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Iris Murdoch once observed: 'philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious'. What was obvious to Murdoch, and to all those who read her work, is that Good transcends everything - even God. Throughout her distinguished and prolific writing career, she explored questions of Good and Bad, myth and morality. The framework for Murdoch's questions Iris Murdoch once observed: 'philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious'. What was obvious to Murdoch, and to all those who read her work, is that Good transcends everything - even God. Throughout her distinguished and prolific writing career, she explored questions of Good and Bad, myth and morality. The framework for Murdoch's questions - and her own conclusions - can be found here.


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Iris Murdoch once observed: 'philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious'. What was obvious to Murdoch, and to all those who read her work, is that Good transcends everything - even God. Throughout her distinguished and prolific writing career, she explored questions of Good and Bad, myth and morality. The framework for Murdoch's questions Iris Murdoch once observed: 'philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious'. What was obvious to Murdoch, and to all those who read her work, is that Good transcends everything - even God. Throughout her distinguished and prolific writing career, she explored questions of Good and Bad, myth and morality. The framework for Murdoch's questions - and her own conclusions - can be found here.

30 review for The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge Classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Manny

    Warning: contains major spoilers for the film Paterson This is the second of Iris Murdoch's philosophical works that I've read in the last month. It is not quite as good as The Fire and the Sun, written a bit later, but I still liked it very much. I can see why people are currently reevaluating her as a philosopher and taking her work there more seriously. She examines the same core themes in both books: what does it mean to be a good person, what is the nature of art, does art help us to become Warning: contains major spoilers for the film Paterson This is the second of Iris Murdoch's philosophical works that I've read in the last month. It is not quite as good as The Fire and the Sun, written a bit later, but I still liked it very much. I can see why people are currently reevaluating her as a philosopher and taking her work there more seriously. She examines the same core themes in both books: what does it mean to be a good person, what is the nature of art, does art help us to become good people. Murdoch's answers to these questions are quite simple. We do not ultimately know what it means to be a good person, but it is not anything mysterious. It's about the obvious moral challenges you see all around you: being unselfish, loving the people who are close to you, seeing the world as it is rather than as you wish it were. Needless to say, all of these things are very difficult to do, but that shouldn't stop you from trying. In general, she takes the commonsense position, unfashionable with many philosophers, that what you think and feel are as important as what you do. Maybe the thinking and feeling have no immediate effect; but it changes the kind of person you are, and when the moment comes to act it will determine what you end up doing. With regard to art, and in particular with regard to literature, she unambiguously says that it's a good thing. Indeed, in an age where religion has largely become debased, she argues that reading literature is now the only spiritual exercise that many people have access to. By learning to tell the difference between good, truthful literature and bad, lying literature, moving towards the former and away from the latter, you will gradually refine your sensibilities and become a better person. People who spend a lot of time hanging out on Goodreads may find this just a little too comforting. It is also, of course, impossible to forget that Murdoch spent a large part of her life writing novels, and is more or less obliged to defend that as a praiseworthy activity. But if you're doubtful, Jim Jarmusch's wonderful new film Paterson could almost have been made to support Murdoch's line of reasoning. Paterson seems, on the surface, to be an unexceptional and even boring person. He gets up at 6.10 every morning, eats a bowl of cereal, and goes off to do his job driving a bus. He arrives home in the evening, has dinner with Laura, his girlfriend, and then takes the dog for a walk. He drinks a beer at the local bar and comes home again. But Paterson's life is rich and exciting. He is a poet; all the time, as he walks to work or drives his bus, he is composing poems in his mind. He writes things down in a little notebook when he has a spare moment. No one except Laura knows about his poetry. Paterson, we come to realize, is a good man. Near the end, an incident happens which gives him a severe moral test. Laura is happy and excited; her project to bake cupcakes and sell them at the market has been a success and she's made several hundred dollars. She impulsively tells Paterson that she's taking them out for dinner and a movie. They have a pleasant romantic evening. But when they come home, there's a horrible surprise. Disappointed by not getting his evening walk, the dog has gone crazy and shredded Paterson's precious notebook. He has no copy, despite the fact that Laura has begged him several times to make one. Most people, seeing a year of their life destroyed like this, would instinctively have lashed out at whoever was closest. If Laura hadn't changed their usual routine, the dog wouldn't have done it. But Paterson, despite his anguished face, says nothing. He in no way tries to give Laura even a small part of the blame; he just says that he forgot to put the notebook in its usual place. It's only when you think about it afterwards that you realize how remarkable his actions are: not what he does, but what he doesn't do. You understand why this beautiful girl loves him. Maybe there's something to Murdoch's ideas.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Elenabot

