The Sovereignty of Good, Paperback Book
5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


Iris Murdoch once observed: 'philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious'.

What was obvious to Murdoch, and to all those who read her work, is that Good transcends everything - even God.

Throughout her distinguished and prolific writing career, she explored questions of Good and Bad, myth and morality.

The framework for Murdoch's questions - and her own conclusions - can be found here.


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The nature of goodness is an issue today in the writings of Iris Murdoch. The Sovereignty of Good includes three essays by her. In reading her essay, "The Sovereignty of Good over other concepts", I found her returning to the allegory of the cave and the metaphor of the Sun that I first read in Plato. Murdoch claims that "'Good is a transcendent reality' means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is." (p 91) For Murdoch this is a claim that Art is the way that humans can reach this unity in that,"The mind which has ascended to the vision of the Good can subsequently see concepts through which it has ascended (art, work, nature, people, ideas, institutions, situations, etc.) in their true nature and in their proper relationships to each other." (p 92)The discussion of the good by Iris Murdoch reconsiders this and other themes found in Marcus Aurelius and Plato. It is a difficult but worthwhile read.

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Iris Murdoch's collection <i>The Sovereignty of Good</i> comprises three chapters originally published separately as academic papers: "The Idea of Perfection", "On 'God' and 'Good"", and "The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts". The three essays, taken together, give a concise introduction to this author's iconoclastic views on moral philosophy. Murdoch characterizes modern moral philosophy as "existentialist", denying the existence of subjective mental experience that can be accessed by introspection and reducing all moral action to the arbitrary exercise of will. There are good reasons for this existential turn in modern philosophy, of course - an earlier generation of philosophers tended to overvalue the importance of intentions and subjective experiences, and eliminating such concepts from philosophy helps to solve some of the problems generated by Descartes's famous <i>cogito</i>. Yet a philosophy which dismisses as illusory all interior mental experience seems far removed from the intuitions of actual people; for Murdoch, such a philosophical system fails either to correspond to reality, to hold scrutiny as an intellectual argument, or to produce a guide to moral behaviour worth following.As an example of what she means, Murdoch proposes the thought experiment of a woman who harshly judges her daughter-in-law (believing, for example, that the younger woman is childish, uncultivated, and unworthy of her son). Suppose, however, that the mother-in-law later comes to regret her hasty judgment and realizes that the negative qualities she perceived in her daughter-in-law were merely the creation of her own unconscious prejudices. If the mother-in-law never gives away her dislike by any outward action, it is hard to say how an "existential" moral philosopher could have anything to say about the situation at all, since the mother-in-law's change of heart takes place entirely in an inward realm whose existence the philosopher denies. Yet such situations clearly belong to the realm of moral philosophy, and the average person would have little difficulty describing what would have happened: the woman learned to view her daughter-in-law through the lens of charity. For Murdoch, a satisfactory account of moral philosophy needs to include a concept of moral perfection (the "Good") to which our activity is directed, and must have a place for the virtue of love.Murdoch's account is inspired by Platonic ideas (she likens her concept of the "Good", for instance, to the sun in Plato's famous allegory of the cave). The Good is ultimately unknowable because no human can look at it directly, even as we orient our actions by it; perfection is only an ideal to strive for, never something actually realized in this life. Her use of Plato is not uncritical, however, and many readers will be surprised by her flat insistence on the impossibility of traditional theistic belief; the third essay takes it as axiomatic that humans have no <i>telos</i> or overarching goal to which they ought to orient themselves. This is all the more surprising because her account of a transcendent, perfect ideal of "the Good" would seem to harmonize with the traditional theistic understanding of morality as grounded in the divine nature. One suspects that, like her model Simone Weil, Murdoch found her way to an unconventional sort of belief in God despite her inability to affirm religious beliefs in their traditional form.Brevity is a virtue for the philosopher, and <i>The Sovereignty of Good</i> gives the reader much to think about in its 101 pages. Readers should probably have some background in analytic philosophy (a basic acquaintance with Wittgenstein would be particularly helpful), but the language is sufficiently clear to be comprehensible to a non-philosopher like this reviewer. The first essay, which sets the stage for the two that follow, is also the longest and most difficult; anyone who finds the book initially difficult should persevere, since the remainder of the book is somewhat easier going and will clarify some of the points made previously.

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