Posted by: gcarkner | October 13, 2012

Quality of the Will…3

Charles Taylor and the Quality of the Will Part 3

Many people today attempt  to operate within a realm of moral neutrality. Is this realistic and liveable or some kind of fantasy? The focus is on the centrality of the autonomous will, or rational will (Kant) and it is problematic because of its thinness.  At times, it seems that this idea of the will is hollowed out so that it reduces to pure freedom of autonomous choice with no sense of responsibility for others. Ethics is reduced to lived experience as one chooses to live and stylize it (aesthetic solipsism like that i Foucault). Morality is defined, not through the conformity of behaviour with codes, or norms, but in reference to the intention and freedom of the subject, and thus, ultimately, to the way in which the indiviual will determines itself and judges/justifies itself. Charles Taylor raises serious questions regarding assumptions about a moral self that does not have any relationship to the good (or is in denial of this relationship). It becomes a self focused on its own desires and such an individual lobbies the government to protect the right to express those desires and indulge in decisions in one’s own self-interest.

Taylor raises a hard question for this kind of aesthetic self, a question that opens up the discussion of ethics to new and fresh philosophical examinations. His discussion centres around the possible recovery of the ancient concept of the quality of the will, and the importance of re-examining sources of human motivation (aka his concept of the constitutive good). He is asking us to take a step back from life as it is lived as moral praxis, to reflect on the values of our choices and actions, to look at our second order desires. He suggests that there might be a way to recover a fruitful connection between religion and ethics at this point. God is at least one traditional source of the good or goodness in human society.

This makes sense considering that, historically speaking, God has composed a major contribution to Western moral identity; theology has a long-standing, fruitful history with ethical reflection. It is also Taylor’s claim that many of the goods that are commonly aspired to in the West have their roots in the constitutive good of Christian theism (R. Abbey, 2000, pp. 50-51, 98-99; and Taylor, 1999, Part IV; Morgan, 1994, p. 49). This is hinted at in Sources of the Self (Taylor, 1989), but becomes more overt in A Catholic Modernity? (Taylor, 1999) and further develops in A Secular Age (2007). Taylor believes that there would be real fruitfulness in reconnecting many contemporary goods to their historical roots in theism in order to empower them once again. Part of the moral guilt and frustration we carry in our day is that we lack empowerment to do what we know is right or constructive or ethically appropriate. A nihilist might react that the moral norm or principle is the problem (Richard Rorty). Taylor would beg to differ and asks us to re-xamine the value of moral goods and how they might re-empower us late moderns.

He attempts to recover something lost in Western moral consciousness in this language of moral sources. From his perspective, moral sources are not about highest principles, but about the quality of the will, a concept which has been tragically largely absent in moral philosophy for over a century. For instance, the primary question for Taylor’s moral ontology is: ‘What or whom do I love?’ (motivation), not ‘What am I obliged to do?’ (right action). He wants to broaden the domain of morality, and come to grips with high moral desires. The latter, to him, is the last question to ask, even though it is often the main concern of the contemporary ethical debates. The second question is ‘What do I want to be?’ (character), a question that is in recovery to some degree in the late twentieth century through Virtue Ethics, heralded by such intellectuals as Alasdair MacIntyre.

Where are the moral muses or exempla of our day?

Gord Carkner


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