Posted by: gcarkner | October 19, 2012

Quality of the Will…4

Intuitions of Qualitative Discriminations

In our continuing series on quality of the will, Taylor recognizes the existence of a plurality of moral positions and constructions in society, but in tension with relativism, he has a conviction that some features of the self are universal regarding moral self-constitution. He contends that there are certain features of the moral self and its world that are endemic or common to all healthy humans. He recognizes plurality in the shape of human moralities, but does not follow the tradition/ideology of pluralism (relativism where all are of equal value in exploring one’s morality–Weberian choice).

Taylor scholar Ruth Abbey (2000, p. 29) comments on this point that: “He does not suggest that in trying to explain morality we imagine a moral world devoid of humans and attempt to separate its subject-dependent properties from its objective or real properties.” He begins by claiming that all humans have certain moral intuitions, and all make moral judgments, including judgments about the behaviour of others.

They all have a qualitative sense of their moral choices and deliberations; moral agency is not reducible to mere choice. For example, he points out that respect for human life is one of the deepest and most universally held moral instincts across cultures (Taylor, 1989, pp. 8, 11- 12), which includes a concern for the Other; it is not merely a characteristic of self- survival. For example, “Human beings command respect in all societies; the West articulates this in the language of rights” (Taylor, 1989, p. 11). All societies condemn murder and lesser forms of abuse. When this respect is not shown to someone, it is judged negatively; there is moral conviction, an intuition about such behaviour. One exercises/engages a moral or qualitative evaluation of the situation, appealing to some moral standard or moral good, which transcends at some level the situation and the parties involved.

Taylor further claims that these strong evaluations are humanly inescapable.

Our moral reactions have two facets … On the one side, they are almost like instincts, comparable to our love of sweet things, or our aversion to nauseous substances … on the other, they seem to involve claims, implicit or explicit, about the nature and status of human beings. From the second side, a moral reaction is an assent to, an affirmation of a given ontology of the human … The whole way in which we think, reason, argue, and question ourselves about morality supposes that our moral reactions have these two sides: that they are not only “gut” feelings but also implicit acknowledgments of claims concerning the objects. (1989, pp. 5 & 7)

Taylor’s form of realism means that the emphasis includes both objective and subjective aspects (poles) of self and morality, both a subjective and objective givenness. Humans do not just act, but regularly evaluate, praise and condemn other’s actions and motives, and their own speech and conduct, always appealing to certain objective standards. According to Taylor, humans are strong evaluators by nature; strong evaluation is an essential feature of identity and a permanent feature of moral life (1989, pp. 3-4, 14, 15). He sees this capacity for evaluating or judging desires to be a distinctively and universally human one.

He believes that human beings experience the goods that command their respect in a non-anthropocentric way, that is, as not deriving solely from human will or choice, nor depending only on the fact of individual affirmation of their value. He challenges the projectivist hypothesis (Taylor, 1989, p. 342). Human interpretation is involved (moral convictions are human convictions), but there is also an objective element in this evaluation process that Taylor wants to make explicit and clear.

How do we actually think, evaluate and act morally? Is there an objective pole or standard to which we intuitively appeal even unconsciously sometimes? Taylor asks us to dig deeper.

Gord Carkner

Read Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, 1989

Ruth Abbey, Charles Taylor, 2000


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