Posted by: gcarkner | October 29, 2012

Quality of the Will…6

Taylor’s Concept of Moral Horizon

Another important dimension of the moral self for Charles Taylor is the concept of horizon, a larger context for the self and its moral discriminations. Once the case is made for qualitative discriminations, Taylor continues to develop the case for realism by arguing that one has to make sense of these basic human moral intuitions. This means that one has to articulate self within a moral framework, in a way that makes sense of that experience. The various goods that vie for attention need to be organized within a defined moral worldview, a big picture of moral thought and action. This process involves the geography metaphor of moral mapping of a landscape, producing a map or making explicit the existence within the self of a map which can describe, contextualize and guide one’s moral experience and judgments, through a set of moral parameters.

Taylor believes that this is very significant for moral consciousness. He sees this moral horizon as an essential dimension of the self’s moral reality, claiming that all selves have such a framework, even if it is there in a fragile state or they are entirely unconscious of it. The self is interconnected in dialectical relationship with such a horizon. Taylor (1989) writes:

I want to defend the strong thesis that doing without moral frameworks is utterly impossible for us; otherwise put, that the horizons within which we live our lives and which make sense of them have to include these strong qualitative discriminations. Moreover, this is not meant just as a contingently true psychological fact about human beings … Rather the claim is that living within such strongly qualified horizons is constitutive of human agency, that stepping outside these limits would be tantamount to stepping outside what we would recognize as integral, that is, undamaged human personhood. (p. 27)

He comments on the crisis that emerges with the loss of such a horizon as a disorientation of self, the kind of phenomenon that is endemic to nihilism (1989, pp. 18-19).

He notes that to begin to lose one’s orientation is to be in crisis—both a moral and identity crisis— and to lose it utterly is to break down and enter a zone of extreme pathology (1989., pp. 27-28). Employing the metaphor of physical space, Taylor claims that the framework orients the self in moral space, a space of moral questions of purpose, conduct and direction. One’s moral horizon is composed of a series of qualitative discriminations spoken of in a previous post, strong evaluations, or judgments about which goods are of higher importance. The moral horizon automatically invokes a hierarchy of goods; it offers structure and guidance concerning how to relate to others, what it is good to be and what is meaningful, important and rewarding, and what one endorses and opposes.

Some may lack this orientation but it is not taken as a situation to be normalized or celebrated as a boon of freedom; actually, it is taken as a concern for that individual’s moral health, as a form of confusion. The qualitative nature of the framework reads as follows (Taylor, 1989).

To think, feel, judge within such a framework is to function with a sense that some action, or mode of life, or mode of feeling is incomparably higher than the others … available to us. Higher means deeper, purer, fuller, more admirable, making an absolute claim … Higher goods command our respect, awe, admiration—act as a standard. (pp. 19-20)

This reference to incomparably higher speaks of the hypergood, an important aspect of the framework, which is developed in the next post. The framework or horizon is one’s ultimate claim about the nature and contours of the moral world; it is not held lightly but taken as real, as one’s moral ontology (reality); it is both dynamic and essential to discerning oneself. We have resonance with our framework and it empowers us to think, reflect, choose and create with consistency and confidence. When we articulate the horizons we make the tacit framework explicit.

The key benefits of articulation are as follows: (a) It deepens one’s understanding of moral goods and responses by showing what underpins them; it backgrounds and contextualizes the moral self, thought and action. (b) It heightens one’s awareness of the complexity of moral life and the diverse range of goods to which modern individuals adhere. (c) It enhances the rational discussion and evaluation of goods because they are brought to the surface of consciousness.

Gord Carkner, PhD

Reading: Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self. 1989, Part 1.


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