Posted by: gcarkner | March 22, 2015

Is Agape Love a Source of the Good?

Charles Taylor and the Constitutive Good 

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). There 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 agape love. In Foucault’s case, as with many other late moderns, the constitutive good is reduced to one that is internal to the self. This is a very heavy burden and can cause neurosis. 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 in today’s world 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. Who is up to such a task? He considers that the exclusion of outside sources is quite costly to the self and human civilization. Moral motivation and empowerment weakens significantly and it produces a weakening of moral culture: both moral will and skill.

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 also reveal the less honourable sources of a particular moral ontology on the other, and expose false or less authentic motivations. There is a hierarchy of moral motivations for Taylor, the noble and the ignoble.

Taylor challenges moral reflectors that the dedicated silence of many modern moral philosophy about such external sources of the good is wrong headed. This prevents these outlooks from fully understanding themselves; they are cut off from their own moral history and sources. Taylor counts it a vital task to put moral sources back on the philosophical agenda/map in current scholarship. It ultimately has practical consequences for moral agency. 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 richer 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 virtual 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, independence and freedom. Taylor (1989) gives a significant 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—a 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.

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 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 like agape love: (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) feeling the terrorism of our day.

So he would agree that high ideals can lead to destructive ends, and might well do so without a robust constitutive good (i.e. strong sources of the moral self). He disagrees, however, that this failure is not 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.

Agape exceeds the bounds of reciprocity; it cannot be defined in terms of prescriptions for self-realization, partisanship or self-interest alone. In this love, we find the self involved in a transcendence of the strong variety. But when this grace disappears, coercion, contempt and terror sometimes flow in to take its place. Dostoyevsky makes a very interesting connection between self-hatred and terror. Agape, at another level, can also be seen as animating and empowering the ethical subject, and thus a constitutive good rooted in transcendent goodness. It can be both radically other and yet have impact within the immanent frame. At one level, it is incompatible, incommensurable with human concepts of the good. At another level, as C.S. Lewis says in Four Loves, it can transform all human loves and quests for the good into something more wonderful. There is a density, gravity and weightiness to it. It is full of surprises, a creative and robust moral source. In line with Emmanuel Levinas, it involves taking responsibility for the other: the neighbour, biosphere, and society or common good.

The original Christian notion of agape love is of a love that God has for humans which is connected with their goodness as creatures (though we don’t have to decide whether they are loved because good or good because loved). Human beings participate through grace in this love. There is a divine affirmation of the creature, which is captured in the repeated phrase in Genesis 1 about each stage of the creation, “and God saw that it was good”. Agape is inseparable from such “seeing-good”. (Taylor, 1989, p. 516)

 The individual self is elevated by this love, affirmed in its destiny. Agape informs the quality of the will; trinitarian goodness empowers, clarifies, and animates the human self. It acknowledges the value that each person gains from the recognition, mercy and affirmation of God. Within this paradigm, the self does not struggle to define itself by itself alone, but engages this transforming love from the divine Other. The flourishing of the other emerges a condition of self-fulfilment.

Divine trinitarian love creates the possibility of human loving, a love that issues from the power to love in spite of rejection, a sacrificial love. This goodness is a relational attribute in God; it exists and exhibits itself in the form of a communion of love: the relational, interpersonal, mutually supportive, loving relationship among the persons of the Trinity. Schwöbel (1992, p. 73) explains how human goodness is rooted in this divine transcendent love: ‘In a conception where goodness is understood as a divine attribute, rooted in God’s trinitarian agency, goodness has to be understood as an essentially relational attribute.’ From this perspective, humans do not invent the good, but discover it derivatively from God and in community; as a gift from God. It overcomes the distance between divine and human goodness. Glenn Tinder (The Political Meaning of Christianity, 1989, ch. 1) does an excellent job of elaborating this for the political arena in chapter one, revealing the broader human rights implications of agape.

The Holy Spirit infuses a goodness into us that makes us better than we know we are by ourselves. This better is what theologians mean by grace. People find themselves caught up in a journey that results in the cultivation of gifts and beatitudes they did not know were possible. They discover that this journey was possible only through friendship … The mission of the Holy Spirit is to move us towards the charity that defines the relationship between the Father and the Son, a charity so full that it is thoroughly one and yet cannot be contained within a single origin or between an original and a copy, but always, eternally, exceeds that relationship into another. The Holy Spirit is that relationship. (Long, 2001, pp. 302-3)

Divine goodness is made available as a gift by means of the Holy Spirit for the transformation of the self; the Holy Spirit offers relationship and empowerment towards doing and promoting the good; humans can become entrepreneurs of divine goodness.

Agape is a prophetic love. It refuses to equate anyone with his immediate observable being. A human being is not deeply and essentially the same as the one who is visible to the employer, neighbour, salesman, policeman, judge, friend or spouse. A human being is destined to live in eternity and is fully known only to God.  Agape is about the spiritual destiny of the individual; destiny is a spiritual drama. My destiny is my own selfhood given by God, but given not as an established reality, like a rock or a hill, but as a task lying under divine imperative…. Agape is simply the affirmation of this paradox and of this destiny underlying it. Agape looks beyond all marks of fallenness, all traits by which people are judged and ranked, and acknowledges the glory each person—as envisioned in Christian faith—gains from the creative mercy of God. It sets aside the most astute worldly judgment in behalf of destiny. (Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity, p. 25, 28)

This is why Taylor sees such a profound possibility within late modernity for a transcendent turn (a breakthrough) in philosophy to agape love (A Secular Age).

Gordon E. Carkner Ph.D.

(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.

(1992) Christof Schwöbel,  “God’s Goodness and Human Morality” In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos.

(2001) D. Stephen Long. The Goodness of God. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Paul K. Moser, The Christ-shaped Philosophy Project



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