Unlike almost all of her British and American counterparts, Murdoch read continental philosophers, especially the existentialists and phenomenologists (Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger), with a sympathetic eye. She wrote a book in the 50’s entitled Sartre: Romantic Rationalist that is one of the best critiques of his work that I have read. (Had American philosophers actually read that book, it would not have taken another twenty years for the synthesis between continental and analytic philosophy to occur as it seems to be occurring today.) Although (and for very good reasons) she is driven to reject Sartre’s theory of value (the view that all value is literally created by choice), Murdoch understands what drives Sartre and she is sympathetic to his motives. Sartre, like Murdoch, wanted to try to make people better; he wanted people to take responsibility for their actions and to really believe that human history is in human hands.
Like most of the existentialists (as well as Marx and Freud), Murdoch was convinced that most of us most of the time want to view the world through some softening veil of illusion. We want to believe in some external telos some human independent purpose for human existence. Such teleological stories both soften (or deny) the reality of death and down-play personal responsibility. But all such teleological stories are simply falsifying veils. To quote Murdoch, “I assume that human beings are naturally selfish and that human life has no external point or telos.”
Instead, says Murdoch, “We are what we seem to be, transient mortal creatures subject to necessity and chance.” We are selfish by nature, but that does not entail (as psychological egoists have claimed) that we are selfish necessarily. Indeed, says Murdoch, the essence of morality is the attempt to pay attention to others, to loosen the hold of selfish cares and concerns and to really see the other person. To the ordinary person in the street, this claim that morality is really about paying attention to others may seem quite simply true, but Murdoch is actually taking on many or most moral philosophers in both the Anglo-American (analytic) tradition and those in the existentialist camp. In her distinctly philosophical essays The Sovereignty of Good and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch takes great pains to demonstrate that thinkers as diverse as Immanuel Kant and Jean Paul Sartre have made human will pivotal to morality. This stress on the individual who rises heroically to do his duty puts the stress in ethics on free will and on the concepts of right and duty. As women ethicists like Sisyla Bok, Carol Gilligan, and Nell Nodding have pointed out in the past decade, all of these models that stress duty and free will are male models; they tend to see morality as being rigorously rule-bound and deductive, and often enough to see women’s ways of making moral decisions as murky, illogical, and immature. Murdoch (who in very many ways anticipates the critiques of these later feminists) insists that genuine morality is more a matter of paying attention and slowly cultivating good (i.e., unselfish) habits than in heroic acts—actions which appear to be sudden breaks from the past, non-habitual, even supererogatory acts.
Murdoch thinks that doing good art or good science is the best sort of analogy for what it is to do good acts. The real artist concentrates so hard on the world outside of herself as she does her art that she forgets self at least momentarily. The scientist too who is really locked onto the world out there is able for at least short periods of time to put aside the falsifying veil of her own cares and concerns. In Murdoch’s words, “It is a task to see the world as it is.” Only if and when we can see the world as it is, specifically see other people as they are, see their cares and concerns not filtered through our own selfish concerns, are we able to act well towards them. In her language, it is through such slow and incremental cultivation of habits of attending that enables us to do good. If we slowly and over time get in the habit of paying attention to others (in the way that a good parent really pays attention to her/his child), then we begin to develop habits of acting in the light of that attention. There is a kind of unselfing that occurs—but again, slowly and over time. If, on the other hand, we as a matter of course act in our ordinary (and falsifying) ways, paying little attention to the world outside of our immediate cares and concerns, supposing that at the critical moment we will be able to step out of character to (heroically) do our duty, the chances are small that we will, in fact, do good. We may realize that some act would be good were we to do it, but unless we are in the habit of actually acting on such attention, it is more than likely that we will simply continue in our selfish ways.
The missing ingredient in what I have been saying above is that I have laid this out essentially in essay form. Murdoch believes that what she calls discursive essay (essay that lays out arguments for positions) has its place in ethics (and she has written some first-rate discursive essay), but it is not nearly as important as stories. Murdoch does ethics via the novel not simply because she likes to write novels, but because she thinks that some tasks literally require art. Murdoch is convinced that finally, and despite the best efforts of about three centuries of analytic philosophy, the concept of good defies analysis. Good (unlike the concepts of truth or knowledge) simply cannot be reduced to constituent necessary and sufficient components. Knowledge is justified, true belief, but when we attempt to render the concept good in such neat, reduced terms, we invariably fail. The best we can do when we are in pursuit of good is to talk in metaphors (as Plato did in his allegory of the cave). Likewise, when we want to say what the good life is, we will do best to describe some good, lived life, and the best way to do that will be in the form of a play or novel. Human life is murky and muddled and ridden with moral dilemmas, and the only ‘true’ way of rendering such complexity is in fiction. In novels we can show that,
We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world. Good art shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision.In her many novels, Murdoch loves to tease the reader by showing just how many kinds of inattention there are. We can be self-absorbed in the usual ways, our big egos simply determining our actions, but grief and rage and sorrow and fear are also powerful motives that return the gaze to the self. There are so many ways of being absorbed by self other than that of what we usually call selfishness. Even what we usually call love is most often a rigidly selfish preoccupation with self. Murdoch shows us in novel after novel how romantic love leads to horrible and laughable disregard of the the loved. Still, “The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking.”
In the end, morality requires humility, but humility “is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, ... it is selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues.”
I have not done justice to Murdoch here, but then one could never do justice to her work by writing essay. I urge you to read her novels, any of them. If you read them knowing that she wants to make us better, I think the novels will seem less daunting, less confusing. She says of Sartre that “A driving force in all his writing is his serious desire to change the life of the reader.” Certainly, this is true of her; she is convinced that if we try hard enough, there can be a “disciplined overcoming of self,” which is the very essence of moral conduct.