Iris Murdoch as a Source for Moral Theology

Background: Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch was an atheist and a Platonist moral philosopher who taught at Oxford from 1948-1963 before retiring to spend the rest of her life writing racy novels. At first glance, she seems an unlikely candidate to offer a fresh vision of moral theology to Catholic thinkers. Indeed, she lived a worldly life with few traces of poverty, obedience, or chastity.

Yet Murdoch’s philosophical work cut deeply against the grain of popular academic philosophy and argued with great clarity for a preservation of the transcendent in moral life. In a world “after God” in which religion had lost its grip on the general public, Murdoch argued for the practice of a practical mysticism in moral life and maintains that a quasi-sacramental worldview is possible, nay, necessary in the wake of secularization.

Though she was against the idea of a personal God, she firmly believed that something very like prayer is necessary for human beings to become good. A brief survey of her thought reveals both a philosophical grounding for a turn back to mystical prayer and a reminder for moral theology that the call to holiness must include contemplative practice alongside commitment to the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed.

Theology must, as its most basic requirement, operate in the realm of the real. Murdoch’s metaphysics, too, frames a moral philosophy which locates morality firmly in reality. Her realism takes into account the truth of the human person as well as the reality of the Good. In her essay entitled “Metaphysics and Ethics,” Murdoch makes the unfashionable argument for the innateness of the Good—that “good” is not simply a description attached by humans to objects or actions, but that it has objective reality.

Metaphysics, Murdoch argues, is what grounds moral philosophy in the reality of the Good. In analytic philosophy, which maintains a strong hold in academia, there is no stable idea of the good. By questioning the essential nature of goodness, modern philosophy rejects the relationship between metaphysics and realism. The search for an essential structure of the good is, in this view, pure delusion.

This perspective has found its way into some approaches to moral theology. Metaphysics is at times scorned as an oppressive structure which tries to control human experiences in a top-down way. It is accused of essentializing things that are mere constructs and is on this account thrown out by some theological thinkers. While these problems are possibilities for a metaphysics gone wrong, Murdoch insists we must not reject metaphysics in an attempt to evade possible corruptions of it: without metaphysics, she argues, ethics loses its connection to reality.

Method: Unselfing Through Loving Attention

Iris Murdoch believes that moral realism grounded in metaphysics necessitates mysticism, of all things. While her fellow philosophers were merely describing the phenomenon of human moral behavior, Murdoch was investigating whether “there are any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly?”[1] Her answer points towards the affirmative. Though she thought Plato offered a version of this technique, “[m]uch closer and more familiar to us are the techniques of religion, of which the most widely practiced is prayer.”[2] As an atheist, however, she was left wondering whether prayer could continue in a world without God, whether a secular prayer could be possible.

Her inquiry into these techniques became the basis of her practical mysticism geared towards unselfing, with the moral agent “learning to focus with deep meditative attention on the other” in a way combats the original sinfulness of the ego.[3] Her exploration of Christian prayer reveals the attentive component of it as a technique for unselfing.

Prayer, Murdoch recognized, is not a series of petitions delivered to a magical God, but “simply an attention to God which is a form of love. With it goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavor which overcomes empirical limitations of personality.”[4] Murdoch hoped to uncover a secular grace that would enable the moral agent to profit from prayerful attention in the wake of the death of God. This technique for unselfing includes, as religious prayer does, an object of attention, an idea of unity, and an idea of transcendence.

Murdoch describes the attentive prayer of the religious believer resulting in energy for virtue as “natural” for human beings.[5] Prayer is effective because it corresponds to anthropological realities. Something about it is true. Human beings cannot reliably will good moral behavior directly. Human beings, by nature, need “a reorientation which will provide an energy of a different kind, from a different source.”[6] For Christians, that source is God. Murdoch admits that it is known through psychological research that “God, attended to, is a powerful source of (often good) energy”[7] which enables the prayerful one to obtain moral improvement. She will argue that, alongside religion, nature and art can be sources of this unselfing.

Still, a problem remains: How can theology speak of unselfing when, for women, the difficulty has been for so long the temptation to abdicate selfhood, to fail to become a self, to lose one’s self in the identity of another, or to submit one’s self blindly to a male authority? So often models of holiness given by spiritual writing in the Chrisitan tradition are male norms for holiness. Yet, the prize offered by the practice of Murdoch’s unselfing is to see and live in reality.

The unselfing does not lead to a truncation of one’s life but to its expansion via self-transcendence. She offers a “way out of the claustrophobia of our self-regard by answering a call from outside.” Murdoch firmly believed that when people become obsessed with themselves and the details of their personal identities, moral life becomes impoverished. Unselfing is a moral discipline in which the person learns to align her perspective of the world with reality. The goal is to see reality, it is “a matter of getting it right, of our judgments matching the world.”[8] Murdoch’s method of unselfing, “then, is a matter of seeing the world with clarity, inspiration in beauty, attending to others with loving appreciation in such a way as to overcome our egoistic tendencies.”[9]

It is notable that Murdoch considers the experience of the Good to be an occasional occurrence. This keeping of experience in its proper place relative to the reality of the Good serves as a helpful guard against the ego and its temptation to over-assert itself. For Murdoch it is the undeluded faith in the Good’s existence that directs the moral life, not the regular personal experience of it. This faith in a reality rarely experienced entails a level of contemplative unselfing that preserves the moral agent from the temptation to collapse the Good into the ego.

