Issue #40 May 2021

From Kant Back to Plato: Iris Murdoch’s Moral Philosophy on Love and Vision

Odilon Redon - Underwater Vision - (1910) [detail]

It is a suitable moment to reconsider what love means, and what it has to do with morality.

For many who believe a meaningful life should be an active one, it was a year-long unnerving time they have been through. Many of us have to embrace a static life: the best way to do good, to help, is to act on very little but to stay put, and oftentimes the way we care about our loved ones is to keep distance from them. Even our thinking – in the sense that it is a clear purposeful mental activity (as opposed to other more jumbled and “passive” inner experience) in preparation for individual action or social causes – often turned out to be rather disconcerting.

Love, on the other hand, as a radical and ethical transformation of one’s inner vision towards an exterior being, can lead us back to our more muddled inner territory, where the passive and the active intertwine. During the long halt of many of our outward exertions, this inner territory started to haunt us again. A lot of surprising reflections on love might occur, due to the many romantic relationships that were hurriedly established, or attachments that swiftly turned sour and deemed as illusions during this exceptional time that is still barely over. We might ask ourselves: have we ever properly seen or imagined the ones we claim we love, out of an other-centred view, rather than driven by egotistic desires or needs? Is love only about that blind romantic realm dictated by feelings and emotions, and has nothing to do with efforts (efforts on improving one’s moral state, not on conquering outward obstacles) and responsibility? Or is love only so scarcely “given” and narrowly dispatched, that each of us is entitled to choose “freely” to be loving to the ones we (at the moment) love, and comfortably be detached from the others whom we fail (or don’t want) to love? So that love, extremely beautiful or intoxicating as it can be, can never be the basis on which a moral philosophy is built, unlike duty or the free choice of autonomous subjects?

Many a thinker, from ancient to contemporary times, has taken up this challenge, and called upon the name of love in their discussions of ethics. After all, the romanticized and narrowing understanding of love sketched above is only an invention of the modern Western world that has gone extremely popular (and vulgarized) worldwide today. Among the thinkers of love, this article focuses on Iris Murdoch. Her time was very close to ours, so were the problems of her society’s moral tendency. We are still living in an age that is very much obsessed with the active and the clarified – action, will, creative thinking, reasoning, freedom of choice, the self-assertive undertaking of duty, etc.; whereas the significance of our seemingly static, always obscure inner life is too readily dismissed as a field of self-indulgence or passivity, “doing” no good to the factual world. Yet as Murdoch tries to point out, that vast inner field is exactly where love perches on. Ignoring it, we will not be able to see and to imagine morally, nor can we improve the quality of our consciousness. Eventually, our thinking and actions might become a sheer complacent repetition of the Same.

It is therefore necessary to envisage a new mode of discussing ethics that encompasses the entire scope of an individual’s inner life as well as one’s outward deeds. To reach this purpose, Murdoch suggests, we might as well firstly trace back and consider carefully: what is it in the modern Western philosophical/ethical traditions that easily induces a myopic moral behaviourism. How come the ethical principles familiar to those in the modern liberal world are based only so narrowly on an abstract definition of free will and moral choices. And what baneful consequences such principles have brought to today’s moral outlooks.


Problems of the Liberal Morality, Or, Where Does Kant Go Wrong

For Murdoch, the popular philosophical schools in the post-WWII Western world contain dangerous ethical deficiencies. Through her critiques of Sartre and Wittgenstein, Murdoch argues that neither the European Existentialism nor the Anglophone Ordinary Language Philosophy manages to provide a morally sound understanding of the human life, i.e. one that would allow a person to pay sufficient tribute to the particularity of other (human) beings. Egotistic neurosis and social conventions become the moral downfalls of humankind as portrayed by the two schools respectively. I have written previously on this very topic, in a piece that acts as a prelude for this one. Digging deeper, Murdoch proceeds to look for the genetic origins of those deficiencies, and lays bare the essential image of the moral understandings in the postwar liberal world.

In her discussion of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Murdoch notes that the book is an unfinished one. Sartre claimed that he would soon provide the foundations for existentialist ethics in his next major work (a work on ethics), and would tackle further questions on the relation between freedom and value. But such work never came into being. Murdoch implies that this is because Sartre was unable to, for there is very little that could be said regarding ethics under his philosophical framework, except for, perhaps, that one should strive to free oneself from unreflective sluggishness to aspire to a condition of pure identity, through the medium of one’s self-chosen actions.

