April Bernard on Margaret Drabble as Moral Psychologist

In reviewing a selection of Margaret Drabble‘s novels, April Bernard writes:

Drabble, as a moralist, seems to believe that it is less important what and why we do what we do, than how we think about it—before, during, after….If the reason that a man always sins is that he is sinful, what matters can only be what he does, spiritually, with these hard facts.

“What we do” i.e., our actions. “Why we do what we do” i.e., the reasons for our actions. Agents’ reasons–their beliefs and desires–are the causes for their actions. And then, finally, “how we think about what we do”–before, during, after–our beliefs about our actions and their reasons, introspectively and retrospectively.

I do not know if Bernard intends to describe Drabble’s views of moral psychology as being a paradigmatic instance of what moralists do, or whether she is taking her stance as a particularly idiosyncratic one. Be that as it may, it is interesting to consider a moralist as being more concerned with our reasoning about our reasons for our actions than with our actions and our reasons for them.

Consider for instance, a putative rebel who consistently fails to file taxes on time and sometimes fails to do so altogether. A little introspection on his part reveals he does so because he believes that tax-collection authorities are instruments of oppression and thus want to let them know–however indirectly–that he cares little for their intrusion into his life.  For Drabble then, the failure to file taxes and the resentment of authority is not as interesting as the actual introspection indulged in by the agent.

The reasons for this should be evident: such introspection–prior to actions, concurrently and retrospectively–is bound to be interestingly revealing, a tapping into a rich mother lode of psychologically acute facts about oneself. Our rebel may find–when he commences his archaeological investigations, in guided or unguided form–that his resentment of authority stems from other deeply held beliefs, primeval in origin, shrouded perhaps by childhood amnesia. He might find that he does not derive as much pleasure as anticipated from the commission of his action, that indeed, while he delays his payment of taxes, he is gripped by acute anxiety and fear–while he resents authority he fears it even more. And lastly, he may discover that his actions, rather than leaving with flush with the glory of success, bring in their wake a curious emptiness.

The visible actions we take and our publicly professed reasons for doing so may then just be a kind of froth on the seemingly placid–and occasionally disturbed–surface of our beings; they are interesting precisely because they suggest we look deeper and wider. Perhaps we could find a broader pattern that indicts the same set of reasons and provokes the same kind of introspection, thus suggesting the fundamental importance of the issues brought to the forefront of our consciousness.

These closer looks at oneself thus may point to further avenues for exploration of that most uncharted land of all: our inner spaces of motivation and fear and pleasure.

 

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