Posted by: gcarkner | April 7, 2019

Charles Taylor and the Shaping of the Modern Identity

Charles Taylor and the Contemporary Search for Identity

University students today are obsessed with finding, copying or creating an identity. Their lives are in major transition with the responsibilities of adulthood looming on the horizon. One’s identity can feel quite fragile and under pressure at times, especially under the strain of final exams or a thesis defense. Added to this, students swim in a sea of multiple declared identities, this is challenging at a deep level and they might well ask, Who am I? For those in the humanities, social sciences or education, identity issues, identity politics are ubiquitous, an ever present debate. Turning to cynicism about the whole prospect of shaping one’s identity is not really an option for the flourishing individual, the examined or reflective life. How do I give account of myself amidst a vast universe and a complex global situation, where the competition is intense as I seek to insert myself in the larger scheme of things? It seems like such an onerous task for someone as busy as me. Catch me later.

Pre-eminent McGill University philosopher Charles Taylor is an iconic figure in this field of defining what exactly constitutes identity. He can introduce us to new language and new concepts that build substance into our story. This super scholar has written three weighty tomes on the subject: Sources of the Self, 1989; A Secular Age, 2007; and The Language Animal, 2016. Strikingly, he claims that it took him thirty years to write The Language Animal. In this blog, we have the highest respect for his work and his ability to analyze the depth and breadth of forces and ideas that have shaped the West, with its multiple identities. Much scholarship has branched off from his work, including the various human flourishing projects (for example, Miraslov Volf et al at Yale), and rethinking about the secular. Perhaps he can help us grapple with this important aspect of development, lest we feel that we are totally out of our depth. The current existential identity crisis is impacting a whole generation, so we have good reason to pursue this inquiry.

Identities are constituted from moral sources, claims Taylor, sources that nurture the inner person. Identity, morality and spirituality are inescapably interwoven in our lives, our experience and our consciousness, if we take time to think about it. Central to an account of human existence is the moral sources which appear within one’s moral framework (aka moral horizon). These moral frameworks are often invisible to many people, pre-articulate realities that we nevertheless depend upon daily.  Our education is partly to blame, rendering us illiterate on the most important identity categories. But for Taylor, these categories and the reality they represent are absolutely vital to our sanity and wellbeing. Our relationship to this critical moral framework has a deep significance. If we are not careful, it can also handicap or cripple us. For example, if we do not grapple with the framework of others, dialogue and mutual understanding can be very difficult, leading to conflict and alienation.

Taylor notes that there exists a hierarchy of moral goods within each framework, and it is up to the individual to order these goods in priority.  As a key aspect of one’s identity, there must be qualitative distinctions between the value of each of these goods. The highest, controlling good within a framework Taylor calls the hypergood–also seen as a person’s core passion. We have a deep personal and emotional connection to our hypergood–it orders the other goods in the hierarchy within the moral frame. Identity is the understanding of oneself as a person within family, a story, a religion, a profession, a country, in fact all one’s significant relationships. Sometimes these goods come into conflict with one another (work and family for example) and need to be negotiated, but these qualitative distinctions are intrinsic to the way we conduct our lives. Critically, they inform our orientation towards the world, help us set our goals, and plan our future. The best account of human experience has to make sense of these moral sources which, at the end of the day, become sources of meaning and identity.

Three axes of moral frameworks: they are not properly defined by natural laws of science

  1. Beliefs about the value of human life, the respect that is due to others, and what this will cost us, demand from us.
  2. Beliefs about what kind of life is worth living. This permeates all our choices and actions.
  3. The dignity we afford ourselves and others based on how we understand our role and usefulness to society, and our place or calling within the larger scheme of things.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

Next: What exactly is a moral good in Taylor’s definition?

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. To begin, he argues for the ubiquity of moral intuitions and judgments in human experience at a phenomenological level. These intuitions 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 importance of 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. We build a relationship with the good. Taylor follows in the tradition of his mentor Iris Murdoch at Oxford.

