Posted by: gcarkner | April 25, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Part 6.

Taylor’s Concept of Moral Horizon/Map

Another important dimension of the moral self for Charles Taylor is the concept of horizon, a larger context for its moral discriminations. Taylor continues to develop the case for critical moral realism by arguing that one needs a frame to make sense of (sort through) these basic human intuitions for the good. This means that one has to articulate oneself within a moral framework in a way that makes sense of that experience. The various goods that vie for attention need to be organized within a defined moral worldview, a bigger picture of moral thought-act. This process involves the geographic metaphor moral mapping of an inner landscape. It is necessary, given a set of parameters, to make explicit the existence within the self of a map (sorting mechanism) which can describe, contextualize and guide one’s moral experience, reflections and judgments.

There are three axes of moral frameworks which are not properly defined by the natural laws of science, but very closely aligned with one’s identity. Sam Harris wants to find a scientific basis for ethics. He too wants and alternative to destructive/corruptive moral relativism.

  1. Beliefs about the value of human life, the respect that is due others, and what this will cost us, and even demand from us.
  2. Beliefs about what kind of life is worth living–the honourable life. This belief permeates all our choices and actions qualitatively.
  3. The dignity we afford ourselves and others based on how we understand our role and usefulness to society, our place or calling within the larger scheme of things.

Taylor believes that this frame is very significant for healthy moral consciousness and personhood. It helps us to feel good about ourselves, but more than this, it anchors us. He sees this moral horizon as an essential dimension of the self’s moral reality, claiming that all selves have such a framework, even if it is present in a fragile state or even if we are entirely unconscious of it. The self is existentially interconnected/interwoven, in dialectical relationship with such a horizon/map. Taylor (1989) writes:

I want to defend the strong thesis that doing without moral frameworks is utterly impossible for us; otherwise put, that the horizons within which we live our lives and which make sense of them have to include these strong qualitative discriminations. Moreover, this is not meant just as a contingently true psychological fact about human beings …. Rather the claim is that living within such strongly qualified horizons is constitutive of human agency, that stepping outside these limits would be tantamount to stepping outside what we would recognize as integral, that is, undamaged human personhood. (27)

The psychopath or sociopath (a Ted Bundy or Charles Manson), on the contrary, is a person who is out of touch with such a moral horizon and tends to lack such empathy for others. Many narcissistic cultic leaders have been happy to manipulate and exploit people’s hurts and vulnerabilities and to steal their wealth. Taylor comments on the crisis that emerges with the loss of such a horizon as a disorientation of self, the kind of phenomenon that is endemic to nihilism (Ibid., 18-19). He notes that to begin to lose one’s orientation is to be in crisis—a moral, spiritual and identity crisis— and to lose it utterly is to break down and enter a zone of extreme pathology (Ibid., 27-28). Employing the metaphor of physical space, Taylor claims that the moral framework orients the self in moral space, a space of moral questions of purpose, conduct and direction. One’s moral horizon is composed of a series of qualitative discriminations spoken of in previous posts, strong evaluations, or judgments about which goods are of higher and highest importance. The moral horizon automatically invokes a hierarchy of goods. It offers structure and guidance concerning how to relate to others, what it is good to be or become, how it is appropriate to act, and what is meaningful, important and rewarding, and finally what one endorses or opposes.

Some may lack such an orientation but it is not taken as a situation to be normalized or celebrated as a boon of freedom. Rather, it is taken as a serious concern for that individual’s moral and mental health, it is a form of identity confusion. The qualitative nature of the framework reads as follows.

