Posted by: gcarkner | October 23, 2012

Quality of the Will…5

Some Important Qualifications on Quality of the Will

Some important qualifications are in order for Taylor’s qualitative distinctions, or what Harry Frankfurt calls second order desires. He is not suggesting that each and every choice is subject to strong evaluation. This is clearly not true of the choice of flavour of ice cream or style of clothing. Secondly, individuals are not always aware of the hierarchy that is in play; it can be held pre-articulately or tacitly as a background to moral understanding. Thirdly, the language of strong speaks more about quality than force or power. Fourthly, Taylor believes that all individuals are strong evaluators, but does not believe that they all value the same things strongly. He is quite aware of plurality.

He does however believe that some goods feature in all moral codes and are strongly valued by all cultures: for example, human life, the dignity of the person, basic respect, concern for the innocents such as children. Based on this objective element, there can be rational debate about, and critique of the various goods held by a particular individual, a tribe or a culture. Vital to the whole discussion is the claim that “strong value is both logically and ontologically prior to strong evaluation” (Taylor, 1989, p. 99). Intrinsic high value calls forth strong evaluation.

Thus, the first point of Taylor’s argument about morality is that there exists qualitative discriminations intimately related to the self, yet to some important degree independent of human choice or will (ontologically prior). The good is something the human self owns personally and with which it can build a relationship, yet the good has some independent status from its owner or the one who embraces it. The good is no mere projection, or the mere boosting/valorization of a certain value; it is not reducible to one’s chosen style. Projectivism holds that the world is essentially meaningless and that one must create meaning for life by the values one affirms or creates (Weber suggests that all we can do is posit values). A moral good, under projectivism, would calculate as only a myth or an illusion, even if a myth by which one lives and seems to flourish.

Moral realists, on the other hand, say that there are both objective characteristics and personal interpretations concerning morality, that there is a moral world that is independent of, while intimately interwoven with, the self’s articulation, interpretation and understanding of it. The ‘moral world’ is something one can grapple with, embrace and get to know intimately. They therefore assume that some interpretations come closer to explaining well the phenomena of human moral experience, that they are more accurate or plausible than others.

Taylor holds that these identified moral instincts are rooted in some greater reality than the self; this is his first indicator that the moral self is not wholly the product of culture or a product of self-construction alone, or indeed reducible to one’s basic desires (a dominant view in our late modern age). This is the distinctive and important anthropological space in which Taylor positions himself.

Taylor does not believe that any moral self-constitution can do without some employment of the good, even if it is covert, hidden, or unconscious. He (1989, p.12) contrasts this stance with the post-Romantic notion of individual difference where: “individual rights expands to the demand that we give people the freedom to develop their personality in their own way, however repugnant to ourselves and even to our moral sense.” This kind of eclectic but radical subjectivism raises serious concerns.

Next post we will write about Taylor’s concept of moral frameworks…

Gord Carkner

Read Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, Chapter 4. “Subjectivizing Morality”; and  Charles Taylor , Sources of the Self, Part I. 1989.

YouTube video:

CBC Ideas Program: After Atheism

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