Posted by: gcarkner | March 21, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 4.

Intuitions of the Qualitative

Western man at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the descendant of Icarus. He wanders into the world into which he has fallen. It is as if someone has thrown him into a game without giving him rules. When he asks around for instructions, he is invariably told that they have been lost. He is amazed that everyone is content to live in a world without meaning and without identity, where no one seems to know either why he lives or why he dies. (Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen)

This is a provocative quote on our state of being and contains a lot of truth. Charles Taylor, however, recognizes the existence of a plurality of moral positions, principles and constructions in the West. In tension with relativism, he is convinced that some features of the self are universal regarding moral self-constitution. This is an aspect of his critical moral realism–he detects a common human moral infrastructure. He contends that there are certain features of the moral self and its world that are endemic/common to all healthy humans. While he recognizes plurality in the shape of human moralities and choices, he does not accept the ideology of pluralism-relativism as such, a position where all values are of equal value– a Weberian concept. Moral agency is not reducible to mere choice, or the positing of one’s individual values onto the world. Ruth Abbey (2000, p. 29), a Charles Taylor scholar,  comments on this point:

He [Taylor] 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.

In terms of real properties, he claims that all humans have certain moral intuitions, and all make moral judgments, including judgments about the behaviour of others. Such phenomena are ubiquitous across cultures, across difference.

All persons have a qualitative sense of their moral choices and deliberations. For example, he points out that respect for human life is one of the deepest and most universally held moral instincts across cultures (Taylor, 1989, 8, 11- 12), which includes a heartfelt concern for the Other. It is not merely a characteristic of self-survival, but comes from a feeling of one-anotherness. For example, “Human beings command respect in all societies; the West articulates this in the language of rights” (Taylor, 1989, p. 11). All societies around the globe condemn murder and lesser forms of abuse. When this respect is not shown to a person, gender, class or race, it is judged negatively as harmful. This entails moral conviction, an intuition about such behaviour. One exercises or engages a qualitative evaluation of  a situation, appealing to some higher moral standard or moral good, one which transcends the situation and the parties involved. We participate in a sense of justice or fairness that is greater than us. We feel it as a call. We say to ourselves, “That’s not right. Something must be done to correct this situation. Someone has to protect the innocent, the victim.”

Taylor further claims that these strong (non-arbitrary) evaluations are humanly inescapable and textured.

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. (C. Taylor, 1989, 5 & 7)

Reasons, beliefs, values and emotions are all real, part of the palette of our psyche. Taylor’s form of falsifiable moral realism means that the emphasis includes both objective and subjective aspects (poles) of self and morality, a subjective and objective givenness. Humans do not just act, but regularly evaluate, praise and condemn one another’s actions and motives, and reflect on their own speech and conduct, always appealing to certain objective standards, even if they do it intuitively or subconsciously. Think of your average courtroom drama. The denial of such standards does harm to human flourishing, causing the pain of anomie. According to Taylor, humans are strong evaluators by nature; strong evaluation is an essential feature of identity and a permanent feature of moral life (C. Taylor, 1989, 3-4, 14, 15). He sees this capacity for evaluating or judging desires to be a distinctively and universally human one. This self-reflective judgment of one’s desires is called “second order desires” by Harry Frankfurt. Ruth Abbey 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. (R. Abbey, 2000, 28)

Taylor believes that human beings experience these goods that command their respect in a non-anthropocentric way, as not deriving solely from human will or choice. Nor does such experience depend only on the fact of an individual’s affirmation of their value. He challenges the projectivist hypothesis (C.Taylor, 1989, 342) of people like Max Weber. Human interpretation is involved (moral convictions are human convictions after all), but there is also an important objective element in this evaluation process, and Taylor wants to highlight this, make this aspect quite explicit and clear.