Taylor recognizes the existence of a plurality of moral positions and constructions/frameworks, but he has a conviction that some features of the self are universal regarding moral self-constitution. He contends that there are certain features of the moral self and its world that are endemic or common to all healthy, sane persons. He recognizes plurality in the shape of human moralities, but does not follow the tradition of pluralism, ethical relativism, or the strict constructivism. He argues for these features (dimensions of the self) according to the phenomena of reflective human experience, evident from the phenomena of human experience.

Ruth Abbey (2000, p. 29), a Taylor scholar, comments: “He does not suggest that in trying to explain morality we imagine a moral world devoid of humans and attempt to separate its subject-dependent properties from its objective or real properties.” He begins by claiming that all humans have certain moral intuitions, and all make moral judgments, including judgments about the behaviour of others. They all have a qualitative sense of their moral choices and deliberations; moral agency is not reducible to choice alone. For example, he points out that respect for human life is one of the deepest and most universally held moral instincts across cultures (1989, pp. 8, 11-12), which includes a concern for the Other; it is not merely a characteristic of self-survival. For example,  “Human beings command respect in all societies; the West articulates this in the language of rights” (Taylor, 1989, p. 11). All societies condemn murder and lesser forms of abuse. When this respect is not shown to someone, it is judged negatively; there is moral conviction, an intuition about such behaviour. One exercises a moral or qualitative evaluation of the situation, appealing to some moral standard or moral good which transcends at some level the situation at hand and the parties involved.

Taylor further claims that these strong evaluations are humanly inescapable.

Our moral reactions have two facets … On the one side, they are almost like instincts, comparable to our love of sweet things, or our aversion to nauseous substances … on the other, they seem to involve claims, implicit or explicit, about the nature and status of human beings. From the second side, a moral reaction is an assent to, an affirmation of a given ontology of the human … The whole way in which we think, reason, argue, and question ourselves about morality supposes that our moral reactions have these two sides: that they are not only “gut” feelings but also implicit acknowledgments of claims concerning the objects. (1989,  pp. 5 & 7)

Taylor’s form of realism means that the emphasis includes both objective and subjective aspects (poles) of self and morality, a givenness that is both subjective and objective . Humans do not just act, but regularly evaluate, praise and condemn other’s actions and motives, and their own speech and conduct, always appealing to certain objective standards. According to Taylor, humans are strong evaluators by nature; strong evaluation is an essential feature of identity and a permanent feature of moral life (1989, pp. 3-4, 14, 15). He sees this capacity for evaluating or judging desires to be a distinctively and universally human one. He believes that human beings experience the goods that command their respect in a non-anthropocentric way, that is, as not deriving solely from human will or choice, nor depending only on the fact of individual affirmation of their value. He challenges the projectivist hypothesis (Taylor, 1989, p. 342). Hermeneutics or human interpretation is involved (moral convictions are human convictions), but there is also an objective element in this evaluation process that Taylor wants to make explicit and clear.

The term strong evaluation comes from Harry Frankfurt’s (1971, pp. 5-20) argument about second-order desires, that is, desires one has about one’s desires, evaluative desires (such as respect, or justice) that transcend other ‘biological’ desires (sex, safety, food and survival). These are “standards by which basic desires and choices are judged” (Taylor, 1989, p. 20). Humans experience a range of desires, but do not view them all equally; some are seen as higher, more admirable than others. There is a hierarchy and contrast in human desires (Taylor, 1989, pp. 4, 20, 47); individuals do not see all their values or desires as being of equal worth. Strong values implies an inherently contrastive and hierarchical situation; there is a higher and a lower. This articulation appeals to certain goods that are independent of the self and human choice (Taylor, 1989, pp. 58, 68, 74). These goods, however, are always related to the human moral situation, not merely abstract categories. Abbey (2000) captures the nuance of Taylor’s view.

