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.
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* "This ‘man’...is 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’."

9 comments:

Madscribe said...

Morality resides at the point of action.

So does immorality. "The sun shines for the just and unjust alike."

I guess that's the difference between us, Rodak; I gave up decades ago the love of books for books sake. I'm so utilitarian that I feel the purpose of "knowledge" is to build and create. Thus, I can't live the life of books and the world of thoughts for the sake of mere thinking. Everything has to have a purpose and an application, otherwise it is as useless and ubiquitous in its insignificance as countless and nameless germs and amoeba.

Action never "exhausts" goodness. Being good and good for nothing, is mere mental masturbation. Even your dear ancient faiths understood this, which is why the Book of James in Christianity speaks of faith AND works, and Muhammad in Islam spoke of "mere belief without deeds accounts for nothing."

One reason why I can't get too worked up over politics and candidates like our friends on other blogs, is that I have an ancient Greek understanding of academics and citizenship, and can't get into the modern mentality of politics as a substitute or non-sports equivalent for NFL color commentary. In other words, the modern triumph of imbecilic, temporal and emotional ETHOS and PATHOS, over timeless LOGOS and ERGON. People in modern "society" (whatever that is, as you point out in your latest thread) love to NOT think AT ALL, whether for "thinking's sake" or "applicability," therefore they live by ETHOS and PATHOS, instead of relying on them as supplemental or secondary "authority" for LOGOS.

Luckily, I dodged the philosophy bullet in college. I can only think of a handful of "philosophers" that I would even bother to read; as with you, Plato is one.

Rodak said...

I can't live the life of books and the world of thoughts for the sake of mere thinking. Everything has to have a purpose and an application...

And you haven't met enough youngish people who never learned to think, or enough oldish people whose thinking has become so calcified as to no longer be utilitarian, that you believe thinking directed at thought to be a wasted exercise?

I disagree. I think you gotta keep doin' it in order to keep doin' it.

Action never "exhausts" goodness.

It does, if goodness resides only in the deed, and has no objective reality. If that's the case, then "good" exists only when a "good act" is being done. Then it's gone.

[I]can't get into the modern mentality of politics as a substitute or non-sports equivalent for NFL color commentary.

Which is why I keep telling them that it's all just one big TV show.

And, yeah, Plato rocks hard.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Never gotten much into the analytic school, myself. Too many S's and P's. At least continental philosophy ventures into interesting the lands of T&A.

Rodak said...

Kyle--
Truth be told, I'm having a bit of a struggle even slogging through Murdock's refutation of it. Happily, the three pieces comprising the tome are each brief.

Madscribe said...

Kyle, I prefer Penthouse to philosophy textbooks for venturing into the land of T&A ...

Kyle R. Cupp said...

"I think you gotta keep doin' it in order to keep doin' it."

Yep. It's called virtue. The minds needs its daily workout.

"I prefer Penthouse to philosophy textbooks for venturing into the land of T&A ..."

There's also Fox News.

Rodak said...

Yep. It's called virtue. The minds needs its daily workout.

See Murdoch's quoted words in the newest post above, especially:

Where virtue is concerned we often apprehend more than we clearly understand and grow by looking.

As for Fox News, that's mainly legs-on-display, in my experience. Occasional T. Not so much A.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

"A" stands for anus.

Rodak said...

"A" stands for anus.

Well, then, I stand corrected. There is no shortage of assholes on Fox News Channel.
All of this does go to show, however, that Politics Exhausts Goodness.