Thin as a Needle, Quick as a Flash: Murdoch on Agency and Moral Progress

Review of Metaphysics 75 (2):345-373 (2021)
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Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good—especially the first essay, “The Idea of Perfection”—is often associated with a critique of a certain picture of agency and its proper place in ethical thought. There is implicit in this critique, however, an alternative, much richer one. I propose a reading of Murdochian agency in terms of the continuous activity of cultivating and refining a distinctive practical standpoint, and I apply this reading to her account of moral progress. For Murdoch moral progress depends on transcending egoism and achieving clear perception of a normatively-saturated reality, but it would be a mistake to think of egoism in terms of selfishness, or clarity in terms of altruism. Rather, I argue, Murdochian moral progress requires overcoming socially-conditioned and often ideological forms of alienation, and making the social conditions that inform our practical standpoints self-conscious.

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Jack Samuel
New York University


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