    This little essay can be read as a “How to See” manual. It shows what it would take to really learn to bring all that we are in our acts of seeing, so that we can engage the whole of what we are in relating to the whole of the situations that we find ourselves in. Such acts of seeing are the closest that we can come to completion and reconciliation. Murdoch's basic thesis is that the moral life begins with the act of seeing, where seeing is understood as a loving attention to reality that frees This little essay can be read as a “How to See” manual. It shows what it would take to really learn to bring all that we are in our acts of seeing, so that we can engage the whole of what we are in relating to the whole of the situations that we find ourselves in. Such acts of seeing are the closest that we can come to completion and reconciliation. Murdoch's basic thesis is that the moral life begins with the act of seeing, where seeing is understood as a loving attention to reality that frees the self from its prisonhouse of illusion. Learning to see is a lifelong endeavour that transforms the self and that progressively reconciles her to the world. Vision, thus understood as a total act of our being, straddles the aesthetic, moral, and religious dimensions of our experience. It is an intrinsically moral struggle to grasp things in the light of their highest possible perfectibility, rather than as they figure in the dimmer light of our instrumental goals. The vision that increases the reality and value of the thing seen through an act of loving engagement is truest, in the moral sense. It is this vision that enables us to act in order to release the capacity for growth in all things encountered. This is what it means to speak of moral truth, or of a proper way of estimating the value of things. Overall, Murdoch persuasively argues that the moral sphere reveals a concept of reason, of truth, and of reality that the scientific sphere will forever fail to completely absorb: “It is totally misleading to speak, for instance, of ‘two cultures’, one literary-humane and the other scientific, as if these were of equal status There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous, is now an important part.” In her view, moral philosophy is a more accurate guide to this culture because it considers the human being not as an abstraction, as an object of theoretical study. Rather, moral philosophy considers agents in their totality and “cover(s) the whole of our mode of living and the quality of our relations with the world.” The idea of value is a regulative principle of all reasoning, not some epiphenomenal sideshow, as naturalistic ontology makes it out to be. She contends that coming to terms with the singular nature of value concepts can revolutionize our whole understanding of mind, reason, meaning, knowledge, and human nature. Value concepts, as a priori Kantian ideal limits, aren't susceptible to the kind of "genetic" analysis that she sees as the only option for naturalistic analyses. Looking at the structure of moral psychology compels us to carve out a distinctive ontology of the human being-in-the-world: "If a scientifically minded empiricism is not to swallow up the study of ethics completely, philosophers must try to invent a new terminology which shows how our natural psychology can be altered by (normative) conceptions which lie beyond its range." As Murdoch sees it, modern moral philosophy - whether Kantian, existentialist, or consequentialist - lacks the explanatory resources required to make sense of moral experience in anything but its most superficial and extrinsic characteristics. Modern moral philosophy focuses exclusively on the extrinsic dimensions of acts. The act is, on this view, abstracted from the live continuum of interchanges in which it serves as a link between beings. "But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is just a mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a -task- to come to see the world as it is. A philosophy which leaves duty without a context and exalts the idea of freedom and power as a separate top level value ignores this task and obscures the relation between virtue and reality. We act rightly 'when the time comes' not out of strength of will but out of the quality of our usual attachment and with the kind of energy and discernment which we have available. And to this the whole activity of our consciousness is relevant." Thus, contrary to standard approaches in modern ethics, we should be exploring the intrinsic dimensions of acts, namely, the quality of relation that they establish between beings. It makes a difference if, on the surface, I treat you impeccably, while inwardly I see you merely as you figure in my instrumental scheme: that is, as a mere object that helps me reach my goals. The goal of ethics is right relation with being that relates the whole of what I am to the whole of being. Modern moral philosophy fails to account for that qualitative difference, and thereby fails to engage with the proper goal of ethics. The subject matter of ethics then is, in her view, not proper action, but just vision, since it is the quality of our vision that determines whether our actions tend in the right direction, towards an increase of being. We know that we are acting against our better selves when instead we decrease things around us. Extrinsically-focused moral theories, which operate with an emaciated picture of the person as detached will, a substanceless principle of pure unmotivated movement, just miss this qualitative heart of moral experience. Her surprising conclusion is that learning to see is learning to shed the self. It is learning to die as self in order to uncover a reality greater than self. This is in stark contrast with Whitmanesque, post-Romantic understandings that glorify the individual as the core engine of aesthetic perception and of ethical action. "The idea of life as self-enclosed and purposeless ... is the natural product of the advance of science." However, ethics, in Murdoch's view, started to go off track earlier, with the Kantian deification of the transcendental ego: "The chief characteristic of this phase of philosophy can be briefly stated: Kant abolished God and made man God in His stead. We are still living in the age of the Kantian man, or Kantian man-god." Instead, Murdoch, like ancient and medieval philosophers, sees the individual rather as a stumbling block in ethics, aesthetics, and the spiritual life generally. This is I suspect where many contemporary readers might have difficulty following her: "we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly." That means that learning to see is learning to love by finding something more real, more valuable, than one's own self. This is why learning to see is so difficult, and why we usually are usually content to wrap ourselves in a numbing, self-inebriating cocoon of illusions: “(S)uppression of self is required before accurate vision can be obtained. 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.” Aesthetic experience, in fact, is in her view "the easiest available spiritual exercise; it is also a completely adequate entry into ... the good life, since it -is- the checking of selfishness in the interest of seeing the real." Thus, “One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals. We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need. We can see in mediocre art, where perhaps it is even more clearly seen than in mediocre conduct, the intrusion of fantasy, the assertion of self, the dimming of any reflection of the real world.” In this way, Murdoch's concept of "moral vision" affirms a unity between aesthetics, ethics, and rationality where most see only division. In this unity might be the seeds for a reunification of our understanding of human nature currently splintered into many specialist disciplines. The idea of the transcendent is a standard that reason brings with it into the world. Moreover, she thinks we can give content to this idea without metaphysics, religion, or mysticism: “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. 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.” I wonder if she is right. In any case, if naturalism is true, she had better be right, because it seems to me that there is no other way to ground the content of ethics outside the self on a naturalist view. Naturalism implies either value nihilism, or else value solipsism. There is always much wishful thinking in trying to extend values from their ego-centric basis on a standard naturalist view. She does her best to fight the notion that values are subjective projections, and that they are instead grounded in the realization of being, as they were on a pre-modern view. Ethics must, it seems to me, be grounded in a metaphysics that makes sense of how we can say that beings can act as bearers of the values that we discern in them. We cannot act without relating to beings as values. Pre-modern philosophy, which recognized an essential harmony between theoretical and evaluative reason, had no problem in accounting for our experience of value. It did so, however, at the cost of anthropomorphizing the universe by projecting human values onto nature. Murdoch's little essay reminds us of the features of the thing to be explained - namely, the singular way that value experience relates us to being in an act of vision - in a way that will either annoy many modern naturalistically-minded people, or else be ignored as irrelevant and intellectually backwards. She is right to say, however, that art, morality, and religion represent that tight little knot – the irreducible center of our human world, so refractory to naturalist explanations - and that in that knot lie the seeds for a profound rethinking of our relation to nature. One can profitably read this glorious little essay as a preface to Charles Taylor's "Sources of the Self." One can see Taylor's huge debt to Murdoch in the first portion of that great book. In fact, Taylor twists himself into knots trying to figure out just why it is so hard for our modern naturalistic paradigm to account for the moral dimension that Murdoch urges us to recognize and to preserve undimmed.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Blake

