The philosophy of Iris Murdoch

by Jon Elsby

During her lifetime, Iris Murdoch was probably better known – and more highly esteemed – as a novelist than as a philosopher. Privately, Isaiah Berlin once called her ‘a lady not noted for the clarity of her ideas’.’ Yet she taught philosophy at St Anne’s College, Oxford for several years, and, since her death, her reputation as a moral philosopher has steadily grown while her standing as a novelist has (unfairly, in my view) somewhat declined.

Some twenty years ago, I read, with great enjoyment and no little excitement, most of Iris Murdoch’s novels and, with more muted feelings, the better part of her published writings on philosophy. Having done so, I concluded that I had learned everything I could from her and, rather reluctantly (for one never parts readily from old friends), sold my copies of all her works to a second-hand bookseller.

Murdoch shared the belief of most of her philosophical contemporaries (1) that the idea of a personal God is no longer tenable, and (2) that God is irrelevant to morality. Both of these beliefs are treated by many modern philosophers as self-evident: so much so that, in most contemporary philosophical discourse, they are simply assumed without any discussion, argument, evidence, or proof. This seems rather high-handed, given that there are approximately 2.4 billion Christians and 1.8 billion Muslims in the world (which adds up to some fifty-seven per cent of the global population), for whom a personal God is not only a tenable idea but a reality; and all monotheists would concur that their deepest moral insights and convictions are derived from their conception of God. It would seem, therefore, that modern trends in analytical philosophy run counter to the common sense of rather more than half the human race. This does not seem in any way to inhibit the confidence with which most analytic philosophers hold and propound their beliefs. What that shows, it seems to me, is that, even where highly intelligent people are concerned, communities of the like-minded tend to reinforce existing prejudices and discourage the expression of any contrary views. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on the facts of the case. If the prejudices are benign and the contrary views malignant, then to reinforce the former and discourage the latter may be justified. If, however, the prejudices are dangerous errors, and the contrary views are necessary to their correction, then the opposite is the case.

It seems to me that Murdoch’s views on religion are deeply confused – and somewhat confusing. She expresses approval of the way religion ‘is detaching itself from supernatural dogma’, but fails to ask what remains of religion when this process of detachment is complete. She wishes to defend ‘the sovereignty of good’ and the reality of a transcendent dimension, but denies the existence of any transcendent source of goodness. It is not at all clear what ‘the Good’ means, or why, in the absence of God, it should be accorded a transcendent status. She claims 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’, but she does not explain how a non-personal transcendent reality can have ‘purposes’ of any kind, let alone purposes to which we are morally obliged to submit.

It is surely not unreasonable to ask where Murdoch’s philosophy leaves God. The answers she offers are incoherent. She wishes to affirm the transcendent reality of the Good while detaching it from the idea of God – i.e. from a, or rather the, transcendent source of goodness. She wants morals without any foundation in metaphysics. She wishes to endow ‘the Good’ – the central concept of her moral philosophy – with ‘all of the characteristics traditionally associated with God’, but without positing any Divine Being: the divine attributes are left, as it were, suspended in mid-air, unattached to anything that might conceivably have such properties. In articulating her moral philosophy, she uses words such as ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’’as if their meaning were patently clear, which, in the absence of any religious framework, it certainly is not. She wishes to defend ‘an adult religion’, but a defence which consists in robbing the concept of religion of some of its defining characteristics – in fact, of all that distinguishes it from moral philosophy – is no defence at all.

Murdoch has been called a ‘Godless theologian’ but the term is a self-contradiction. Atheology is not some dynamic new form of theology, but its negation. Theology means literally ‘talk about God’. If the concept of God is evacuated of all meaning, if it is no more than a name without a referent, then there is nothing to talk about. And, in the absence of God, theology is meaningless – it becomes, quite literally, nonsense.

If, as Murdoch herself acknowledged, religion and morality are inextricably tied, then we should do well to desist from attempts to sunder those ties. The twentieth century graphically showed what becomes of such attempts. The totalitarian politics of the Nazis and the communists, the absurdist experiments of the Dadaists, the liberal humanism of the Bloomsbury Group, Sartrean existentialism, nihilistic hedonism, and the counter-culture of the 1960s, were all, in their different ways, responses to the Nietzschean proclamation that God is dead.1 They were endeavours to fashion a purely human world – a Godless world, in which absolutely free and autonomous human beings would create their own moral reality through their consciously willed choices. Iris Murdoch (who, as a student at Oxford, had briefly joined the Communist Party) was a part of that period; and her atheistic moral philosophy, notwithstanding its fundamental incoherence, is one of the more admirable and humane responses to the exigencies of the time. She deserves our gratitude for maintaining, however incoherently, against the prevailing trends of her time, the continuing vitality, relevance, and necessity of metaphysics to the enterprise of philosophy.

If philosophers wish to move beyond the ethical dilemmas arising from a moral philosophy which tries (unsuccessfully) to have things both ways – to affirm the reality of a transcendent dimension without acknowledging the logically necessary Being who alone can be the source of such transcendence – they should resume the ancient dialogue with theology. Here, some analytic philosophers will demur, saying that philosophy is concerned with the natural realm, not the supernatural, and therefore it cannot admit the claims of revelation, which are essential to religion. But to argue thus is to beg the question, not to answer it. The proper subject of philosophy is the whole of reality. If reality includes supernatural beings, then such beings must form part of the subject matter of a true philosophy. The only sense in which supernatural beings are excluded from philosophy and made the proper subjects of revealed religion, is that philosophy concerns itself only with the aspects of supernatural beings that can be known through the exercise of natural reason. Anything beyond what natural reason can discover belongs to revealed religion, which is the subject of theology.

Finally, moral philosophers should remember the words of George Washington in his farewell address of September 1796—

Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of a peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

The history of the last hundred and twenty years is one long demonstration of the wisdom of those words. They deserve to be carefully pondered. The post-Nietzschean – and, more particularly, the post-war – generation of philosophers assumed too readily that the concept of God had been wholly discredited. It should have occurred to them that a concept which has formed the cornerstone of every great human civilization, and which has given rise to so many of the world’s religious and philosophical systems, its artistic masterpieces, its concept of law, its sense of the necessity of order, and its theories of government, would not be likely to disappear merely because, in certain parts of the world, it had temporarily ceased to be fashionable.


1The word ‘proclamation’ is here used advisedly. The death of God was not a proposition for which Nietzsche adduced any rational arguments. It was merely an assertion, violently made and vigorously insisted upon – but one for which no evidence was offered.

Jon Elsby’s spiritual and intellectual journey has been from Protestantism to atheism, and finally to Catholicism, an evolution he has traced in his memoir Wrestling With the Angel: A Convert’s Tale, published in paperback by CentreHouse Press. His most recent book, also published by CentreHouse Press, is Seeing is Believing, which develops themes touched on in his memoir, but with greater focus on the relations between faith and culture, an issue addressed by several American apologists, though very few on the UK side of the Atlantic have taken it up. Seeing is Believing is available on Amazon Kindle.