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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Creating space

Updated: Jul 4, 2020

This builds on the thoughts I was brooding over yesterday, but moves into a moral realm. Somewhat akin to the recent post Neither this nor that. It is, like that post, inspired by my continuing reading of Iris Murdoch's Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.

She is aiming to bring to light a 'common sense' view of how we make moral decisions. To do so involves some absorbing but challenging considerations of the work of many philosophers. Often, I feel myself drowning in complexity as she analyses their thinking. Then, she'll, as it were, throw me a life-jacket that brings it back into lived experience.

Her argument relies on the analogous evaluative processes involved in regarding art and regarding life. The Beautiful as a version of the Good. This makes sense. We can consider how even very young children can appreciate beauty. The point, says Murdoch, is to encourage them to pay attention and then to guide their understanding. In the same way, young children can sense 'the right thing to do' and, again, it's the parents' or the educators' job to encourage them to exercise this evaluative faculty.

Over time, one's aesthetic and ethical sensitivity and vocabulary develop. Always, though, she points out, one has to pay attention. Indeed, she feels that there is a moral choice expressed when we decide what to attend to. This choice of focus can sharpen or blunt our evaluative senses. It's not just about reading philosophy rather than watching reality TV, but about attending, say, to the cat's purr rather than the traffic outside.

She sees there as being a twin process between art and life: we seek out the truth. A great work of art encapsulates, somehow, something of the human condition. That is what it does. It offers a vision of purity or insight - as I discussed in Dalrymple's excellent example of the Velazquez paintings. I experience this in the theatre, as I have also discussed, and in, over these weeks, reading Hilary Mantel's trilogy. Something that 'feels' both real and important is expressed by the artist. It is both unique and universal. There is a kind of transcendence and a 'truth' that is larger than just evidence-based statements about the world.

These moments, in Murdoch's term, 'unself' us. The ego, which has its own needs and desires, its resentments and suffering, is silenced.

This is space.

We can seek out experiences of this spaciousness by contemplating art or nature, or indeed, by considering virtue, a moral act, generosity, kindness, justice and so on. Of course, some experience such unselfing through meditation, but the fine-tuning of our sentiments might be best done by turning attention toward the good.

Such emptying out of the self often allows space for insights and ideas - artists certainly may achieve inspiration in such moments. Murdoch suggests that as they imagine beauty at such times, so we can come to a greater or a new conception of goodness.

For the most part, though, just as creating art may be a torturous process - like standing under the spotlight of one's own soul - so coming to careful moral decisions may also involve hard work.

Murdoch believes that the concept of duties, in a Kantian sense, is useful - a guide for the inexperienced and a reliable law to fall back on in extremis - and she likewise believes that utilitarianism is an important framework for political decision-making. However, she also believes that the development of one's own evaluative faculty is vital to live a good life. She sees it as a craft or a skill, one demanding time and practice, but not any special talent or intelligence.

She has an interesting view of imagination: for her this is the device by which we 'translate' the information from our senses into mental concepts. It is active - so, to take a very basic and clumsy example, some will see the beggar on the street brought to mind with a sense of compassion and duty; while others may just see the shop front of the store where they seek to purchase a new outfit. Overall, our view of life is imaginatively created, coloured by our needs and desires, our impulses and instincts.

What Virtue Ethics, for example, can do, is to train us, by custom and habit, to 'see' in a different, more ethical way. Duties don't have the same active role for most people. Obeying a rule or a law is certainly better than not, but the engagement in the process helps to build character as well as conduct.

I am vastly over-simplifying. But I am tired and the space in my my mind is hard to open when the contents feel gelatinous, which is how exhaustion effects my cognition. And so, I will leave it at that. For today.

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