top of page

A Picture of the Soul: Iris Murdoch & Moral Psychology

A picture of the soul: Iris Murdoch’s moral psychology Cora Diamond

In Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, imagination is contrasted with fantasy, which makes and uses pictures in ways which help to maintain the self in a kind of insulation from reality. Fantasy, she writes, is a kind of activity, but “mechanical,” while the activity of imagination is that of “freely and creatively exploring the world.” Imagination is an activity of mind through which we come to be able to see, perhaps only with great effort, what is before us, to see possibilities as open to us that we had not seen, to see the pursuit of truth as opening up questions and more questions for us.

The notion of imagination is itself laid out only with images: images of openness contrasted with trappedness in the self, which is a central image for fantasy. Murdoch points out that the notion of imagination may appear so large as to be vacuous; and that we might do well to limit ourselves to the specific elements of which it is composed, and about which one might well not want to make such grand claims. And indeed, she does herself draw back from some of the grand claims for imagination as the great truth-seeking faculty: imaginative speculation can be simply a way of avoiding doing what one knows one ought to do. But the significance which imagination has for Murdoch can be seen only if we turn to her moral psychology, her ideas about what in the psyche is important for moral life. And it is in this moral psychology that she is very far from mid-twentieth-century moral philosophy, and also from much contemporary moral philosophy.

Murdoch’s first discussion of moral psychology came at roughly the same time as Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy,” which argued that philosophers needed to pay attention to such psychological concepts of action, intention and desire before they could with profit consider questions in moral philosophy proper. Murdoch didn’t suggest that moral philosophy should be given up until we were clearer about important psychological concepts, but she too held that moral philosophy was rife with misconceptions about thought and action. The misconceptions, though, that she took to be important were different from those that mattered to Anscombe.

“Moral psychology” is an expression Murdoch uses only a few times in her published work, and it is hardly a term that explains itself. There are two main ways the term is used, and neither usage is the one I want. In philosophy, the term is frequently applied to the philosophical study of action and concepts closely tied to action: intention and volition, motive and motivation, choice, desire and practical reasoning. Pleasure and pain may also be included, since they have been taken to be the only springs of action. Questions about free will and determinism may also be taken to be part of moral psychology in this sense. A quite different usage of “moral psychology” treats it as the scientific study of the psychology of moral life, so Lawrence Kohlberg’s account of moral development would be part of moral psychology in this sense, as would contemporary accounts of neural networks taken to underpin the use of moral concepts.

When I speak of Murdoch as having ideas about moral psychology which lie very far from those of her contemporaries or ours, I have in mind rather reflective thought about what goes on in our minds and about what our minds themselves are like, so far as these things are relevant to moral life, which is understood in a far more expansive sense by Murdoch than by her contemporaries or ours. (I should mention that Murdoch’s moral psychology is not to be contrasted with the scientific study of morality as if the latter were empirical and her moral psychology were not. The word ‘empirical’ in these connections is sometimes used as if it meant reliance on empirical science, and didn’t include what comes from reflection on human experience ― for example, of the sort in which Murdoch engages. One of her objections to the account of moral life of her contemporaries was precisely that it was out of touch with experience.)

Elements of Murdoch’s moral psychology

When Murdoch discusses moral psychology, the expression she sometimes uses is that of a picture of the soul. She took herself to be laying out a picture of the soul different from that of her contemporaries. I shall list some important elements in her moral psychology. They are interdependent, and I have not tried to list them in an order which reflects their significance. 1. Thinking which is part of our moral life goes on a very great deal of the time. (In her later work, Murdoch held that all consciousness is morally coloured.) It is not limited to the considering of “situations” taken to present a person with some moral choice or moral demand, and of principles capable of enabling us to respond to such “situations.” The idea of a “moral agent” as someone who is occasionally confronted by some situation that she can recognise to be a “moral situation” or one demanding a moral choice is repudiated by Murdoch. What is involved in moral life and thought is not tied by Murdoch to a conception of moral agency of a kind which would make observable action and choice central to moral psychology in the way they are for most moral philosophers. 2. Thinking can be part of moral life without being tied in any direct way to observable action and choice. It may be directed toward getting a true and just understanding of something. Murdoch’s most famous example is meant to illustrate this point: the example of the mother-in-law, M, who comes to see her daughter-in-law, D, more justly. This is a moral achievement even if D is dead, and there is no question how M will go on to treat her, and even if M’s behaviour toward the girl has always been exemplary.

