Posted by: gcarkner | December 9, 2012

Quality of the Will…12

Connection of the Good with the Christian Faith

Throughout his work Sources of the Self, philosopher Charles Taylor (1989) makes the irenic suggestion that there is no good reason to exclude agape love of the Judeo-Christian heritage as a viable hypergood for the moral self. He sees it as the highest form of human relationship. Taylor (1989) writes, “Nothing prevents a priori our coming to see God or the Good as essential to our best account of the human world” (p. 73). As a significant percentage of the world population holds to be true, “God is also one of those contemporary sources of the good in the West, the love of which has empowered people to do and be good” (1989, p. 34).

Michael Morgan (1994, p. 53), in commenting on his ethics for late modernity, claims that Taylor’s account in Sources of the Self re- establishes the plausibility of the divine-human relationship for moral experience: “God is one of those entities that has figured in our moral ontology, has provided a standard or ground of value, and has given our beliefs and actions meaning and significance”. This relationship is generally occluded in contemporary Western culture and philosophical ethics, and so it remains significant that Taylor clarifies it through his language of articulation and that he illuminates its possibilities for ethical discourse.

Taylor attempts to recover a jewel lost in Western moral consciousness in his language of moral sources. From his perspective, moral sources are not about highest principles; they are all about the quality of the will, a concept which has been largely absent in moral philosophy for over a century. For instance, the primary question for Taylor’s moral ontology is: What or whom do I love? (motivation), not What am I obliged to do? (right action). He wants to broaden and deepen the domain of moral discourse. The latter, to him, is the last question to ask, even though it is often the main concern of the contemporary ethics debates. The second question is What do I want to be? (character), a question that is in recovery in the late twentieth century through Virtue Ethics, heralded by such luminaries as Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue, 1984).

The first question addresses the issue of sources of moral inspiration and motivation (as per the previous two posts 10 & 11), or the moral power behind decision and action. Taylor muses about the current problem of weakened moral sources. How does one maintain a commitment to high ideals under the condition of weak moral motivation (constitutive good), due to a weakening of moral vision? He asks,

Whether we can maintain the high level of philanthropy and solidarity we now demand of ourselves, without these degenerating into their opposites: contempt and the need to control. The issue here is the quality of our moral motivation—in more old-fashioned terms, the quality of our will and the nature of the vision that sustains it. (Taylor, 1999, p.120)

He points out that this first question was part of normal philosophical discourse for the ancients, Plato, Augustine and Aristotle, and he contends that it is pertinent to current moral discussion. He writes:

It is clear that, for Plato, the very definition of justice requires a higher and a lower and distinguishes our love of one from our love of the other. Christian faith could take this idea over while giving it a different content, and so Augustine speaks explicitly of “two loves”. Recognition that there is a difference in us between higher and lower, straight and crooked, or loving and self-absorbed desires opens an intellectual space in which philosophy has a crucial role—as the attempt to articulate and define the deepest and most general features of some subject matter—here moral being. (1999, pp. 120-21)

The gradation of moral decision or action (including the question of motives), what Taylor has called strong qualitative considerations, fell under a deep suspicion in the eighteenth century, especially under exclusive secular humanism, and continues to be kept under suspicion by Post-Romantics. Thus, it may be perceived as a foreign concept in today’s ethical debate, but it is still deeply relevant to Taylor.

He proposes something very significant. The secular humanist and Post-Romantic perspectives are both radically immanent; their vision sees the good largely in terms of human flourishing, without any demand to give allegiance or worship to anything higher, anything transcendent (strong sense) of the self. Loyalty to self, and freedom to express its desires, is the first priority.

Concepts of universal justice and benevolence were maintained in moral discourse of the early Enlightenment, from both Christian and Stoic sources, although they have been lost in the Post-Romantic discourse. But, the mainstream Enlightenment sidelined the issue of moral motivation and the quality of the will by what Taylor (1999, pp. 122-23) calls a “rehabilitation of ordinary, untransformed human desire and self-love, previously seen as an obstacle to universal justice and benevolence, which is now cast either as innocent or a positive force for good”.

It is a claim of innocence for the moral will, but also a hollowing out of the will: human motivation is taken to be neutral (a thoroughly bogus claim), and all motivation is, on these terms, appropriate motivation, a mode of self-love. Therefore all choices and all lifestyles are automatically endorsed; we ought to tolerate divergent lifestyles. Self-love (self-care) as human flourishing is a major aspiration. There is a problem here.

Take any conception of human flourishing, that makes no reference to anything of intrinsic value beyond human flourishing, and we have something that is dangerously partial and incomplete, particularly because it cannot see that even things that negate this flourishing—solitary death, unremarked suffering, waning powers—can have the deepest human significance, just because they have more than human significance. (Taylor, 1999, p. 109)

He refers to international figures like Jean Vanier and Mother Teresa in their care and advocacy of human compassion and respect for those who are weak or broken mentally and physically. These lives are connected to the transcendent, and given significance by a story larger than the human story of social or economic usefulness. For Taylor, tapping into these pre-Enlightenment moral traditions, the quality of the will is a critical concern for ethics; the orientation of the will impacts every other moral concern. Nothing is more central to his project.

So this is the end of the series outlining Charles Taylor’s ontology of the good. I hope you have enjoyed it and will have helpful comments to extend the discussion in theoretical and practical ways. We encourage you to read the whole series once again for deeper impact. Taylor is one of the current heavyweights and well worth reading in this area of ethics and also his reframing of secularity. As one of the premier philosophers of modernity, his contribution has been monumental and worth building upon.

Gord Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989b). Taylor and Foucault on Power and Freedom: a reply. Political Studies 37 277-81.

Taylor, C. (1991). The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, ON: Anansi.

Taylor, C. (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.

Taylor, C. (1999). In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tully, J. (Ed.) (1994) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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