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Cathy Mason – “Reconceiving Murdochian Realism”

In this post, Cathy Mason discusses the article she recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Cathy’s article can be found here.

A picture of a vase with irises.
“Irises” (1890) Vincent van Gogh

Iris Murdoch’s ethics is filled with discussions of moral reality, moral truth and how things really stand morally. What exactly does she mean by these? Her style is certainly a non-standard philosophical style, and her ideas are remarkably wide-ranging, but it can seem appealing to think that at heart her metaethical commitments largely align with standard realists’. I suggest, however, that this reading of Murdoch is mistaken: her realism amounts to something else altogether.

I take standard realism to be roughly captured by the following definition from Sayre-McCord:

Moral realists hold that there are moral facts, that it is in light of these facts that peoples’ moral judgments are true or false, and that the facts being what they are (and so the judgments being true, when they are) is not merely a reflection of our thinking the facts are one way or another. That is, moral facts are what they are even when we see them incorrectly or not at all. (Sayre-McCord 2005: 40)

Does Murdoch subscribe to this view? It can certainly be tempting to think so. She repeatedly talks about ‘realism’ and ‘objectivity’, and remarks like the following seem well-understood in standard realist terms:

The authority of morals is the authority of truth, that is of reality. (TSG 374)

The ordinary person does not, unless corrupted by philosophy, believe that he creates values by his choices. He thinks that some things really are better than others and that he is capable of getting it wrong. (TSG 380)

Here, Murdoch clearly commits to the idea that some moral claims are true, and that what makes them true is not something to do with the valuer, but something about the world. All this sounds very much like standard realism.

However, it would be a mistake to think that these surface similarities point towards a deeper congruence between Murdoch and standard realists. For a start, realists typically take moral facts to be one kind among many. Just as there are mathematical facts and psychological facts, so too there are moral facts. Yet Murdoch repeatedly insists that all reality is moral—and thus that all facts are in some sense moral facts (e.g. IP 329, OGG 357, MGM 35). Moreover, though Murdoch insists on the truth of some moral claims, she understands the notion of truth very differently from standard realists.  Whereas realists typically regard truth as something abstract, Murdoch suggests that it can only be understood in relation to truthfulness and the search for truth. The seeming agreement between Murdoch and standard realists on the truth of some ethical claims thus belies deeper disagreements between them.

What’s more, standard realism is hard to square with some wider views Murdoch holds. First, she suggests that some moral concepts can be genuinely private: fully virtuous agents may have different moral concepts without either of their conceptual schemas being inaccurate or incomplete. Second, she suggests that there can be private moral reasons: moral reasons need not be universal. It is hard to see how there could be room for private moral concepts and reasons within standard realism: either there are facts corresponding to a moral belief, or there are not. If there are, then it is a kind of moral ignorance to ignore such facts. If not, then the belief is simply false. Finally, Murdoch rejects the idea common in standard realism that the moral supervenes on the non-moral, since she suggests that there simply is no non-moral reality.

What, then, does Murdoch have in mind when she discusses realism? In most cases where Murdoch introduces ideas such as realism or objectivity, she is discussing the moral perceiver’s relation to the thing perceived, rather than only talking about the thing perceived. Her realism is a claim about the reality of the moral where reality is understood as that which is discerned by the virtuous perceiver.

Take, for example, the following passages:

[T]he realism (ability to perceive reality) required for goodness is a kind of intellectual ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression of self. (OGG 353)

[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue. (TSG 369)

In both of these quotes, Murdoch discusses the relation between a moral perceiver and the thing perceived. Realism or objectivity is talked of not as a metaphysical feature of objects, properties or facts, but as a feature of moral agents who are epistemically engaged with the world.

Of course, the standard realist might allow that there is such a thing as realism as a feature of a moral perceiver, and understand this in terms of accessing facts or properties which independently exist. Yet this ordering of explanations is ruled out by Murdoch’s insistence that reality itself is a normative (moral) concept. What is objectively real, for Murdoch, cannot be understood apart from ethics, apart from the essentially human activity of seeking to understand the world which is subject to moral evaluation. This is not to suggest that reality is a solely moral concept: it is also linked to truth, to how the world is. But it is to suggest that a conception of how the world is, of reality, must be essentially ethical.

What kind of relation, then, must the realistic observer stand into the thing observed? Murdoch suggests that no non-moral answer can be given here, no description that demarcates the realistic stance in an ethically neutral way. However, a description can be given in rich ethical terms. To be realistic is best understood as doing justice to the thing one is confronted with, being faithful to the reality of it, being truthful about it, and so on. All of these terms capture the idea that perception can be genuinely cognitive, whilst at the same time being a fundamentally ethical task.

Want more?

Read the full article at


  • Murdoch, Iris (1999). “The Idea of Perfection”. In Peter Conradi (Ed.), Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (299–337). Penguin. [IP]
  • Murdoch, Iris (1999). “On God and Good”. In Peter Conradi (Ed.), Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (337–63). Penguin. [OGG]
  • Murdoch, Iris (1999). “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts”. In Peter Conradi (Ed.), Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (363–86). Penguin. [TSG]
  • Murdoch, Iris (2012). “Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals”. Vintage Digital. [MGM]
  • Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey (2005). “Moral Realism”. In David Copp (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (39–62). Oxford University Press.

About the author

Cathy Mason is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the Central European University (Vienna). She is currently working on a book on Iris Murdoch’s ‘metaethics’, as well as some ideas concerning the ethics of friendship.