The reason for the absence of ethics (except in some extremely diminished and reduced form) is that “freedom” serves as the one fundamental idea in the Sartrean existentialism, to the degree that Sartre “desires nothing but freedom, yet freedom is an empty ideal.” (SRR 111) Empty because, instantiated for the purpose of attacking all “given” values (hence also for the purpose of socio-political revolutions), freedom itself becomes the foundation, or the “meta-value” of all values: man affirms all the values he recognizes with lucid consciousness of his responsibility, knowing that they depend only on him. It follows that the vocabulary of morality dries out, since no other moral concepts, virtues (except sincerity, as opposed to “bad faith”), or processes of moral evaluation will be worthy of serious discussion as long as they don’t quarrel with freedom. Such situation is hardly satisfying.

The predicament of moral dryness is by no means a new “achievement” of Sartre’s. It runs far deeper and earlier back, to the tradition that begot it. Existentialism is “the most systematic exposition of modern Liberal morality” (EM 70); its innate deficiencies could be better comprehended in the tradition of (political) Liberalism, especially the liberal theory of personality. From here, Murdoch moves to liberal criticism, and her target turns correspondingly to a figure more crucial than Sartre – Immanuel Kant, ancestor of both Liberalism and Romanticism, the one who provides modern Western ethics with its dominating image. It is not difficult to see that Sartre’s ethical view is largely inherited from Kant. Conspicuous symptoms in Sartre’s philosophy, such as the dryness of morality and shrinkage of the sphere of value, have in much earlier time found their way to sneak into Kant’s grand ethical structure.

According to Murdoch, Kant plays a decisive role in the shrinkage of value (/moral evaluation) when he looks to solve an ancient dilemma in moral philosophy: how can human freedom be compatible with the authority of goodness? The distinction Kant makes between the “phenomenal” world and the “noumenal” world helps to pave the way. Murdoch explains its influence on later moral philosophy:

“Definitions and revelations of the Good seem to preclude the spiritual value of a free adherence. Kant inaugurates a new era when he makes a virtue out of this difficulty by pointing out that it is the very mysteriousness and separateness of the spiritual world which renders it spiritual. God (or value) is necessarily an object of faith, not of knowledge. Kant’s combination of this insight with his confidence in science produces [a] dualism… Much modern philosophy (existentialist and analytical) follows Kant here: since value has clearly no place in the empirical (scientific) world it must be given another kind of importance by being attached directly to the operation of the human will.” (EM 194-95)

That is to say, Kant marks the beginning of the segregation of “fact” and “value”. The former concerns with (scientific) knowledge of the empirical world; it is an amoral field, since we humans are but causally determined animals here. The latter, value, on the other hand rests in the same domain with faith and our free spirits; it is where we recognize the command of morality. Such segregation effectively solves the above-mentioned dilemma, because it redirects the defiant nature of the human freedom to go against the phenomenal world (where we fall prey to contingent factors and our individual inclinations) and put freedom in accord with the sovereign revelation of the Moral Law. However, keeping value safe from our knowledge of the phenomenal world already means to shrink its scope, to “efface any close view of moral lives as lived by ordinary individuals.” (MGM 159)

Admittedly, Kant allows value to re-enter the phenomenal world soon after the segregation – with the universal practical reason, our intuitive sensations aroused by the Moral Law, and the operation of the human will to impose rational order. In fact, it constitutes the nobility of the Kantian Ethics that he introduces value as a realm that is higher, as a “laser beam” (to borrow Murdoch’s image) that shines down onto our empirical world. Kant is fully aware that the recognition of the absolute call of Duty should be primary and immediate to us, hence his acknowledgement of the act of faith (and intuition). Nonetheless, the segregation has already formed, and as Murdoch put it, “the essential thing must be built into the explanation from the start, or else it tends to fly away and become problematic and remote and extremely difficult to integrate.” (MGM 55)

