form often seems to us mysterious because it resists the easy patterns of the fantasy, whereas there is nothing mysterious about the forms of bad art since they are the recognizable and familiar rat-runs of selfish day-dream. Good art shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision. [86/87] We are presented with a truthful image of the human condition in a form which can be steadily contemplated; and indeed this is the only context in which many of us are capable of contemplating it at all. Art transcends selfish and obsessive limitations of personality and can enlarge the sensibility of its consumer. It is a kind of goodness by proxy. Most of all it exhibits to us the connection, in human beings, of clear realistic vision with compassion. The realism of a great artist is not a photographic realism, it is essentially both pity and justice.

Herein we find a remarkable redemption of our tendency to conceal death and chance by the invention of forms. Any story which we tell about ourselves consoles us since it imposes pattern upon something which might otherwise seem intolerably chancy and incomplete. However, human life is chancy and incomplete. It is the role of tragedy, and also of comedy, and of painting to show us suffering without a thrill and death without a consolation. Or if there is any consolation it is the austere consolation of a beauty which teaches that nothing in life is of any value except the attempt to be virtuous. . . . It is not easy to portray death, real death, not fake prettified death. Even Tolstoy did not manage it in Ivan Ilych, although he did elsewhere. The great deaths of literature are few, but they show us with an exemplary clarity the way in which art invigorates us by a juxtaposition, almost an identification, of pointlessness and value. The death of Patroclus, the death of Cordelia, the death of Petya Rostov. All is vanity. The only thing which is of real importance is the ability to see it all clearly and respond to it justly which is inseparable from virtue. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of all is to join this sense of absolute mortality not to the tragic but to the comic. (86-87)

Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. (89)

The honesty and humility required of the student--not to pretend to know what one does not know--is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory. . . . studying is normally an exercise of virtue as well as of talent, and shows us a fundamental way in which virtue is related to the real world. (89)

In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real. . . . The authority of morals is the authority of truth, that is of reality. We can see the length, the extension, of these concepts as patient attention [90/91] transforms accuracy without interval into just discernment. Here too we can see it as natural to the particular kind of creatures that we are that love should be inseparable from justice, and clear vision from respect for the real. (90-91)

The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair. . . . Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is. (91)

Mystics of all kinds . . . have attempted by extremities of language to portray the nakedness and aloneness of Good, its absolute for-nothingness. One might say that true morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good. (92)

Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. '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. (93)

This double revelation of both random detail and intuited unity is what we receive in every sphere of life if we seek for what is best. We can see this, once more, quite clearly in art and intellectual work. The great artists reveal the detail of the world. (96)

The indefinability of Good is connected with the unsystematic and inexhaustible variety of the world and the pointlessness of virtue. In this respect there is a special link between the concept of Good and the ideas of Death and Chance. . . . A genuine sense of mortality enables us to see virtue as the only thing of worth; and it is impossible to limit and foresee the ways in which it will be required of us. . . . Good is mysterious because of human frailty, because of the immense distance which is involved. If there were angels they might be able to define good but we would not understand the definition. . . . There are few places where virtue plainly shines: great art, humble people who serve others. And can we, without improving ourselves, really see these things clearly? (99)

Love is the general name of the quality of attachment and it is capable of infinite degradation and is the source of our greatest errors; but when it is even partially refined it is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to Good and joins us to the world through Good. Its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good. It is a reflection of the warmth and light of the sun. (103)