Constrained by reason, transformed by love: Murdoch on the standard of proof

In Gary Browning (ed.), Truth and Love. New York, Stati Uniti: pp. 63-88 (2018)

Carla Bagnoli
University of Modena
According to Iris Murdoch, the chief experience in morality is the recognition of others, and this is the experience of loving attention. Love is an independent source of moral authority, distinct from the authority of reason. It is independent because it can be attained through moral experiences that are not certified by reason and cannot be achieved by rational deliberation. This view of love calls into question a cluster of concepts, such as rational agency and principled action, which figure prominently in the Kantian characterization of the moral experience and resound through Kant’s account of virtue as an endured but never-ending struggle. But it would be a mistake to conclude that Murdoch’s philosophical project opposes Kant’s without further qualifications. In this chapter, I illustrate some convergence between Kant and Murdoch at the methodological level, in their polemic against reductivism. They both oppose reductivist empiricism on epistemological and moral grounds, because they define the standard of proof in relation to the experience of morality. In Murdoch’s words, the philosophical proof, if there is one, is the same as the moral proof (Murdoch 1997: 361). This is where Kant and Murdoch part ways. While Kant argues that the moral experience is the experience of the impact of reason, which provides self-discipline by constraint, Murdoch holds that the moral standard of proof is love. The transformative power of love allows us to engage with reality and recognize others for what they are, that in which consists the primal moral experience. Murdoch’s argument against Kant’s appeal to principles brings to the fore a crucial issue, which concerns the source of moral authority and the possibility of practical reason. Some of her most popular arguments against Kant are based on an oversimplified view of the impact of reason in moral life, and perhaps they owe part of their fortune to this oversimplification. I shall argue that such arguments miss their intended target, but I also hope to show that Murdoch sketches a distinctive model of the moral proof, which establishes a genuine alternative both to theories of practical reason and to reductivist accounts of the mind and its activities.
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