Moral Sources: the Vital Constitutive Good
One vital dimension of the quality of the will in Taylor’s moral ontology is the constitutive good (Taylor, 1989, pp. 91-107). I had to grapple with this concept for years before I grasped it. This breakthrough insight has powerful cultural impact. The moral framework operates at two levels. At one level, there are the general life goods, those that are valued by the individual self. The life goods are things that make life worth living or the virtues they advocate: such as reason, piety, courage, freedom, moderation, respect, all features of human life that possess intrinsic worth. At another, motivational level, Taylor reveals the important category of the constitutive good; this good he also calls the moral source. With this emphasis, Taylor wants to recover the category of moral motivation for the self.
The constitutive good can be (but is not necessarily) transcendent of the self; this source of inspiration and motivation for the good can be outside the self, or higher than the self. Moral sources provide the inspiration or motivation to live in line with life goods. This is especially the case for the dominant hypergood. Taylor (1989, p. 516) writes concerning this phenomenon, “High standards need strong sources.” The moral source empowers the individual self to realize the hypergood in moral life, at the level of both inspiration and praxis. It is a source of the self and its agency, or ability to do the good. The constitutive good empowers the moral agent and vitalizes the moral horizon. It gives to the life goods their quality of goodness (1989, pp. 93, 122) and animates them as goods. Many people are not consciously aware of this motivating good, but all selves seek for inspiration.
Constitutive refers to that which is essential to the particular nature or character of something; it has sustaining, energizing and nurturing power (1989, p. 264); it is the type of good that provides enabling conditions for the realization of strong qualifications in one’s life. Therefore, one’s relationship to such a good is vital to building the moral capacity of the self. Knowing such a good also means loving it, wanting to act in accord with it (1989, pp. 533-4), growing toward it. Crucial to the position of the constitutive good is that it has independence of the self, even though it has a dialectical relationship to the self. Taylor wrote in an e-mail to the author of this series:
A constitutive good is a term I used for what I also called moral sources, something the recognition of which can make you stronger or more focused in seeking or doing the good. It’s a matter of motivation, and not just definition of your moral position.
This is a vital concept because without the empowerment of the constitutive good, the pursuit of the hypergood could be perceived to be a tremendous burden, even oppressive. The source offers hope for benefits of embracing the good, and allowing the hypergood to rule in one’s life. One concludes that it also builds into the meaning structure of the self. He wants to broaden the definition of morality to include questions of what one should admire and love. “The constitutive good does more than just define the content of the moral theory. Love of it is what empowers us to be good” (1989, p. 93). That’s very interesting!
A constitutive good tells one what it is about a human being (sets the value of said being) that makes them worthy of non-discriminating care and respect. Examples of the constitutive good help illustrate the category. Romantics would consider their source of the good to be in nature: in this case, things are good because they are natural to human beings. Nature inspires and finds a resonance with the self. Theists would take God as a divine source of the good: the self is inspired to mediate God’s goodness (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God) and take other humans as worthy of respect because they are made in God’s image. Post-Romantics like Foucault would see the self, in itself, as the major source of the good: the autonomous individual makes things good by choice (subjectivism), positing and promoting a value (projectivism).
Sources of the good, according to Taylor, tend to be embedded in a particular culture and function for moral agents of that culture and historical moment. Key to his argument is the insight that there have been major shifts in what people take to be the inspirational sources of the good down through the centuries. Modernization, in particular, involves a massive cultural shift with the replacement of one set of views about the self, nature and the good with another (Taylor, A Secular Age). The relationship with the constitutive good varies from one era to another.
Continued in next Quality of the Will post…
(1989) Taylor, Sources of the Self.
(1994). Charles Taylor Replies. In J. Tully (Ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question (pp. 213-57). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.