The Sovereignty of Good

Iris Murdoch against the robots

By , Tuesday 27 March 2012 04.30 EDT

The Sovereignty of Good is a title very easy to misunderstand: it’s a short work by Iris Murdoch, which appears at first glance to suggest that we live in a world where Good triumphs, which is not what she meant at all. What the title actually claims is that Good exists independently of our will: it is something we recognise, rather than something we choose.

This strikes at the root of our contemporary self-understanding. It denies things that we tend to understand as self-evident. For that reason alone her short book is worth reading. But its value goes a long way beyond contrarianism. It’s easy enough to find scandalous quotes:

“We are men and we are moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in human life must be discussed in words. This is why it is and always will be more important to know about Shakespeare that to know about any scientist.”

That may cue comments accusing her of creationism, infant mortality, child abuse, and even Christian sympathies. If so, don’t pay them any heed.

The point about Murdoch’s attack on scientism is that she attacks head-on the notion that only those things that can be observed by third parties are real. “Anything which is to count as a definite reality must be open to several observers.” This is a philosophical idea, not a scientific one, though it is obviously informed by a certain romantic conception of science as a way to deliver us from clashing uncertainties into a world of facts, and, where facts are lacking, of unknowns that have at least the merit of being known.

In particular, she supplies reasons, and ways of thinking that will supply further reasons, why Daniel Dennett must be wrong to suppose we are “really” robots who find it useful to persuade ourselves that we are autonomous conscious beings with moral choices and free will. Dennett is not the only person to argue like this, of course. But he has the merit of rigorously codifying what we take to be scientifically instructed common sense.

Murdoch was writing at about the time Dennett was a postgrad at Oxford, so her main target (to whom the book is also dedicated) was Stuart Hampshire. Yet, as she says, “Hampshire’s man … is also the hero of almost every contemporary novel.” That’s what I mean by common sense: although these ideas can be analysed as philosophical, we take them to be matter of fact descriptions of the way people actually are. Novels where the characters are presented like this are praised as more realist than those of, say, Iris Murdoch.

So she lays out the psychology she will attack:

“We ought to know what we are doing. We should aim at total knowledge of our situation, and a clear conceptualisation of all our possibilities. Thought and intention must be directed towards definite overt issues or else they are merely daydream. ‘Reality’ is potentially open to different observers. What is ‘inward’, what lies in between overt actions, is either impersonal thought or ‘shadows’ of acts, or else substanceless dream. Mental life is, and logically must be, a shadow of life in public.

“Our hero aims at being a ‘realist’ and regards sincerity as the fundamental and perhaps the only virtue.”

This picture stands in the way of real thought in several ways. Perhaps the most important is that if you see the world like this, you will be reassured that yours is the only possible way to see actual facts. Because it defines reality as that which is open to third party inspection, anyone who disagrees with you is by definition deluded. One obvious consequence is that God becomes inconceivable – which explains, I think, the frustration and anger of some atheist arguments since they are in a quite literal sense fighting with shadows. Less obviously, but more importantly, human beings become in important ways inconceivable, too. It seems to someone trapped in the “realist” world view that the only alternative to facts is wishful thinking.

But if Murdoch is right, then these aren’t “facts” at all. To suppose that we are really robots is itself an exercise in wishful or imaginative thinking. The world that science reveals does not supersede our inner worlds, but itself becomes one of them; and to understand ourselves like this is not – last of all – a choice, but a recognition of reality. or


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