DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved February 21, 2019, from

7. The moral significance of attention

In addition to its role in the philosophy of mind, attention also plays a role in the theories of some moral philosophers. The clearest example of this is found in the works of Simone Weil (see Weil, S. ). Most discussions of attention as a moral phenomenon have been influenced by Weil’s work, more or less directly.

Weil’s own philosophical position is a subtle one, which draws on a range of religious traditions, and on the extraordinary circumstances of Weil’s own life. Her presentation of that position tends to be rather gnomic, and her account of attention’s moral importance is not easily extricated from this religious context. We can nonetheless identify one element of that understanding as being the idea that the values of truth and beauty are only fully realized in an attentive mind.

Weil’s idea here is that a proper explanation of why it is that true beliefs are better than false ones would not provide us with a reason merely to keep a hoard of true sentences on the books, or in our minds. Nor would an explanation of why beauty is preferable to ugliness tell us merely that we have some reason to keep a stock of beautiful things about the place. Instead, Weil thinks, such explanations would tell us why it is good for the mind to be receptively engaged by the world. The attention required for such receptive engagement is a form of attention that she takes to be distinctively human: “Attention is what above all distinguishes men from animals” (Weil 1959: 205); and she takes the exercise of this attention to be essential for the achievement of goodness, writing that:

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presuppose faith and love […] The authentic and pure values—truth, beauty and goodness—in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object.

(Weil 1947: 106,108)

The kind of attention that Weil takes to be the source of truth, beauty, and goodness’s value is an attention that is directed outwards, away from oneself and towards a world of other people and things. The idea that attention of this sort is morally important was taken up in the philosophical writings of Iris Murdoch (see Murdoch, I.), as one part of her attempt to resist the Wittgensteinian influence on contemporary moral theories. Philosophers influenced by Wittgenstein tended to regard the character of private psychological episodes as being of little philosophical importance (see Wittgenstein, L. §6). Murdoch argued that this orientation prevented them from seeing the moral import of a person’s being “capable of giving careful and just attention to an object which confronts her” (Murdoch 1970: 17, emphasis Murdoch’s). She writes that “goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself” (p. 91) and that, in the development of goodness:

The difficulty is to keep attention fixed upon the real situation, and to prevent it returning surreptiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair.

(Murdoch 1970: 89)

The idea that outwardly directed attention plays an essential role in the virtues (and that inwardly directed attention tends to vice) was crucial to Murdoch’s account of how moral development is possible, and of the importance of humility in the course of such development (Murdoch 1970: 101). It is an idea that has also been used to account for what might otherwise be paradoxical features of such virtues as humility and modesty. Conceptions of modesty that require the modest person to have false beliefs about their own strengths can be made to seem paradoxical. Nicolas Bommarito has argued that the problems with such a conception can be avoided if we think of modesty as a virtue of attention, requiring modest persons to keep attention directed away from their strengths, but still allowing them to have accurate beliefs about what those strengths are (Bommarito 2013). Dorothea Debus—drawing more directly on the ideas of Weil—has argued for the stronger claim, that full attention to things other than oneself can never fail to be a thing of value (Debus 2013).

Citing this article:
Mole, Christopher. The moral significance of attention. Attention, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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