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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001) 602-629

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Envisioning the Good: Iris Murdoch's Moral Psychology

A. E. Denham

All power is sin and all law is frailty. Love is the only justice. Forgiveness, reconciliation, not law.

--Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good


"The author's moral judgment," Murdoch once remarked, "is the air which the reader breathes" ("Literature" 28). It is at least true that if a reader engages properly with a novel or other literary work, and if the work is any good, then he will to some extent inhabit, albeit only episodically, the author's ethical perspective, his evaluative point of view. 1 This being so, it is natural for the reflective reader to attend to the values implicit in a work--to ask, for instance, whether it embodies any specific moral principles. Should he identify some such principles, he may be tempted to impute them to the author, and if the author happens also [End Page 602] to be a moral philosopher, as was Murdoch, this temptation could be especially difficult to resist. Are her novels, inter alia, veiled expressions of a philosophical moral theory? Do they betray her commitment to some normative system, some set of ethical convictions that she has elsewhere articulated in specifically philosophical terms?

Novels that address specifically moral concerns often provoke such questions with respect to their authors. In Murdoch's case, however, the temptation to pursue them would be misguided, and for two reasons. The first reason is that Murdoch's literary efforts were typically (if not exceptionlessly) informed by an "absolute horror of putting [into them] theories or 'philosophical ideas' as such" ("Literature" 19). She was committed to the view that, while both philosophy and art are in a general sense "truth-seeking" activities, their strategies and standards of success are--or at least should be--radically different. She conceived of philosophy as being, like science, objective, detached, abstract; philosophical style should be guided by the aim to say exactly what one means as directly, literally, and clearly as one can, without "rhetoric or idle decoration" (4). In philosophy (again, as in science) "one tries to say something that is impersonally true" (8). Philosophical writing, she insisted, is not concerned, or not primarily concerned, with pleasure or novelty or beauty or emotional engagement. In practice, of course, philosophers and scientists often rely on such charms to engage their readers, but Murdoch believed that they are no part of that at which philosophy should properly aim, nor of the standards by which it is to be judged as succeeding or failing qua philosophy. In principle, a first-rate philosophical work can be homely, lumbering, dull, repetitive, and even unoriginal; a first-rate novel must be none of these things. Philosophical efforts, like scientific ones, finally stand or fall in virtue of stating claims that are rationally supportable and exceptionlessly true (or at least very widely true), while literary efforts stand or fall for many and highly various reasons. Murdoch held, moreover, that the philosopher's impersonal truths seldom provide the substance of a successful piece of literary fiction. (She mentions Sartre's La Nausée as an exception.) In keeping with these views, she made every effort to exclude from her novels her own and others' philosophical theories. 2

It does not follow, of course, that Murdoch succeeded in wholly segregating her philosophical from her literary persona. Indeed, I shall [End Page 603] argue later that the former very much shines through in the latter. But what shines through is no identifiable system of substantive normative principles--no first-order morality as such. For Murdoch endorsed no developed moral theory in the traditional sense of that phrase; she even claimed that there was none to be had. (This is the second reason that the reader tempted to interpret her novels as "literary philosophy" will be disappointed.) Her philosophical works offer no settled formulas for living and acting well, no general principles for determining the moral standing of one's own and others' actions, no well-defined criteria...


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