The Sovereignty of Good

The Sovereignty of Good 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

Dame Jean Iris MurdochIrish born British writer, university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, Iris Murdoch dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths As a writer, she was a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text Murdoch produced 26 novels in 40 years, the last written while she was suffering from Alzheimer disease She w

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  • Paperback
  • 126 pages
  • The Sovereignty of Good
  • Iris Murdoch
  • English
  • 02 December 2018
  • 9780415253994

10 thoughts on “The Sovereignty of Good

  1. says:

    Warning contains major spoilers for the film PatersonThis 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 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 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. says:

    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 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 real, 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 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. says:

    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 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 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. says:

    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. says:

    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 noble form of life.

  6. says:

    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.

  7. says:

    Excellent recommendation for the book in Father Barron s clip on

  8. says:

    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, heartfelt, and mystical than most Anglophone philosophy for goodness sake, she s constantly citing Si 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 thoroughly, but I d still like to hear her thoughts.So, thought provoking Certainly, but even , tantalizing So much that s hinted at, or shown, but, as is the case for such profound things, might not be enough.

  9. says:

    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.

  10. says:

    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.

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