Posted by: gcarkner | February 18, 2019

Taylor’s Take of Moral Realism

Taylor’s Case for Moral Realism

Charles Taylor’s argument for moral realism is five-fold. In terms of moral givens, he argues that certain perennial features of the self are present irrespective of culture or the way they are expressed or understood. He starts his analysis with the question of how humans operate as moral beings in their actual moral experiences, and how they reflect upon those experiences. He is interested in praxis or applied ethics as well as moral theory. Beginning with humans and the way they experience morality, he claims that the most plausible explanation of morality is one that takes seriously humans’ perception of the independence of goods. He does not want to substitute a philosophical abstraction for how people live and think. His idea of freedom includes a relationship with the good.

Firstly, he argues for the ubiquity of moral intuitions and judgments in human experience. These are intuitions that transcend basic human desires for survival, sex, or self-realization. They are also referred to as second-order desires, strong evaluations or qualitative discriminations. One notes the important reference to the quality of the will. This concept of second-order desires appeals to the ancient idea of the good, one which although interwoven with the self, transcends the self in significant ways. He is inspired by Oxford’s Iris Murdoch in this emphasis on the moral good.

Secondly, he argues that there is a need for a larger moral picture to facilitate the task of making sense of moral experience (debates, deliberations, decisions and actions). He calls this picture (map) a moral framework or horizon. Each framework is made up of several goods held together in a coherent relationship with one another, producing a coherent moral worldview. The moral self is in a dialectical relationship with its framework. We do not have a static set of conditions, but rather it is dynamic and developmental.

Thirdly, he recognizes that there is a key defining good within each moral framework, which he calls the hypergood. The hypergood is the highest or preeminent good. It operates with a controlling influence and organizes the other goods in priority within the framework. The hypergood defines the overall character of the framework, and thus it is central to the discussion of the moral self.

Fourthly, Taylor recognizes a narrative and communal texture to the pursuit of the good in moral self-constitution. Humans interpret their lives in narrative and communal terms as they pursue these various moral goods. These goods give vision and mission to life and begins to define one’s calling or purpose in life. This important narrative articulation helps the self to find a unity amidst the complexity of moral experience and a plurality of goods vying for one’s attention.

Fifthly, Taylor speaks of the motivation to do the good, the sources of the moral self. This he refers to as the constitutive good. This is often poorly understood, but vital to moral understanding. The constitutive good gives meaning to and empowers (inspires) the hypergood and the other life goods within the moral framework. It acts as a moral driver. It provides the constitutive ground of the worth or value of the life goods, and allows the self to live the good life. This is a very significant nuance to the moral self. Moral identity is interwoven with the pursuit of the good in life in Taylor’s ontology. He discerns these five categories as givens, structural features that are common to the life of all morally healthy human beings. Taylor wants to problematize the occlusion or exclusion of such parameters, such qualitative distinctions for moral reasoning, because he believes that within the life of the self, there is a multiplicity of goods to be recognized, acted upon and pursued. We must articulate them and bring them to the surface of consciousness. Taylor emphasizes the importance of being circumspect about these goods. It is quite a challenging proposal, a moral ontology of the self at its best, noblest or most whole. It offers a useful framework for this dialogue on moral self-constitution.

See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity. Part One.

Gordon Carkner’s PhD dissertation: “A Critical Examination of Michel Foucault’s Concept of Moral Self-Constitution in Dialogue with Charles Taylor” (2006 University of Wales)

See other posts on Qualities of the Will; and also Ethical Relativism


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