    This volume collects The Idea of Perfection, On "God" and "Good", and The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts. In these papers Murdoch undertakes, among more minor aesthetic tasks, to draw up and criticize a particular view of the human personality, tracing it back through its philosophical and scientific forebears and forth again to its contemporary form. Thereafter she takes for the proponent of this view, and as antagonist of her own picture, one painted by Stuart Hampshire that she believ This volume collects The Idea of Perfection, On "God" and "Good", and The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts. In these papers Murdoch undertakes, among more minor aesthetic tasks, to draw up and criticize a particular view of the human personality, tracing it back through its philosophical and scientific forebears and forth again to its contemporary form. Thereafter she takes for the proponent of this view, and as antagonist of her own picture, one painted by Stuart Hampshire that she believes has the human being as a naked will unchained from the world around it. By further exegesis she comes to picture this view as a union between particular accompaniments of existentialism and behaviourism. Out of fashion with the trends of the analytic philosophy of her own time, Murdoch proceeds to offer moral criticism of these pictures, takes as pretheoretical certain intuitive notions and makes instrumental her now familiar parable of the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The conclusion from these undertakings is that the "inner life" is important to moral action. Following these critical tasks is a delineation of some central concepts in Murdoch's own moral philosophy. The substance of this is found particularly in the latter two essays, where the author's debt to Simone Weil becomes apparent (appropriating the concept of attention for her own moral psychology) and the influence of Plato crystallized. The philosophy of Iris Murdoch has been dug at over the years and some have been quick to claim that there is nothing living here; however, in the course of reading her it appears, at least, that there is more growing here than a cursory glance of the soil can suffice to show. She has her admirers, too (most famously the contemporary philosopher, John McDowell), but only recently have we seen anything like a substantial literature growing up around her key concepts and her overall moral vision. Long may it continue and flourish.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Kibbe

    I found this collection of three essays to be deeply meaningful, provocative, thoughtful, and inspiring, especially as a student training in moral philosophy. I have no doubt that Murdoch's ideas have been, are, and will be considered controversial and contested, but there is a quality of her writing that makes you sit down, nonetheless, and listen with a certain earnestness to hear what she will say next. This owes, I think, to the candidness of her writing, the breadth of her knowledge, the co I found this collection of three essays to be deeply meaningful, provocative, thoughtful, and inspiring, especially as a student training in moral philosophy. I have no doubt that Murdoch's ideas have been, are, and will be considered controversial and contested, but there is a quality of her writing that makes you sit down, nonetheless, and listen with a certain earnestness to hear what she will say next. This owes, I think, to the candidness of her writing, the breadth of her knowledge, the conviction evident in what she is writing, and the attention to an important but under explored topic, namely moral perception. Usefully, Murdoch situates her rich discussion of moral perception inside of a larger conversation about the ways in which moral philosophy should and should not be done. Even if you disagree with Murdoch's conclusions, reading her is, I think, an important exercise in developing a clearer vision of the practice of philosophy. But don't let my gravitational orientation to all things philosophy deter any non-philosophers from reading this collection, there is much that will be of interest here to theologians, artists, and all those interested in questions about the good life.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jon Stout

