Thursday, May 1, 2008

Plain Stark Duty

"There are good modes of attention and good objects of attention. 'Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things.' (St Paul, Philippians 4.8.) ... These 'things' which are just and good assist our attention when we try to make just and compassionate judgments of others or to judge and correct ourselves. ... This is how morality leads naturally into mysticism and has a natural bond with religion. (By religion I mean a religious attitude and form of life, not a literalistic adherence to a particular dogma.) There can no doubt be a mysticism of the extreme ascetic. But there is also a natural way of mysticism, as indicated by St Paul, which involves a deepened and purified apprehension of our surroundings. ... Unselfish attention breaks the barrier of egoism. Living in the present: I really see the face of my friend, the playing dog, Piero's picture ...

"Someone may say that this line of thought could degenerate into a relaxed surrender to an aesthetic attitude, an ethic of 'beautiful thoughts'.... After all, it may be said, the idea of plain stark duty ... is also a widely recognised and surely rightly prized part of the everyday moral life. ...[T]he idea of duty must ... be seen in a wider landscape. It would be misleading to suggest that morality could be reduced to a list, perhaps a short list, of duties. ... Duty can appear when moral instinct and habit fail, when we lack any clarifying mode of reflection, and seek for a rule felt as external. ... Duties, because of their use as a bridle placed on egoism ... may seem more often to carry a sign of negation. 'Don't lie' is a clearer command than 'be truthful'. Be kind, be generous--these requirements seem a vaguer part of our lives, unclear in their limits. ... A totally good being would not experience the call of duty, might be said to lack or not need the concept, since all acts and decisions would emerge from virtuous insight and its orderly process. God has no duties. An imperfect being often feels and recognises the moral demand as external, contrary to instinct and habit, contrary to usual modes of thought. The idea of duty serves here."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

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