Posted by: gcarkner | August 13, 2012

Dialogue on Ethical Goods

Where do we begin in talking to our friends about ethics without getting into a tense debate and alienation? Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor offers us some insight in Section One of his important book Sources of the Self recovering the ancient language of the moral good. Below are some summary points:

  • Try to  discover the goods (values, human qualities, virtues) in your friend or dialogue partner. What are their instincts with respect to the good? Are they embracing or running from that good? What good or goods shape them and their outlook? This helps you understand key facets of their identity.
  • Get to know them well enough to understand what is their hypergood (dominant, organizing, or  controlling good)—something in their heart of hearts or core motivation. This good defines them at a deep level. This is key to connecting with them at the core of their being (finding that common ground), breaking through suspicion and building trust. Celebrate this good with them, as you are able.

  • Spiritual Entry Point: Discern what they consider the source of this good (invented, self, nature, God, fantasy/mythology). Where do they look for inspiration? Where do they find their metaphors for living well? This is the motivation question, what Taylor calls the constitutive good. Where is their community of inspiration?
  • Affirm what you can in all of this, and begin your dialogue on this positive common platform: e.g. respect for others, concern for the environment, protection of the poor or exploited, love of children. You will also find much that you disagree with, but your common cause and bond is what they consider the good. Spend a good amount of time talking about this and understanding it.
  • Respectfully reveal to the person some of your common and also divergent commitments. Share something of how God’s goodness has transformed you and the joy you experience when mediating this goodness to others. Share some of the stories of the good motivated by God that you have been collecting and living. Sometimes a believer needs to get in touch with their own deeper convictions first. Try to find a key exemplar of such a good to talk about (Augustine, Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, Desmond Tutu).
  • In love, challenge them that maybe they have left out or suppressed some of the most important goods in life, things that could animate their existence, give them hope, and empower their life. This suppression of a good can skew (confuse) their perceptions of reality. The discussion can begin to challenge their worldview.

Remember that ultimately God’s goodness is the measure of all human attempts, human constructions of the good (I John 4). This is a major gift to our humanity and our human flourishing. His goodness is our final or ultimate aspiration, measure or marker. This should keep us humble in our approach; human standards are always insecure, transient, subject to will to power, tribalism, self-interest and conflicts of interpretation. Theologian D. Stephen Long of Marquette University 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.

Gord Carkner

I have a larger paper on Charles Taylor’s Ethics based on my PhD research: Also see David Gill’s accessible book Becoming Good.

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