The Sovereignty of Good – Book Review

Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good is perhaps her best known philosophical book. It consists of three essays focused on moral philosophy and her belief in a Platonic basis for it. I’ve had the book on my mega monopoly bookseller wishlist for quite awhile, probably when I read Mathew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft which frequently references Murdoch’s concepts of attention. My recent focus on ethical philosophy in Happiness, specifically Plato, prompted me to buy this book. It’s a short book, only 100 pages, and the three essays are straightforward to read.

The main theme of the book and essays is the concept of Good as the primary ideal of moral philosophy. The first essay, The Idea of Perfection, examines the state of moral philosophy in the mid to late 20th century from Kant to the behaviorists to the existentialists to the most recent movements in analytic philosophy. None of these schools have a rich and nuanced concept of moral philosophy. Each school drives out the self in a variety of ways: Kant via Reason, Existentialism through the removal of intrinsic meaning defined by an external source, etc. Our removal of the self and its messiness along with science’s influences on society in moving away from God means that moral philosophy is reduced to thinking goodness and morality are functions of our will and not some externally existing ‘thing’. We choose what is good based on the freedom of our will and that is that. Additionally, we move away from the idea of virtue and towards a concept of “right”. We no longer ask “What is Good?”. Instead, we ask “What is Right?” which biases us towards a materialistic, false scientism when it comes to moral philosophy.

Murdoch strongly disagrees with these concepts and instead presents a moral philosophy based on a transcendent Good that is undefinable but still clearly exists external to our will for us to focus on. This makes our materialistic, technocratic selves quite uncomfortable in an age where everything supposedly has a reason and must be measured for its efficiency. But if we examine our lived experience and lean on common sense, it seems true that the Good really does exist even if we can’t quite put our fingers on what it is. Her debt to Plato and the Allegory of the Cave is clear here.

Murdoch argues for a much richer inner life than do her contemporaries or immediate philosophical ancestors. This inner life is “hazy” as she puts it and not subject to measurements or efficiencies. Contemporary moral philosophy judges every thing on actions: we have no way to inspect the inner life Murdoch treasures and therefore can only decide whether a person is moral by his or her actions. Murdoch argues this is far too limiting to develop a rich, moral philosophy and instead that our inner life can (and DOES!) contain much more. This lines up with most people’s simple common sense beliefs about their “self”.

Murdoch’s example involves M and D, two women associated via the marriage of D to M’s son. M behaves towards D flawlessly (her external visible actions) but internally, she believes that D is simple and plain and below her son. Over time, M’s vision of D comes to change. She sees that her son loves D, that perhaps instead of simple, D is carefree and happy, etc. Her actions have never changed but her morality has in that it has grown along a continuum. Modern moral philosophy has no mechanism with which to judge this example because there are no actions that have changed. M’s actions are the same yet something has changed. This is why Murdoch argues for concepts beyond the examination of actions that behaviorism and existentialism focus on. Most people would likely agree with her that there does seem to be some rich inner life and that a moral philosophy that does not account for this life is suspect.

This also has implications for concepts like Freedom. In the existentialist/behaviorist view, Freedom is the will making its moral choices often divorced from any anchor in reality. For Murdoch and a theory of Good, Freedom is the choices made on a progressive continuum towards Perfection. It is not random free choice. In other words, M chose to look more carefully, to attend more clearly, to D’s characteristics and her son’s love for D. M had the Freedom to choose whether to do this but once she chose it, her path was set moving her forward towards an idea of Perfection, e.g. constantly improving via choice one’s understanding of something, in this case the personality of her daughter-in-law.

This idea of Perfection and constant movement on the continuum towards it is fundamental to Murdoch’s philosophy. By conceiving of a transcendent Good and then attending to it, we grow more moral over time. This is in sharp contrast to the materialistic view of existentialism where everything is based on external actions and there is no historical context, e.g. no continuum, within which to judge the morality of an agent. It’s also important to note Murdoch’s concept of attention. For her, morality comes via attention to reality, the real world (the relationship M’s son has with D for example) and then fitting ones decisions and beliefs around that. By contrast, in existentialism, the will operates independent from reality leaving one’s morality to be developed in a void. This is a slippery slope towards “things that are right for you aren’t right for me”. Only by judging moral philosophy on its connection to reality can we have standards that we once derived from the Divine.

Murdoch’s idea of Perfection requires the governance of reality as a guide for growth in a moral way. We must attend to what we experience, our relationships, our impacts on the environment, etc so that we can develop our moral philosophy towards better actions. Reality comes first, then growth towards the Good, then actions unlike the existentialists and behaviorists for whom actions are the genesis of moral philosophy. For them, actions are everything. But for Plato and Murdoch and Aquinas among others, the genesis of moral philosophy is a transcendent Good (for Aquinas, this was God as primary, for the others the Good is primary on its own) towards which we apply attention first that enables actions. The Good is contextual, it has a history to which we must attend and this is how it differs dramatically from the existentialist/behaviorist view with its isolated will.

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