Posted by: gcarkner | May 21, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 7.

Multiplicity of Goods: Enter the Hypergood

Millennials need more of what Charles Taylor has to offer, as they try to figure out where they fit and how they can make a contribution to society, to engage life robustly, take up their calling and live with integrity. Where can they make a stand and position themselves most fruitfully? How can they learn how to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight? What will give them longevity and resilience in a storm of challenges ahead? How can they harness their passion, face their inner doubts and discover wisdom for the journey? Does today’s world not seem to ask them to become some kind of superhero like Black Panther? This post proposes a hermeneutical way of seeing the world:

Within the moral horizon/frame, the domain of the moral includes many different goods that swirl around us and vie for our attention. This can sometimes be frustrating, difficult and confusing in practice. But it is actually unavoidable, life-enhancing and exciting, claims Taylor. Surprisingly, there is often competition and even conflict between these goods, especially in society at large, but also within the individual soul. This is why we often feel conflicted and unsure about how to take action. We may well ask: How does one choose between them? Which one is the most relevant? Brilliantly, Taylor wants to strongly affirms all these goods, in their plurality, for the benefit of us all. He does not want to stifle any one good, or its potential, just because of its conflict with another. This is pertinent to mature ethics and sound moral decision-making, and growing identity maturity. There is real wealth in all these human (metabiological) goods. We abandon them at our peril. We must be willing to grapple with their importance, reckon with the tensions and find a balance in moral lifestyle. This stance moves us beyond facile moral subjectivism, or an implosion of the self, a losing proposition. It is the mindless moral low ball that requires no thought or effort.

Here’s an example of conflict between goods. We inevitably find tension in serving the needs of our career versus the needs of our family or spouse. Going for that PhD or building that career is exciting, but it can offer a tremendous strain on a family. One person is highly stimulated with research, thrilling experiments, writing and dialogue with colleagues (solving the world’s problems) while the other is caring for young children in a completely different space, often lacking serious adult engagement. It can be quite costly and some exhausted spouses have tragically handed back their ring at the graduation ceremony. During my PhD writing of a 100,000 word thesis on Michel Foucault, my young daughter would often come into my office and force me to pay attention to her need for my love. I would say: “Wait sweetheart, I’m just finishing this thought.” But, she would have none of it. She demanded my attention, in the moment. We often laugh about this now. I now see her proudly as a newly minted university graduate. She knows the hard work or research and writing. Both my thesis and her fatherly love interest were both important goods which came into conflict. They were in existential tension and this is not an unusual scenario in life. It is wise to remember that quite often doing the right thing is not always the easy option. For example, moving for one’s career posting can upset children who have to make a whole new set of friends in a new school and city.

But conflict is not necessarily a negative state in our case. This may seem counter-intuitive, but Taylor believes we are not going mad when we experience such things. These tensions between goods are a positive sign of moral health, of robust decision-making, of character formation, of spiritual growth. When we are coming of age, we need others to rub up against us, to agree and disagree with us, challenge our ideas, test us, feed us new and better information, push us to higher standards of achievement. Thus, Taylor wisely does not want to resolve these tensions in any facile way by allowing one good to devour, repress or eliminate all the rest. That is too simplistic and in the end quite harmful. It reminds me of an urban legend about a student who thought he could exist entirely on a diet of peanut butter. He ended up nutritionally deprived and contracted scurvy. This can happen in various schools of moral thought such as utilitarianism, where happiness is the main good, or the current twenty-first century understanding of freedom of my choice as the beginning and end of all things moral. It ignores a number of other vital societal, transcendent and personal goods in play in the game of everyday life.

It is Taylor’s conviction that the denial of certain goods or families of goods has led to serious imbalance (one-sidedness) within Western moral philosophy. We should mourn with him about this loss to culture. He wants to resurrect the whole spectrum of goods as moral sources, for our personal renewal and empowerment. He also laments the strange reaction of eliminating all moral goods or virtues due to their periodic abuse. This move calculates as an important error of thought and action.

What leads to a wrong answer must be a false principle. [This outlook] is quick to jump to the conclusion that whatever has generated bad action must be vicious … What it loses from sight is that there may be genuine dilemmas here, that following one good to the end may be catastrophic, not because it isn’t good, but because there are others that cannot be sacrificed without evil. (C. Taylor, 1989, 503)

Chantal Delsol, in her profound  Icarus Fallen: the search for meaning in an age of uncertainty, notes that ideological expressions of the good in the twentieth century such as fascism, Maoism or Stalinism are among the reasons Western society is very shy about any claim to the good. There is a fear factor at work–that a claim to the good always leads to destructive ideology. But this is simply not true. Such over-reaction produces a negative morality of the extremes we are afraid of, versus what we are passionate about constructing as a good for self, society or international relations. This rejection of the moral good in general is a philosophical and moral tragedy. For example, why can we not balance concerns of economy with ecology? Taking such hard positions leads to division and tribalism. Extreme repudiations and denials of a good are not just intellectual error; they are also “self-stultifying, assuming that a particular good can empower one to positive action” (C. Taylor, 1989, 504). Crucially, it is the affirmation of the tension between these goods that keeps an ethical theory and praxis robust. The tensions are not beyond resolution, but resolution requires the recognition of the need for a hierarchy of the goods, including  the concept of a greater good (aka a hypergood).

