Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Setiya on Murdoch

Just as anyone who might like Kacey Musgraves has almost certainly already heard her most recent album, so anyone with an interest in Iris Murdoch has probably already read Kieran Setiya's review of Gary Browning on Why Iris Murdoch Matters. Still, if you haven't read it yet, I recommend it. Partly it's a nice example of how to write a generous review. And partly I think this is a useful statement of some key ideas from Murdoch:
Murdoch has three big ideas, of which the first is key. She is fundamentally opposed to a view of “moral psychology,” the activity of deliberation and choice, that she associates with both existentialism and the Oxford moral philosophy of her time. On this view, we first come to a neutral description of our circumstance, which leaves open what to do, and then choose freely among our options, expressing our character or moral principles. For Murdoch, description is never neutral. The moral task is to describe one’s circumstance correctly. Once you find the right description, choice is virtually automatic, though not on that account unfree. This process calls for “unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention […] a kind of intellectual ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression of self”; once fully achieved, “true vision occasions right conduct.” “If I attend properly,” Murdoch writes, “I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.” Murdoch’s second idea is that the primary obstacle to attention is our natural egoism, the “fat relentless ego.” Her third idea is that the answer to egoism, the source of psychic energy that fuels our attention to reality, is love.

4 comments:

  1. "If I attend properly, ... I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at."

    It may be only a facon de parler, but I disagree with the idea of acting and having no choice. Free choice is practically definitional for purposeful adaptive action; the problem is the reason for choosing a vs. b. If the agent has a (perhaps incomplete) understanding of the general ethical principles (which exist as categorical structures independently of the agent in perhaps Platonic fashion) and an intuitive grasp of their own (narrow) self-interest, what is the reason for choosing the one or the other as a basis for action? One can take the bigger piece of cake and give the one you love the smaller, or you can give the one you love the bigger piece and take the smaller; I think Murdoch is talking about what determines choice of the latter. (And by "the one you love" I mean any other person.)

    JPL

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    1. I think she means "have no choice" in the sense of having nothing to think about, no hard decision to make, indeed not needing to think about what to do at all. If I'm a goalkeeper in soccer and a shot comes at me I will try to save it, perhaps even instinctively, without rehearsing the rules of the game before I do so. A more relevant example might be this. There was a village in France (I believe) where people saved a lot of Jewish people during WWII. When asked why they did this afterwards, many of the villagers couldn't really explain it. They couldn't seriously imagine doing anything else. Here were people in need, and they were able to help. So of course they helped them. This is still voluntary action, but it isn't chosen from a menu of options. Given the situation and the character of the people acting, nothing else is on the menu.

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  2. Good example! I guess it's just a pet peeve of mine. I would prefer an expression like, "If I attend properly, I will recognize that the alternative is unacceptable and then the choice will be automatic (fully determined)." On the intellectual level; but love is a "condition prealable" that also determines the choice and makes it "automatic", or at least demands a search for a clearer vision. I would like to keep 'choice' as a semi-technical term; and I hate it when in ordinary discourse people say "we have no choice" in justification for doing the worse on narrow selfish grounds, when actually we do have a choice. (I'm sure you've heard D. Trump use that expression.) (Also, I used the word "determined" above: I meant in the sense of retrospective causal explanation. At each point the agent could have done otherwise, so what is the reason the agent did not do otherwise?)

    JPL

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    1. I think this is tricky. On the one hand, I don't want to prefer the expression, "If I attend properly, I will recognize that the alternative is unacceptable," because I want to acknowledge cases where no alternative is even considered. The child falls into the water and you immediately jump in to rescue them. There is no slight pause while you think, "Of course, the child's life is more important than my shoes." Nor do you have that thought, or anything like it, without even a slight pause. You simply see the child fall and react. (I think McDowell says something about virtue silencing other reasons to act, and there is a debate about this, but I want to recognize cases in which nothing is silenced because nothing else is in any way said or considered. There simply is, at this moment, no devil on the other shoulder advocating some other course of action.) Concern for the child is, at this point in time, your sole concern. I think that's a possible way to be, and in some ways a desirable way to be.

      On the other hand, like you, I want to reject the "we have no choice" kind of justification. But then saying that we have no choice mentions choice, thereby (is this right?) recognizing it. "I have no choice" means something like "I have a choice, but this is what I have to do". It's like saying "my hands are tied"--not something you'd be likely to say if your hands were actually, literally tied. It's often an excuse for doing something obviously bad, although to the extent that it works as an excuse there really might be cases in which it would be a reasonable thing to say. Perhaps I really am likely to be fired unless I (choose to) enforce some nasty rule. And perhaps the enforcement of the rule is (much) less bad, all things considered, than my losing my job would be. But when a choice can be rationalized in this way it is more consciously a choice than the kind of case in which one simply acts without thinking.

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