The best account of morality must be one that incorporates the fact that individuals experience goods as being worthy of their admiration and respect for reasons that do not depend on their choice of them. Beginning with humans and the way they experience morality, Taylor claims that the most plausible explanation of morality is one that takes seriously humans’ perception of the independence of the goods. (p. 28)

This independence of goods is a vital concept to contemporary debates about ethics and morality. Taylor sees ethics and morality as connected, not fully independent.

Furthermore, as Flanagan (1996, p. 147) notes in his commentary on Taylor, this concept of strong evaluations is both descriptive of how people are and act, and also normative regarding what is required for full personhood. Individuals do operate on these working moral assumptions, says Taylor, even if they are not conscious about relating to, evaluating, sorting and ordering goods. The process is often tacit, unconscious or intuitive. Taylor (1985a) emphasizes this essential point and this fine distinction about the existential power of the good, its draw on an individual moral agent:

I want to speak of strong evaluations when the goods putatively identified are not seen as constituted as good by the fact that we desire them, but rather are seen as normative for desire. That is, they are seen as goods which we ought to desire, even if we do not, goods such that we show ourselves up as inferior or bad by our not desiring them. (p. 120)

Moral realism for him, means that (Taylor, 1989, pp. 4, 20) strongly valued goods command the respect of individuals because of their intrinsic value, not one’s choice to value them. They are experienced as making calls or demands upon individuals, rather than being freely, whimsically or arbitrarily chosen by them.

Taylor takes moral experience of the good seriously and imputes ontological significance to it.  The good is a robust, heavyweight concept for him. He resists the slide towards moral subjectivism, which suggests that one’s choice among the various goods can only be justified according to individual preferences or inclinations. He does not accept this as valid. These preferences, claims Taylor, can be judged objectively and rationally discussed. Taylor claims that there is an inherent quality (goodness) to the moral good that individual selves ought to recognize and be impressed by. Taylor (1989, p. 42) offers a key test of a good: “Can it be the basis of attitudes of admiration or contempt? It raises questions about ‘what kind of life is worth living … what would be a rich, meaningful life, as against an empty one?” One can easily discern the difference in the goods appealed to: between medical relief work, housing the homeless and abuses like  international prostitution or child pornography. Taylor claims that this discernment, this instinct is linked to a second order desire, or qualitative discrimination–part of who we are and what we are made of as moral agent. The former garners admiration; the latter draws contempt.

Taylor wants the moral self to affirm this capacity for evaluating or judging desires, claiming that there is a capacity within the human self (discernment) which can be revived and can help us examine critically our own desire and behaviour. He resists the stance of the nihilist, where the good is demoted to subjective choice or group values–the projection thesis.

Some important qualifications are in order for these qualitative distinctions.  Individuals are not always aware of the hierarchy that is in play. It can be invisible to consciousness, held pre-articulately or tacitly as a background to moral understanding. Secondly, the language of strong speaks more about quality than force or power. Thirdly, Taylor believes that all individuals are strong evaluators, but does not believe that they all value the same things strongly–plurality of conviction is real. He does however believe that some goods feature in all moral codes and are strongly valued by all cultures: for example, human life, wellbeing, and the dignity of the person. Based on this objective element, there can be rational debate about the various goods and their hierarchical value within a moral framework. Vital to the whole discussion is the claim that “strong value is both logically and ontologically prior to strong evaluation” (Taylor, 1989, p. 99). Intrinsic high value calls forth our strong evaluation.

Abbey, R. (2000). Charles Taylor. Teddington, UK: Acumen.

Flanagan, O. (1996). Self-Expressions: Mind, morals and the meaning of life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frankfurt, H. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person. Journal of Philosophy 68 1  5-20.

Taylor, C. (1985a). What’s Wrong With Negative Freedom? In C. Taylor (Ed.), Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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


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