Therefore, in Kant already there is room for the narrow focus on moral duties and the human will. Our states of mind, our personalities, the messy regions of our emotions and desires, could all be rendered irrelevant to morality (for they belong to pathological phenomena rather than practical reason). Many later explainers have even noticed that Kant tends to regard a misanthrope who acts on goodness against his character more praiseworthy, than someone who takes genuine pleasure in helping others – because for the misanthrope the fulfillment of Duty is a greater feat, and the operation of will is more triumphant. Such picture is hardly plausible. Morality for sure consists of doing good, but it is much broader, including one’s loving temperament, one’s ability to imagine others’ life sympathetically, and a lot more. Kant is too optimistic with our reason and will, whereas the reality is that if we don’t in the meantime work patiently on the broader messier field of our phenomenal beings – to purify our imagination, refine our characters, improve the quality of our consciousness, reflect upon our desires and motivations etc., – we tend to fail in recognizing and exercising moral duties. In actual human life, the fulfillment of morality is rarely a cold look at the “facts” followed by a jump to moral practices guided by reason and will.

Odilon Redon - Germination (plate two from In Dreams) - (1879)

The second problematic path Kant takes in moral philosophy leaves a long-lasting impact on Liberalism and Romanticism. We could comprehend it as the abolishment of any external point, that is outside the individual self but stays in the phenomenal world, which could have functioned as the source of moral guidance and the centre of value endowment, so that all the crucial ethical roles would not be left only to the isolated individual. Murdoch on some other occasions puts it as the abolishment of God in a more traditional sense (i.e. not that “God wants us to live as if there were no God”). But we could also call the external point by the names of otherness, the Other, an other being, the non-human world, the cosmos, or more conclusively (in Murdoch’s term again), the Good.

To explicate this point further. When Kant sets up the picture that one has to act against one’s character to take heed of the outcry of Duty, he is in some sense following a sound instinct, that the mess of our empirical psyche is usually selfish and unjust. However, when Kant wants to find something clean and pure outside that mess, he looks in the wrong place. “His enquiry led him back again into the self, now pictured as angelic (i.e. not belonging to the empirical world), and inside this angel-self his followers have tended to remain.” (EM 368) Meaning, from Kant on the individual self in his/her free state (led by will and reason) is authorized as the supreme creator of values, whereas previously, values were inscribed outside the self (in the heavens and guaranteed by God, for example). Despite his so-called reasons for the existence of God, the image of the Kantian man recognizes the authority of goodness within him. Kant’s starry heavens do not really point to a transcendent yet substantial reality, and the Moral Law is actually consulted safely inside the individual’s mind. It is this Kantian image of man that greatly inspires political liberalism. The concept of individual that is adopted as a political flag by both Liberalism and Romanticism was born out of here:

“How recognisable, how familiar to us, is the man so beautifully portrayed in the Grundlegung, who confronted even with Christ turns away to consider the judgment of his own conscience and to hear the voice of his own reason. Stripped of the exiguous metaphysical background which Kant was prepared to allow him, this man is with us still, free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy. He is the ideal citizen of the liberal state, a warning held up to tyrants… It is not such a very long step from Kant to Nietzsche, and from Nietzsche to existentialism and the Anglo-Saxon ethical doctrines which in some ways closely resemble it.” (EM 365)

However, a good political philosophy is not necessarily a good moral philosophy, as Hume once observed. So far we should be able to diagnose the cause of the ethical predicaments in the Sartrean existentialism as well as other post-Kantian moral philosophy in the modern liberal world. Let us look at the Sartrean existentialism first. It clearly inherits from Kant the segregation of fact and value (in the existentialist term: man is both “facticity” and freedom). Like Kant, existentialism also makes freedom the sovereign concept, and identifies freedom with the operation of the human will. However, discarding Kant’s metaphysical background and working with a non-universal concept of reason, values in existentialism more radically collapse into the human will, to the degree that there is no longer any content in the idea of goodness or the Moral Law for the individual freedom to align with. In the “facticity” domain, on the other hand, Sartre cannot but remain in the pit of determinism and empiricism. Those factors combined together make “freedom” an abstract and facile concept. Freedom in here becomes “how you choose, not what you choose, doing what you intend, not doing what is right.” And the failure to be free is “the failure to operate the machinery of will-desire-belief-reason in such a way as to enjoy the detachment of rational thought. It is that failure and not any more complicated moral failure.” (EM 197)