How do we actually think, evaluate and act morally? Is there an objective pole or standard to which we intuitively appeal, even unconsciously sometimes? Taylor asks us to dig deeper in our self-examination. What are these objective goods that we intuitively appeal to, and where do they come from? What are their sources? How can these sources and these goods empower us as moral agents? Here’s a parallel thought from brilliant French philosopher Chantal Delsol:

To have meaning is to stand for something other than oneself, to establish a link with a value, an idea, an ideal beyond oneself. Life has meaning, for example, for those who spend their lives in search of a cure for a disease., or in the struggle against injustice, or just to show every day that society can be more than a jungle. The link one establishes with this value or idea confers a higher value on life…. A life that has meaning recognizes certain references…. In other words, it is paradoxically worth something only to the extent that it admits itself not to be of supreme value, by recognizing what is worth more than itself, by its ability to organize itself around something else. Everyone will admit that existence is at once both finite and deficient. We consider society to be mediocre, love insufficient, a lifespan too narrow. The person whose life has meaning is the one who, instead of remaining  complacently in the midst of his regrets, decides to strive for perfection, however imperfectly, to express the absolute, even through his own deficiencies, to seek eternity, even if only temporarily. If he spends his life making peace in society or rendering justice to victims, he is effectively pointing, even if it is with a trembling finger, to the existence of peace and justice as such…. By pursuing referents, he points to them. He awkwardly expresses these impalpable, immaterial figures of hope or expectancy…. Individual existence, when it means something, points to its referent through its day-to-day actions and behaviours, the sacrifices it accepts and the risks it dares to take…. The seeker moves forward, all the while wondering, “What is worth serving?” Individual existence structures itself through the call for meaning. Existence is shaped by questions and expectations. ~Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, (4-5)

Chantal notes a fear of the good in the West due to the impact of dangerous and destructive ideologies in the twentieth century that ravaged our world. She says that we are often left with a negative morality–what we are afraid of, disgusted by, or the terror we want to avoid–and lack the positive side of the equation. But this is an over-reaction and far too cynical. This independence of goods, or qualitative discriminations, is a vital concept to contemporary ethical and political debates. It is because we can thereby identify our goods, as well as those of others, and discuss/debate/refine them in a rational manner, examine and weigh them, grapple with their priority and their individual merits. Taylor sees ethics and morality as intimately connected, not independent arenas. He is calling us to grow up morally as a Western culture.

Furthermore, as Flanagan (1996, 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 operate according to these working moral assumptions, says Taylor, even if they are not conscious about relating to, evaluating, sorting and ordering goods. This reveals their inescapability. 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. (C. Taylor, 1985a, 120)

Moral realism for him, means that (C. Taylor, 1989, 4, 20) strongly valued goods command the respect of individuals because of their intrinsic value, not one’s choice to value them. These goods increase our net worth. They are experienced as making calls or demands upon individuals, rather than being freely or arbitrarily chosen. This is why someone can feel existentially guilty about something they did or said, even if they have rationalized it in their own mind. Humans are often prone to do just that.

Charles Taylor takes moral experience of the good very seriously, imputing ontological significance to it. The good (unlike the weaker language of values) is by no means arbitrary, and it matters greatly. It is part of a moral landscape, and a web or skein of meanings. The good is a robust, heavyweight concept for both ancients and moderns. He resists the slide towards moral subjectivism: this questionable view suggests that one’s choice among the various goods on offer can only be justified according to individual preferences or inclinations. This is to over-emphasize the subjective pole.

He contests this posture as illegitimate and weak; it disempowers us morally and spiritually. These preferences, claims Taylor, can be critiqued and judged objectively, evaluated for their merit, and discussed rationally. Taylor claims that there is an inherent quality (goodness) to the moral good that individual selves ought to recognize and they should be impressed by it, or it is not a higher good. Taylor (1989, 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?” For example, one can easily discern the difference in the hierarchy/quality of the following goods: between medical relief work (Doctors Without Borders), housing the homeless (Habitat for Humanity); and abuses like  international sex trafficking of minors or child pornography. One can discern between benevolence to the poor and corporate fraud or enslavement. The former garners admiration; the latter draws contempt as it causes harm to people.

He wants the moral individual/agent to affirm this healthy capacity for evaluating or judging their own desires, claiming that there is a capacity within the human self (discernment/wisdom/phronesis) which can be revived in us and can help us examine critically our own desires and behaviour. This phenomenon is a vital aspect of our self-transcendence and thereby personal liberation. He resists the stance of the nihilist, where the good is demoted to subjective choice or group values—the will to power. His Oxford mentor, Iris Murdoch, helps us at this juncture:

Briefly put, our picture of ourselves has become far too grand, we have isolated, and identified ourselves  with an unrealistic conception of the will, we have lost the vision of a reality separate from ourselves, and we have no adequate conception of original sin…. In the moral life, the enemy is the fat, relentless ego. Moral philosophy is properly … the discussion of the ego and of the techniques for its defeat.