For Murdoch, contemplative practice is the key to retaining one’s grip on reality:

The argument for looking outward at Christ and not inward at Reason is that self is such a dazzling object that if one looks there one may see nothing else. But as I say, so long as the gaze is directed upon the ideal the exact formulation will be a matter of history and tactics in a sense which is not rigidly determined by religious dogma, and understanding of the ideal will be partial in any case. Where virtue is concerned we often apprehend more than we clearly understand and grow by looking.[10]

Here, Murdoch delineates exactly what the danger is in centering oneself as an object of one's attention. The danger is that we will be dazzled by ourselves. So enamored can we become with our own image that any other object fails to hold our attention. We grow larger in our own field of vision until we become our own ultimate reality. If the goal is growth in the moral life, we cannot succeed without an ideal upon which to gaze, whether this be the Good or Beauty or God. The idea of perfection is that which can dazzle us more than ourselves, dazzle us enough to hold our gaze and permit us to grow in our rootedness in reality.

The task of attending to reality is not a mere changing of the subject, but is a radical reorientation of the self, a reorientation which opens one up towards the freedom to see others as they really are, the freedom to see the Good and be changed by it. It is this radical reorientation that is practiced in unselfing and which enables the moral agent to act in accord with reality in a given moment of moral choosing. It is this loving attention in everyday life that actually constitutes mystical practice.

Murdoch’s famous example of M in “The Idea of Perfection” displays the simple practicality of her method of unselfing. M is a mother whose son has married D, a woman M finds repellant. In the process of unselfing, M tries to get at the reality of her dislike of her daughter-in-law,

M is quite clearly trying to look at D more clearly. M is trying to correct for her excessive conventionality . . . We can hold that she is really open to both ways of attending: being open to the world, and trying to see it more clearly. Her use of ‘attention’ can be understood to include both.[11]

As M focuses her attention on the reality of her situation, she becomes able to see the truth of her egoistic dislike for D, and eventually confront the reality that it was she who had the moral failing when she held D to a fabricated moral standard. By replacing her egoistic definition of the Good with one grounded in reality, she is able to gain moral clarity and see both herself and D in light of the transcendent Good.

Murdoch uses this parable to illustrate how self-deception can keep our egos insulated from reality. It is fantasy rather than malice that most often inhibits growth in virtue. Unfortunately, fantasy, “the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called ‘will’ or ‘willing’ belongs to this system. What counteracts the system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love.”[12]

In the end, for Murdoch, the moral life comes down to love. “Love,” Murdoch writes, “is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love . . . is the discovery of reality.”[13] Thus, unselfing is truly moral work, the work of love. Murdoch writes:

If we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over . . . the exercise of our freedom is a small, piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.[14]

Through a constant daily practice of spiritual discipline, unselfing prepares us to act well when the time comes.


But how does all this fit in with the problem of developing a more robust Catholic moral theology? Murdoch has offered several points for consideration: the importance of metaphysics, an understanding that morality must be based in realism, that our attention must be focused on the Good rather than individual efforts of will, and that a moral philosophy not grounded in the practice of mysticism is not grounded in reality.

Her mystical Platonism and metaphysical realism provide a structure of moral philosophy grounded in practical mysticism from which moral theology as a whole could greatly benefit. She has successfully accounted for the reality of the state of humanity, which hovers between the pull of perfection and its own egotistical fantasies. And finally, she has offered the practice of “unselfing.” Murdoch ultimately unveils the certainty that moral theology, like moral philosophy, cannot survive without unrelenting realism, metaphysics, a keen sense of the transcendent, and a practical method for growing in love.

[1] Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings On Philosophy And Literature (NY: Penguin, 1998), 344.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rowe, Anne. "'The Dream That Does Not Cease To Haunt Us': Iris Murdoch's Holiness". In Iris Murdoch And Morality. New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2010, 147.

[4] Existentialists and Mystics, 344.

[5] Ibid., 345.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8]Driver, Julia. “Love and Unselfing in Iris Murdoch” in Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 87 (July 2020): 171.

[9] Ibid., 174.

[10] Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty Of Good (NY: Routledge, 2001), 30.

[11] Driver, 173.

[12] Murdoch, 354.

[13] Ibid., 215.

[14] Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 36.

Featured Image: Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514 ; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Kathleen Cavender-McCoy

Kathleen Cavender-McCoy is a doctoral candidate at Marquette University in Systematic Theology. Her specialties include theologies of sexual difference, revivals in metaphysics, and theological anthropology.

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