Now let us turn to look at the other branch of the liberal moral tradition. It is the Anglo-Saxon ethical discussion, represented today by the linguistic (/empirical) moral philosophy that is influenced by Wittgenstein. Like Sartrean existentialism, Anglophone linguistic philosophy is neo-Kantian in style. It too assumes a distinction between fact and value, and presupposes that the moral agent is a free rational being who is able to make reasoned choices of action. The difference between the two is that existentialism focuses on the domain of value (the realm of freedom), yet the Anglo-Saxon ethical doctrines take greater interest in the domain of fact (the factual world). Existentialism is fond of high-minded ideals for the humanity to live by, the goal of the Anglophone linguistic philosophy, on the other hand, is not so much to elevate or purify moral philosophizing as to turn moral enquiries into a specialized subject on which the philosopher works as a neutral technician.

With a down-to-earth spirit in line with British empiricism and analytical philosophy tradition, Anglophone linguistic philosophy carries on the mode of “public morality” discussion. The tendency of moral understandings here is conventional and behaviouristic. It is conventional, because the agent is subject to common rules, surrounded by the network of ordinary language, and always lives in a shared human community. It is behaviouristic, because in order to avoid the chaotic empirical inwardness (the inner life) of the individual, the focus of discussion has to be on people’s overt actions (here existentialism joints hands with it). A man is represented exclusively by what he observably does, it is assumed, for what he feels is inaccessible to, or irrelevant to the discussion of public morality. Dryness of moral vocabulary is the natural consequence in here, where the regions of morality are shrunk to mere “strings of choices and recommendations backed up by reference to facts.” (EM 82) To an extreme degree, “good” and “right” could be the only moral words remained – both are terms expressing rational judgments. Moreover, in order to have some kind of universal criteria for the public good down here in the factual world, it is near impossible for the Anglophone ethical doctrines to shake off a vulgar utilitarianism that has stalked it for a long history.

Synthesizing the situations of the two branches of the liberal moral traditions, Murdoch draws the moral outlooks of the postwar Western world as follows:

“The very powerful image with which we are here presented is behaviourist, existentialist, and utilitarian in a sense which unites these three conceptions. It is behaviourist in its connection of the meaning and being of action with the publicly observable, it is existentialist in its elimination of the substantial self and its emphasis on the solitary omnipotent will, and it is utilitarian in its assumption that morality is and can only be concerned with public acts. It is also incidentally what may be called a democratic view, in that it suggests that morality is not an esoteric achievement but a natural function of any normal man.” (EM 305)

Murdoch also provides a sharp analogy for the postwar moral outlooks as experienced by ordinary people in everyday life. It is a very superficial picture, combining the worst weaknesses from the two branches and is seasoned with a cheap popular imagination of the democratic society. It is like visiting a shop. “I enter the shop in a condition of totally responsible freedom, I objectively estimate the features of the goods, and I choose.” Moral discussions are correspondingly analogous to the appraisal of the products (/choices of action) one puts in one’s cart: “the greater my objectivity and discrimination the larger the number of products from which I can select,” and the better the quality of those products selected. (EM 305) Such picture caters happily to the liberal society’s ideals of “individuality” and “diversity” that are in fact rooted in outright homogeneity. In the meantime it also makes public moral debates (that kind of “open debates” much enjoyed by democratic liberalism) possible, because it takes people’s moral differences as no more than differences of choice in a discussable background of facts. The individual can therefore make moral progress as easily as returning and changing commodities from the shop. “The moral agent is free to withdraw, survey the facts, and choose again.” (EM 83)

Odilon Redon - La coupe du devenir (L'Enfant à la coupe) - (ca 1894)

Vision, Love, and How Could Plato Be Right

Now we have a rather lousy picture. What next? Shall we tear up the canvas, and embrace some moral foundation other than Liberalism? That is not what Murdoch intends. But it does look imperative that the modern-day liberal moral philosophy should undergo a mayor alteration in its overall composition, so much so that the difficulty of freedom, the efforts required by one’s moral progress, and the radical differences between individuals as real substantial human persons (which is after all the fundamental tenet of Liberalism) can find their proper positions back in the picture. Murdoch thus explains that she is in fact looking out for a criticism of Romanticism rather than that of Liberalism, and to call upon “a post-Kantian unromantic Liberalism with a different image of freedom.” (EM 293)