    Iris Murdoch’s best known work on philosophy consists of three lectures that she delivered in 1964, 1967 and 1969. While each essay stands on its own, the three essays develop a common theme, which is a defense of Plato’s concept of the Good. Her approach is not to endorse Plato’s theory of forms in an unqualified way, but rather to argue, along with Plato, that good is something real in the world, rather than being merely an emotion or a choice. She starts out by outlining what she regards as th Iris Murdoch’s best known work on philosophy consists of three lectures that she delivered in 1964, 1967 and 1969. While each essay stands on its own, the three essays develop a common theme, which is a defense of Plato’s concept of the Good. Her approach is not to endorse Plato’s theory of forms in an unqualified way, but rather to argue, along with Plato, that good is something real in the world, rather than being merely an emotion or a choice. She starts out by outlining what she regards as the prevailing contemporary view of a moral agent, which she calls the behaviorist-existentialist-utilitarian view. This holds that a person’s inner life can only be defined in terms of external behavior, that it is largely determined by our biological drives and our personal histories, that in the context of these determinants we make turn-on-a-dime choices that can be anything, and that our choices are evaluated by the public results. Murdoch criticizes this view by trying to restore an account of one’s interior (mental, emotional) processing as central to moral decision making. Murdoch uses the example of a woman who has a rather judgmental attitude towards her daughter-in-law. Realizing that her attitude may be biased, and is neither helpful nor fair, she tries to attain a more realistic attitude, by understanding her daughter-in-law as she is, just as a scientist tries to reach truth by understanding reality as it is. This is an example of a moral act, a reaching toward the good, which does not necessarily have behavioral consequences (the daughter-in-law might be living abroad or might be dead), but which represents a development for the good in the woman’s life. Murdoch’s analysis presents moral action not as an erratic break in a causal chain, but as a process in which one puts aside biases and other sources of error in order to reach a more honest or realistic, conclusion. She likens the process to a scientist’s being faithful to the data, or to an artist’s trying to be true to what he is portraying. She says that the guiding metaphor for moral action should be “movement” rather than “vision.” Good is not a quality that one can “see” in the world, but rather a way to “move” forward. Murdoch’s conception is not easy to grasp. She herself says, “what I have been offering here is not and does not pretend to be a ‘neutral logical analysis’ of what moral agents or moral terms are like.” Rather, “the image which I am offering should be thought of as a general metaphysical background to morals and not as a formula….” What is clearest is how she connects moral choice to freedom: “the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business that goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.” Attaining the good is a matter of working toward a clear understanding of reality and of individual circumstances, and then of being obedient or faithful to that insight. Murdoch describes her view as an “inconclusive non-dogmatic naturalism,” suggesting a kind of Taoism, doing what comes naturally while trying to be as clear-sighted as possible. What I have written pertains to the first essay alone, but gives a good sampling of Murdoch’s thought. Appropriately for an accomplished novelist, Murdoch has created a rich description of moral life, with quotable asides in every paragraph. I read through her book three times in order to write this review, and I expect that I will go back to her work again for the sake of my own personal growth.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Caleb

    This book has puzzled some readers who have argued that the author either fails to elaborate an argument for her position or does so in such an obscure manner as to make impossible to evaluate her claims. This is unfortunate but not surprising given the novelty of the author's claims - novel at least in terms of the dominant strands of analytic moral philosophy (and existentialism) to which she was responding. But Murdoch's argument is perfectly straightforward; she has offered an extended argum This book has puzzled some readers who have argued that the author either fails to elaborate an argument for her position or does so in such an obscure manner as to make impossible to evaluate her claims. This is unfortunate but not surprising given the novelty of the author's claims - novel at least in terms of the dominant strands of analytic moral philosophy (and existentialism) to which she was responding. But Murdoch's argument is perfectly straightforward; she has offered an extended argument for the indispensability of a particular Platonic account of the notion of good. Kant argues somewhere that formal concepts ought only to be introduced insofar as they are necessary to conceptualize some object. In these term's the author argues that a Platonic notion of good is required to appreciate a wide range of phenomena that are linked because they fall under this concept. This text can be seen as a response to Hare's claims concerning the priority of the prescriptive sense of good. According to Hare, saying that some x is good is to say that x somehow figures within an imperative prescribing some action. For example, to say that this is a good car, is to say that persons suitably situated who want a car, ought to choose this car. For Murdoch, Hare's prescriptivist understanding of good is hopelessly inept to conceptualize the phenomena relevant to a proper understanding of goodness. Good things might require all sorts of actions but to say that something is good is to appreciate its value as something worthy of love. It is also a matter of recognizing that one must become perfect or at least better than one is at any given point in time to fully appreciate the value of that which is good. Because of this good can never be cashed out in purely prescriptive terms. Not because good is a purely descriptive notion, but rather because goodness outstrips any given appreciation of the set of actions required by the goodness in question. In this sense good is indefinable; not because it is empty but because of its fullness. Murdoch reminds us that ethics may often be mundane but that it ought to drag us from our cave in effort to offer a passing glimpse of a more noble form of life.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Richard S

    There's something specially boring about English philosophers, they are very wordy and unclear and despite the occasional nugget of wisdom, one imagines sitting in a room with them and not understanding a word they are saying. It's not like, or maybe it is like, you need to have read and understood a thousand philosophers before them, but when you read the great philosophers, they are generally comprehensible, and sometimes entertaining. I "sort of" got her points, but I'm not entirely sure I did There's something specially boring about English philosophers, they are very wordy and unclear and despite the occasional nugget of wisdom, one imagines sitting in a room with them and not understanding a word they are saying. It's not like, or maybe it is like, you need to have read and understood a thousand philosophers before them, but when you read the great philosophers, they are generally comprehensible, and sometimes entertaining. I "sort of" got her points, but I'm not entirely sure I did, she seems to believe in the good, was anti-nihilist and anti existentialist. She had nice things to say about literature. A lot of the book was about the philosophy of mind and perception. When you understand philosophers, it's sometimes like you feel cobwebs being removed from your brain. Here I felt like I was staring into a cobweb. I don't understand. Maybe I'm stupid, but rather maybe I should read all of Nietzsche again.

  8. 4 out of 5

    booklady

    Excellent recommendation for the book in Father Barron's clip on God and Morality. Excellent recommendation for the book in Father Barron's clip on God and Morality.

