Madeleine Harris

’17, Eastern University


The goal of ethics can always be traced back to an original question of what a self is. If the self is primarily political, then ethical systems ought to be aimed at an idea of what is ‘Right.’ But, if the self is primarily relational and dependent, then ethics ought to be aimed at the notion of what is ‘Good.’ Using John Rawls’ and Iris Murdoch’s contrasting visions of the self, I argue that ethics ought always to be aimed at the ‘Good’ based on the idea that a distinction between private and public selves is not actually possible and that human persons are primarily something deeper than political animals.


In order to consider the nature and end of ethics, one must spend a good deal of time coming to understand what a person is, in themselves, and how they interact with the world. Is the self primarily political? Or, on the contrary, is it primarily relational? Are those different things? Or perhaps our dignity comes solely from our rationality, or our ability to produce change in our surroundings. Are we ahistorical or are we intrinsically dependent on other selves and the systems they inhabit? In consideration of these questions, I find myself coming back to the question of whether our ethical systems ought to prioritize “the Right” or “the Good”. I believe that the question of which virtue ought to be sought can only be answered by determining the essence of the self. If you are Kantian, then our moral system is based solely on the Right; but if you are Platonist, then your paradigm is colored by the Good.

I argue that our ethical system ought to be aimed at the Good. The further question of what this means politically is a drastically different one, and I do not intend on tackling it in this paper. Instead, I will focus directly on why it matters that ethics are aimed at “the Good” instead of “the Right;” to do this I will examine the claims of Rawls and Murdoch as they pertain to which virtue ought to be prioritized.  In order to accomplish this, we will first address what both of them mean by the term “the Good,” and further what they believe the person, and subsequently the self, is.

Rawls’ Notion of the Person

For Rawls, the self is primarily political, it would seem. He writes, “The concept of the person has been understood as the concept of someone who can take part in, or who can play a role in, social life, and hence exercise and respect its various rights and duties. Thus, we say that a person is someone who can be a citizen, that is, a fully cooperating member of society over a complete life.”[1] We are persons insofar as we can participate in civic life.[2] Essentially, the most important issues for Rawls are that people are free and equal.[3]

Through these traits, persons are capable of revising and acting upon fluid notions of the good, as it pertains to them and their societies.

Thus, as free persons, citizens claim the right to view their persons as independent from and as not identified with any particular conception of the good, or scheme of final ends. Given their moral power to form, to revise, and rationally to pursue a conception of the good, their public identity as free persons is not affected by changes over time in their conception of the good.[4]

So, essentially, Rawls is claiming that our vision of what is good is changing all the time and that it never affects whether or not we are equal and free citizens. This might be true to an extent. However, I am concerned that a self who is asked to hide in certain arenas of life might start to internalize public narratives that are actually quite contrary to the private beliefs they hold. In the end, it is possible that everyone’s private and political self might converge into the same thing.

As primarily political animals capable of engaging with the political forum as fully functioning civic agents, Rawls writes the following, “Since persons can be full participants in a fair system of social cooperation, we ascribe to them the two moral powers connected with the elements in the idea of social cooperation noted above: namely, a capacity for a sense of justice and a capacity for a conception of the good.”[5]

On the Contrary, From Murdoch

Murdoch, though she says little to nothing about her political beliefs, arguably would be deeply troubled by the idea of citizens bracketing their moral and religious beliefs for the sake of maintaining political neutrality, such that individual rights might be sustained. Murdoch believes that the things we love, particularly people as they can be actualizations of “the Good,” are and ought to be central to who we are at all times. I can imagine that the idea of a political mask might greatly unnerve her.

As Murdoch believes that we ought to prioritize “the Good,” her notion of the person is much more holistic than that of Rawls, as it has to do with persons beyond their participation in politics. For her, it all goes back to our vision, as it is inevitable that we will all truly see different worlds. She believes that we ought to cultivate a moral vision by which we can see what is good more clearly, and thereby come to an idea of the proper way to engage with the world. She writes that we ought to use our imaginations in order that we might join the world so that we can hone our vision properly and come to know our place amongst what is real.[6] “We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.”[7] As this stands, Murdoch’s vision of the self includes a vast appreciation for the particularities of things, meaning that people must be known as individuals in order that we might love them.[8] She is clear to remind us that particulars matter—it is important that a mother considers the wellbeing of each member of her family, individually, before making a decision that will affect all of them.[9]

What do they mean by the term “Good”?

