Being good without God: Iris Murdoch’s ideas are growing in influence - by Fiona Ellis writing in The Tablet

Being good without God: Iris Murdoch’s ideas are growing in influence - by Fiona Ellis writing in The Tablet

Iris Murdoch, who was born in Dublin 100 years ago this week, believed there was no room for God in a properly adult religion – yet her ideas are becoming increasingly influential among philosophers and theologians

Iris Murdoch, who was born in Dublin 100 years ago this week, believed there was no room for God in a properly adult religion – yet her ideas are becoming increasingly influential among philosophers and theologians

The late Oxford philosopher P.F. Strawson once suggested that Iris Murdoch is a much better philosopher than novelist. This was passed down to me at the time as a rather clever joke. After all, Murdoch was a Platonist (horror of horrors), her work is insufficiently analytic, and she makes the whole thing far too personal and emotional (“For me,” she once said, “philosophical problems are the problems of my own life”). No wonder she was more successful as a novelist than as a philosopher.

But today, the novels are no longer so ­fashionable, while her philosophy has ­suddenly taken a grip. Some of the most interesting recent work in moral philosophy is indebted to Murdoch’s vision. She shows us how to work in and with different philosophical traditions, and she rejects the still prevalent but increasingly contested assumption that science is the only measure of reality.

She also questions traditional disciplinary boundaries, expressing some of her insights in fiction and dialogue, and doing philosophy in a way which has an irreducibly theological dimension. And this work was done at a time when metaphysics was being all but ­eliminated from university philosophy departments, moral judgements reduced to expressions of feeling, and theological claims relegated to nonsense.

Strawson was right to praise her phil­osophy, but her novels – embodying her resistance to the idea that moral truth can be reduced to theory, and showing what it means to be orientated towards the Good or turned away from it – are central to her stubbornly revisionist enterprise.

What does this have to do with God? Not a lot if we accept that Murdoch is a “Godless theologian”, as one scholar has recently put it. There is much to support this interpretation. Murdoch claims, for example, that morality and religion are unavoidable, that we forsake them at the cost of our humanity, but that they are compromised when defined in God-involving terms. “God” is “the name for a supernatural person”, it “makes a difference whether we believe in such a person”, but “these differences do not generally, or do not yet, affect whether or not people are virtuous” (Metaphysics as a Guide for Morals). She approves of the way religion “is detaching itself from supernatural dogma”, and objects that theism not only has no bearing upon the question of morality, but that it involves a system of rewards and punishments which panders to our egoistic desires, when, for example, we are motivated to be moral for the sake of heavenly rewards.

Murdoch recommends that we abandon God for Good, and commit ourselves to believing in “the unique sovereign place of goodness or virtue in human life” (Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals). We are to suppose that it is by moving along these lines that we shall
have a moral philosophy and religion in which “the concept of love … can once again be made central” (The Sovereignty of Good). Love in this context is the desire-involving state of mind by virtue of which we are attracted to the Good – “Good is the magnetic centre towards which love naturally moves” (The Sovereignty of Good). For Murdoch, this has nothing to do with staring idly at the sun: true vision occasions right conduct, and what is at issue here belongs to the moral life of the ordinary person.

This is Murdoch’s “Platonism of the people” (to use the expression Nietzsche reserved for Christianity), and it allows her to avert one of the natural consequences of atheism, which she described in a 1955 radio talk as the “stripped and empty scene” which remains when morality “is pictured without any transcendent backing”. In such a context, “values which were previously in some sense inscribed in the heavens and guaranteed by God collapse into the human will. There is no transcendent reality” (The Sovereignty of Good). She finds such a picture in secular existentialism, and, of course, in Nietzsche.

Murdoch’s position suggests that morality has a transcendent backing, but where does this leave her atheism? And how is it to be squared with the claim that moral phil­osophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all of the characteristics traditionally associated with God, where God “was (or is) a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention” (The Sovereignty of Good)? The problem here concerns what it means for a framework to involve God. We can agree that there are “supernaturalist” pictures that detract from the reality of goodness, and that have no relevance for our proper humanity in this respect. We can agree also that they can end up pandering to our egoistic desires. However, none of this shows that theism is to be rejected, for these pictures are equally distortive of God.