  9. 5 out of 5

    João Vaz

    The Sovereignty of Good is a collection of three essays about moral philosophy centered around the concept of Good. In them, Murdoch debunks the dominant schools of thought on the normative aspect of morality: what is right or wrong and what we ought to do. The three schools being (1) behaviorism, (2) utilitarianism, and (3) existentialism. Some context is in order. Behaviorists emphasize scientific scrutiny and claim that behavior is learned through the interaction with the external world, as o The Sovereignty of Good is a collection of three essays about moral philosophy centered around the concept of Good. In them, Murdoch debunks the dominant schools of thought on the normative aspect of morality: what is right or wrong and what we ought to do. The three schools being (1) behaviorism, (2) utilitarianism, and (3) existentialism. Some context is in order. Behaviorists emphasize scientific scrutiny and claim that behavior is learned through the interaction with the external world, as opposed to internal mechanisms, like thought. Utilitarians advocate actions that promote happiness/well-being and they emphasize outcomes as the criterion for moral judgment, not intentions. Existentialists stress individual existence, freedom, and choice; they argue that we are born as a blank slate, colored through unique experiences, and that our individual development happens through deliberate acts of will. Now that that is out the way, in this book, what Murdoch does is to provide a critique to the way these theories explain moral behavior. Her contention is that morality can be informed by one’s inner life, whereas, according to said theories, we form the concept of a good deed, or a moral act, based on our external experiences alone: utilitarians say that what matters is void of intentions and that only public acts matter; existentialists maintain that morality is informed by our physical experiences; behaviorists join the mix since only observable acts can show proof of morality at work. Not much space for the voices within, is there? Well, Murdoch gives them ample room. To justify that moral activity can be separated from external expression, she describes the case of a mother (M) who despises her daughter-in-law (D), but who always behaves nicely toward her, although secretly, in her mind, she believes her son could have done better. Because M feels like she is being unfair, slowly and by giving just attention to D, she starts to see her in a different light. According to the accepted paradigm, M has always been a good person, since she’d always behaved affectionately toward D. But given her change in mental state, one cannot but agree that she engaged in moral activity by trying to be me more accommodating of D. Using this description as a running example, Murdoch fundamentally rejects that the reality of morality excludes that which is unobservable. I say she makes a compelling argument against using observability as the sole criterion of reality. But, my absolute favorite part was when she applies her concept of morality to the idea of freedom. This is where her confrontation with existentialists reached its climax. Existentialism, and most other contemporary theories, places freedom at the moment of choice, immediately before a person decides to act in the public world. To Murdoch, there’s more to freedom than what meets the eye (literally). Freedom is the deliberate act of paying attention to reality. Both observable and unobservable reality (our thoughts, our motives, our concept of self). Freedom is the act of trying to see the world clearly, in both its corporeal and immaterial manifestations. To achieve that, we use the concept of Good to make sense of reality, to illuminate it, and to act upon it to produce an inward change for the better. This is where it becomes interesting. Murdoch argues that this perfect ideal of Good exists independently of man. Good as the inherent value that illuminates thought toward moral improvement. This idea is in direct opposition to existentialists, like Sartre, Camus, or Saramago, who believe that existence precedes essence. That is, that individuals, informed by their environment and through existence and consciousness, create their own values and identities. Although I (self-evidently) agree with Murdoch, this was perhaps where she was least persuasive, since it wasn’t clear to me how she isolated the existence of something so immutable and structural as Good from, yes, God. Overall, really interesting. The writing was a bit hard to follow in the beginning (she clearly had her peers as target audience, rather than laymen, like myself), but you quickly get over her verbosity to get to the Good stuff.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Phill Melton

    While the first essay, on the idea of perfection, is rather weak (too busy responding to the technical debates of the day, not enough laying out her own ideas), the last two are absolutely brilliant. Discussing the relationship between beauty/art and love/virtue and their relationship to the good, transcendental idealism(s), and the nature of reality, Murdoch advances an eminently humane philosophy, one calling for a return to the centrality of love and a humility in the face of the Good. Darker While the first essay, on the idea of perfection, is rather weak (too busy responding to the technical debates of the day, not enough laying out her own ideas), the last two are absolutely brilliant. Discussing the relationship between beauty/art and love/virtue and their relationship to the good, transcendental idealism(s), and the nature of reality, Murdoch advances an eminently humane philosophy, one calling for a return to the centrality of love and a humility in the face of the Good. Darker, more heartfelt, and more "mystical" than most Anglophone philosophy (for goodness sake, she's constantly citing Simore Weil, what did you expect, logical positivism?), and a return to the idea of philosophy as not merely a game for academics, but something that applies to the most crucial questions of life as it is lived. Of course, they were lectures; yes, there are certain very intriguing ideas (like her aesthetics—what exactly *is* the art of fantasy, as opposed to the true art that makes reality manifest in all its hidden ordinary everydayness?) that aren't as developed as I'd like them to be. That's probably because they're the really interesting ones worth investigating much more thoroughly, but I'd still like to hear her thoughts. So, thought provoking? Certainly, but even more, tantalizing. So much that's hinted at, or shown, but, as is the case for such profound things, more might not be enough.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Luann Ritsema

    Re-read in conjunction with current project of reading Murdoch’s novels. The third of the three essays is easily the most accessible to those, like myself, with a limited knowledge of philosophy. In fact, on someone’s suggestion, I started with the third essay this time. It is a very helpful exercise and reading this is worth the effort as the ideas and beliefs outlined here show up in her novels, vividly in the early novels I am currently reading.

