Murdoch: The Sovereignty of Good

April 29, 2011

The Sovereignty of Good
Iris Murdoch (Ark, 1970)
106 p.

This slim volume consists of three related essays — “The Idea of Perfection”, “On ‘God’ and ‘Good'”, and “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts” — that were originally published in the 1960s. Her purpose in writing was to criticize a theory of the moral life that had gained (and continues to hold) considerable influence, and to propose in its place an alternative view influenced by Plato.

The conception of morality against which she wrote treated the will as the most important element of the moral sphere, and conceived of the will as something detached and sovereign that ‘darts forth’ at points of decision, but which is otherwise dormant. It is the sort of picture that emerges when man is immersed in a materialist universe, when his spiritual reality has been whittled away to a minimum. In this view of things the will is the last remaining shard of transcendence piercing the otherwise seamless fabric of physical cause and effect, a residual godlike power, something isolated and even unconditioned in its action, basically inaccessible to scrutiny, and discernible only through its public effects. Yet, perversely, the will cannot be responsive to (putatively non-existent) goodness and is thrown back upon its own resources, saved from oblivion only by its own unaccountable assertiveness. In short, this view of the moral life sees

…the fearful solitude of the individual marooned upon a tiny island in the middle of a sea of scientific facts, and morality escaping from science only by a wild leap of the will.

Murdoch characterizes this view as ‘behaviourist, existentialist, and utilitarian’: behaviourist because of its lack of interest in the interior life, existentialist because of its emphasis on the ‘solitary, omnipotent will’, and utilitarian because it ascribes moral weight to public acts alone. As such, she regards it as a thoroughly inadequate moral theory, misguided in key ways and too conceptually impoverished to do justice to experience.

Against this view, she declares that ‘Good, not will, is transcendent’, and it is the Good, so conspicuously lacking in the theory described above, that forms the heart of her conception of the moral life. In the second essay, “On ‘God’ and ‘Good'”, she offers a definition of ‘God’ — ‘a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention’ — which, though she is herself not a theist, gives a reasonable starting point for her understanding of what she means by ‘Good’. Central for her is the reality of the Good; it is a light that reveals things as they truly are, and to enter into contact with it is to focus on truth and to reject fantasy. Crucially, she argues that to attend to real things with sufficient attention requires love; it is love, therefore, that is the principal means by which the soul is liberated from fantasy and enters upon an encounter with the Good.

She believes, therefore, that we must restore the centrality of love to morals. Perhaps under the influence of Simone Weil (whom she mentions several times) she stresses the role of ‘attention’, “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality”, as both characteristic and proper of moral agents. Implicit here seems to be the idea that we cannot truly act well if we do not see clearly, with clarity as to facts and as little interference from our own ego as possible. (Is this an echo of the older moral tradition that made prudence a foundational virtue?) She believes that the nature of the reality upon which we fix our attention forms our own moral sensibilities. “Our ability to act well ‘when the time comes'”, she says, “depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual objects of attention.” For this reason we should meditate, with a “just and loving gaze”, upon those things that appear to be good and beautiful.

Notice that for her the moral life is continuous, not something that is turned off between explicit moral choices. In fact, she goes so far as to say that the moral life is not finally about choices at all: “If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.” The objective is to be so in tune with the Good that action in concert with goodness follows readily and easily, rather than resulting from conscious deliberation. This might seem an odd way to think about morality — certainly its downplay of the importance of the will is contrary to those moral theories that put all of the emphasis on choice — but I hear in it an echo, once again, of the older moral tradition; that good habits result in good actions performed with ease and joy is natural in Aristotelian and Thomistic moral theories, for instance. “The nature of virtue lies more in good than in difficulty.” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 123, 12 ad 2.) (I must add, however, that she explicitly denies that human life has any natural telos and so cannot herself be accounted an Aristotelian/Thomist.) Murdoch even comes around to a word that one hears very infrequently indeed in an age devoted to ‘autonomy’; she writes: “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’.” This kind of obedience, in which we submit to the Good under the aspect of the real, is something that she believes is best learned from saints and artists, both of whom (when genuine) are obedient to truth.