While this example is meant to illustrate how we can come to a just view, Murdoch’s discussion makes plain that a slightly changed version of the same example could illustrate someone deluding herself, trying to save herself from recognition of how unfortunate her son has been in his marriage. If thinking that gives us a truer view of reality is a moral achievement, thinking that takes us further into fantasy is a moral failure. 3. Imaginative elements are important in moral life in many and various kinds of way. A person’s moral life might, for example, be penetrated by the idea that she has a special destiny, or that she is under a kind of curse; such fables may enter the person’s practical life or in other cases might be mere decoration. Another kind of way in which imagination enters moral life is in the role which may be given to some individual as a source of moral inspiration.

Imagination is involved in the conceptual activities which shape our understanding of the world and life. Take the example she gives in “Vision and Choice in Morality” of people who “emphasise the inexhaustible detail of the world, the endlessness of the task of understanding,” which illustrates how imagination is involved in the shaping of a fundamental moral attitude. The inexhaustibility of the detail of the world is not, as it were, there to be established by some argument, but is part of an imaginative vision of the world. Any far-reaching moral or moral-religious concept is grasped imaginatively, and not all at once; such concepts are then capable of “stirring” our practical thinking at deep levels. (Though we should note that what can be meant by the term “concept” is one of the debatable matters here. A fundamental mode of understanding of the world or life is exactly the sort of thing Murdoch treats as a central case of a moral concept, but it wouldn’t be a concept at all on many views.) 4. Moral life is not primarily a matter of choices. The more one has been attentive to reality, the less one will find oneself aware of having to make a choice. Frequently it will simply be clear what needs to be done, and one no more thinks of there being a choice than one takes oneself to be making choices as one drives along a road with numerous roads branching off which do not go where one is heading. This way of thinking does not involve a denial of freedom, but places freedom at a different point, not at the point of choosing. 5. The determinants of action are far more complex than they are taken to be by most contemporary moral philosophers. There is no single pattern which is the pattern of voluntary action, or of characteristically human action, or of moral action; rather, the determinants of action, the things that actually motivate, emerge from various levels (conscious or relatively submerged) of thought, feeling, memory.

Here is how an example can be drawn from Murdoch: she writes of how we evade the idea of death, and how tragedy “must contain some dreadful vision of the reality and significance of death.” An imaginative facing, at some time, of death, a refusal of evasion, can then enter what we think and how we act at some later time in our lives, perhaps in our not being tempted by some fantasy, or in resistance to the seduction of power. Such an idea of how imaginative activity at one time can shape moral life at a later time is essential to Murdoch’s moral psychology. But again, one should note that a similar process can work in the morally opposite direction, when the willingness to go along with a cheap or evasive or corrupt understanding of something shapes how we think and act later.

Also important in Murdoch’s ideas about the determinants of action is desire, understood to be properly subjected to a kind of “training” through moral life ― that is, through our coming to see reality clearly and justly. This kind of modification of desire is a gradual business. Murdoch doesn’t deny possible clashes of duty and inclination, but that sort of episode, because it is highly visible and easily portrayed in fiction, may distract attention from what she plainly takes to be the more important kind of case, in which the whole structure of desire in a person may gradually shift so that good action occurs without any felt conflict or without even the sense of a choice having to be made.

Murdoch emphasises how the attempt to reach understanding of something, to see clearly something outside the self, can shape a person’s pattern of desire and thus make available sources of energy that can motivate actions. The “training” of desire, as Murdoch understands it, comes about in part through our use of moral concepts ― such as that of envy, or malice, or generosity.

There is an important connection here with her ideas about imagination: for concepts illuminate and shape our moral world. If good actions can be attractive, it is in part through the imaginative power of the concepts we can deploy in thinking and seeing the reality in which we need to act. The world in which we act is not motivationally inert but is rather characterised by magnetic fields, as it were, in which actions can be attractive to us, through the kind of place they have in the world as shaped already by perception and by fantasy or imagination ― that is, in ways which have already involved activity on our part. It is no part of Murdoch’s view of the determinants of action to deny the existence of the kinds of case that tend to be prominently in view in most moral philosophy, of actions done for public reasons. It is rather that she regards such cases as simply among the kinds of case there can be, and insists on the great variety of possible kinds of case. (The methodology here is Wittgensteinian: there is nothing the matter with the way philosophers have described a type of case; their mistake is to have taken a particular kind of case and to have supposed that, in describing it, they were describing the entire field rather than one part of it.) 5a. Murdoch’s conception of the determinants of action involves dropping the familiar imagery that accompanies much philosophical thinking about “the will”: the image of a setting of something into motion, an image which then carries along with it the need to ask questions about whether reason can provide the impetus, or only desire or what. One of the alternative images used by Murdoch is that of a person’s moral being as a “fabric” which shows itself in the person’s overt actions, but also in her thoughts, jokes, patterns of attention, fantasies, imaginative explorations and a thousand other things.

