Why attention matters for morality

Lessons from Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch

Morality has become dominated by talk of ‘concepts’, principles, well-being and virtue. But these notions leave out key detail. If we are to have any deep understanding of morality, we must re-centre our focus on ‘attention’. By looking back to the works of William James, Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch, argues Elisa Magrì, we can chart an ethical framework that reshapes our mental landscape and provides us with meaning.  


In Principles of Psychology (1890), William James, one of the most influential philosophers and pragmatists of the 19th century, wrote that “an education which should improve this faculty [of attention] would be the education par excellence.

Working in the aftermath of Wilhelm Wundt, a father of modern psychology, and his studies on attention, James explored the different ways that we deploy attention to direct our will to objects and actions. To this end, James distinguished between sensorial and intellectual attention. The former refers to how we attend to our sense-impressions (for example, how intense or strong our sensations of heat or cold are), whereas the latter is the effort we put into thinking (for example, when we solve a problem, or make a choice).

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Crucially, both sensorial and intellectual attention can occur either involuntarily or voluntarily. Paying attention to a sudden pain in the leg, for instance, occurs without our conscious control. Sometimes, however, we use attention to focus on specific sensory impressions (as in taking one’s pulse) as well as thought-processes.

As I write this article, I pay attention to the thoughts I want to express, and to the connections I want to make between philosophical arguments and their implications. There are also cases when the mind wanders in the reenactment of past events provoked by associations between current and former experiences, as happens when I listen to a song that takes me back to the first time that I heard it. From this point of view, attention is intertwined with both our sensory and intellectual abilities, including memory and imagination.


The practice of attention is a discipline of the mind that is infused with desire.


There was, however, a deficiency in this account. There are uses of attention that escape the voluntary/involuntary binary view advanced by James. To illustrate this, consider the short story Mrs. Sen from Interpreter of Maladies (1999) by Jumpa Lahiri.

The story centers on the daily interactions between a young American boy, Eliot, and his babysitter, an Indian lady Mrs Sen, who happens to be a professor’s wife. Through Eliot’s eyes, Lahiri carefully brings into light the contrast between Eliot’s mother, a distracted and workaholic woman, who is slightly wary of Mrs. Sen’s Indian heritage and customs, and Eliot’s way of understanding­­­ Mrs. Sen’s character and domestic habits. While, for Eliot’s mother, Mrs. Sen is just an Indian wife who is still learning how to drive at age 30; Eliot is sensitive to the nuances of Mrs. Sen’s habits, emotions, and moods.

Eliot’s attention grasps the meticulous but careful way Mrs. Sen cuts vegetables and fish for dinner, as well as her tense self-awareness in driving. By attending to Mrs. Sen’s moods, gestures, and rituals, Eliot develops a close understanding of her individuality to the point that he does not need to know that Mrs. Sen’s grandfather has died to realize that Mrs. Sen is suddenly distressed and sad.

James would probably attribute this use of attention to psychological effort accrued by experience and association. After all, it would be difficult to take notice of behavioral cues without some prior experience of social relations. However, as the narration revolves on Eliot’s seemingly detached perspective, Lahiri shows that Eliot’s interest in Mrs. Sen’s personality is not that of a skilled and disengaged observer, but rather that of an attentive, albeit hesitant, participant in Mrs. Sen’s life.

A skilled observer might register variations of expression in his interlocutor without thereby being interested in understanding them. When we grasp aspects of a situation or a person’s behavior that may not be immediately noticeable but that exert an inexorable attraction for themselves, we exercise what Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch would call the “moral apprenticeship” of attention.


Weil is quite clear that the practice of attention does not consist in seeking something, but rather in making one’s mind ready to be penetrated by the object.


According to Simone Weil, attention requires some expenditure of energy but she does not equate it to mechanical or physical energy. What kind of energy or even effort is at stake? As Weil illustrates it, the practice of attention is a discipline of the mind that is infused with desire. It is not the state of preparedness that wants to accomplish something, but the state of preparedness that lets the possible unfolding of understanding take place. While Weil’s writing is filled with mystical overtones, she maintains that “quite apart from explicit religious belief, every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit” (Weil, Waiting for God, 1950).

Weil is quite clear that the practice of attention does not consist in seeking something, but rather in making one’s mind ready to be penetrated by the object. This “gymnastic,” as she sometimes calls it, allows the mind to tackle problems; that is, to find ways to discriminate between the true and the illusory by engaging our attention to the highest degree. Ultimately, for Weil, the practice of attention coincides with the virtue of humility; that is, with the disposition to decenter one’s standpoint by making the existence of the other present to oneself.

For her part, Iris Murdoch comes to very similar conclusions when she argues that the main difficulty in the use of attention is to keep it “fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair” (Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 1971). Without following Weil’s mystical openings, Murdoch shares Weil’s insight that to see the world “as it is” without indulging in self-absorption and greed (what she aptly calls “unselfing”) is the real task with which we are confronted as human beings and moral agents.


The moral apprentice of attention becomes the practice of reorganizing and reshaping our mental landscape.


In this regard, it is worth noting that both Weil and Murdoch move from the Platonist premise that the Good (or, as in Weil’s case, God) represents the fundamental and essential backdrop of reality. But can the idea of the moral apprentice of attention be relevant if one does not share such a metaphysical position?

An interesting perspective is offered by the notion of “detachment.” Even though Weil and Murdoch tend to identify the ego with empirical character and personal attachments, they also emphasize the importance of suspending our thoughts and our attachment to our social roles in order to become disposed to regard the object of attention in a non-intellectualistic manner; that is, with love.

In doing so, we give rise to different possibilities for thinking and acting that originate from our desire to understand and comprehend reality rather than from our willpower to dominate and possess. In this way, the moral apprentice of attention becomes the practice of reorganizing and reshaping our mental landscape, which makes possible new configurations of meaning and value.

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