The idea that the Good is a kind of light, and that the moral life is a kind of seeing, naturally raises the question of the place of beauty in moral formation. Murdoch believes that beauty is essential to the apprehension of goodness, because they are closely related:

Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely part of the same structure. Plato, who tells us that beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love immediately by nature, treats the beautiful as an introductory section of the good. So that aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals.

I’ve not seen the point made in just that way before. Surely she is right. Speaking for myself, I experience beauty as a moral challenge: is my attention and response worthy of the object? am I willing to receive the something that beauty discloses to me? can I witness and love the object without then seeking to possess it? Murdoch speaks of the apprehension of beauty as an occasion for “unselfing”, and I believe that I understand why. In this we see beauty and love embrace. For all that aesthetics is typically consigned to the realm of the ‘merely subjective’, with a recitation about eyes and beholders, I have never been convinced. Indeed, what an impoverished thought, and so untrue to experience! This is one of the points on which modernity alienated me long before I found a satisfactory, and more than satisfactory, alternative.

These essays are my first exposure to Iris Murdoch’s writing. There is much to admire. I judge her intention to be basically praiseworthy: to tear down a thin and inadequate theory of morals, and of man, and to restore an older and richer understanding of both. Is it correct to say “restore”? Her proposal is obviously redolent of Plato, but I am not sure of the degree to which she adheres to each jot and tittle of Plato’s moral theory. In any case, these are but short essays and can hardly be expected to be more than suggestive. I wonder if these ideas have been developed at greater length elsewhere? Reading this short book has convinced me that I would like to read more of her writing, including her novels. (But where to start?)

I close with a few quotations from the book:

It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher: what is he afraid of? (On ‘God’ and ‘Good’)

[Art and detachment]
…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. The exercise of detachment is difficult and valuable whether the thing contemplated is a human being or the root of a tree or the vibration of a colour or a sound. Unsentimental 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. (On ‘God’ and ‘Good’)

[Freedom and humility]
Freedom, we find out, is not an inconsequential chucking of one’s weight about, it is the disciplined overcoming of self. Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, rather like having an inaudible voice, it is selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues. (The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts)

[Love and the Good]
…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.” (The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts)

[Love and the moral life]
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. (The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts)

15 Responses to “Murdoch: The Sovereignty of Good”

  1. I was pleased to see this review since I myself read The Sovereignty of Good for the first time last month, and was interested enough to write a review on LibraryThing. I think it’s a great essay in moral philosophy, and am a bit disappointed (though not particularly surprised) that ideas like these haven’t gained wider currency among analytic philosophers. I have a copy of her novel The Bell sitting on my bookshelf, although it will probably be quite a while before I can get to it.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I’ll go to read your review at LT as soon as I get a chance. I am not particularly surprised that she’s an outsider, either; her ideas are not in tune with the Zeitgeist.

  3. cburrell Says:

    I have her novel The Sea, The Sea on my shelf, but, as you say, it seems I won’t get to it for a while.

  4. cburrell Says:

    It is interesting, Osbert, that you also made a connection between Murdoch and Simone Weil. You call Weil her “model”; is that based only on what she wrote in this book, or did you know about their relationship from another source?

    Like you, I was surprised when I came across her disavowal of theism and her denial of human telos. So much of what she says fits so naturally with traditional principles, that it was jarring to come across those statements. Still, the fact that she could borrow a definition of ‘God’ (albeit an idiosyncratic one) and use it as a definition of ‘Good’ suggests that she may not have been that far from theism after all.

    Incidentally, I find it amusing that we were both reading the same book at roughly the same time. It is perhaps not all that surprising, given how similar our libraries are, but mathematically the chances are nonetheless quite low. It’s a bit eerie.

    (By the way, anyone who wants to read Osbert’s thoughts on the book can find them here.)

  5. I found out about the connection to Simone Weil elsewhere, I think – Murdoch was very much influenced by her work, which can be seen intermittently in this book.

    I think a lot of people (especially philosophers) reject traditional theistic claims because of confusion as to what they actually entail. I’m reminded, for example, of a passage in book VIII (I think) of Augustine’s Confessions, where he describes his inability to conceive of God except as a sort of immaterial substance somehow extended in space – which became, for him, an obstacle to faith. That is, Augustine’s experience was one of being held captive by a particular picture of God that was essentially an idol and thus unworthy of belief. So when I see a non-Christian writer arguing in a way that aligns so closely with the Christian tradition but yet denying the possibility of theistic belief, I tend to suspect that something like this is going on.

    I wouldn’t want to say that this is what was going on in Murdoch’s case, but I certainly came away with the impression that there was a disconnect somewhere.

  6. Janet Says:

    After reading this, I went to the world’s greatest commentary on 20th century authors, Flannery O’Connor’s letters, to see what she had to say about Ms. Murdoch. Over all she thought IM’s books were highly readable but hollow. This makes me curious. A friend of MFOC who had converted to the Church was converted away from it by reading IM, and once this happened, she seems to be less enthusiastic.


  7. cburrell Says:

    I want to look at my copy of Miss Flannery’s letters to see what she says exactly, but I haven’t had a chance yet. To call Murdoch ‘hollow’ seems harsh to me, but then again I haven’t seen anything other than this little book.

  8. Janet Says:

    Well, you’ve made me want to read it. You have a bad habit of doing that. Maybe this summer I will get a chance.


  9. dollymix Says:

    Murdoch’s novels are terrific but it’s interesting that they often seem very disconnected from her philosophy. There are also two fairly distinct styles; inasmuch as they relate to her philosophy, her earlier novels, mostly written with third-person narration, seem to deal more morality and the idea of the good, while her later ones (mostly first-person) focus more on the interior life and concepts of vision. The later ones also tend to be more intricately structured.

    I would say “The Unicorn” or maybe “The Bell” is the best of the first class and “The Sea, The Sea” is the best of the second.

  10. cburrell Says:

    I have wondered about the relationship of the novels to the non-fiction works. Were they a way of working through the implications of her ideas, trying to put flesh on them to see if they rang true? It is interesting that you do not think them very tightly bound to her philosophy.

    I discovered on the weekend, while moving some books, that I also have a copy of The Green Knight. I wonder if that one is any good?

  11. Mac Says:

    “Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely part of the same structure.”

    Bingo, Miss Murdoch.

    This does sound like a fascinating book. So close… I’ve read one of her novels, The Black Prince, and found it not terribly interesting and mildly distasteful, due to the unpleasantness of the main character. I may have misjudged it, because I felt like I wasn’t really understanding it.

  12. cburrell Says:

    It is a good book, but I would not want to oversell it. Given a choice between reading this book and reading, say, Josef Pieper, I’d choose Pieper. (Or, better yet, Plato.)

  13. dollymix Says:

    I think the simplest link between her novels and her philosophy is that the novels reflect the problems in her philosophy, not the solutions. E.g. many of her protagonists fail to look, or love in possessive or cruel ways. She points out in her philosophy that attempting to live the moral life is only a very slow process of improvement at best, but it’d debatable whether many of her central characters (e.g. the narrator of “The Black Prince,” mentioned above) actually improve at all over the course of their novels.

    I think especially with her first-person narrations, there’s a lot of distance between her narrators and the authorial voice/ideal author, and it doesn’t necessarily come across at first. In that sense, she has a lot in common with someone like Nabokov, and like him, I think she consciously or unconsciously avoids letting her novels simplify into a simple message or a single theme.

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