The imagery of “the will” fits closely with the idea that one could, at least in principle, sort what goes on in the soul into active bits and passive bits, things we genuinely do and things which are properly happenings to us rather than doings; and then the active bits can themselves be sorted into those belonging to practical life and those belonging on the theoretical side. The alternative image of the fabric of being suggests that active and passive are mixed together in far more complex ways than would allow our desire for a relatively tidy theory to be satisfied.

The picture of “the will” lays stress on certain particular sorts of case of determination of action (though the sorts of case which are stressed depend on the particular theory), and can be misleading by occluding other sorts of case, by encouraging us to stop reflection just where it should continue, and by creating the appearance of problems about the determination of the will ― problems that depend on the idea of there being some very small number of basic patterns, rather than an indefinitely large number of ways, many of them “obscure and complicated,” in which we come to act.

The idea of the will in philosophy, as belonging to the theory of action, leads us to ignore the kind of activity and effort which may be involved in forming beliefs about people: one may recognise that one finds it hard to trust someone, for example, and that one needs to try to do so; one might try to free oneself from some habitually used picture. 6. One of the two central concepts in Murdoch’s rethinking of moral psychology is attention. As she writes in “The Idea of Perfection”: “I can only choose within the world I can see, in the moral sense of ‘see’ which implies that clear vision is a result of moral imagination and moral effort.” The notion of attention is crucial in Murdoch’s repudiation of the whole idea of a separation between the theoretical realm and the practical. Her difference from mainstream moral philosophy over the separation between theoretical and practical thinking shapes her conception of moral psychology. The denial that moral thought is concerned centrally with situations that confront one with a moral choice is tied to her idea that what moral life demands is not primarily getting choices right, but achieving in a piecemeal way a clarity of vision; in the ideal sort of case, such a perception of reality would lead to appropriate action. 7. The other central concept in the rethinking of moral psychology is love. Like the concept of attention, it is important in the repudiation of a divide between the theoretical and practical realms: the concept of knowledge, relevant to moral life, is of knowledge available through loving attention ― knowledge which is responsive to the reality of things outside of one’s self. Although there are passages where Murdoch simply identifies love with perception of the reality of what lies outside the self, she elsewhere recognises the variety of forms love takes, which include forms of love that feed off fantasy. 8. Moral differences between people go much deeper than simply the application of moral concepts in different ways to the same world. The conceptual activities of the mind and the spirit in which we see the world make us who we are, morally speaking; two people may not, in the relevant sense, inhabit the same world. 9. Murdoch’s understanding of reason was partly shaped by her contemporaries, and in particular by Stuart Hampshire, whose views she reacted against. She took his account of the relation between reason and will to be extremely widespread, and she rejects his account of rationality as concerned with taking in the intersubjectively available facts ― an activity which supposedly then leaves room for will to operate. Arguing against this view, but making a limited kind of use of the notion of will in her argument, Murdoch insists that will is not separable from reason (here taken to be the faculty through which we form beliefs), since an activity of the will is involved in our coming to see reality; and will can influence belief for the worse as well.

She doesn’t discuss any conception of the will as practical reason in a Kantian sense. There is, however, a conception of reason of a different sort in her treatment of Plato, for example in the idea that mathematics is “good for the soul,” in making for an attachment to truth, a capacity to focus on what is real, what is outside the self. 10. Murdoch allows for the significance of moral rules, of a sphere of obligation and of a sense of duty in moral upbringing and in the moral life of adults, but has relatively little interest in the details of how rules are brought into contact with choice, or the role which rules may have in practical reasoning. She does not see the context of choice as needing to be illuminated by a theoretical regimentation, so that some structure of reasoning could in principle be discerned, at least implicitly, in any choice. She explicitly rejects any conception of the application of rules which would see them as brought into contact with “the facts,” conceived to be available in some morally neutral way. The character which a rule has in a person’s moral life depends on how it connects with his understanding of life, including social life: a rule may be a mere remnant of past training, or instead integrated with his knowledge, his capacity to see and respond to reality. 11. Murdoch gives an important place to freedom while rejecting a dualism of active and passive elements in our psychology. Although there is no dualism, a contrast important for her picture of the soul is that between egoistic thinking, which has a kind of mechanical or closed-in-on-itself character, and the activity of attempting to reach truth, which is particularly hard to describe, because it is essentially various in the forms it takes: the working over of thoughts, perceptions, images, attachments, feelings. Its openness, and its being the site of freedom, are inseparable from the variety of the ways in which we can come to see or understand things better.