The major alteration cannot be done in one stroke. Yet we might as well begin the task by introducing into the vocabulary of morals some new concepts, in terms of which the richness and complexity of our moral life could be better depicted. “Vision” is one of the most important concepts Murdoch helps to develop. After noting that the “shop-visiting” analogy deems moral differences as fundamentally only a matter of choices, Murdoch goes on to point out, the presumption behind here is that all humans who are moral beings, or at least those of them who can communicate, live in the same factual world. However, differences between individuals are greater than such presumption is able to acknowledge, to the degree that people don’t actually see the same set of “facts”. One could even say that people in effect live in entirely different worlds constructed respectively by the overall operations of the individuals’ inner lives:

“Moral differences look less like differences of choice, given the same facts, and more like differences of vision. In other words, a moral judgment seems less like a movable and extensible ring laid down to cover a certain area of fact, and more like a total difference of Gestalt. We differ not only because we select different objects out of the same world but because we see different worlds.” (EM 82)

The introduction of the term “vision” (in replacement of “choice” to occupy a central moral position), together with other related visual metaphors Murdoch starts to apply, marks the “inward turn” of the Murdochian ethics that goes against the general social tendency of the Western world since after the War. “Vision” as a moral term proves even more valuable when confronting the Kantian ethics, in that it re-channels value (/process of evaluation) into our knowledge of the world at the very outset, so that it opens up a chance to overcome Kant’s fact-value segregation and his portrayal of a radically divided self with alternative views. An individual inhabits but one world that is substantial, real, yet full of transcendent otherness in one’s everyday life. And a human being as the knower of this world and as a moral agent is identical, the two identities refer to the same complex workings of the individual’s inner life.

Moreover, talking about vision will naturally introduce the value of “reality” as the measure of the quality of one’s consciousness: how “true” (/close) to reality is one’s vision of the world? Has one paid enough “attention” in his vision of other beings? Is one’s vision a mere egoistic “fantasy” or the fruit of a virtuous, other-centred “imagination”? The vocabulary of morality is thus further enriched by many more secondary concepts (truth, attention, fantasy, imagination etc.). Old ethical terms also obtain deepened meanings thanks to it, most notably freedom and will. With the emergence of “reality” in the horizon of value, the tight mutually exclusive link between freedom and the human will is loosened to allow both concepts to re-align with (the process of obtaining) knowledge of what is real:

“[The] sharp distinctions of active and passive, reason and will, break down because a constructive activity of imagination and attention ‘introduces’ value into the world which we confront. We have already partly willed our world when we come to look at it; and we must admit moral responsibility for this ‘fabricated’ world, however difficult it may be to control the process of fabrication. … To be free is something like this: to exist sanely without fear and to perceive what is real. I would be prepared to imply that one who perceives what is real will also act rightly. If the magnetic field is right, our movements within it will tend to be right.” (EM 201)

“No one errs willingly.” This is Murdoch’s favourite quotation here. Her allusions to Plato’s ethics of knowledge does not by any means intend to downplay the importance of action, but to imply that there is no way to distinguish “knowledge” and “action/choice” as two disparate categories in our moral life – both belong to the continuous “constructive activity” of value endowment. It is therefore usually futile to focus myopically on the moments of action or the results of choice. “At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.” (EM 329) The world we see already contains most of our workings of evaluation, we just tend to ignore those slow and delicate processes conducted by our imagination and will. It of course follows that at the final moments of action we are not that free, because the exercise of freedom is “a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.” (ibid.) Freedom and will, on this view, are more difficult and complex achievements than those in the post-Kantian ideal. And the moral life here is something that goes on continuously as long as value (/process of evaluation) is omnipresent in the human world.

