Friday, February 1, 2008

Reflections: Does Action Exhaust Goodness?

Many moons ago, when I was taking a few philosophy courses as an undergraduate, I was bored by the analytic school and sent into a coma-like state by the logical positivists. I wanted to talk about Plato, or else I wanted to talk about Sartre. I still want to talk about Plato.

That said, there is a little corner in my billfold into which I tuck, scribbled on little scraps and ripped-off corners of paper, the titles and library call numbers of books that some other book, or maybe a book review, or a website, has prompted me to want to look into sometime in the hazy future. Yesterday I came across the tiny tatter bearing the title The Sovereignty of Good, by Iris Murdoch. I have no memory of why I noted that title for future reference. Nor could I give you any reason why I went up into the stacks, found the book, and checked it out two days ago. Nonetheless, consider the following excerpt and see if it doesn’t bring a new angle of consideration to the thoughts expressed in my last post. Consider especially the statement “Morality resides at the point of action.”

Does it? I didn’t think so...

From Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, “The Idea of Perfection”:

(Here, Murdoch lays out the worldview, according to theories of analytic philosophy, which she intends to refute)

[Along with others] Wittgenstein has created a void into which neo-Kantianism, existentialism, utilitarianism have made haste to enter. And notice how plausibly the arguments, their prestige enhanced from undoubted success in other fields, seem to support, indeed to impose, the image of personality which I have sketched above.* As the ‘inner life’ is hazy, largely absent, and any way ‘not part of the mechanism’**, it turns out to be logically impossible to take up an idle contemplative attitude to the good. Morality must be action since mental concepts can only be analyzed genetically. Metaphors of movement and not vision seem obviously appropriate. Morality, with the full support of logic, abhors the private. Salvation by works is a conceptual necessity. What I am doing or being is not something private and personal, but is imposed upon me in the sense of being identifiable only via public concepts and objective observers. Self-knowledge is something which shows overtly. Reasons are public reasons, rules are public rules. Reason and rule represent a sort of impersonal tyranny in relation to which however the personal will represents perfect freedom. The machinery is relentless, but until the moment of choice the agent is outside the machinery. Morality resides at the point of action. What I am ‘objectively’ is not under my control; logic and observers decide that. What I am ‘subjectively’ is a foot-loose, solitary, substanceless will. Personality dwindles to a point of pure will.
* "This ‘man’ the hero of almost every contemporary novel. ...He says ‘all problems meet in intention’, and he utters in relation to intention the only explicit ‘ought’ in his psychology. We ought to know what we are doing. We should aim at total knowledge of our situation and a clear conceptualization of all our possibilities. Thought and intention must be directed towards definite overt issues or else they are merely day-dream. ...Mental life is, and logically must be, a shadow of life in public. Our personal being is the movement of our overtly choosing will [which is] separated from belief so that the authority of reason, which manufactures belief, may be entire and so that responsibility for action may be entire as well. My responsibility is a function of my knowledge (which tries to be wholly impersonal) and my will (which is wholly personal). Morality is a matter of thinking clearly and then proceeding to outward dealings with other men."

** "Actions are, roughly, instances of moving things about in the public world. Nothing counts as an act unless it is a ‘bringing about of a recognizable change in the world’."