Murdoch pointed out what she took to be misleading or positively wrong in the ideas about freedom which analytic and continental philosophers had put forward. She repeatedly criticised conceptions of freedom that tie it to the moment of action; she saw such conceptions as dependent on the idea of the “hard” world of facts, thought of as forming the background to an exercise of the will.

Murdoch’s own alternative conception of freedom ties it closely to the capacity for attention ― a capacity which may be exercised in a great variety of ways, in all sorts of circumstances, not specially when we need to decide what to do. This notion of freedom thus also ties it closely to knowledge, achievable through efforts of attention, attempts to counteract dishonest thinking, and to be more patient and just in thought and perception. Murdoch’s understanding of freedom ties it also to the idea that there is freedom “to see the world differently,” to work with fundamentally different conceptualisations of things. 12. Virtue, too, is tied closely to knowledge and to attention to what lies outside the ego. Murdoch emphasises the importance of there being a variety of virtues, but also sees them as having an underlying unity which may nevertheless be difficult to discern. She connects the virtues with the idea of a person’s “fabric of being,” the image suggesting something which is continuous, into which various strands are woven, something which has various patterns in it. The image also allows for the pattern of courage in one person’s fabric to be quite distinct from the pattern of courage in someone else’s fabric. The characteristics of the fabric are present as much in habits of thought and feeling as in overt action. 13. Murdoch criticised the ideas of her contemporaries about concepts in general and about moral concepts in particular. She did not see having a concept as basically a matter of being able to recognise and discriminate a pattern in things. The prevalent idea when she began writing about philosophy was that a concept was a way of using a word. This was useful as far as it went, she thought, but it left out quite different sorts of case, of great philosophical interest.

What Murdoch emphasises is our capacity to develop through language and especially through the use of metaphor and “semi-sensible” pictures some way of making sense of things. Modes of recognition and discrimination of things are included, but the range of cases she considers is much wider, and the recognition/discrimination cases fall into place only as relatively subsidiary kinds of case. The important moral concepts, like truth, will have great internal complexity, and this kind of complexity is important in her ideas about fundamental differences of moral vision.

Differences of moral vision and differences of concept are closely tied. The range of what she would consider a moral concept is much greater than what most philosophers would consider a moral concept: thus, for example, the twentieth-century idea of a “factual disagreement” would count for her as a moral concept, one that plays a role in a moral vision of the nature and situation of human beings. So too the idea of the separability of fact and value. The work done by a concept, on her view, is quite different from what it would be in many accounts. The concept of love, for instance, may be an organising concept in someone’s life, and thus is not primarily to be understood as a way of picking out what would be a case of love, or a case of acting lovingly, and what would not.

Murdoch’s understanding of the role of the concept certainly includes its use in (for example) thinking about whether what one feels, what someone else feels, is indeed love, but the role of the concept in her ethics goes much further than that. It is an essential element in a moral vision, and makes it possible to bring together in complex ways ideas about knowledge, attention, perception, freedom and action.

Murdoch’s idea of organising concepts or conceptual configurations, which structure someone’s understanding, is at the heart of her rejection of the usual ideas about the distinction between fact and value. The “fact-value” picture of the world is tied to an idea of moral concepts as applying to things or situations by supervening on the non-moral facts. That picture is expressive of a conceptual configuration, a “type of moral attitude”; it is a sort of conceptual configuration that works to keep from view its own role in our thought.

Moral psychology as moral philosophy

The above list gives some main elements in Murdoch’s picture of the soul. What matters is that it is precisely that: a picture of the soul. Murdoch wanted her contemporary moral philosophers to recognise that the picture of the soul with which they worked was also a picture of the soul, their picture. (Not that she thought that there being various pictures meant that one could simply opt for one picture rather than another.)

I have to note, though, that moral philosophers nowadays do not all share a picture of the soul. The pictures that they accept do, however, form a family the members of which resemble each other markedly. The resemblance might be put simply this way: most moral philosophers reject all or most of the items I have listed above. So far as they do accept any of the elements on the list ― for example, the importance of imagination in moral life ― it tends to have a quite different significance, once it is placed in a theory which is overall very different.

One of the most central disagreements between contemporary moral philosophers and Iris Murdoch concerns the significance of observable action and choice, which explicitly comes up in the first element above, but really runs through all of the elements. It needs saying that Murdoch’s idea of the significance of observable action and choice is not that they don’t matter, but that they are not definitive of moral activity, and that moral thought and discourse are not made to be moral thought and discourse by their bearing on observable action and choice.

