Most contemporary moral philosophers believe that self-examination and self-knowledge play a central role in the development of virtue. Iris Murdoch, the British novelist and philosopher, challenged this view. Murdoch is well known for championing an ethics of vision as an alternative, or at least as a complement, to an ethics of choice. In developing such an ethics Murdoch rehabilitated concepts such as grace and self-transcendence, concepts largely absent in the philosophical moral discourse of her time. We will soon see that it is not an accident that these two views come together; Murdoch’s aspirations to vindicate the ethical significance of vision are of a piece with her doubts about the power of self-examination to transform ourselves.
Murdoch’s skepticism about self-examination arises from a quite plausible picture of our own moral psychology: “human beings are naturally selfish … About the quality of this selfishness modern psychology has had something to tell us. The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself… It is reluctant to face unpleasant realities. Its consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain.”
Scholars often give Murdoch credit for insisting on the dangers and the difficulties involved in the acquisition of self-knowledge. However, they usually rebut her skepticism about its power of self-transformation. Samantha Vice provides a succinct formulation of a central thought motivating this rebuttal: “Self-knowledge is presupposed by the ideas of perfection and improvement that are so central to Murdoch’s ethics, because we improve from a certain position and from the recognition that we are not perfect. We must recognize our shortcomings, or at least suspect which parts of ourselves require moral work, before we can consciously undertake the journey.”
At the heart of Vice’s proposal is a picture of an autonomous individual capable of coming to know the aspects of herself which need moral work and of transforming them. But this is, precisely, a view of moral development which Murdoch wants to question. According to Murdoch our moral growth can not be the result of our own willful efforts given how our own psychology works. Our efforts to know which aspects of ourselves require moral work and our strategies to transform these aspects will be part of the fantasies in which we are entangled; self-examination will not provide the autonomous self with the appropriate resources for self-perfection.
This, of course, raises the question of how we are supposed to undertake a project of ethical improvement. Murdoch addresses this worry by proposing that we cultivate certain forms of attention which reveal a “single, perfect, transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention.” These forms of attention are not unlike some of the experiences of awe discussed by Kristjan Kristjansson in this blog, forms of attention where, as he writes, one’s whole sense of self is transfigured by infinite truth and beauty, dissolved into one sacred tearful yearning to be united with something higher than oneself.
Opening up oneself to something transcendent requires abandoning the individual stance; it requires getting over ourselves. As Murdoch writes, “it is attachment to what lies outside the fantasy mechanism, and not a scrutiny of the mechanism itself, that liberates… [C]lose scrutiny of the mechanism often merely strengthens its power.”
Murdoch’s literary work often illustrates this. Some of her heroes are fallen creatures incapable of redeeming themselves by their own means. Eventually, however, they are pulled out of their fallen state by the magnetic force of an experience of transcendence. In The Bell, through the mouth of James Tayper Pace, Murdoch suggests that we are transformed “from outside inwards”, “not in some imaginary concoction out of our idea of our own character – but in something so external and so remote that we can get only now and then a distant hint of it.” This view resonates with what Fr. Thomas Joseph White underlined in the first working group meeting of the project: “There is darkness in our minds and weakness in our wills. We are wounded. But we have the capacity to receive grace.”
Murdoch helps us to see that the resources for ethical development can not all be found within the autonomous individual. A central part of ethical development consists in piercing through the fantasies and delusions in which our psyche is trapped. And for this we have to reach beyond ourselves, allow ourselves to be formed and transformed by transcendent experiences that afford us glimpses of what true reality looks like.
This highlights a further dimension of self-transcendence at play in the development of virtue, a dimension of self-transcendence different from the dimension that many scholars have underlined in this blog. If Murdoch is right, virtue and happiness require that we go beyond ourselves not merely in the sense of having transcendent goals and ideals, but in the sense of opening ourselves up to allow self-transcendent experiences to strike us and reorient our moral compass.
Antonaccio, Maria. “The Virtues of Metaphysics: A Review of Murdoch’s Philosophical Writings”. In Broackes, Justin, editor: Iris Murdoch, Philosopher: A Collection of Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 155–179.
Murdoch, Iris; Conradi, Peter, editor. Existentialists and Mystics. New York: Penguin group, 1997.
Murdoch, Iris. The Bell. New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.
Vice, Samantha. “The Ethics of Self-Concern”. In Rowe, Anne, editor: Iris Murdoch. A Reassessment. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 72–84.
 Antonaccio (2012)
 Murdoch (1997), 364
 Vice (2007), P. 63–4
 Murdoch (1997), 344
 Murdoch (1997), 354-5
 Murdoch (2001), Chapter 9
Santiago Mejía is a graduate assistant for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.