  12. 5 out of 5

    John Cairns

    I’d agree with Iris Murdoch ‘an unexamined life can be virtuous.’ ‘Goodness is a function of the will.’ ‘Thought cannot be thought unless it is directed towards a conclusion.’ I can’t agree it follows its own paths without the intervention of my will. She does mean a conscious will, when the unconscious would not be engaged, and is quoting Hampshire who’s confined to consciousness. I do identify myself with my will, my unconscious will that is, which is also myself. I’d let someone go because he I’d agree with Iris Murdoch ‘an unexamined life can be virtuous.’ ‘Goodness is a function of the will.’ ‘Thought cannot be thought unless it is directed towards a conclusion.’ I can’t agree it follows its own paths without the intervention of my will. She does mean a conscious will, when the unconscious would not be engaged, and is quoting Hampshire who’s confined to consciousness. I do identify myself with my will, my unconscious will that is, which is also myself. I’d let someone go because he wanted to, failing to secure whom I wanted to secure as I could have once I’d got him back to the flat and had space to work in, so had a problem what to do. It was a problem conscious thinking failed to solve and could only be resolved by my unconscious which thought it through while I attended to its thinking, which wasn’t logical, but reached a conclusion I accepted as right though it was impossible to go over the chain of its reasoning from beginning to the end, which was that I should forget who I loved until I met him again, as my unconscious reassured I would and I didn’t doubt, because it would too painful and quite pointless to be knowingly loving him in the meantime. I’d have to disagree then ‘a decision does not turn out to be an introspectible movement’ when in the above example mine was. It is also possible to consciously decide one way but to act contrarily and as the overriding unconscious will has decided. ‘Something introspectible might occur but if the outward context is lacking that something cannot be called a decision.’ What if the inward movement is between one’s unconscious and another’s? There may be an outward context: a boy asked me to join him on his way to school. I didn’t see why I should but, within, my unconscious intervened with me and I did, asking the boy if a man – as I inwardly then saw my unconscious – had prompted him to ask. He didn’t know about that but he knew the prompting had come from me. Both his decision to ask and mine to comply were introspectible movements. Murdoch also gives an example against Hampshire’s notion that ‘anything which is to count as a definite reality must be open to several observers.’ None of the several observers of the boy’s asking and my complying was party to our introspectible decisions. ‘Difficult choices often present ...experience of void ...of not being determined by the reasons,” conscious reasons. My example above explains how the choice is otherwise made and why there’s no ensuing experience of void in my case or loss, angst. Sartre who has no truck with the unconscious yet says ‘when I deliberate the die is already cast’, an indication of decision by the unconscious, as Murdoch is suggesting. She describes angst as ‘a kind of fright the conscious will feels when it apprehends the strength and direction of the personality which is not under its immediate control.’ She suggests ‘we have to accept a darker, less fully conscious, less ...rational image of the dynamics of the human personality. With this dark entity behind us we may ...decide to act ...and ...find as a result both energy and vision are unexpectedly given. But if we do leap ahead of what we know we still have to try to catch up.’ No amount of understanding can replace the action of will, that of the unconscious one that is. What does ‘good’ mean? Moore asked. She says the answer concerns the will. I doubted my will was good since he activated faults in others, Mrs Thompson’s jealousy of me for example which incited her son, my friend to assault me. I didn’t want to think about it because if my man was bad so was I and my concern was to be good. ‘Can we make ourselves morally better?’ No. Since goodness or badness is a spiritual attribute, we can only be made better if our unconscious will is made better by a good one. ‘Sartre can admit ...we choose out of some pre-existent condition which he also ...calls a choice.’ It is, if the condition is that of the unconscious will’s choice. ‘Kant pictured the mystery [of moral choice] in terms of an indiscernible balance between a ...rational agent and [a] mechanism. We have learned from Freud to picture the mechanism as something ...individual and personal which is ...very powerful and not easily understood by its owner. What we ...are ...is an obscure system of energy out of which choices and ...acts of will emerge at intervals in ways which are often unclear and ...dependent on the condition of the system in between the moments of choice. Is there any way that when moments of choice arrive we [can] be sure of acting rightly? ’ ‘Deliberately falling out of love is not a jump of the will, it is the acquiring of new objects of attention and thus of new energies as a result of refocusing,’ or using the love determinedly not on the person who invoked it but in order to make art in accordance with the choice of the unconscious will in inciting love as means to that end. ‘Explicit ...willing can play some part, ...as an inhibiting factor.’ My man wanted me to go to Oxford to shake the hand of a future American president. I demurred. He, my unconscious will, is, however, my daemon, so she is wrong to cite that of Socrates, which ‘only told him what not to do’, as substantiating inhibition by a conscious will. Mine doesn’t tell me what to do. It no longer speaks to me at all.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Alex Sarll

    She's essentially telling the philosophical mainstream of her day to stop being useless tits. Which is fair, but, if one is not a professional philosopher of that period, not something one really needs to read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Robbie Govus

    Absolutely mind blowing ... the true genius of Murdoch philosophically speaking. Her moral vision is unique and ought to be recognised more !!! It's our task to do that, we owe it to her !