So, vision is at the centre of the human existence, it is analogous to a magnetic field that prompts action. Freedom is that which in our constitution that establishes such magnetic field (a quiet and painstaking process), its tool is the human imagination and its force the human will. Truthful vision prompts righteous action, whereas distorted vision prompts ill deeds. Lastly, the measure of truthfulness is reality. By far, our task of altering of the moral picture is about halfway through. Yet there are still important problems left. If “reality” goes beyond the mere objective “fact” and serves as the measure of the moral quality of vision, then it has to be defined by an overarching virtue, a sovereign idea in the realms of morals (so that we don’t head to the notion of “subjective reality” and the whole picture won’t collapse into extreme moral relativism). Following this problem there is another: how does that sovereign idea of all morals, by way of reality, actually work on the individual and guide him in the path of moral progress? The two problems bring two other crucial concepts: “the Good”, and “love”. Both derive from the intention to rectify Kant’s second mistake – the abolishment of the “external point” as a fountainhead of value and moral guidance that is outside of the self.

By structure and by function, the concept of the Good in Murdoch is the counterpart of Kant’s Moral Law. Both serves as the ultimate source of moral revelations, and both exert moral guidance and biddings that are irrefutable to the moral agent. The greatest difference between the two, however, lies in where they are positioned. Although both are transcendent, the Moral Law is fundamentally located in a realm interior to the self; whereas the Good, resembling God in the traditional theology, resides in the realm of exteriority. The interiority of the Moral Law is to be approached and comprehended deep within the self. Accordingly, the form of moral revelations here is an inward consultancy of one’s reason and conscience. The exteriority of the Good, on the other hand, renders the idea of moral responsibility as something alien, the outer rather than the inner; the authority of its biddings is recognised as running against the stream of one’s self-defensive psyche. Murdoch in radical occasions even claims that the Good in itself is ‘unselfing’; it calls for the curb of egoism and solipsism.

As a metaphysical concept, the Good is the ultimate name for otherness; yet with the cancellation of a dualistic world, the Good is also a “this-worldly” concept incarnated by particular other beings big or small, and can be discovered in our ordinary experience of transcendence. Reality, under the measure of the Good defined as above, refers to the ever approachable yet unachievable ideal vision of an other being. It is “ideal” in the sense that such vision does perfect justice to that other being, having fully revealed the infinite value embedded in and determined by that being in itself. Moral revelations for the individual on this foundation also have to change forms. In the place of the practical reason there should now be a form of other-oriented passion or desire. The intuitive response to the Good should no longer be “respect” but a spontaneous attachment. Nor is the nature of the authority of the Good a resolute inner command, but some kind of attraction or enticement that arouses attention. Moreover, the character of the desired Good (as otherness) revealed to the moral agent is particularity rather than universality, because the Good (/the other being) always and fully stays in the contingent substantial world. To give name to this new form of moral revelations after all the considerations, we could call it – love. “Good exerts a magnetism which runs through the whole contingent world, and the response to that magnetism is love.” (MGM 203)

Murdoch describes the workings of love most touchingly in her novels. Her philosophizing of love, however, appears exactly from her discontent with Kant’s practical reason. When interpreting “love your neighbour” from the Scripture, Kant states that “love, as an affection, cannot be commanded, but beneficence for duty’s sake may; even though we are not impelled to it by any inclination – nay, are even repelled by a natural and unconquerable aversion. This is practical love and not pathological – a love which is seated in the will and not in the propensions of sense – in principles of action and not of tender sympathy.” (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals) Murdoch rebuts it with a degree of vehemence that is rare to her. “I do not agree that only practical love can be commanded, and I cannot think why Kant, who attributes such majesty to the human soul, should hold that any aversion was strictly ‘unconquerable’. Pathological love can be commanded too, and indeed if love is a purification of the imagination, must be commanded.” (EM 219)

Odilon Redon - Muse on Pegasus - (ca 1900)

In Murdoch’s view of love, Kant fails to contain love. “Practical love” does not express what love is about even by our commonsensical judgment. Loving a person is to a large degree “pathological”, i.e. it is an intensified awareness of the value (manifested by loveliness or beauty) of a particular substantial person in his/her whole tangled-up being, from soul to small contingent details to all his/her eccentricities. We occasionally say love is about action, but we seldom (if ever) really define the essence of love behaviouristically. Rather, love is perceived as a state of mind and (broadened by Murdoch) an orientation, a direction of energy. Such is what the narrow scope of the Kantian ethics unable to cover.