Murdoch treats “God” as the name of a supernatural person, and she rejects theism on the grounds that the existence of such a being is irrelevant to morality (and to the love it involves). This is one prevalent way of comprehending God’s reality, but those who take it seriously can insist that we are up against the limits of language in this context, and that the description is not intended to imply that God is an infinitely remote super-being which has no bearing upon our loving relations to others.

The alternative is to suppose that this alienating effect is inevitable, but that it can be avoided provided that we reject the offending conception of God. This latter response is familiar from John Robinson (of Honest to God fame) and the continental theologians to whom he was indebted, who make it absolutely clear that this is not a rejection of God. On the contrary, it is a way of acknowledging that a satisfactory position must give due weight to God’s infinite loving reality, where this involves taking seriously the idea that God is love, accepting that we enter into a proper relationship with God in our loving relations to others, and resisting the (naive theist) temptation to reduce God to an individual existent.

The picture is beautifully summed up by one of Murdoch’s principal guides, Simone Weil: “The thought of God must not interpose itself between us and other creatures. It must not make the contact between us and them less direct. On the contrary, through it the contact must be made more direct. The real aim is not to see God in all things; it is that God through us should see the things we see. God has got to be on the side of the subject and not on that of the object during all those intervals of time when, forsaking the contemplation of the light, we imitate the descending movement of God so as to turn ourselves towards the world” (The Notebooks of Simone Weil, Vol. 1).

Murdoch is in the business of defending an adult religion, and we can agree that this is an important task. We might agree also that religion and morality are inextricably tied, and that the concept of love is central in this regard. But where does this leave God? Murdoch is wrong to assume that there is no room for God in a properly adult ­religion, and she acknowledges herself that moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all of the characteristics traditionally associated with God. The relevant characteristics correspond to Good as she understands it.

Contemporary moral philosophers are mostly hostile to Plato and God, and adamant that there is no transcendent reality. Hence the assumption that Strawson had to be joking when he praised Murdoch’s phil­osophy. Many are scientific naturalists, for scientific naturalism is the dominant programmatic approach of analytic philosophy, and it restricts the limits of reality to what science can comprehend (there are weaker versions of the position, but the hostility to Plato and God remains intact). Murdoch exposes this position as an ideological ­prejudice, insisting in a 1956 essay, “Vision and Choice in Morality”, that “the true ­naturalist … is one who believes that as moral beings we are immersed in a reality that transcends us and that moral progress ­consists in awareness of this reality and ­submission to its purposes”.

Murdoch is a true naturalist in this sense, and this “expansive” or “liberal” naturalism is now a serious contender in contemporary moral philosophy, thanks to the work of John McDowell, David Wiggins, Mark Platts and others. Such thinkers are happy to describe themselves as Platonists, but Platonism here has nothing to do with postulating spooky supernatural realms, and everything to do with being true to the naturalism at issue. That is to say, it involves acknowledging that the moral reality in which we are immersed is inexhaustible in its scope and that, conflicted desires notwithstanding, we are capable of submitting to its purposes.

Where does this leave God? The typical expansive naturalist has no sympathy for theism, and he or she agrees with Murdoch that we must detach morality from God. The familiar assumption is that our moral interactions have no theistic significance, and that God must be relegated to some alien, morally irrelevant realm.

In my book God, Value, & Nature I argue that there are no good reasons for restricting God’s reality in this way, and that we need to take seriously the idea that we are already immersed in God’s reality by virtue of being morally receptive beings. This position requires little more than a rejection of the scientism which turns out to be an ideological prejudice. There is a knife edge between this theistic naturalism and Murdoch’s Platonism.
Fiona Ellis is professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Roehampton.

Her book God, Value, & Nature was published by OUP in 2014. She is about to lead a project – funded by the Templeton Religion Trust – called The Quest for God: Towards a Philosophical Theology of Desire.


1 On 19/07/2019 Susan I. Harr wrote:

I suppose the difference between God and Good is that the latter does not lend itself to worship of a “being” or deity. Nor does it involve ceremony or ritual, not to mention fear and awe. The punishments of hell and dannation are not involved, one assumes. There is indeed a great danger of humans “personalising” God to suit their own theistic outlook or societal framework. Being a priest, imam, Bishop pope etc infers and confers great power and influence, not always to the good. Better to have an abstract concrot, then?

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