On Murdoch’s view, a picture of the soul, a moral psychology, deploys and develops concepts imaginatively ― as Murdoch’s deploys and develops the concept of love and its application to perception, as Kant’s deploys and develops a conception of reason in the exercise of the will. What is involved in thinking through a picture of the soul is in part consideration of what people are like, and in part consideration of philosophical arguments that tell for or against some picture or that appear to do so; and such reflection is itself a kind of moral reflection.

What shapes a picture of the soul is imaginative thinking and conceptual exploration, thinking that is expressive of the kind of moral being one is. Murdoch’s moral psychology, in other words, tells us that moral psychology itself can take varied forms and that the development and exploration of moral psychology is itself an activity that engages us as moral beings ― it is a form of moral philosophy. The implication is that the terrain of moral philosophy should not be taken to be determined by some particular picture of the soul. This is to say that moral psychology, an account of what we are as moral beings, cannot fix the possibilities for moral philosophy, since the thinking through of moral psychology is itself moral philosophy.

Implications for moral philosophy Let me conclude by briefly commenting on two issues raised by Murdoch’s moral psychology.

First, Murdoch is sometimes taken to be some kind of “anti-theorist” in ethics. At the end of “The Idea of Perfection,” after she has sketched her own moral psychology and criticised that of contemporary analytic and continental philosophers, she describes what she has done as the putting forward of a metaphysical theory, and as the attempt “to fill in a systematic explanatory background to our ordinary moral life,” the provision of a conceptual scheme intended to “help us to reflect upon and understand the nature of moral progress and moral failure and the reasons for the divergence of one moral temperament from another.” So Murdoch is by no means opposed to theory in moral philosophy. But her theoretical ambitions do not include any kind of system which would provide answers to moral questions, or any general account of why actions of such-and-such type are right or wrong, of the sort given by utilitarianism. Theory can’t do the work for us. There are, she believed, techniques and practices that can help to put us into a position to choose and act better than we might otherwise do; this is a matter of countering fantasy and enabling us to see reality, not of providing a systematic way to arrive at moral answers.

Perhaps more significantly (from the point of view of claims that have been made for moral theory), theory is not essential, on Murdoch’s view, for our coming to see a need for moral change. We can come to see that a system of concepts which we habitually used, say in thinking about some particular subject matter, insulated us from reality. For a good example, see Jon Stallworthy’s discussion of the use, and then the abandonment, of the imagery of the classical warrior in the war poetry of the twentieth century. The early poems of the First World War, with their echoes of Roman legions, of Agincourt or Roncevalles, “illustrate the hypnotic power of a long cultural tradition,” but that hypnotic power came to be seen as exactly such a power: a power not to see what was really there. The change in the rhetoric of war art (I am thinking especially of poetry and the visual arts) was a change in how things are imagined, and this was a deeply consequential change in moral thinking. It can become impossible to hear the old rhetoric of war, of glory and honour, as anything but falsification, as anything but ‘obscene’. Such a change in moral sensibility can be deeply thought and deeply felt, can be deeply intelligent, and can proceed without backing in moral theory.

Second, Murdoch’s conception of moral psychology implies that one can’t set aside moral philosophy for a while in order to get moral psychology straight first. Philosophical reflection about action, intention, motive, desire and similar topics does not fall into a branch of philosophy of its own, separate from moral philosophy. A “picture of the soul” is a moral conception. So Murdoch was, I think, committed to a disagreement with Elizabeth Anscombe, who thought that we could, and indeed should, pursue moral psychology independently of moral philosophy, and get it straight before going back to moral philosophy. She thought that getting straight such things as what sort of characteristic a virtue was, was a matter “not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis.”

The conceptual analysis that belonged to moral psychology might ― if I am right in my reading of Anscombe ― indeed be inconsistent with bad moral philosophy, so far as such philosophy depended on incoherent conceptions of action or intention or other central terms of moral thought. But she would, I think, have wanted to reject Murdoch’s idea that what one’s moral psychology added up to was a fundamental moral picture of the soul; and Murdoch would have disagreed with Anscombe that conceptual analysis, of concepts like virtue, could be done separately from ethics.

Cora Diamond is the Kenan Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of Virginia. Her most recent book is Reading Wittgenstein with Anscombe, Going On to Ethics. You can hear her discuss the moral vision of Iris Murdoch with Christopher Cordner and Scott Stephens on The Philosopher’s Zone on RN.

246 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page