Posted by: gcarkner | April 14, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 5.

Some Important Qualifications on Quality of the Will

As we continue this series, we are in pursuit of enlightenment or insight about the colours and textures of human choice, freedom and dignity. It is articulate, empowering qualities that we seek towards robust human agency. We also want to mitigate the vexations of tough human choices as well. We are assisted by both Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher, and Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. Some important qualifications are in order for Taylor’s qualitative distinctions, strong discriminations, or what Harry Frankfurt calls second order desires. He is not suggesting that each and every choice is subject to strong evaluation. This is clearly not true of our choice of flavour of ice cream or style of clothing or genre of movie entertainment. Secondly, individuals are not always aware of the hierarchy of goods that is at play inside one’s psyche, goods that sometimes are in tension with one another. It often is held pre-articulately or tacitly as a background to moral understanding–at various strengths. Thirdly, the language of strong speaks more about quality than force or power. Fourthly, Taylor believes that all individuals are strong moral evaluators, but does not believe that they all value the same things strongly (with conviction). We humans are complex. He is quite aware of the plurality of goods that inspire us and thereby drive us. His is not a one-principle ethics like happiness. These qualities of the will affect one’s identity at a deep level.

For example, below are some thought-provoking quotes from existential psychologist (logotherapy) Victor Frankl who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8-aOAj2HRs  He has a way of sorting out the hierarchy of goods in these profound statements.

In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.

Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, only by a lack of meaning and purpose.

Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.

The salvation of mankind is through love and in love.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, a man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible.

If there is any meaning in life at all, there must be meaning in suffering.

The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom….The one thing you cannot take away from me is the way I choose to respond to the thing that you do to me.

Victor Frankl

Charles Taylor does believe that some goods feature in all moral codes and are strongly valued by all cultures: for example, the value of human life, the dignity and health of the person, basic respect, concern/compassion for the innocents such as children or the poor. Based on this objective element, there can be rational debate about, and critique of the various goods held by a particular individual, a tribe or a culture. Thus, we are not off the hook just because it is our personal value or that of our tribe or acceptable in our country. The good we value can come under scrutiny, and some definitely should. Vital to the whole discussion is the claim that “strong value is both logically and ontologically prior to strong evaluation” (Taylor, 1989, p. 99): intrinsically high value calls forth strong evaluation on our part. It moves us, pulls at us existentially, motivates us. This is the point of a great cause like curing polio, or building houses that the poor can afford, or reaching out to alienated youth.

Thus, the first point of Taylor’s argument about morality is that there exists qualitative discriminations intimately related to the self, yet to some important degree independent of human choice or will (ontologically prior). This is the stance of the critical realist. The good is something the human self owns personally, and something with which an individual can build a relationship, to love or even fear such a good because of what it costs to embrace it. Yes, the good has an independent status from its owner–thus showing a healthy objective-subjective tension.

The good is no mere projection, or the mere boosting/valorization of a certain value. Neither is it reducible to one’s chosen style or aesthetic taste (type of latte). Projectivism holds that the world is essentially meaningless, and that one must create meaning for life by the values one affirms, chooses or creates (Weber, in his Nietzschean mode, suggests that all we can do is posit values). A moral good, under such projectivism, would calculate as only a myth or illusion, perhaps even a delusion, even if a myth by which one lives and seems to flourish. This is where critical thinking comes into play in life; your philosophy impacts your life practice. There is a truth-subjectivity linkage at stake here. Perhaps this is why French intellectual  Emmanuel Lévinas sees ethics as the prime philosophy.

Thus, moral realists say that there are both objective characteristics and personal interpretations concerning morality, that there is a moral world that is independent of, while intimately interwoven with, the self’s articulation, interpretation and understanding. That’s a mouthful. The ‘moral world’ is happily something one can grapple with, embrace and get to know intimately–through an adventure like the Odyssey. We are in narrative process of moral growth from childhood to adulthood. In fact, a newly discovered moral good or virtue can change a person, set them free at some level. Recall those high school days of identity pain and suffering. Critical moral realists therefore assume that some interpretations come closer to explaining well the phenomena of human moral experience, that they are more accurate, more plausible, more human or functional  than others. We know this to be true of any great story: we often find ourselves navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis.

Moral growth (C. Taylor, 2016, 222) also entails growth in ethical insight. This involves a tweaking of our present position, “getting better through seeing better,” as Taylor puts it. Articulation, reflection and self-critique are all involved. A healthy hermeneutical circle is active, a back and forth between enactment/praxis and coming up with new language and interpretation—with a view to improving and getting it more correct. This dynamic process/dialectic is essential to human freedom and healthy agency. Openness here allows us to understand others better and to continually improve our own moral applications. There must be a recognition of difference that others have as their “take” on moral meaning or the good. Thereby, suggests Taylor, human rationality gainfully engages human morality. We have more of an articulate grasp of the moral landscape, and we can examine our motives, our assumptions or even our presumptions.

Furthermore, Taylor holds that these identified moral instincts are rooted in some greater reality than the self, something transcendent. Transcendence in the strong sense (Clavin Schrag, The Self After Postmodernity, 113) creates space for the transfiguration of self and society. It is a radical exteriority which resides on the other side of the economies of human experience (science, ethics, religion and aesthetics), while playing a role in the drama of self-constitution and the attestation of self and its identity. This is how we get transcendence-in-immanence. The moral self is not wholly the product of culture or a product of human creativity alone: self-construction, or self-actualization alone, existential choice. It is not reducible to one’s base desires for food, sex, survival, wealth. Those are first order desires. This is the distinct and important anthropological space in which Taylor positions himself. We become more human when we transcend the merely human, especially the mere animal instincts of our lower (lizard) brain. We want to nurture our frontal cortex of moral reasoning and the myelination of those moral neurons. But transcendence, which exist outside the economy of production and consumption, involves encounter with the Other which produces depth of self. This is where we could draw on Kierkegaard’s pivotal concept ‘works of love’ as in friendship, the grammar of grace and gift. Schrag is brilliant here.

Taylor does not believe that any moral self-constitution can do without some employment of the good, even if it is covert, hidden, or unconscious. He (1989, p.12) contrasts his stance with the post-Romantic notion of individual diférence where: “individual rights expands to the demand that we give people the freedom to develop their personality in their own way, however repugnant to ourselves and even to our moral sense.” This kind of eclectic, radical subjectivism/solipsism rings inadequate to healthy relationships and often ends up being irresponsible and socially dysfunctional. We can do better. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GykkuulgY2E  Moral Relativism Examined

What a person is will ultimately determine if their brain, talents, competencies, energy, effort, deal-making abilities and opportunities will succeed. Character is the often most vital and yet most neglected component. (Henry Cloud, Integrity, 8)

In the next post, we will expand on Taylor’s concept of moral frameworks.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, meta-educator among graduate students and faculty at UBC Vancouver.

Read Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, Chapter 4. “Subjectivizing Morality”; and  Charles Taylor , Sources of the Self, Part I. 1989.

YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbWwVv5aQL0 Moral Relativism Investigated

CBC Ideas Program: After Atheism

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self. Harvard University Press.


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