Dialogue Through Language of the Moral Good
How can we talk about morality these days in a civil, rational manner? Opinions can be strong and emotions can be close to the surface. Discussions can be quite heated and many fear entering the fray. Charles Taylor offers a way to recover an ancient but lost language for today in his important contribution Sources of the Self (1989), discovered in the research of my Ph.D. thesis on the brokenness of the self and the crisis of identity in late modernity. His challenge in a day of innovation, radical self-construction or self-invention, is to ask what are the goods that you and I are relating to, and in what community and what historical context? This offers some balance to the current rhetoric of radical freedom—a rhetoric which is often bereft of the good. See Taylor’s template to analyze one’s self-construction (from Malaise of Modernity) below:
Taylor’s Moral Self-Construction Diagnostics
Category A (Creativity)
(i) Creation and construction (as well as discovery) of the self.
(ii) Pursuit of originality in one’s self-crafting.
(iii) Opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what one recognizes as morality, or the moral order.
Category B (Social and Moral Accountability)
(i) Openness to horizons of significance prevents one’s self-creation from losing the background that can save it from insignificance and trivialization (self-destruction of meaning).
(ii) Self-definition needs to be developed in dialogue with significant Others, that is, fellow moral interlocutors within a community and a narrative. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 65, 66)
Tension exists between the quest for freedom and creativity and the quest for the good, as most people feel the need to pursue freedom, first and foremost. Thereby people tend to focus on Category A to the exclusion of Category B. Individual autonomous choice is a high priority for late moderns. The movie: Wall Street: money never sleeps kicks into a great discussion about such values. Taylor believes that there is great potential in recovery of the ancient language of the good for today’s moral culture, and in the reassessment of morality within a communal context. In many ways, radical individualism has run into a wall and led to a number of extremes. Poststructuralist philosophers of freedom are also know as philosophers of the extreme. There is maturity and self-undertanding to be achieved through this discourse. He does in the end raise the tough question: “Does the best life involve us seeking or acknowledging or serving a good which is beyond (independent of) mere human flourishing? This also has serious implications for basic happiness or well-being. In this pursuit, Taylor suggests the need for a recovery of the thickness of language:
Our language has lost, and needs to have restored, its constitutive power. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us but their deeper meaning (background in which they exist) the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and invisible. Our language has lost the power to Name things in their embedding, their deeper and higher reality. The current incapacity of language is a crucial factor in our incapacity of seeing and being; our vision and our lives are reduced and flattened.
A Fruitful Angle on Moral Dialogue
- Try to discover the goods (values, human qualities, virtues, ideals) in your friend or interlocutor (dialogue partner). What are their instincts with respect to the good? Are they embracing or running from the good? What good or goods shape them and their outlook?
- Get to know them well enough to understand what is their ‘hypergood’ (dominant and controlling good)—something in their ‘heart of hearts’ or core motivation. This is key to connecting with them at the deepest spiritual level, finding that common ground to talk about, breaking through suspicion and building trust.
- Discern what they consider the sources of this good (invented, self, nature, God, fantasy/mythology). Where do they look for inspiration of for an example to follow? Where do they find their metaphor for living? This is the motivation question, the constitutive good. Another way of putting it is their moral driver. Where is their community? Their favourite songs, hangouts or movie offer a clue.
- Affirm what you can in all of this, and begin your dialogue on this positive common platform: it might be the value of respect for others, concern for the biosphere, protection of the poor, homeless or exploited, social justice, love of children, concern about global warming. You will also find much that you disagree with, but your common cause is what they consider the good. Spend a good amount of time talking about this and understanding it. The common ground creates the arc for significant dialogue and mutual growth.
- Dialogue on sources of the good: Respectfully reveal to them some of your common and also divergent commitments. If you are a Christian, share something of how God’s grace and goodness has transformed you and share the joy you experience when mediating this goodness to others. Share some of the stories you have heard, or been a part of, where the good is motivated by God. Discuss the idea of a gift and how it does not fit normal economic exchange.
- In love, challenge the person that maybe they have left out (or buried) some of the most important goods in life, things that could animate their existence, give them hope and deep meaning. The gaps in a person’s moral worldview are telling. Taylor insists that we must see the empowerment of self and identity in recovering the language of the good.
We all attempt to construct and make sense of the world. But ultimately, it is God’s infinite goodness that is the measure of all human attempts, human constructions of the good. This is a major gift to our humanity, our human flourishing, our civilization. His glorious goodness (Psalm 107) is our final or ultimate aspiration or marker; it is a powerful form of inspiration. This should keep us humble in our approach; human standards are always somewhat insecure, transient, subject to will to power, tribalism, self-interest and conflicts of interpretation. D. Stephen Long in his brilliant book, The Goodness of God, writes:
The task of Christian ethics is to explain the church’s relationship to other social formations as they develop, die, and mutate into different forms. It will do this by recognizing God’s goodness as that against which all things are measured (including the church). This task will remain as long as those other formations exist. It is a task where our primary vocation is to bear witness to God’s goodness. Such a goodness is not natural to us, although God seeks to share it with us. It is a gift, the gift of Jesus Christ. He is God’s goodness, for God’s goodness is God’s own self.
See also the recent academic book by from Professor R. Scott Smith from Biola University: In Search of Moral Knowledge: overcoming the fact-value dichotomy. (IVP Academic, 2014); and the profound statement by Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good: how the gospel brings hope to a world divided. (Brazos, 2014); and the dialogue on The Qualities of the Will within this blog.
p.s. Dr. Christian Smith, noted sociologist from Notre Dame University, sees that American university students fit generally into a more or less relativistic frame of ethics. They ought to be open to the above discussion of the good amidst a culture of hyperpluralism.
The individual relativist (sometimes called a soft relativist) often makes up morality as life unfolds, sometimes choosing from different religious and philosophical traditions; it is taken to be a matter for self-construction. There is nothing transcendent, objective or systematic about values; moral convictions belong strictly to an individual’s free and personal choice. Tolerance then becomes a necessary sanction of an individual’s views or opinions, so we can loosely get along within a pluralistic values society. It promotes the outlook that there are no absolutes, no right or wrong, no transcendent source of the good, only individual or social constructions, personal values within a marketplace of possible options. Christian Smith (Souls in Transition) articulates the mood this way in his award-winning study on 18-23 year olds. He notes the following characteristics in this generation:
- soft ontological antirealists
- epistemological skeptics (question everything)
- perspectivalists (various ways to see this; mine is only one among many alternatives)
- in subjective isolation (following my own unique path)
- constructivists: building my self and my morality from the ground up (often rejecting the tradition of my parents)
- moral intuitionists (how I feel about a situation or decision is the most important factor)