Some important qualifications are helpful at this juncture for understanding these qualitative distinctions.  Individuals are not always aware of the hierarchy of competing goods 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 convictions (difference) is a human local and global reality. He does, however, believe that some goods feature in all moral codes and are strongly valued by all cultures: for example, support for human life, wellbeing, and the dignity of the person, protecting the innocent, the vulnerable and the victim, supporting the family ties. For further reflection on this point, see Dennis Danielson, The Tao of Right and Wrong. Vital to the whole moral realism discussion is the claim that “strong value is both logically and ontologically prior to strong evaluation” (C. Taylor, 1989, 99). Intrinsically high value calls forth our strong evaluation.

Some values that we would not classify as moral goods in the high, Taylorian sense:

  • View that life is a jungle and that the assertive, aggressive, Alpha winner takes home the prize.
  • Gratuitous Greed: always putting my own interests and success above everything and everyone else. This can become utterly sociopathic.
  • Innate Narcissism: I need to be admired at all costs, by everyone. You exist to feed my ego and improve my wealth. Suck it up.
  • Systemic Inequity: the assumption that it is your fault, not my responsibility, that you are poor, handicapped, brokenhearted, unhealthy or marginalized. We’ve always had haves and have-nots. Accept your lot in life or work harder, get stronger, tougher.
  • Exclusive Exceptionalism (Élitism): strong leadership means that working people need to know and be kept in their place. Only a select few make it into the inner circle of power and privilege. This can lead to corruption after following the greed, justifying deception, power and  lust.
  • Consumerism: I need maximum freedom to choose what I want in life, according to my budget and ability to pay. It is my right. We are all essentially selfish after all. Work harder and you’ll get a bigger piece of the pie. The environment will take care of itself.

Sadly, writes Chantal Delsol:

The contemporary era, as the end-product of the modern attempt to suppress morality, has created individuals who no longer raise the question of good and evil, and who are entirely ignorant of what used to be called “the examination of conscience”…. The attempt to eliminate the antinomy between good and evil through a denial of their differences should logically lead to carefree indifference towards these categories. Modernity has replaced the objective category of the good with what it calls values, that is, a smattering of subjective goods, each of which derives from individual judgment. By their subjectivity, values spell the death of the good, even if language confers upon them the majesty of the defunct good….Values are a form of solipsism or mere whim, depending on the degree of clarity of thought one might find in them. A purely subjective “good” is binding on no one but oneself, and can be differentiated only with some difficulty from sentiments, affections, or self-interest.  (Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, 22, 27)

We are beginning to get some equipment to distinguish between good and evil, a line which Solzhenitsyn says “runs dow the centre of every man’s heart”. Professor Delsol pushes us our thinking forward:

Definition of Evil: the Greek concept of diabolos–“he who separates, divides through aversion and hate; he who makes unjust accusations, denigrates, slanders; he who envies, admits his repugnancy.” The absolute Evil identified by our contemporary takes the form of racism, exclusion or totalitarianism. The last in fact appears as the epitome of separation, since it atomizes societies, functions by means of terror and denouncement, and is determined to destroy human bonds (examples: apartheid and xenophobia (Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, 61). See also  How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley.

Definition of the Good: For contemporary man, the notions of solidarity and fraternity, and the different expressions of harmony between classes, age groups, peoples, are still associated with goodness. The man of our time is similar to the man of any time insofar as he prefers friendship to hate and indifference, social harmony to internal strife, peace to war, and the united family to the fragmented family. In other words, he seeks relationship, union, agreement, and love, and fears distrust, ostracism, contempt, and the destruction of his fellow…. The good has the face of fellowship, no matter what name it is given, be it love, the god of Aristotle, or the God of the Bible. (Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, 62)

Community emerges out of self-giving for the other, enriching trust and creativity  in relationships. It also provides healing from brokenness.

The certitude of the good finds its guarantee in the attraction it induces. The separation of the diabolos occurs constantly, but one day or another it will be pursued by mortal shame…. By experience, we know that evil lies in the excesses of [a particular] good. That is why we refuse to search for the rational [truth] foundations of the good, why we voluntarily allow our conception of the good to remain purely instinctual. (Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, 62, 63)

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology. (Meta-educator)

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

Delsol, C. (2010). Icarus Fallen: the search for meaning in an uncertain world. Intercollegiate Study Institute.

Danielson, D. (2018). The Tao of Right and Wrong: rediscovering humanity’s moral foundations. Regent College Publishing.


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