For Rawls, the concept of “the Good” is deeply tied to his notion of what a person is. He claims that conceptions of “the Good” are to be chosen by individuals as free and rational creatures, but it would seem that by the very fact that he claims this, he believes this to be good. He writes, “The capacity for a conception of the good is the capacity to form, to revise, and rationally to pursue a conception of one’s rational advantage, or good. In the case of social cooperation, this good must not be understood narrowly but rather as a conception of what is valuable in human life.”[10] He then goes on to say that our wills have to sort out devotions and particular loyalties that might bind us, but that we must set those aside for the sake of political neutrality.

I am convinced, however, that Rawls’ conception of “the Good” is inextricably tied to what he believes the good society to be; it would be hard to discern what he would mean in any other context. For him, “the Good” is a social contract that is agreed upon by free and rational citizens for the sake of political harmony and neutrality. He writes regarding this, “The difficultly is this: we must find some point of view, removed from and not distorted by the particular features and circumstances of the all-encompassing background framework, from which a fair agreement between free and equal persons can be reached.”[11] “The Good” thus becomes an agreement between free and equal persons, at least for the sake of politics.

Further, Rawls’ notion of “the Good” is connected with his vision of freedom for the individual.

Citizens are free in that they conceive of themselves and of one another as having the moral power to have a conception of the good. This is not to say that, as part of their political conception of themselves, they view themselves as inevitably tied to the pursuit of the particular conception of the good which they affirm at any given time. Instead, as citizens, they are regarded as capable of revising and changing this conception on reasonable and rational grounds, and they may do this if they so desire.[12]

So long as rationality is involved in the decision, individuals have the right to choose their own “Good” outside of the common good that has been agreed upon, like a contract. This idea of a private good gets at a key notion of his. He indeed claims that there might be a difference between the political and the private self.[13] There are simply certain things about the self that ought to be bracketed in the political realm, he claims. “For example, when citizens convert from one religion to another, or no longer affirm an established religious faith, they do not cease to be, for questions of political justice, the same persons they were before.”[14] He believes that our private loyalties and devotions ought to play no role in our political selves—it is arguable however, that asking someone to change who they are publicly, or at least hide part of who they are, might change who they are privately.

For Murdoch, “the Good” has little to do with the self, and a great deal to do with an external reality. “The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness… ‘Good is a transcendent reality’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”[15] In truth, “the Good” is seen most clearly when the self moves out of the way. She writes that “our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.”[16] This is why she asserts that good art is so beneficial since it has a rare ability to almost immediately draw us out of ourselves, that we might see the world with clearer vision.

Further, as Murdoch is a Platonist, she believes that “the Good” is something akin to the picture of the Sun in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” She explains,

The sun is seen at the end of a long quest which involves reorientation (the prisoners have to turn around) and an ascent. It is real, it is out there, but very distant. It gives light and energy and enables us to know the truth. In its light we see the things of the world in their true relationships. Looking at it itself is supremely difficult and is unlike looking at things in its light. It is a different kind of thing from what it illuminates.[17]

It is the kind of thing that lets us see other things clearer, though it might be difficult to look at in itself, as its light is blinding.

Beyond this, Murdoch has a robust understanding that what we love must play a role in our ethics, and our goals, as well as the kinds of things we are capable of. She believes that what we love is at the center of who we are, and consequentially, plays a role in the way we think about ethics. She explains this as a kind of movement, such that love is attracted towards what is good and moves things towards it (though she also says that tainted love will aim towards tainted goods, but that is beside the point.) She writes,

Good is the magnetic centre towards which love naturally moves…. When true good is loved, even impurely or by accident, the quality of the love is automatically refined, and when the soul is turned towards Good, the highest part of the soul is enlivened.[18]

Why “the Good” is the Superior End of Ethics

If we believe that relationships, or even something like Sandel’s picture of unchosen obligations, matter, then the right does not make sense as a goal. It is a system of debts (like the way that Pieper explains Justice) in which we are always owing something, even if it is to ourselves. I believe we exist in a narrative, not a formula. As such, we need a holistic story that reminds us that persons are more than brains. It is important that our relationships be based on love and desire for the good of the other, not on what is owed them, though that will be fulfilled by loving them well. Even something like bracketing certain beliefs is dangerous because it declares that there is something about religious or personal moral standards that is somehow arbitrary or less important than political beliefs. “The area of morals, and ergo of moral philosophy, can now be seen, not as a hole-and-corner matter of debts and promises, but as covering the whole of our mode of living and the quality of our relations with the world.”[19] The belief that we can prioritize certain things in the public square and different ones at home is just not true. If we are to hold different priorities, odds are, at some point they will converge. Selves do not like to be split for the sake of appearances.

However, at its core, the real reason that the right is not the virtue we should aim at is that it does not leave enough room for love or humility to come about in society. If we are compelled by obligations, the virtues lose their place as our moral guidelines. To follow something like Kant’s categorical imperative is not to love the world as it is given to us, but to follow a rule that we are obligated to despite whether or not we enjoy it. And in fact, in that picture, if we love something, it cannot be considered moral. However, Murdoch claims that love is what moves us towards what is Good. Our loves often become our motivations, at least in the sense that we know what we would like to have. Murdoch would say that it is through the process of unselfing that we come to love what is good. This means that we look at the world, ascertain what is real, and focus our vision away from ourselves. “The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking.”[20] Another word for this is humility. In order to grow by looking, one must have internalized the notion that there is something you need to be taught, and that the world is there ready to teach it to you.[21]

As I have been considering the prioritization of “the Good” over the right, it has struck me how setting “the Good” as the goal paints a holistic picture of persons in which we do good things, not because we have to, but because we love them. That is a lovely picture. “But is there not nevertheless something about the conception of a refined love which is practically identical with goodness? Will not ‘Act lovingly’ translate ‘Act perfectly’, whereas ‘Act rationally’ will not? It is tempting to say so.”[22] There is something deeply distinct between this picture and something like a debtor’s narrative where the world is full of agents acting based on compulsions of duty. This is not to say that there is no place for something like duty, but how much better it would be if we were the type of people who did good things because we loved them? Murdoch states this more beautifully than I could ever try to, “The mother loving the retarded child or loving the tiresome elderly relation. Love is the general name of the quality of attachment and it is capable of infinite degradation and is the source of our greatest errors; but when it is even partially refined it is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to Good and joins us to the world through Good.”[23] We are taught by this that there is a light beyond us that beckons us towards it.[24] We come to know what is true by the light of the sun. May our prayer be that we leave the cave without a second look into the fire, driven by a love of what is real, and desire for what is Good.

[1] John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 13, no. 3 (1985), 233.

[2] Granted, Rawls’ primary concern in the given essay is the notion of justice, and how persons relate to the political system. Given this, it still seems safe to say that for Rawls, the political self that he says is so necessary for the sake of the republic is the same thing as his private self—insofar as he is a Kantian liberal at home and in the public square. Beyond this, he has no problem positing that others ought to bracket their personal, moral, and religious beliefs when involved in politics for the sake of protecting political neutrality…so long as his side wins. All of this is to say that he is willing to claim that we ought to have different political selves, I believe, because he does not have to. His person is the same whether he is with friends or in court. That has to matter for something—his own rule seems to not apply to him directly.

[3] Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” 233.

[4] Ibid, 241.

[5] Ibid, 233.

[6] Iris Murdoch, “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts,” in The Sovereignty of the Good, (New York: Routledge, 1971),  374.

[7] Ibid, 374.

[8] Ibid, 378-379.

[9] Ibid, 379.

[10] Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” 233.

[11] Ibid, 234.

[12] Ibid, 241.

[13] Please see footnote 2 for why this is a bit of a nonsensical claim on his end.

[14] Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” 241.

[15] Murdoch, “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts,” 376-377.

[16] Ibid, 369.

[17] Ibid, 376.

[18] Ibid, 384.

[19] Ibid, 380.

[20] Ibid, 375.

[21] Ibid, 385.

[22] Ibid, 384.

[23] Ibid, 384.

[24] Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble,(Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 71.


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