Posted by: gcarkner | March 11, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 3.

Charles Taylor Confronts the Low Quality Will

Many people attempt  to operate on the assumption of moral neutrality. They want a morality that does not offend anyone–with a tone a bit like elevator music. They promote a live and let live attitude, their moral language is a bit undeveloped. But is that realistic, helpful and liveable, especially amidst the difficult challenges of our day? Don’t we need a higher quality will? The weakness of our twenty-first century morality is at the very heart of many of our current existential crises, including that of our identity. It has left us virtually naked in a wind storm, ill-equipped for life. The focus of this weak view is on the centrality of the autonomous individual, unqualified, creative will.  It is problematic because of its thinness and lack of substance, content and sensibility to context.  It seems that this conception of the will is hollowed out, reduced to negative freedom of autonomous choice (freedom from any restrictions or limitations). It tends to include freedom from responsibility for others, for the common good, for the health of the planet, and our cultural heritage. This naked will does not like duty, obligation or long-term commitments, the costlier aspects of relationships.

Ethics is reduced to pragmatic, lived experience as one chooses to live and stylize one’s life day by day, like the aesthetic solipsism in Michel Foucault or Oscar Wilde. Such subjectivistic autonomy can lead to moral autism–a loss of moral language of any substance and merit. So writes Matthew Crawford in The World Beyond Your Head (2015, 183f); it makes us vulnerable to the only value left in such a society–performance with its consequent workaholism. We are sent into life, work and marriages with no proper tools of moral and ethical engagement, so we default to elevator music morality. We have no discipline/depth of thought or action, no foundation for discernment in our decisions. We don’t even know how to ask the right questions in an argument or debate. Morality is defined, not through the conformity or guidance of behaviour via codes, norms, traditions, principles, wisdom of the ages, precepts or virtues, but in reference to my rights, my desires, my goals, my freedom of consumption of goods and experiences. This often boils down to the way in which an individual naked will determines and justifies itself. We should be suspicious of such self-justification and its tendency towards psychopathy. It calculates as a form of entitlement or even narcissism, celebrating the good of oneself alone, often to the exclusion of the good of the other, the community or the planet.

In this post, we are calling this whole project into question as a legitimate moral modus operandum. Charles Taylor raises serious questions regarding assumptions about a moral self that does not have any relationship to the higher/greater good (even acts in denial of that relationship). It becomes an abstract reflexive self focused on its own desires.  Such an individual lobbies the government to protect the personal right to express those desires and indulge decisions in line with one’s own private self-interest and personal expression. See our complementary blog series ‘Critique of the Aesthetic Self’.

In his short book The Malaise of Modernity (the condensed version of Sources of the Self), Taylor sets out a helpful template of self-construction to assist us in our understanding of the problem that is at work in this outlook. 

   Taylor’s Moral Self-Construction Diagnostics

Category A (Creativity)

(i) Creation and construction (as well as discovery) of the self.

(ii) Pursuit of originality in one’s self-crafting.

(iii) Opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what one recognizes as morality, or the moral order.

Category B (Social and Moral Accountability)

(i) Openness to horizons of significance prevents one’s self-creation from losing the background that can save it from insignificance and trivialization.

(ii) Self-definition needs to be developed in dialogue with significant Others, that is, fellow moral interlocutors. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 65, 66)

Taylor’s concern with Neo-Nietzscheans and Post-Romantics is the extreme emphasis that people like Michel Foucault place on Category A (Creativity), to the near exclusion of any emphasis on Category B (Accountability and Mutuality). And why should, according to A (iii), one’s creative identity development include a form of social or moral anarchy (Foucault calls it transgression)?  This seems rebellious to an extreme rather than displaying any depth of critical realism reflection. Here’s how Taylor puts it:

What must be wrong is a simple privileging of one over the other (e.g. A over B) … That is what trendy doctrines of “deconstruction” involve today … they stress (Ai) the constructive, creative nature of our expressive languages, while altogether forgetting (Bi). They capture the more extreme forms of (Aiii), the amoralism of creativity … while forgetting (Bii), its dialogical setting, which binds us to others … These thinkers buy into the background outlook of authenticity, for instance in their understanding of the creative, self-constitutive powers of language … while ignoring some of its essential constituents. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 66, 67)

By abolishing all extra-self horizons of significance, and demoting the significance of dialogue with other moral interlocutors, morality can become a virtual monologue, an abstract self-projection imposed onto the world, rather than a source of communal conversation, appropriate debate and cooperation. It lacks the social dialectic element of self, sports a reductionistic hermeneutic of self. Is there not more to life than love of oneself or self-fulfilment?

Characteristics of the Post-Romantic Aesthetic Self as gleaned from Taylor, 1989, pp. 434-455: see also blog post ‘Can Beauty Save Us?’

  1. Art is superior to morality, and sees itself in conflict with the social moral order.
  2. Humans live in a chaotic or fallen natural and social world, rooted in chaos and the will to power. One can take an affirmative stance towards the world through seeing it as beautiful—seeing the world through an aesthetic lens. This is the only remaining basis for its justification.
  3. Being itself is not good as such, nor is human being per se taken as good.
  4. Hope resides in a strong belief in the power of the creative imagination to transfigure or transform the world and the self, or to reveal it afresh as beautiful (aesthetic).
  5. Constitutive language is a key means of changing the world, or at least the way one sees the world—key to one’s poetic self-expression, and re-writing or re-inventing the self.
  6. This tends to result in an aesthetic amorality, a move beyond good and evil, an embrace or affirmation of violence and cruelty as well as patience and care. There can be no logical or moral distinction between them.