To think, feel, judge within such a framework is to function with a sense that some action, or mode of life, or mode of feeling is incomparably higher than the others … available to us. Higher means deeper, purer, fuller, more admirable, making an absolute claim …. Higher goods command our respect, awe, admiration—act as a standard. (C. Taylor, 1989, 19-20)

An exemplar, such as Martin Luther King Jr. who was committed to peace and love as well as to justice, freedom and human rights, offers an inspiration of the good person, the good life, the life of higher purpose and calling. This reference to incomparably higher speaks of the hypergood, an important aspect of the framework, which will be elaborated in detail in the next post in this series. This vital framework or horizon is one’s ultimate claim about the nature and contours of the moral world. It constitutes reality to the person, but too few understand its importance. It is not held lightly. But, it is both dynamic within itself and essential to discerning/interpreting oneself in an ongoing basis to those around you. We experience a resonance with our framework and it empowers us to think, reflect, choose, act, and create with hope, consistency and confidence. When we articulate such a horizon with its vital goods, we make our tacit framework explicit. It makes us more conscientious and morally empowered for leadership, for taking a stance in, and with respect to, the world. We are more grounded morally and ethically as it becomes a lifestyle and philosophy of life. Here’s a thought from American social justice advocate Jim Wallis:

I believe the best idea of the conservative political philosophy is the call to personal responsibility: choices and decisions about individual moral behaviour, personal relationships like marriage and parenting, work ethics, fiscal integrity, service, compassion, and security. And the best idea of the liberal philosophy is the call to social responsibility: the commitment to our neighbour, economic fairness, racial and gender equality, the just nature of society, needed social safety nets, public accountability for business, and the importance of cooperative international relationships. (J. Wallis, The (Un)Common Good, 16)

This is what distinguishes human meanings from biological (organismic/materialistic/naturalistic) meanings. Designative or biological meanings that we encounter and engage in science are necessarily reductive by nature. They cannot account for the beautiful nuances and varieties of human motivations, feelings and aspirations. Poetry can help. An example of human meaning (constitutive-expressive) is an admirable or noble way of being, rather than one’s mere statistical census existence—what Iris Murdoch calls the “good man”. The right words help enable a new shape of human experience, new goals, new developments. We need fresh language, vocabulary and grammar, to negotiate life ethically and morally towards a robust identity. Words precede experience in the constitutive semantic logic (C. Taylor, 2016, Chapter 6, 177-263) in a similar sense to how God’s speaking (speech act) comes before the world came into dynamic existence. The right kind of language matters greatly.

This brilliant insight offers hope for change and maturity of identity, for grasping afresh one’s prospects for growth. Language has an important influence on moral development–one’s constructive capacity. Language is an important entity between people, a basis for communion, an attentiveness that we share in common; dialogue is an essential human cultural phenomenon. Language is a key part of human agency, and the way we position ourselves in the world, helping us to rise above our animal instincts, and helping us to find ways of dealing with the challenges of our existence. But also, it has burdened us with the charge to consider the meaning and calling of our existence, i.e. goals beyond mere biological survival, responsibility for hosting the other.

Guidelines/Skills for Championing Discernment/Wisdom/Phronesis

  • Able to pursue ideas and think for yourself.
  • Champion continual search for the truth.
  • Too much choice can be harmful to one’s psychological and sociological wellbeing.
  • Don’t buy into relativism or subjectivism (unfortunately, 70% of Canadians do just that). It cannot be lived well, does not end well—not good for human flourishing.
  • Remember, your personal opinion might be poorly examined and ill-informed, bigoted or seriously biased.
  • Celebrate high values/virtues: honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, decency, respect for life, good environmental stewardship, taking responsibility for self and others.
  • Shun dishonesty, abuse, exploitation, theft, fraud, plagiarism, things causing emotional pain and suffering, the not-so-good side of human character.
  • Ask yourself what leads to a good, productive life?
  • Learn to distinguish between good, better, and best decisions. Not all theories or worldviews are of equal quality.
  • Think about the consequences of your actions, even unintended ones.
  • Cultivate the gift of hospitality, giving to others and an end in themselves.


We often operate within a certain habitus, or moral ethos or social imaginary, where we value things pre-articulately. But, the key benefits of articulation (verbalization of felt convictions) are as follows: (a) It deepens one’s understanding of moral goods, behaviours and responses by showing what underpins them. It backgrounds and contextualizes the moral self, thought and action. (b) It heightens one’s awareness of the complexity of moral life and the diverse range of goods to which modern individuals adhere. (c) It enhances the rational discussion, debate and evaluation of goods because they are brought to the surface of consciousness and more easily examined. They gain intellectual substance or weight.

