Posted by: gcarkner | March 4, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 2.

Charles Taylor Wagers on (Critical) Falsifiable Moral Realism

Indeed, who are we late moderns and where are we headed as a culture? Charles Taylor challenges the current superficiality regarding moral convictions with its over-emphasis on living one’s desires on a philosophical trajectory of freedom-choice-self-interest. Some call this the cult of self. Can we not aspire to higher ideals? His 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 actually reflect upon those experiences. So he is interested in praxis (behavioural practices) as well as moral theory. Beginning with humans and the way they experience morality (the moral phenomenon), he claims that the most plausible explanation of morality is one that takes seriously a human’s perception of the independence of moral goods. It has been my privilege to wrestle with Taylor’s engaging ideas for more than a decade and I find them weighty and full of resonance with my experience and observations. There is real depth and nuance to his take on morality. It ought to captivate the best minds and the most genuine hearts.

He does not feel it appropriate to substitute a philosophical abstraction (for example utilitarianism) for how people live and think. 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 invokes the ancient idea of the good. It is one which, although interwoven with the self, transcends the self in significant ways. It is higher and deeper, so to speak, not reducible to choice.

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 (or map) a moral framework. Each framework is made up of several goods held together in a coherent relationship with one another, producing a moral worldview. The individual moral self discovers a dialectical relationship with its framework. It is not a static set of conditions, but rather dynamic and developmental. It matures over time.

There are three consequential axes of moral frameworks that are not properly defined by natural laws of science. They are meta-scientific:

  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.

Thirdly, he recognizes that there is a key defining good within each moral framework, which he calls the hypergood. The hypergood is the preeminent good and operates as a controlling influence and organizer of the other goods within the hierarchy of the framework. It is a driver, sets the moral tone and defines the overall character of the framework.  Thus, it is quite central to the discussion of the moral agency and to understanding a person at depth.

Fourthly, Taylor recognizes a significant narrative and communal texture to the pursuit of the good in moral self-constitution. Humans tend to interpret their lives in narrative and communal terms as they pursue moral goods. These goods give the individual a vision and mission to life, a trajectory for life. This important narrative-articulate dimension of self helps one find a unity amidst the complexity of moral experience and the plurality of goods vying for one’s attention. It offers a sound basis for evaluating one’s progress in life. Taylor dedicates a whole chapter to this concept in his 2016 book The Language Animal. Moral goods are also contained and maintained by a community of persons and this defines the community’s identity.

Fifthly, Taylor speaks of the sources of the moral or sources of the self, which he refers to as the constitutive good. The constitutive good (a category of moral motivation) gives meaning to and empowers the hypergood and the other life goods within the moral framework: it acts as a moral driver. It provides the ground of the worth or value of the life goods, and allows the individual to live the good life. This is a very significant, core idea for Taylor, one worth pondering more deeply. He expands on this idea of constitutive language in The Language Animal (chapter 6)–it acts as a complement to scientific language.

Thus, moral identity is intricately interwoven with the pursuit of the good in life in Taylor’s moral ontology. Healthy people build an intimate, passionate relationship with the good asa source of inspiration and motivation. Psychopaths and sociopaths, on the other hand, deny the relevance of any moral framework or good: narcissists and pathological liars follow this path (5% of the population). They are the hard core of the cult of self-interest, but they do not discredit the power of moral frameworks for most people.

Taylor discerns these five categories as givens, structural features that are common to the life of all morally and psychologically healthy human beings. He 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. These goods animate our lives and enhance culture. Taylor emphasizes the importance of being wise and self-conscious/circumspect about these goods. It is quite a challenging and enlightening proposal, a moral ontology of the self at its best, noblest or most whole. It also offers a positive, constructive, open platform for dialogue on moral self-constitution and ethics.

I will further unpack Taylor’s view in future posts. The nuances are exceedingly important. Clearly, this approach pushes back against current forms of ethical relativism and moral subjectivism which often lead to nihilism, moral autism (Matthew Crawford), confusion and anxiety/depression, decreased moral power/agency and tribalistic divisiveness within society. The cult of self leads to auto-intoxication (Camus) and results in a collective moral suicide, a tear in the social moral fabric. Taylor offers a healing paradigm for our contemporary Western moral brokenness, our estrangement/alienation from self, others and the sacred, from the forces that give us ultimate meaning and purpose. To live well/nobly, he suggests, is a high human achievement, a form of resistance to radical evil (anti-humanism). One can apply his critical moral realism to a range of issues: everyday life to the biggest ethical conundrums.

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

Key Readings/Dialogue with Taylor:


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