  15. 4 out of 5

    Robert Reinhard

    Within and related to the idea of the Good, Murdoch also provides powerful ideas of how art - indeed it explains much of her novel technique - operates, as in this quote: "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 form Within and related to the idea of the Good, Murdoch also provides powerful ideas of how art - indeed it explains much of her novel technique - operates, as in this quote: "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 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. ... Art transcends selfish and obsessive limitations of personality and can enlarge the sensibility of its consumer. It is a kind of goodness by proxy..." On the Good, her mentor is Plato. In a related essay in this volume she gives the smartest short summary of Freud I can remember reading and doesn't have to mention terms like "unconscious": "Freud takes a thoroughly pessimistic view of human nature.He sees the psyche 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. Introspection reveals only the deep tissue of the ambiguous motive, and fantasy is a stronger force than reason. Objectivity and unselfishness are not natural to human beings." The first essay in this short volume was too hard for me to grasp - it's a professional philosopher's study.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Abdulwausay Ansari

    Arguably, the most interesting area of philosophy right now is moral psychology (I promise I am not just saying this because it is my area of interest!). Moral psychology is a diverse field that deals with the relationship between human psychology and ethics. In moral psychology, we cover a variety of issues such as: what motivates human action in general and moral action in particular; what makes somebody morally responsible; do emotions matter ethically speaking; what are the condition under w Arguably, the most interesting area of philosophy right now is moral psychology (I promise I am not just saying this because it is my area of interest!). Moral psychology is a diverse field that deals with the relationship between human psychology and ethics. In moral psychology, we cover a variety of issues such as: what motivates human action in general and moral action in particular; what makes somebody morally responsible; do emotions matter ethically speaking; what are the condition under which someone deserves moral blame; what constitutes personhood; what is identity and what role does identity have to play in ethics; is having good character more important than merely doing right acts. Murdoch's amazing little book can be credited with much of the contemporary interest in moral psychology. In this book, Murdoch draws from Ancient Greek ethics in order to shed light on the ethical importance of human psychology. The upshot is that Murdoch, in addition to helping revive interest in moral psychology, also helped revive the increased interest of contemporary philosophers in Ancient Greek ethics. So this book has been of great interest and has had a huge impact on contemporary moral philosophy. And that, in itself, should be a sign to read this brilliant book.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Myles

    "That human beings are naturally selfish seems true on the evidence, whenever and wherever we look at them, in spite of a very small number of apparent exceptions. About the quality of this selfishness modern psychology has had something to tell us. The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself. In some ways it resembles a machine; in order to operate, it needs sources of energy, and it is predisposed to certain patterns of activity. The area of its vaunted "That human beings are naturally selfish seems true on the evidence, whenever and wherever we look at them, in spite of a very small number of apparent exceptions. About the quality of this selfishness modern psychology has had something to tell us. The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself. In some ways it resembles a machine; in order to operate, it needs sources of energy, and it is predisposed to certain patterns of activity. The area of its vaunted freedom of choice is not usually very great. One of its main pastimes is daydreaming. It is reluctant to face unpleasant realities. (Its 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.) It constantly seeks consolation, either through imagined inflation of self or through fictions of a theological nature. Even its loving is more often than not an assertion of self. I think we can probably recognize ourselves in this rather depressing description..."

  18. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Bertaina

    Philosophy I can read! Also, it's pretty damn good. Probably just read her essays. In short, moral decision theory is problematic when it doesn't consider the in-between time that accumulates between big or moral decisions. Rather than trying to weigh in with a strict adherence to one moral principle, Murdoch submits that contemplation of the Good is the centerpiece of right or moral decision making. If we contemplate the Good, the decision, even about difficult things like the relationship with Philosophy I can read! Also, it's pretty damn good. Probably just read her essays. In short, moral decision theory is problematic when it doesn't consider the in-between time that accumulates between big or moral decisions. Rather than trying to weigh in with a strict adherence to one moral principle, Murdoch submits that contemplation of the Good is the centerpiece of right or moral decision making. If we contemplate the Good, the decision, even about difficult things like the relationship with our significant others, shouldn't be all that hard to arrive at. Or rather, it probably will be because paying attention to the Good is quite hard because we love fantasy, delusion, things that reinforce the idea that our lives have some hidden or deeper meaning. Attending to the Good means attending to a reality that isn't skewed in our favor. Murdoch holds up the highest artists, Tolstoy etc. as exemplars of prepping us to experience the truth of our human condition.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Rasamandala Das

    Great book. Have read it at least twice, though not always in strict order. Would recommend for anyone interested in the state of modern ethics, and alternative viewpoints. I especially admire how Murdoch had the courage to confront the then prevalent trends. Her return to exploring personal ethics - and, we might add, responsibilty (rather than, say, 'saving the planet') is much needed, and her argument for moral realism and the role of the inner life, I found convincing. I recommned this book Great book. Have read it at least twice, though not always in strict order. Would recommend for anyone interested in the state of modern ethics, and alternative viewpoints. I especially admire how Murdoch had the courage to confront the then prevalent trends. Her return to exploring personal ethics - and, we might add, responsibilty (rather than, say, 'saving the planet') is much needed, and her argument for moral realism and the role of the inner life, I found convincing. I recommned this book for anyone dismayed at the highly polemical state of current moral discourse which often seems to ignore accountabilty to the world as it is, and thus to favour forms of wishful thinking.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    An underappreciated treasure. This book collects three of Iris Murdoch's essays on the foibles and failings of that beast that Elizabeth Anscombe once called "modern moral philosophy". A fascinating exploration of topics as seemingly diverse as art, the meaning of words, the import of history to philosophy, and the nature of goodness. Murdoch was almost single-handedly responsible for many of the not-so-flattering thoughts I have about the limitations of over-specialized and professionalized aca An underappreciated treasure. This book collects three of Iris Murdoch's essays on the foibles and failings of that beast that Elizabeth Anscombe once called "modern moral philosophy". A fascinating exploration of topics as seemingly diverse as art, the meaning of words, the import of history to philosophy, and the nature of goodness. Murdoch was almost single-handedly responsible for many of the not-so-flattering thoughts I have about the limitations of over-specialized and professionalized academic philosophy. Which is no surprise, since she left it to become a novelist.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sarah George

