Iris Murdoch on the Morality of Attention, and the Hostile Mother-in-Law

Iris Murdoch on the Morality of Attention, and the Hostile Mother-in-Law

With her famous example of the hostile mother-in-law, Iris Murdoch argues that moral life involves more than good decision-making and behavior; attention itself has a moral dimension.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  March 2024


Where is morality to be found? Is it simply expressed through our decisions and actions? Or do other aspects of our lives have a moral dimension?

Writing in the latter half of the 20th century, the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch thought the dominant theories of ethics make the sphere of morality too narrow.

They approach morality by discussing universal principles as guides for acting or deciding in different situations.

But the essence of moral life is not to be found in isolated moments of action or decision, Murdoch suggests — nor can it hope to be captured by the abstract principles guiding them.

Rather, the bulk of our moral lives take place in our ongoing reflective activity — in how we attend and respond to particular persons and things from moment to moment.

Murdoch describes this value-laden inner mental activity — how we think about ourselves, how we imagine others — as attention, and she offers a now-famous example that brings her idea to life.

The hostile mother-in-law

Considering how paradigmatic the example has become, it’s worth presenting in full. In her essay The Idea of Perfection (which features in her 1970 work The Sovereignty of Good), Murdoch writes:

A mother, whom I shall call M, feels hostility to her daughter-in-law, whom I shall call D. M finds D quite a good-hearted girl, but while not exactly common yet certainly unpolished and lacking in dignity and refinement. D is inclined to be pert and familiar, insufficiently ceremonious, brusque, sometimes positively rude, always tiresomely juvenile. M does not like D’s accent or the way D dresses. M feels that her son has married beneath him.

Let us assume for the purposes of the example that the mother, who is a very ‘correct’ person, behaves beautifully to the girl throughout, not allowing her real opinion to appear in any way…

Thus much for M’s first thoughts about D. Time passes, and it could be that M settles down with a hardened sense of grievance and a fixed picture of D, imprisoned (if I may use a question-begging word) by the cliché: my poor son has married a silly vulgar girl.

However, the M of the example is an intelligent well-intentioned person, capable of self-criticism, capable of giving careful and just attention to an object, which confronts her. M tells herself: ‘I am old-fashioned and conventional. I may be prejudiced and narrow-minded. I may be snobbish. I am certainly jealous. Let me look again…’

So: M builds up a negative picture of D in her mind, and — despite “behaving beautifully” towards D on the outside, her internal perception of D becomes entrenched.

Time passes, however, and M recognizes that her view of D is perhaps clouded by qualities that aren’t really D’s at all — they are her own.

Acknowledging that she herself is “old-fashioned and conventional”, “prejudiced and narrow-minded”, and “certainly jealous”, M looks again, Murdoch continues…

Here I assume that M observes D until gradually her vision of D alters… D is discovered to be not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous, not noisy but gay, not tiresomely juvenile but delightfully youthful, and so on.

M sees D in a new light, free of prejudice, because she has made an effort to alter her inner mental activity — her attention. Murdoch writes:

I have used the word ‘attention’, which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality. I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the moral agent.

Moral progress comes from attention

So, despite no change in behavior from either party, M has nevertheless expressed her moral agency and made moral progress, Murdoch thinks, because she has shifted her attention to direct a “just and loving gaze” upon the reality of D.

As Murdoch puts it in her 1992 work, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals:

Moral change comes from an attention to the world whose natural result is a decrease in egoism through an increased sense of the reality of, primarily, other people, but also other things.

Moral progress is thus less about seeking fixed, correct answers to open questions, Murdoch thinks, and more about making an ongoing effort to pay the right kind of attention towards the world.

Murdoch offers hints of how we might cultivate such attention in the quotations above — a “just and loving gaze”, a “decrease in egoism”, an “increased sense of the reality of other people” — but she makes it explicit with her concept of “unselfing”.

Attention involves “unselfing”

Our inner lives, Murdoch observes, are too often clogged by what she calls the “fat, relentless ego”. The good life becomes available to us, she thinks, when we are able to deflate the brooding, grasping self (“unself”), and open our eyes to reality — an idea perhaps reminiscent of the Buddhist concept of anātman, or no-self.

Importantly, then, paying attention in the Murdochian sense does not mean turning a blind eye to people’s faults and weaknesses; it means trying to observe them without being blinded by our own.

Indeed, M does not change her mind about D on a whim; rather, she changes her mind because she makes an effort to identify and remove her own egoistic concerns, and thus sees D without prejudice for the first time. Murdoch writes:

Of course psychic energy flows, and more readily flows, into building up convincingly coherent but false pictures of the world, complete with systematic vocabulary (M seeing D as pert-common juvenile, etc.) Attention is the effort to counteract such states of illusion.

Paying proper attention — i.e. living morally — means trying to view the world without the safety and crutch of our usual prejudices.

It is the difficult, uncomfortable, humbling attempt to deconstruct our own worldviews. For, Murdoch writes,

The chief enemy of excellence in morality… is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one.

Deflating our egos in the way Murdoch urges is perhaps synonymous with lowering our defense mechanisms, and this might make us feel vulnerable.

But seeing the world through the moral lens of attention means being vulnerable, Murdoch thinks.

Through making an effort to remove the barrier that sits between us and others, we express our moral agency — and open ourselves to true connection.

M lets down her mental guard against D, and sees her in a new light. It is not new or more accurate information that has changed her view; it is the detachment of her own ego, the lowering of her defenses — a love that disarms.

Murdoch famously articulates this idea in a passage from her one of her early novels, The Bell (published in 1958):

Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

Attention, rather than action, is the locus of morality

Murdoch thus places the locus of morality in our ongoing reflective attention, rather than in our actions or decisions — for, if we get the former right, the latter will naturally follow.

As she puts it: cultivating the right kind of attention…

builds up structures of value round about us, [so that] at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.

What do you make of Murdoch’s analysis?

  • Do you agree with Murdoch’s view that the locus of morality is in our ongoing inner reflections, rather than in the moment of decision or action?
  • Do you think identifying and adhering to universal principles is the best way to make moral progress? Or do you prefer Murdoch’s approach of cultivating “just and loving” attention?
  • What do you make of Murdoch’s view that “unselfing” connects us to the good life?
  • What prejudices prevent you from seeing other people and the world clearly?

Learn more philosophical approaches to the good life

If you’re interested in learning more philosophical approaches to the good life, you might enjoy the following related reads:

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About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
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Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

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