Posted by: gcarkner | November 16, 2012

Quality of the Will…9 The Hypergood

The Hypergood: a Moral Culture Driver

See the newly released book by Gordon E. Carkner for a fuller development of the following important ideas:  The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity

We continue our resistance (agonisme) to the idea that freedom can be reduced to a mere matter of the will alone: naked individual choice. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, the potential resolution of this dilemma of the plurality of goods, this tension between goods, comes by way of a highest good among the strongly-valued goods: within the moral framework, this is called the ‘hypergood’ (1989, pp. 63-73, 100-102, 104-106). “Let me call higher-order goods of this kind ‘hypergoods’, i.e. goods which are incomparably more important than the others, but provide the standpoint from which these [other goods] must be weighed, judged, decided about.” (1989, p. 63) The hypergood has hierarchical priority and dominance; it has a significant shaping power within the moral framework. It is the good that the individual self is most conscious of, is most passionate about, a good that rests at the core of one’s identity.

The hypergood effectively orchestrates the arrangement and hierarchy of other goods; it interprets their priority and their moral play. It can raise or lower their priority, promote or demote them, or even eliminate certain goods from moral play altogether. We should pay close attention to this moral driver in individuals or groups. It is vital that the individual self be very conscious of, and be well positioned with respect to this particular good. This pre-eminent good grounds and directs one’s overall moral beliefs, goals, and aspirations; it works to define and give important shape to one’s entire moral framework.

Examples of the hypergood (1989, p. 65) given by Taylor are: happiness, equal respect, universal justice, divine will, self-respect and self-fulfilment. There can also be conflict between these hypergoods as there are between persons who hold them; one can easily see this conflict among the three major hypergoods in Western culture: (a) universal justice and reduction of human suffering (concern for the victim), (b) self-determining freedom, and (c) the hypergood of affirmation of everyday life or equal respect.

This good has a major influence on how one’s individual moral horizon gets articulated, the hierarchy of life goods and how one is generally oriented in moral life. The hypergood is independent, and shapes the desires and choices of the self. It is core to one’s identity. It is not merely an ideal or the mere object of a high admiration or contemplation (poetic entity). The hypergood can be quite demanding on the self, and often asks for or requires great personal sacrifice: e.g. lay down your body in front of logging trucks and risk arrest to save old growth forests.

What is the role of the hypergood in self-constitution? What is one’s possible relationship to this good? How does it impact one’s identity? According to Taylor, a self with the requisite depth and complexity to have an identity (a thick self), must be defined in terms of such a good, and is interwoven with it. One’s whole identity is essentially defined by one’s orientation to such a hypergood; it is deeply personal. Taylor (1989, p. 63) notes that, “It is orientation to this which comes closest to defining my identity, and therefore my direction to this good is of unique importance to me.” It is also a core concept at the centre of one’s sense of calling. It provides the point against which the individual measures her direction or trajectory in life.

Finally the hypergood is something which one grows towards and something that moves and motivates the individual moral self deeply–provides emotional and spiritual infrastructure. Taylor (1989, p. 73) says significantly, “Our acceptance of any hypergood is connected in a complex way with our being moved by it.” The hypergood has a major impact on one’s moral stance in life. His strong claim is that this is not only a phenomenological account of some selves, but an exploration of the very limits of the conceivable in the reflective human life, an anthropological given.

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I try to decide from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done or what I endorse or oppose … It is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand … It is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary. (Taylor 1989, pp. 27, 28)

With some leverage, Taylor provocatively suggests that the hypergood that shapes the moral self could include the fulfilment of one’s duties and obligations (responsibility) to others. “Responsibility for the Other transports the self beyond the sphere of self-interest. Other-responsibility could also be seen as the greatest form of self-realization, featuring as the highest vocation of human subjectivity” (Taylor, 1989, p. 112). As a hypergood, Other-responsibility is integrated into the structure of selfhood without compromising the exteriority of the claims of the Other. Eventually, he provocatively posits the possibility that agape love could be such a hyper good to empower the moral self and bring unity amidst plurality.

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, 1989.

Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner


This is part of a 12 part series within this Blog on Charles Taylor’s understanding of the Quality of the Will

Text for the whole argument: Taylor’s Ethics

Gordon Carkner’s Talk on Charles Taylor and the Language of the Good

See also R. Scott Smith’s insightful book In Search of Moral Knowledge: overcoming the fact-value dichotomy. IVP Academic 2014

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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