Taylor, while sympathetic with the expressive aspect of self, raises hard questions about this kind of aesthetic self. He wants to open up the discussion of ethics to new and fresh philosophical examinations and investigations. His discussion centres around the possible recovery of the ancient concept of the quality of the will, and the importance of re-examining sources of human motivation (his concept of the constitutive good). He believes that there are higher and lower motivations, and that individual can move toward growth in moral maturity–seeing better, thinking better, living better. There is insight here on crossing the moral gap between knowing what is wise or right and doing it–a perennial human problem. He is asking us to take a step back from life as it is lived as moral praxis, back from self-actualizationto reflect on the values of our choices and actions, to look at our second order desires. He suggests that there might even be a way to recover a fruitful connection between religion and ethics, meaning and moral agency. God and agape love is at least one traditional source of the good or goodness in human society down the centuries. Oxford scholar Larry Siedentop writes brilliantly about its transformative power in his The Invention of the Individual.  

Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience of grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality…. Paul spoke of the Christ as offering salvation to all humanity. ‘The Christ’ stood for the presence of God in the world…. Paul felt he had discovered something crucial—the supreme moral fact about humans—which provided the basis for reconstructing human identity, opening the way to what he called ‘a new creation’…. In Paul’s eyes, the Christ reveals God acting through human agency and redeeming it…. Through an act of faith in the Christ, human agency can become the medium of God’s love—which Paul sometimes calls ‘faith acting through love’. The faith accepting that love amounted to an inner crucifixion, from which could emerge a transformed will, embodied in the person of Jesus. For Paul it was a personal transaction, the creation of another, better self…. It is an invitation to see a deeper self, an inner union with God. It offers to give reason itself a new depth. Rationality loses its aristocratic connotations. It is associated not with status and pride but with a humility which liberates. (Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, 2014, 58-60)

This makes sense historically, since ‘God’/theology has composed a major contribution to Western moral identity. Theology has a long-standing, fruitful history with ethical reflection. It is also Taylor’s claim that many of the goods that are commonly aspired to in the West have their roots in the constitutive good of Christian theism (R. Abbey, 2000, pp. 50-51, 98-99; and Taylor, 1999, Part IV; Morgan, 1994, p. 49). This is hinted at in Sources of the Self (Taylor, 1989), but becomes more overt in A Catholic Modernity? (Taylor, 1999) and he further develops it in A Secular Age (2007). Taylor believes that there is real fruitfulness in reconnecting many contemporary moral goods to their historical roots in theism in order to empower them once again. Consciousness of the source of these goods boosts their impact on individual lives and in society, grounding a person morally, offering clothing for this naked will. Part of the moral guilt and frustration we carry is that we lack empowerment to do what we know is right, constructive or ethically appropriate.  Taylor asks us to re-examine the value of moral goods and how they might re-empower, re-clothe late moderns.

He attempts to retrieve something lost in Western moral consciousness in this important constitutive language of moral sources. From his perspective, moral sources are not about highest principles, but about the quality of the will, a concept which has been tragically absent in moral philosophy for over a century. For instance, the primary question for Taylor’s moral ontology is: ‘What or whom do I love?’ (motivation), rather than ‘What am I obliged to do?’ (right action). He wants to broaden the domain of morality, and come to grips with high moral desires, ideals that drive humans at their best or noblest. This is also hope for moral growth through the course of one’s life as a kind of quest. The second obligation question, to him, is the last one to ask (even though it is often the main concern of contemporary ethical debates). The second key question is ‘What do I want to become?’ (character), a question that is in recovery to some degree in the late twentieth century through virtue ethics, heralded by such intellectuals as Alasdair MacIntyre and positive psychology (with roots going all the way back to Aristotle). This will lead to what Taylor calls a thick self. More on this in future posts in this series.

Modern man is not a zombie or a monster, but a drifter with an unhappy conscience, because, having a right to everything, he is fulfilled with nothing, and due to this dissatisfaction, he does not even know the name of what he is looking for. He is in self-exile from his own universe…. But periods of metamorphosis hold within themselves the hope of meaning. (Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, xxvii)

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

Taylor, C. (1978). Language and Human Nature. Plaunt Memorial Lecture, Carleton University, 1978

Taylor, C. (1979). Hegel and Modern Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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. (1985b). Foucault on Freedom and Truth. In C. Taylor (Ed.), Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [also in Political Theory 12, 2 1984.]

Taylor, C. (1985c). Connolly, Foucault, and Truth. Political Theory 13  377-85

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

Taylor, C. (1989b). Taylor and Foucault on Power and Freedom: a reply.  Political Studies 37  277-81.

Taylor, C. (1991). The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, ON: Anansi.

Taylor, C. (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.

Taylor, C. (1999).   In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity?  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2017). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (2016). The Language Animal: the full shape of the human language capacity. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Adams, R. M. (1999). Finite and Infinite Goods: a framework for ethics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crawford, M. (2015) The World Outside Your Head: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction. Toronto, ON: Allen Lane/Penguin.

Gill, D. (2000). Becoming Good: Building Moral Character. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wallis, J. (2014). The (Un)Common Good: how the gospel brings hope to a world divided. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

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