Posted by: gcarkner | March 2, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 1.

The Recovery of Positive, Constructive Ethical Dialogue

Many people today are discouraged and confused by the moral drift in Western society and wonder if they can have any voice or influence in a world with such a strong emphasis on individual choice, subjectivist approach to values, aesthetic taste in ethics and radical, self-defining (self-justifying) concepts of freedom. Freedom currently in the West is often claimed as an ontological position, a reality within which one can justifiably choose one’s own moral parameters and construct or re-invent the self. In his important book, Sources of the Self (1989), and followed by A Secular Age (2007), Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor attempts to track and understand the moral soul of early and late Western modernity, especially what he calls the North Atlantic viewpoint. The narrative is a complex one, but vital to comprehend if we are to truly understand ourselves and our friendsThere are many ideological forces at work and many experiments in promoting an ethics of happiness, or consequence, or situation, one of pleasure or principle. The focus of ethics can be radically varied.

Religiously-oriented  people today can feel powerless and a bit odd, even guilty, for holding any moral convictions at all, that is, besides a consumeristic will that follows its self-interest desires. On this important topic, visiting Notre Dame Early Modern European History scholar Brad S. Gregory has a most profound Chapter 4. “Subjectivizing Morality” in his 2012 publication The Unintended Reformation. Many today feel themselves caving in or abandoning their inherited standards of behaviour under the weight of the cultural slippage–towards nihilistic relativism and radical individualism. Where can people turn for assistance, discernment and wisdom on this matter?


McGill University, MontrealMcGill University where Taylor taught

In the West, is there any basis left for normativity, for accountability, even for responsibility for the Other? Is it all just about my agenda, my choice, my naked will, or my aesthetic self-invention and personal fulfilment? “What is the quality of this choice, this will?” asks Taylor as he retrieves an ancient idea of qualitative discriminations in ethics–the language of the moral good or goods (See Part 1. of Sources of the Self). In what is  choice grounded, and how is it guided? We late moderns can be very naive about our Faustian deals when we make choice or expressivism an absolute within an ideology of unshackled freedom and self-determination. Post-Romantic philosophers like Michel Foucault offer an Art of Self or an ethics as aesthetics as a morality substitute in an age of nihilism and anomie (transgressive, norm-less existence).

This twelve part blog series on the Quality of the Will  suggests that pre-eminent Canadian philosopher of the self Charles Taylor can be a very strategic assistance on the issue at hand in his discussion of moral frameworks as a source of identity. He wants to recover/retrieve a robust moral grounding in order to avoid contemporary solipsism (think Julia Roberts in the movie Eat, Pray Love). He believes that these goods can empower us as moral beings once again. They need not remain buried in contemporary moral discourse. Following in the footsteps of one of Oxford’s greatest philosopher Iris Murdoch, this project (Malaise of Modernity; Sources of the Self) entails a dynamic, adventurous and exciting recovery of the ancient language of the good and a renewal of a fresh social normativity–a renewal of moral discourse in the polis. Taylor is highly skilled in employing an engaging language that a pluralistic audience can understand, both at the intellectual and practical choice/moral agency level. It resonates with many in a significant way! One has to be willing to think harder and go much deeper than much contemporary thought on ethics and morals. We attest to the fact that is worth the effort, the grappling with unfamiliar vocabulary. It offers fresh hope for Western pluralistic cultures and sub-cultures.

This twelve part series outlines his monumental contribution to moral and ethical thinking (the ontology of the good). It reveals a phenomenological aspiration to the good inherent in most humans if they are willing to reflect more deeply with Taylor, an aspiration which can be a robust challenge to the ethical solipsism and Zarathustra will-to-power outlook so common today.

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner’s UBC Lecture on Charles Taylor and the Modern Quest for Identity: Dialogue on a Great Mind.

What are the valid and sustainable parameters of our current moral quest, our current quest for freedom, wholeness, identity, happiness within our various spiritual journeys, the quest for meaning and identity in our lives? How do we map this in today’s world and put it to work for positive change? Taylor is an avid moral geographer. Moral ontology is deeply important and central to all other discussions about the moral self. It offers real insight into the inner landscape (infrastructure or deep structure) of the self. Therefore it remains central to engage the current debates of our day in the midst of a cultural loss of moral consensus, as astutely noted by virtue philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Moral autism is not an acceptable or stable place to rest.  Conversation (2012-06-16) with Charles Taylor rooted in A Secular Age (his Templeton Prize winning tome).

We trust you will enjoy reading and reflecting upon, perhaps debating with, this series of posts as much as we enjoyed writing them.

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD in Philosophical Theology, University of Wales

Dissertation: “A Critical Examiniation of Michel Foucault’s Concept of Moral Self-constitution in dialogue with Charles Taylor.” Find it in the British Library in London, Oxford University Library, or Oxford Centre for Mission Studies Library.

See also Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, Moral Believing Animals.



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