Moreover, in love one learns to cherish, to desire, and to be attentive to what is not oneself – put it more radically, love arises from otherness. That which is assimilated in the scope of the self cannot arouse passionate love, but is subject to the self’s cool reasoned judgments; it arouses only “respect” in the best case scenario. To respect other human beings (in the post-Kantian sense) means to respect them as co-equal bearers of universal reason, rather than as real substantial humans with independent values – in so far as we are rational and moral we are fundamentally all the same. Yet I am guessing most of us have experienced how that intended respect degrades so very easily to “tolerance”, or even to contempt, under the self’s cool judgmental eyes, once we find that others do not do as we do, or think as we think. There is sufficient reason why in our everyday life we long to be loved more than to be respected, and Murdoch would add that without love there is no genuine respect, nor genuine awareness of the other’s unique intrinsic value. Love is “the non-violent apprehension of difference;” it is “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” (EM 215)

On replacing respect with love here, it is suitable to reflect a bit further on the meaning of freedom. We are now exercising freedom in a world full of irreducibly dissimilar beings that shimmer in the light of Good, in the context of an infinitely extensible work of imaginative knowledge. Freedom and will therefore in our everyday life should be inspired mostly by love rather than by practical reason. Murdoch calls the freedom implied with love a “tragic freedom”, in contrast with the self-assertive “romantic freedom”. It is tragic, because “there is no prefabricated harmony, and others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves.” (EM 217) But despite it and because of it, we love, endeavor to free ourselves a bit more each time from egoist fantasy-visions. Therefore, instead of an empty “absolute freedom”, it is now only sensible to think in terms of the “degrees of freedom.” Freedom, like love, requires patience and humility.

Murdoch recounts a fable to illustrate how the moral change based on vision and love takes place in the individual, and how in such situation the efforts of will and freedom co-operate. A mother (M) has recently had a new daughter-in-law (D). M finds D good-hearted, only just a bit unpolished and lacking in dignity – in all, M feels that D is a silly vulgar girl and her son has married below him. Because the mother is a very decent person, she manages to behave impeccably all the time with D, and never reveals her true opinions in any way. In the old moral picture, M’s moral duty is perfectly fulfilled. But let us go on to consider M’s consciousness. Aside from the intermittent moments that M interacts with D, the inner activities of M’s mind never stop. It is possible that M’s negative view of D soon hardens to a fixed picture, a mean caricature of D that is in some sense perceptive nonetheless. Within this vision, every detail of D’s demeanour becomes a further proof of D’s lack of refinement. M might think her view is much sharper and more “precise” than her poor son’s, who is “blinded by love”, as we usually say. Yet there is an alternative possibility. The mother fights against herself in her mind. She loves her son and wishes to love the one her son loves. So she continues to attend to D (even when D is absent) with keener efforts and a well-intended heart, until gradually, M’s vision transforms. “D is discovered to be not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous, not noisy but gay, not tiresomely juvenile but delightfully youthful.” (EM 313)

Is there any significant moral change in the second scenario? The answer is most certainly positive. To Murdoch the moral change takes place in a broader and more fundamental scope than that of the overt action. From her change of vision, M attains a sounder guarantee of acting benevolently towards D than from the biddings of “duty” or the conventional social “axioms”. We also get from this fable a good sense of what the omnipresence of evaluation in the human life mean. The vocabulary of morality is infinitely rich and vivid, a large part of our language is value language in the concrete ways we use it (like M’s mental verbal descriptions of D). Moreover, the fable makes sensible the seemingly oxymoronic phrase Murdoch is fond of: the “just and loving gaze” to the other. Only when one is loving can one be just. It is not a problem of determining the objectiveness of opinions (M’s and her son’s) under the measure of “facts”, but a problem regarding the moral quality of consciousness, the refinement of motivate, and the purification of desire and imagination. M’s transformed vision is truer than her earlier one, because the transformed one is a vision that goes to its object via the Good to be thus purified and made unselfish. Finally, one gets to become better in oneself thanks to the inspiring discoveries of others: M may find her former being too old-fashion, or snobbish, or harsh, etc.

