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Out of my self-obsession

The sovereignty of good
Forfatter: Iris Murdoch
Forlag: Oversetter Ketil Røed
Cappelen Damm Akademisk (Norge)
MORAL PHILOSOPHY / It has proved extremely difficult to get philosophy to conform to what society at all times considers sensible, reasonable and appropriate.


The British author and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919–1999) criticizes in the collection of essays The sovereignty of good two main directions in modern moral philosophy: the existentialist and the analytical. Both are based on Immanuel Kant, who according to Murdoch "abolished God and installed man as God in his place". We are still living in the age of this "Kantian human god", whom she also calls "Satan" and "Lucifer".

To act morally means for Kant to be guided by the will to follow his own reason. In principle, this sounds good, especially if the alternative is blind to obey external authorities. But Kant's sensible, will-driven man, according to Murdoch, still has demonic and monstrous features, which become particularly clear in Kant's philosophy, for example in the existentialist philosophers Nietzsche and Heidegger. Yes, she also asks herself the question: "Maybe Heidegger is Satan in person?" – a comment that can be said to be ahead of its time, seen in light of the new round in the debate on Heidegger's relationship to Nazism after the publication of the so-called black booklets. Heidegger as Nazi university rector in 1933 can then be interpreted as the perverse end point for the movement initiated by Kant's autonomous moral subject.

"Maybe Heidegger is Satan in person?"

But neither can the analytical tradition in moral philosophy – which is particularly strong in the English-speaking world – with its empirical common sense and excessive emphasis on linguistic analysis, clarity and precision tackle the moral problems we face. Faced with a diabolical existentialism on the one hand and a superficial analytical empiricism on the other, Murdoch tries to find an alternative based on Plato's concept of good.

Philosophical mysticism

For Murdoch, "the good" is not an abstract and lifeless concept, but an indefinable focal point for any human being who wants to act morally. But how can something we do not know what is, have a unifying function? Is not this a form of philosophical mysticism? Yes, Murdoch believes, and that is how it must be, because "the background of morality is really a kind of mystery" – in the sense of "an undogmatic, essentially unformulated belief in the reality of the Good". The good leads us to lose ourselves, to what she calls "unselfing", so that we can see the "reality". The good is detached from any expediency, in the same way as experiences of beauty in art and nature. This lack of expediency is unparalleled in the impossibility of saying what is good. Specifically, the good can be seen through such a simple experience that I am annoyed because someone has hurt me, but suddenly see a falcon circling in the sky. Then everything can change in an instant. The falcon has no purpose, it just is, and that's exactly why it tears me out of my self-obsession. When I now think back on my wounded pride, it appears less important. The good thing is that it is a very concrete size, and even admiring a potted plant at home in the living room can have this function.

Martin Heidegger

Beauty experiences are closely linked to moral experiences precisely because they steer our attention away from ourselves and make us see reality. The reality er what we discover when we steer our attention away from ourselves. Murdoch illustrates this with the mother-in-law who looks down on the daughter-in-law as a vulgar and uneducated young woman, but who at the same time is so educated that she does not show this in any way. At the same time, the mother-in-law realizes that she is acting morally wrong by looking down on the daughter-in-law, and solves the problem by processing her own attitudes and practicing viewing the daughter-in-law's actions in a positive light. After some training, it all goes by itself, and the vulgar, noisy and immature daughter-in-law has now been transformed into a spontaneous, lively and wonderfully youthful daughter-in-law. The mother-in-law has now emerged from her self-absorbed shadow world and discovered the moral reality.

Murdoch's book presents a thought-provoking critique of the existentialist and analytical traditions of modern moral philosophy. But where is the drama and the passion, the madness and the demon? Murdoch is one of the many who burned themselves on the anti-liberal political experiments of the last century (she was a member of the British Communist Party at a young age). Murdoch finds the solution in a dramatic downscaling of philosophy's ambitions – she wants to fight the philosophical demon. But what if the philosophy is essentially demonic? Satan was a rebel, and it has proved extremely difficult to get philosophy – just like Satan – to conform to what society at all times considers sensible, reasonable, and appropriate. Socrates, who in Plato's dialogues defended the idea of ​​good, was condemned by Athenian democracy to empty the cup of poison. Perhaps Socrates' death is the best expression of the essence of philosophy. And if we have to choose between God and Satan, it will probably be the latter.

Lars Holm-Hansen
Lars Holm-Hansen
Philosopher and publishing manager at the publishing house Eksistenz.

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