This book is a salutary and needed reminder of the intellectual and moral power of the Murdoch version of Platonism. In her view, what is central to the moral life is our imperfect apprehensions of a perfection that we cannot ever fully comprehend. It was this that Plato identified as the form of the Good, showing us in “The Republic,” in Murdoch’s words, “the reality of what is better and the illusory nature of what is worse. We learn of perfection and imperfection through our ability to understand what we see as an image or shadow of something better which we cannot yet see. The idea of Good, perceived in our confused reality, also transcends it.” And from Plato we also learn how moral education involves “a progressively changing quality of consciousness,” so that “the selfish self-interestedly casual or callous man sees a different world from that which the careful scrupulous benevolent just man sees; and the largely explicable ambiguity of the word ‘see’ here conveys the essence of the concept of the moral.” To move toward the Good is thus to be rescued from deception and self-deception.
When Murdoch describes the quality of attentive, focused vision that plays a key part in the moral transformation of individuals, we may well be reminded of what some mystical writers have said about meditative prayer, and rightly so. For in the Christian past the Good was identified with God; the love of the Good was understood in terms of the theology of a triune God. Now, in Murdoch’s view, the claims of Christianity about divine existence and incarnation have become incredible. Christianity has to be de mythologized, so that its images — and human beings need such images — can function as aids to meditation and reflection. The “ontological proof” of the existence of God does not exhibit, as St. Anselm believed, the necessity of divine existence, but rather the necessity of the idea of the Good for the moral life. In providing an answer to the question “Are there fundamental concepts and problems which moral philosophers have to (or ought to) deal with?” the ontological proof, as she sees it, shows us what is ineliminably metaphysical about the moral life.
The problem we have today is that we cannot live together without a shared idea of the Good, we have lost confidence in our ability to determine the common Good rationally, and to articulate it in a way people find persuasive. And this matters. Check out this passage from a recent Peter Lawler essay:
It’s probably more true than ever that we lack the cultivated leisure class that values “the best that has been thought and said” (and painted and sung) for its own sake. By now it would be downright audacious to suggest that one of our most important social projects would be to cultivate those with that kind of leisure, whether earned or given; to harness new technology to aid as many Americans as possible in rising far above merely middle-class life. As most experts understand it, however, our greatest social problem is how to get more and more Americans the skills, competencies, and habits required to flourish or at least make it in the 21st century competitive marketplace. The problem, if you’ll permit some hyperbole, is that too many don’t even have what’s required to be proletarian cogs in a machine, to be reliably, if marginally, productive. And so all the education experts say that we have to work harder to transform all of education around the requirements of the competitive marketplace.
Notice, too, that when “reform conservatives” such as Yuval Levin suggest the very modest idea of expanding the child tax credits for struggling working Americans, they’re accused of pandering to the envious and thinking in terms of classes instead of individuals. Someone might say that the future of our country requires increasing both prosperity and fertility, and that those who bear and rear the next generation could be asked to provide, in justice, less of the nation’s GDP. But that kind of thinking, after all, can be criticized by liberals for casting women as breeders for the state and not as autonomous individuals, and by conservatives for casting individuals as citizen subjects of the state. That kind of criticism is at the foundation of the libertarian social and cultural consensus that is beginning to unite our two parties. [Emphasis mine — RD] We’re thinking of ourselves less and less as beings sharing the common relational content that comes with being parents or citizens or even creatures with a given, shared nature.
In sum, because capitalism has won, America is both more and less middle-class than ever. And keeping America qualitatively middle-class probably requires attention to what might be called relational institutions—those that shore up, for example, the family and the content of education, that go beyond market-based reforms and the vacuous celebration of “diversity.” It’s no longer enough to say, as some conservatives and libertarians still do, that all we have to do is cut the taxes of “job creators” and eliminate pointless and counter-productive regulations, and the resulting economic growth will benefit it us all. We conservatives, especially, need to abandon the tired and misleading distinction between individualism and collectivism and think of people as both free and relational beings, beings who find out who they are and what they’re supposed to do through worthwhile work with others and through the shared joys and responsibilities of personal love.
The real divide in modern American life is not between conservatives and liberals. It’s between Emotivists and Metaphysical Realists (see here for an explanation.)