Posted by: gcarkner | October 1, 2012

Quality of the Will

The Recovery of Positive Ethical Dialogue

Many people today are discouraged and confused by the moral drift in Western society and wonder if they can have any voice or influence in a world with such a strong emphasis on individual choice, subjectivist approach to values, aesthetic taste ethics and radical, self-defining (self-justifying) concepts of freedom. Freedom currently in the West is often claimed as an ontological position, a reality within which one can justifiably choose one’s own moral parameters and construct or re-invent the self. In his Sources of the Self (1989) and followed by A Secular Age (2007) Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor attempts to track and understand the moral soul of early and late Western modernity. The narrative is a complex one, but vital to comprehend if we are to truly understand ourselvesThere are many ideological forces at work and many experiments in promoting an ethics of happiness, or consequence, or situation, one of pleasure or principle. The focus of ethics can be radically different.

Religious people today can feel powerless and a bit odd, even guilty, for holding any moral convictions besides a consumeristic will that follows its desires. On this important topic, visiting Notre Dame Early Modern European History scholar Brad S. Gregory has a most profound Chapter 4. “Subjectivizing Morality” in his 2012 publication The Unintended Reformation. Many today feel themselves caving in or abandoning their inherited standards of behaviour under the weight of the cultural slippage–towards nihilistic relativism and radical individualism. Where can they turn for assistance, discernment and wisdom?

McGill University, MontrealMcGill University, Montreal where Taylor taught philosophy for several years

In the West, is there any basis left for normativity, for accountability, even for responsibility for the Other? Is it all just about my agenda, my choice, my naked will, or my aesthetic self-invention? “What is the quality of this choice, this will?” asks Taylor who retrieves an ancient idea of qualitative discriminations in ethics–the language of the moral good or goods (Part 1. of Sources of the Self). In what is  choice grounded, and how is it guided? We late moderns can be very naive about our Faustian deals when we make choice or expressivism an absolute within an ideology of unshackled freedom and self-determination. Post-Romantic philosophers like Michel Foucault offer an Art of Self or an ethics as aesthetics as a morality substitute in an age of nihilism and anomie (transgressive, norm-less existence).

This twelve part blog series on the Quality of the Will  suggests that preeminent Canadian philosopher of the self Charles Taylor can be of strategic assistance on the issue at hand. He wants to recover/retrieve a robust moral grounding in order to avoid contemporary solipsism (think Julia Roberts in the movie Eat, Pray Love). He believes that these goods can empower us as moral beings once again. They need not remain buried in contemporary moral discourse. Following in the footsteps of Oxford’s great philosopher Iris Murdoch, this project (Malaise of Modernity; Sources of the Self) entails a dynamic, adventurous and exciting recovery of the ancient language of the good and a renewal of a fresh social normativity–a renewal of moral discourse in the polis. Taylor employs an engaging language that a pluralistic audience can understand, both intellectually and practically. It resonates! One has to be willing to think harder and go much deeper than much contemporary thought on ethics and morals. We attest to the fact that is worth the effort, offering fresh hope for Western pluralistic cultures and sub-cultures.

This twelve part series outlines his monumental contribution to moral and ethical thinking (the ontology of the good). It reveals a phenomenological aspiration to the good inherent in most humans if they are willing t reflect more deeply with Taylor, an aspiration which can be a robust challenge to the ethical solipsism and Zarathustra will-to-power outlook so common today.

What are the valid and sustainable parameters of our current moral quest, our current quest for freedom, wholeness, identity within our various spiritual journeys, the quest for meaning in our lives? How do we map this in today’s world? Taylor is an avid moral geographer. Moral ontology is deeply important and central to all other discussions about the moral self; it offers the ultimate landscape (one might say infrastructure or deep structure) of the self. Therefore it remains central to engage the current debates of our day in the midst of a cultural loss of moral consensus, as astutely noted by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.  Conversation (2012-06-16) with Charles Taylor rooted in A Secular Age Templeton Prize book.

We trust you will enjoy reading and reflecting upon, perhaps debating with, this series of posts as much as we enjoyed writing them.

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD in Philosophical Theology, University of Wales

Dissertation: “A Critical Examiniation of Michel Foucault’s Concept of Moral Self-constitution in dialogue with Charles Taylor.” Find it in the British Library in London, Oxford University Library, or Oxford Centre for Mission Studies Library.

See also the blog series (12 posts) entitled Quality of the Will by Gord Carkner.


Related articles


Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a l...

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a lecture at the New School in 2007. Charles Margrave Taylor, C.C., Ph.D., M.A., B.A., FRSC (5 novembre 1931, Montréal), est un philosophe québécois d’expression anglaise. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: