Posted by: gcarkner | November 29, 2012

Quality of the Will…11

Constitutive Good Continued

According to Taylor, sources of the good tend to vary from (a) those solely external to the self, to (b) those both internal and external, to (c) those totally internal. As he notes, at one time, the good was wholly external to the self as it was perceived in Plato’s moral ontology; the good was endemic to the structure of reality. The Stoics also saw things this way. Taylor notes the big transition in moral sources in the last four centuries:

Moving from an epoch in which people could find it plausible to see the order of the cosmos as a moral source, to one in which a very common view presents us a universe which is very neutral, and finds the moral sources in human capacities. (1994, p. 215)

He takes Plato as his representative of the first. “The cosmos, ordered by the good, set standards of goodness for human beings, and is properly the object of moral awe and admiration, inspiring us to act rightly” (Taylor, 1994). This is, however, an important distinction: Taylor himself is a moral realist, but not a neo-Platonist: the view that the good is part of the metaphysical structure of the world. Platonic moral realism has been discredited because it leans too heavily on the idea of an ontic logos, a meaningful order. Nor is Taylor, on the other hand, a radical subjectivist. His view of realism lies somewhere between the Romantic subjectivist Rilke, and the Platonic objectivist. He wants to champion both the subjective and objective dimensions of the moral self, and maintain that there are sources outside as well as inside the self.

He (1989, pp. 127-143) notes that Augustine first articulated the whole idea of a reflexivity of self. In this case, the constitutive good is both internal and external, and the relationship is one of both reaching inside and reaching out— from within to gain access to what lies beyond the self in God. In Foucault’s case, as with many other late moderns, the constitutive good is reduced to one that is internal to the self. The source of the good and the self is taken as inside the self and its capacities—revealed through artistic self-expression and self-shaping in a radically reflexive relationship with one’s self. Taylor’s grave concern about the constitution of the moral self is the loss of outside-the-self moral sources (1994, p. 216). It puts a heavy burden on the individual self to provide inspiration and decide the value of everything. He considers that the exclusion of outside sources is quite costly. Moral motivation and empowerment weakens significantly and it produces a weakening of moral culture.

Why is the constitutive good important? For Taylor, it is vital that one articulate, or make explicit, the constitutive good, in order to understand from where this inspiration or moral empowerment comes. It works critically both ways. It can dramatically inspire the self on one hand. It can reveal the less honourable sources of a particular moral ontology on the other, and expose false or less authentic motivations.

Taylor challenges the dedicated silence of many modern moral philosophy about such external sources of the good. This prevents these outlooks from fully understanding themselves; they are cut off from their own moral history. Taylor counts it a vital task to put moral sources back on the philosophical agenda/map in current scholarship. It has practical consequences for moral agents. Taylor fears that if philosophers do not begin to take into account these moral sources, we moderns are in danger of losing contact with them altogether–losing touch with our heritage. We are also in danger of losing the life goods which they both ground and empower.

Our Contemporary Dilemma: Lacking moral sources outside the self, there is strong potential of a slide toward celebration of one’s own creative powers and the reduction of sources of the good to one’s individual creative imagination–a moral implosion. From Taylor’s perspective, this is a problem, a deficit of a significant dimension in moral self-constitution. Sources of the self are severely limited in the quest for self-sufficiency and freedom. Taylor (1989) gives an example of the resulting problems.

People agree surprisingly well, across great differences of theological and metaphysical belief, about the demands of justice and benevolence, and their importance … The issue is what sources can support our far-reaching moral commitments to benevolence and justice. (p. 515)

This speaks to his famous dilemma of modernity—strong hypergood without strong sources—a dilemma that often leads to discouragement and even cynicism. Taylor is not suggesting that one give up on these high ideals for justice, benevolence and the care of the Other. But he does recognize the cost in the general truth that,

The highest spiritual ideals and aspirations also threaten to lay the most crushing burdens on humankind. The great spiritual visions [and ideologies] of human history have also been poisoned chalices, the causes of untold misery and even savagery. (1989, p. 516)

This is especially true of certain Marxist and Fascist political ideologies that contributed to grand theatres of violence in the twentieth century. Morality as benevolence and responsibility for the Other can, in fact, breed self-condemnation for those who feel its import and yet fall short of its ideals. This can disturb the harmony within. Taylor (1989, p. 516) understands some other negative results of an ethic of benevolence without proper moral sources: (a) those threatened by a sense of unworthiness can punt to projection of evil outward on the Other as happens in narcissistic racism and bigotry, or (b) some who feel powerless try to recover meaning through political extremisms and violence (anti-humanism).

So he would agree that high ideals can lead to destructive ends, and might well do so without a robust constitutive good (strong sources of the moral self). He disagrees, however, that this failure is the only possible outcome. Not all humanisms are destructive; he believes that it is possible to move towards justice and a better social order, to have just relations and just institutions. He sees the potential of the good for positive results in the individual and the realm of the polis (especially as sources of such good is realized from outside the self). The pursuit of justice and benevolence, for instance, often does require self-sacrifice, but this self-sacrifice can benefit both the giver and the recipient, and contribute to mutual benefits, enhance personal freedom, and inspire yet others to pursue such ends. Late in his tome Sources of the Self and further developed in A Secular Age, he suggests that this may be possible through an imaginative transcendent turn to agape love. More on this later…

Gord Carkner

(1989) 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.


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