The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair.
The refusal to attend may even induce a fictitious sense of freedom: I may as well toss a coin. Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.
A philosophy which leaves duty without a context and exalts the idea of freedom and power as a separate top level value ignores this task and obscures the relation between virtue and reality. We act rightly ‘when the time comes’ not out of strength of will but out of the quality of our usual attachments and with the kind of energy and discernment which we have available. And to this the whole activity of our consciousness is relevant.
— Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts
This neatly summarises Murdoch’s ethics. Unlike most modern revivals of virtue ethics, she takes more from Plato than Aristotle. Aristotle emphasises virtue as habit and a kind of balancing (both the virtue itself—the golden mean; and between virtues). Plato emphasises the unitary nature of virtue, and the contemplation of pure goodness. Here Murdoch subordinates the Aristotelian conception to the Platonic. Yes, virtue is habit, but this habit is only formed in the light of a clear and proper vision.
The influence of Weil is seen in two places: first, the need to escape the self-deceiving ‘energy system’ of the self, and second, that right action follows ‘automatically’ if our attention is properly directed and focussed. Will achieves little when it comes to morality: its best use is in directing attention toward reality. When we see correctly, we will act rightly.
Murdoch slams the view that the will is sovereign and free at the moment of an act. Rather, the exercise of freedom is spread out over the periods of time between moral acts—in the way we choose to attend to the world and the value structures that result from this—with the acts themselves adding little. I found this interesting in light of the Libet tests, which proved we begin to act before we experience the will to act. She did, however, point out the will’s power to stop an act at the last minute—what neuroscience knows as ‘free won’t’.