Monday, May 07, 2001

Iris Murdoch and Moral Philosophy

I want to talk to you this morning about a person whom I consider to be one of the most important writers and philosophers of the 20th century, Iris Murdoch. It has been two years now since Murdoch died, and it seems an appropriate time to recall her and to recommend her to you.

For many reasons, most of them good ones, there has for at least the last fifty years, been incredible skepticism about even the possibility of an objective ethics. The assault on ethics by philosophers reached its zenith during the hayday of what is called logical positivism—the view that the very meaning of propositions consists in their methods of verification, thus, if we can’t say what would verify a proposition, it is literally meaningless, empty. Although positivism died a fairly quick and justifiable death among academic philosophers (who realized that we simply must not confuse meaning and verification—many important, meaningful beliefs are not, at least fully, verifiable), its influence spread quickly and widely into the sciences, especially the social sciences. The damage that it has done there will last, in my estimation, for many years to come.

So, one reason for the attack on ethics has come from this epistemolgical drive for clarity and certainty. Wanting to be clear, even wanting to be certain, is not a bad thing in itself, but it can cause peculiar and dangerous moves. As I learn so often from my students, there is a tremendous temptation to move from the claim that nothing is certain to the claim that everything is equally true/certain. What begins as an obsessive fascination for certainty can, though not for good reasons, lead quickly to a lazy acceptance of whatever view one likes.

However, another factor that has driven the attack on ethics is the flat out truth that cultures from time to time and place to place differ (at least in part) on what they hold dear, what they value and seek out. Dominant cultures tend always to suppose that their values (their beliefs about what is valuable) are true for all and for all times, leading to a dangerous and blind ethnocentrism. The tremendous advances made in sociology and anthropology in this century, due primarily to the careful and in so far as possible objective scrutiny of other cultures by social scientists, has culminated in a healthy humility when it comes to making carte blanche statements about other cultures. For even if there is some objective ethic, even if there are some cross cultural or universal moral truths, making judgments about the rightness or wrongness of practices of those in other cultures, and especially judging the moral worth of those involved in such practices, requires extreme care and tolerance. We can never be sure that we have all the morally relevant facts at hand, and if there is anything close to a shared moral principle among social scientists, it is that we ought not judge without complete understanding.

To put this quickly and overly simply, our increasing understanding of cultural diversity has caused many careful thinkers to be much more careful in making moral and value judgments about other cultures, even other groups within a culture, and finally even about individuals within the same group or culture.

Even from this quick overview, it should be obvious why scientists and philosophers have become more suspicious of ethical theories that claim to have arrived at cross-cultural and/or universal truths. However, none of this explains why there has been so much resistance from leftists regarding the possibility of an objective ethics. Of course, it was very important to early Marxists to carry on what Marx and Engels saw as a scientific approach to economics and cultural studies, and thus not surprising that the scientific suspicion of ethics should carry over to leftists. But it is obvious that Marx is arguing that certain forms of production are unfair, that the capitalist mode, in particular, oppresses whole classes of people. No one can read Marx carefully without realizing that he thought that capitalism ought to be overthrown. Whether or not he thought that its eventual replacement by communism is inevitable (a claim Marxists continue to argue), there is no doubt that he thought that it ought to be overthrown, that communism is a better, morally better, system.

And yet it is almost as difficult to find leftists who will seriously entertain claims to an objective ethics as it is to find positivists who will do so. Ethics is simply out of vogue, and thinkers of all sorts are fond of the mantra that there is no absolute truth (especially in ethics), and that everything must be regarded from a relativistic stance. (Such a dangerous claim for leftists to make, since, I think, it undercuts many of their most passionate beliefs and argues for a kind of status quo.)

I have used up most of my time already, and I have not yet even mentioned Murdoch’s place in all of this. What I would like to invite you readers to do is to read Murdoch. First, read one or two of her novels. Get irritated by them, get depressed by them, wonder about them. Then read a bit of her philosophical essay; I would suggest starting with a difficult but excellent essay entitled “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts,” which can be found in a collection of essays under that same title. It can also be found in a newer and much larger collection entitled “Existentialists and Mystics.” Then return to her novels with an understanding of her theory as a background for the novels. What you will find, or perhaps I should say what I have found in fifteen years of reading Murdoch, is a thinker who understands all the perils of ethnocentrism, who understands the arrogance and blindness of what we might call scholasticism, who even understands the mistakes and excesses of both Anglo American analytic philosophers and Continental philosophers (especially the existentialists), and yet who continues to be committed to the objectivity of good. Perhaps, as some analytic philosophers have insisted, good (unlike many other important concepts) is not further reducible, cannot be expressed by synonyms (in philosophical parlance, it is simple and unanalyzable). Still, not only is there good, but we can see it everyday, we can recognize it in ourselves and others. Indeed, if Murdoch is right, we can even learn to be good, or, at least, to be much better than we are now.

It is obvious that Murdoch loves the moral zeal of the existentialist writers, loves their passion and their calls to action. But she also sees that they put much too much stress on freedom, on what gets called by both analytic philosophers and existentialists, free will. She thinks there has been much too much stress on the vaunted freedom of the will, as if one only does the good, only does her duty, in exceptional cases where the mighty will overpowers the lowly inclinations and heroically does right. Murdoch, giving in partly to Hobbes and to the legion of psychologists since, admits that we humans are organic; we are animals among animals, and we are selfish by nature. Why deny it when it is so much a datum of everyday life. But, though selfish by nature, we are not selfish necessarily; we can learn to see the world in such a way that we are not completely blinded by the veil of our own cares and concerns. Just as the scientist or painter can, through careful attention, learn to see the world as it is (rather than as s/he wants it to be), so, too, we as moral agents can come to attend to the needs of others without always or completely filtering that view through the distortions of self.

Murdoch sees also that the call-word of Satrean existentialists, that existence precedes essence, that there is no human essence, undercuts completely the possibility of an objective ethics. If there are cross cultural rights and wrongs, then they must be based on some shared essence. I understand fully the suspicions of feminists, of all careful thinkers, to claims that are based on having discovered the essence of women, or of men, or of human beings generally. But the fact that essentialist arguments have been misused, that essentialist claims have been made that are dangerous and false, cannot be a sufficient reason to give up the search for what we are essentially. Granted, we must always treat these claims gingerly, even suspiciously, but if morality is not somehow grounded in universal or shared biologies (which is also the ground for understanding how we mistreat other animals, how we abuse the organic world we live in), then we will be left with a kind of relativism that yields to the loudest voice, that disintegrates into might makes right.

Well, I haven’t really told you what Murdoch’s ethical theory is, but you can find out for yourselves. Here is a person who believes in good, who thinks we can and must eschew bad (evil), and who is willing to tell us how at least to start going about it. She is a wonderful thinker, a great writer and philosopher, and was herself a deeply good and humble being. Read her. She is a treasure of the age.

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