After having rectified Kant’s wrong-take paths, replaced old central terms with new ones, and enriched the vocabulary of moral concepts, by far we should be able to discern the new framework of the moral picture after major alteration. To visualize the new moral outlook, Murdoch also provides an analogy for it. For some there is already a sense of déjà vu in all the new moral concepts Murdoch has developed, in the new analogy, then, Murdoch eventually makes it explicit which philosopher is the main source of inspiration in her moral philosophy.

The analogy is Plato’s Cave Allegory in a new dress. In Murdoch’s context, the cave is the self-defensive human psyche. An individual in his usual state of egoism yet unaware of it is one of the prisoners deep in the cave, his ego is the shackles that bind him to the wall. The shadows he perceives in the cave are the distorted visions (fantasies) of the world. The fire in the cave is the incessant workings of his will and consciousness. Reality is the open space outside the cave. The Good is the sun, its light beams attract the prisoner, arousing desire and passion in him to break the chains and move to the outside space. Love is the name of that desire and passion. Virtue is the state of being in love with Good as he currently experience. Then, as the individual moves closer to the open space, his sights become much truer although he still cannot see things perfectly clear. He now finds the beings around him much more beautiful and lovely – they all dazzle in the sunlight. Beauty is the visible and accessible aspect of the Good reflected in other particular beings.

Plato becomes the central figure in the new picture in the place of Kant. The reason of this choice should be self-evident to us now, following Murdoch’s critique. It is in Plato’s philosophy that virtue is aligned with knowledge with efforts of moral progress, and that truth as a desirable ethical ideal is something transcendent and external. In comparison to Kant’s self-certain cool-headed man, Plato’s moral education is more realistic (and pessimistic) on the difficulty of moral progress, hence more sensitive to the necessity of a humble virtuous passion inside the moral being:

“Kant’s moral view is optimistic and democratic. Plato’s is pessimistic and aristocratic, in the sense that he offers a vision of what is highest, but also of the distance which separates us from it. Kant’s view is horizontal, Plato’s is vertical. Kant’s man plods along a level road, alternately failing and succeeding, continually nagged by conscience. We easily identify with this individual. Plato has no similar figure. When goodness is so difficult there seems less point in saying that every man is potentially good.” (MGM 178)

As have been warned by many scholars, the Plato in Murdoch’s explanations is to a large degree her own re-inventions. But from the overall structure to the key concepts in the Murdochian ethics we have discussed – reality, vision, the Good, love, beauty, justice etc., there are strong undeniable traces of Plato. There is, however, one remaining concept crucial to Murdoch’s writings as well as to the present essay that hasn’t yet been elaborated on. It is very close to the concept of love but the two are not quite interchangeable. In depicting the actual situations of human loving, Murdoch has to hark back to Plato once again in a faithful manner. And following Plato, she is obliged to call upon the name of that ancient powerful deity, Eros.


· · ·


An in-depth discussion of the Platonic-Murdochian Eros will need to be carried out in a third essay (to supplement this, and my previous one). This third part would also serve as a wrapping-up of Murdoch’s entire critique of the Western moral foundations by tackling the meta-ethical stance of humanism. Regarding this current essay, there remains one final issue I’d like to clarify, as both a disclaimer and a self-defense to the card-carrying Kantians. Murdoch’s attacks against Kant could come off unjust and reductive, as she has no intention to go into his majestic philosophical architecture to pose meticulous philosophical arguments following his lines. Rather, Murdoch’s Kantian critique is an “outside” one, triggered by a sense of discontent, especially with regards to the ethical consequences brought out by posterity. I believe that Murdoch actually holds Kant in high esteem, for even in her most vehement attacks, she remarked that “Kant is so close to being right” – especially in his discussion of aesthetics and the sublime. What Murdoch urges us to consider more deeply, however, is the everyday transcendence that each of us can experience, in every minute and towards every other being, as long as we make efforts to be genuinely loving persons.

Eve Yi Lin holds a Ph.D. in English Language Literature. She is now conducting her second Ph.D. project in Freiburg, Germany, on the subject of contemporary China’s reading activities.

Abbreviations and Works Cited

EM – Existentialists and Mystics

MGM – Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals

SRR – Sartre: Romantic Rationalist

Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics. Ed. Peter Conradi. New York and London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997.

Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. London and New York: Penguin, 1993.

Murdoch, Iris . Sartre: Romantic Rationalist. London: Vintage, 1999.


May 2021


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