Taylor uses this term ‘articulate’ for the process whereby the aspects of the moral world are identified, clarified and made accessible, so that they can empower moral agents (C. Taylor, 1989, 18). To articulate means to draw the background picture which makes sense of one’s life morally speaking. It offers to locate the good vis-à-vis the self, and to specify the dynamics of how the self is related, or relates itself, to the good (friend or enemy). He suggests that the self naturally has an urge to make explicit this background picture (moral map). A discourse or moral footing (C. Taylor, 2016, Chapter 7, 264-288) emerges which is similar to a covenant of trust. The articulation produces an awareness of something that is unspoken but presupposed, the tacit becomes explicit.

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.  ~Robert F. Kennedy

This process reveals itself, for instance, when there is a moral challenge to one’s framework by another person such as a spouse or a colleague, a moral dilemma or a challenging/conflictual circumstance. This elicits the ideals that draw the self to a particular moral outlook, empowers the individual, and inspires one to consciously reassess and act in accord with such a framework of convictions. Henry Cloud talks about this as one’s wake in his book Integrity.  It is also important to realize that one can adopt new goods into one’s moral framework as these are deemed valuable in the process of one’s moral and spiritual quest and maturity of identity. Moral horizons can be quite dynamic and develop over time in response to a variety of experiences and influences. One is often deeply impacted by a mentor or even a tragedy. We need to know what we are looking for in life.

Taylor takes note of this important distinction about the development of identity: he claims that one’s moral worldview is critical to one’s very self-understanding. “Get a grip on yourself”, we often say to a friend, “Stand up to these challengers.”

My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose … the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand (C. Taylor, 1989, 27).

This is such an important statement. If a person is a hermeneutical (self-interpreting) animal, the moral framework is deeply endemic to one’s self-interpretation (C. Taylor, 1989, 34-36) and thus self-understanding. Of course, there are different moral horizons, different maps for different people. Taylor recognizes that the orientation in moral space of an anarchist is quite different from that of a Catholic, an environmentalist or a feminist. In this sense, various selves live in different moral universes, operating on a radically different palette of assumptions, motivations, sentiments, drives and concerns. He feels that it is very positive to articulate and reveal these differences, rather than hide them philosophically, or dumb down our moral discourse to inconsequential matters. If we were aware of some of our hidden assumptions, they might frighten us; we often discover them through a great novel. It works towards better understanding, communication and debate–engagement. The relationship with one’s framework is interactive, dialectical and the goods within a framework are internally vital, as dynamic as a living cell.

Contrary to some contemporary assumptions, such a framework is not simply something imposed by society, parents, teachers or a ruling élite, part of a power/knowledge regime, although the original version is often first received from parents or a village culture. Clearly, one can be schooled or mentored in such a frame of moral reference, either formally or informally. Taylor believes that one’s moral framework or horizon includes a personal spiritual quest or narrative journey (C. Taylor, 1989, 17-18). It is heading in a certain direction.  It is something that is both invented and discovered ‘in virtue of which we make sense of our lives spiritually’ (Ibid., 18) and it refers to the search and discovery of one’s higher calling. The life-enhancing quest is to find a fit for one’s reflective moral experience. Indeed, this is a creative, life-long process: discovering this fit depends on, and is interwoven with, articulating it. The discovery of a sense to life involves framing meaningful expressions which are adequate and carry moral substance, and have moral currency (Ibid., 18). They must have resonance. Humans are creatively involved in the development and shaping of their moral horizon both individually and socially, for example during those formative university years for Millennials.

