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Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals

Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals - Iris Murdoch I gave a lot of time to this book, both reading it and deferring my review while thinking about it. I normally write reviews within a day and just put down my first reactions and, despite the time taken, that is probably the only way I can review this book.

My fantasy about Murdoch is this - that she has taught philosophy at a leading university for many years, associating with many leading philosophers and many students of whom some at least were very bright, and that she has developed a weary resignation in the face of certain commonly held views. Her target in this book seems to me to be the proposition that philosophy, or metaphysics, is a waste of time, we do not need it any more, and it is time to turn to more successful, preferably more scientific ways to address the problems formerly assigned to philosophers. In this book she sets out to show that these smart-sounding assertions are mistaken and wrong.

She has a number of approaches to this theme. One is that people fail to understand their sources - they hear what they want to hear, not what was said. Another is that, in reality, people pronouncing the death of metaphysics either make a string of unexamined metaphysical claims which they are unable to justify when challenged, or at least require metaphysical foundations in order to stand on their chosen ground. A further approach is to simply demonstrate the continuing validity, value and necessity of metaphysics.

This is not a textbook. It assumes that the reader is familiar with the work of the philosophers and does not fill in the background which most of us would probably find helpful. The style is, in my personal opinion, self indulgent and uncompromising, with a very selective choice of material which I suspect is too narrow. She dismisses philosophers / writers who do not interest her, or do not fit her theme, with a very opinionated wave. And I wrote off entire chapters as tedious and badly written - notably her chapter about tragedy, which I hated.

By contrast, she has other chapters that spring to life, presumably because they touch on her particular interests in a way that exploits to the full her evident grasp of her subject and ability to teach it in a lively and absorbing manner. I think, for instance, that she does a terrific job explaining Wittgenstein and making him accessible and relevant. She also finds a congenial theme in discussing and exploring the Ontological Proof of Anselm and the way this has been interpreted later, notably by Kant, turning this seemingly mediaeval and highly technical topic into something filled with poetry and significance.

One source she clearly does love is Plato and she has many opportunities to use his ideas to great effect. She certainly does think he has been misunderstood and misrepresented and she is more than keen to restore him to his plinth. This is interesting, because so many other writers have cast Plato in a very unpleasant light indeed. Since you ask for examples, I think of Popper's Open Society and its Enemies as a loud warning to avoid Plato like poison. She does indeed make the idea of returning to Plato far more enticing.

The trouble is, though, that Murdoch's eventual positive opinions, things she is willling to set out as her contribution to the debate about morals, strike me as insipid and insufficient. She appears to represent metaphysics as the accumulation of weak arguments, as though in some way the mutual support of individually weak arguments can produce something that is strong. And she appears to exemplify that Church of England attitude by which religion must be preserved in the absence of rational support for the sake of convention.

In the end my personal response is to see her book as a useful but negative way to challenge public thinkers who claim that their proposals are rational, scientific, or otherwise beyond the reach of mere word merchants. It is her negations rather than her positive assertions that I enjoyed most. And she defends very ably the Whitehead proposition that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

The ‘demythologisation’ of religion is something absolutely necessary in this age. However … it may be in danger of losing too much while asserting too little. The loss of the Book of Common Prayer (Cranmer’s great prayer book) and of the Authorised Version of the Bible (which are now regarded as oddities or treats) is symptomatic of this failure of nerve. To say that people now cannot understand that ‘old language’ is not only an insult, but an invitation to more lax and cursory modes of expression. The religious life and the imperfect institutions thereof should continue to represent the all-importance of goodness.” [p460]

The idea of repentance and leading a better cleansed and renewed life is a generally understood moral idea; and the, however presented, granting of absolution, God’s forgiveness, keeps many people inside religion, or invites them to enter. Guilt, especially deep apparently incurable guilt, can be one of the worst of human pains. To cure such an ill, because of human sin, God must exist. … Salvation as spiritual change often goes with the conception of a place of purification and healing. (We light candles, we bring flowers, we go somewhere and kneel down.) This sense of a safe place is characteristic of religious imagery. … There is a literal place, the place of pilgrimage, the place of worship, the shrine, the sacred grove, there is also a psychological or spiritual place, a part of the soul. … Religion provides a well known well-tried procedure of rescue. [p486]

I have been wanting to use Plato’s images as a sort of Ontological Proof of the necessity of Good, or rather, since Plato has already done this, to put his arguments into a modern context as a background to moral philosophy, as a bridge between morals and religion, and as relevant to our new disturbed understanding of religious truth. [p511]

...I attach … great importance to the concept of a transcendent good as an idea (properly interpreted) essential to both morality and religion. How do you mean essential? Do you mean it is empirically found to be so or are you recommending it? This is the beginning to which such enquiries are frequently returned, except that it is not the beginning. The beginning is hard to find. Perhaps here the beginning is the circular nature of metaphysical argument itself, whereby arguer combines an appeal to ordinary observation with an appeal to moral attitude. The process involves connecting together different considerations and pictures so that they give each other mutual support. Thus for instance there appears to be an internal relation between truth and goodness and knowledge. I have argued in this sense from cases of art and skill and ordinary work and ordinary moral discernment, where we establish truth and reality by an insight which is an exercise of virtue. Perhaps that is the beginning, which is also our deepest closest ordinary experience. [p511]