    It was a slow start with Essay #1 The idea of perfection being a little bit hard to get in to. It's also the longest of the 3 essays, so I was struggling to get through; however! There was a shift midway where suddenly things were leaping off the page! Essay #2 was amazing! I will be revisiting "On God and Good" in the future (even if the ending was kind of a letdown--I think upon re-read I'll pretend the last page and a half is blank. Essay 3 (for which the book is named) was okay. It eased me It was a slow start with Essay #1 The idea of perfection being a little bit hard to get in to. It's also the longest of the 3 essays, so I was struggling to get through; however! There was a shift midway where suddenly things were leaping off the page! Essay #2 was amazing! I will be revisiting "On God and Good" in the future (even if the ending was kind of a letdown--I think upon re-read I'll pretend the last page and a half is blank. Essay 3 (for which the book is named) was okay. It eased me out well enough. Overall, a solid read

  22. 5 out of 5

    E.

    I first read the third essay in this collection when I was a graduate student and have long admired it as one of the best things ever written in moral philosophy. I have returned to it often, including it in sermons and teaching it in Ethics class. Finally got around to reading the entire, short collection. Murdoch is insightful, witty, and (of course) a beautiful writer. One feels better after reading her work.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Mckinney

    this gets better and builds on itself as it goes along- the second two essays in particular were really powerful. murdoch talks shit against overly simple forms of "consolation" but this book really was comforting in its own way and helped me find clarity with a lot of things i've been dealing with recently.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Marts (Thinker)

    This book is excellent, but as a beginner in philosophy it wasn't a very easy read. Murdoch's papers generally present views on moral philosophy, considering a Platonist approach and an overview of man as a moral agent amongst other objects... I'll stop right here...

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jonah Dunch

    A crisp and illuminating volume. I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced by Murdoch's "Platonism," but I'm inspired by her aspirational vision of ethical life as involving increasingly honed faculties of just and loving *seeing* and "unselfing."

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cristina Popescu

    Brilliant! A life-changing read. An absolute must-read for anyone interested in philosophy, morality or literature.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

    Oh, what a disappointing muddle.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ross

    One to mull over. Worthy of deep attention and reading again.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Georgina Lara

    Reading Philosophy resets the way I think about ordinary things and opens my mind to new perspectives. This time is was the concept of Good as moral imperative.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Regan

    Iris Murdoch, following G.E.M. Anscombe’s foundational 1958 critique of modern moral theories, refines and narrows the critique to address the specific problem of the ideal moral agent in The Sovereignty of Good (1970). She critiques the formulation of the moral exemplar as a generic, abstract, independent, rational, and emotionally neutral being who creates value exclusively by fiat of will. While she begins with Kant’s infamously formal view of moral agency, she finds these problems to be pres Iris Murdoch, following G.E.M. Anscombe’s foundational 1958 critique of modern moral theories, refines and narrows the critique to address the specific problem of the ideal moral agent in The Sovereignty of Good (1970). She critiques the formulation of the moral exemplar as a generic, abstract, independent, rational, and emotionally neutral being who creates value exclusively by fiat of will. While she begins with Kant’s infamously formal view of moral agency, she finds these problems to be present in traditions as diverse as British analytic philosophy and Existentialism. In all cases, the agent allegedly creates value for himself, rather than recognizing, discovering, or responding to value as a potentially given feature of our place in the world. Murdoch unpacks Anscombe’s call for an adequate psychological account of ethics by focusing on moral perception, specifically how an accurate view of the world requires an attention to it that is already invested in seeing it for itself, in its particularity--she calls this particularity its “reality” and she calls this attention “love.” Loving, according to Murdoch is an act of “unselfing”: of seeing the other (and the world) from an unselfish, unoccluded perspective. Love, not disinterested reason, offers us the only accurate picture of reality. According to Murdoch, understanding ethics as a way of perceiving requires “the liberation of morality, and of philosophy as a study of human nature, from the domination of science: or rather from the domination of inexact ideas of science which haunt philosophers and other thinkers.”(26) The worst of these ‘inexact ideas’ is the idea that morality has access to objective facts that can be impartially and “empirically” relied upon for moral judgment. How we evaluate any given moral situation is ineliminably a product of one’s own perspective--the “facts” of a moral situation are already judgments. There is no impersonal perspective to occupy when we perceive our moral lives, and therefore neither the facts nor judgments of morality can conform to the requirements of scientific objectivity and impartiality. While these concerns may appear abstract and theoretical, Murdoch illustrates their everyday relevance through a detailed example of the moral difficulties of a mother (M) who disapproves of her daughter-in-law (D), and undertakes the moral work of changing her perception of D. Murdoch provides many possible accounts of M’s motivation to see D in a favorable light, ranging from the self-interested desire to simply abide D’s intrusion in her life to the moral desire to see D fairly and honestly. From the outside, M appears no different, despite her change in moral perspective. While modern moral theories dispute the value of inner life in favor of concrete action, Murdoch wants to say what M has done is a morally commendable act of loving, and that she has in fact undergone a significant change that needs to be recognized by moral philosophers.

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