Through his discussion about frameworks, Taylor recovers an interest in a commitment to the good. In his understanding, development of identity emerges in a way that is closely linked to one’s orientation within a particular moral framework or horizon, that is, where one is positioned with respect to one’s moral map and the goods within one’s horizon. This is the defining edge of meaning in one’s life, an identity boost, a boon to our moral courage. He claims that a self with depth (a thick self) must be defined in terms of the good: “In order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher” (Taylor, 1989, 47). What one calls the good is the most significant defining factor: “What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me and how I orient myself to the good” (Ibid., p. 34). Genuine self-understanding, clarification, moral self-discipline and education require that the self be identified and articulated within such a moral horizon. It also means that, “one orients oneself in a space which exists independently of one’s success or failure in finding one’s bearings”. One is also able to grow up or mature into one’s framework as we dialogue with others. This adds another dimension to the objective pole in his moral ontology: the moral horizon has a status independent of the self, although intimately and dialectically entwined with the self. A person is existentially connected with their framework. One definition of nihilism is the denial/refusal or loss of such a framework.

There is another important distinction in Taylor’s proposal. As he identifies the existence of many different and conflicting horizons (maps) that frame and discern individual moral space, it raises a question. Is he merely proposing a sophisticated form of relativism: one of moral frameworks? In this regard, he does offer an important qualifier in a response to critical papers on his work, Philosophy in An Age of Pluralism (J. Tully, Ed., 1994). He rejects any sense of arbitrariness of one’s framework, or the equality of all frameworks, in favour of a more critical and thoughtful perspective. Some frameworks actually calculate as being of higher value. Others are ignoble or sleazy. And one can improve one’s framework by sophisticating it, maturing it over time.

Realism involves ranking (some) schemes and ranking them in terms of their ability to cope with, allow us to know, describe, come to understand reality. Some schemes are better or worse than others …. Moral realism requires one be able to identify certain moral changes as gains or losses, yet it can be sensitive to the complexities of life and of moral choice. (C. Taylor, 1994, 220 & 224)

This is not quite the same as scientific realism (although there is some overlap in intent as Ray Bhaskar, founder of critical realism, would affirm) where the forces of nature operate in a certain way whether humans observe them in that way or not, and where the scientist bends his analysis or theory to fit newly discovered facts or a new methodology. Moral goods transcend one’s embrace, knowledge or awareness of them. But moral goods do not exist outside of the human realm. It is human beings only that see significance in a moral good and a particular moral framework. This is Taylor’s concept of resonance. An important nuance in moral realism states that some frameworks are ‘truer to authentic human experience’ and make more sense of life than others, that they are more plausible, and more noble. A moral framework works in praxis, in daily life.

Yet there are no final criteria, according to Taylor, for evaluating or judging between different frameworks, except to reveal what they actually claim. This is a critical insight as fraudulent ones (the delusional ones) will be exposed to the light of day. Frameworks are evaluated rationally by their highest ideals—hypergood—and by their personal resonance with the self (their sense of fitness). They are deeply connected to one’s self-interpretation, one’s sense of self in the relationship with other selves. Taylor puts forward an honest appraisal of the actual situation, a critique of the superficial notion of soft relativism.

The point of view from which we might constate that all orders are equally arbitrary, in particular that all moral views are equally so, is just not available to us as humans. It is a form of self-delusion to think that we do not speak from a moral orientation which we take to be right. That is a condition of being a functioning self, not a metaphysical view we can put on or off. (1989, p. 99)

Students can kick around various moral views in residence bull sessions, but the adoption of a lower framework in actual life will bite back in the long run, perhaps through a broken marriage or even jail time. Significantly, it is not possible to hold a position where all horizons are created equal, or to hold one’s moral horizon lightly or superficially, because it shapes your very identity. It is a serious personal matter. Taylor does offer hope that when one becomes dissatisfied with one’s current horizon, there is a non-coercive way forward of searching through it towards a better alternative. This is the path of error reduction or filling in the gaps within one’s view. This is real growth. He also emphasizes that one must be able to live consistently and non-ambivalently within one’s horizon. It must take on increased plausibility, become more sound, reduce the conflicts within the self and with other, improve one spiritually. This is the direction of wholeness and honesty with self.

Millennials are asking today: How can I live in the house of meaning constructed by my forebears, or how can I create a new one of my own with which I resonate, am inspired?

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


Live Reading by Gordon Carkner

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.


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