Millennial Moral-Spiritual-Identity Struggles

According to renowned University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby, co-author of  The Millennial Mosaic, Canadian Millennials have the following unique characteristics when it comes to negotiating their moral landscape. Their pressures (internal and external) can lead to identity stress and powerful personal angst. But Taylor can help them be more conscious of what is at stake in the goods that shape them, or the ones to which they most deeply aspire. He can help them reflect more deeply about what has gone right and wrong in their lives so far. As human social animals, we have a natural instinct for the good as a means of negotiating life and relationships with other people. This is an important area of sophistication and nuance.

  • Most diverse generation in history: grew up in a cultural mosaic, values mosaic, leisure mosaic, concern mosaic, religion mosaic.
  • Convergence of pluralism, individualism and choice mediated through our massive technological advances since the nineties.
  • Observe the brokenness of capitalism, globalization and the current severe challenges to liberal democracy.
  • Climate change and other environmental crises are their daily food for thought, their top concern. Now, of course COVID-19 and global economic stressors comes a close second. They are the first to be laid off in time of economic downturn.
  • They carry on the sexual revolution of the 1960s Boomers with very liberal views of marriage, divorce, abortion and sexual orientation and gender fluidity.
  • They are spiritual but not religious, they don’t so much resonate with institutions of religion but have religious longings and significant experiences of/encounters with the divine or radical Otherness. They want to talk to a wise person about these experiences.
  • Experience an epidemic of loneliness, despite being more connected through social media than any previous generation. Research shows that single men are ten times more lonely than married men, for example.
  • Struggle with managing the current information tsunami, plus the massive pluralism and diversity in which they live, move and have their being without being overwhelmed or cynical.
  • They carry a strong need/desire for wisdom, direction and discernment, mentorship, ongoing fathering, but often do not know where to find it.
  • See my previous posts on Identity Crisis:

The Hypergood

This is all important background information for us to explore the key function of the hypergood. Here’s how the management of these tensions can operate within a healthy moral framework. Taylor believes that one good—the hypergood—tends to surpass in value the other goods, but at the same time does not repress them and can actually empower them in life.  Rather, it organizes them in priority or hierarchy. This good is the rockstar, capturing the attention and respect of the other goods. It is vital to our very identity.

According to Charles Taylor, the resolution of the dilemma of the plurality of goods, and the tension between goods, comes by way of a highest good among the strongly-valued goods within the moral framework—the so-called ‘hypergood’ (1989, 63-73, 100-102, 104-106). He writes, “Let me call higher-order goods of this kind ‘hypergoods’, i.e. goods which are incomparably more important than the others, but provide the standpoint from which these [other goods] must be weighed, judged, decided about” (Ibid., 63). One could also use the term personal driver or highest ideal.

The hypergood has hierarchical priority and dominance (in a positive ledger); it has a significant shaping power within the moral framework, giving it direction and focus. It is the good that the individual is most conscious of, most passionate about, a good that rests at the core. The CEO-like hypergood effectively orchestrates the arrangement and hierarchy of other goods. It interprets their priority and sets their moral play–giving focus to one’s moral life. It is at the heart of a person’s meaning. It can raise or lower their priority, promote or demote them, or even eliminate certain goods from moral play altogether. It contains a powerful efficacy. It is vital that the individual be very conscious of, and well-positioned with respect to this good, this is vital to self-knowledge and to one’s sense of calling.

It is also vital to dialogue with others who may have a different hypergood. Many Millennials are lost because they have not taken the time to reflect, to go deep enough in order to identify their hypergood. This can take many walks along the beach, or climbs up the Grouse Grind to figure out. I used to muse on these eternal verities while preparing the fields for planting on our farm. It was the best therapy after a year of university education, to figure out what was going on inside my skin. At another key juncture, I took a motorcycle trip across Canada to talk with fellow Canadians about what was needed in future leadership in this country. This involved epic soul-searching as thousands of miles of highway passed beneath me. Millennials are often too busy focusing on the first mountain of career to be bothered with the second mountain of character, purpose and relationships (David Brooks, The Road to Character; and The Second Mountain). Yet, it is the second mountain that will give them the why of their existence, the resilience in life and work or grit, a topic which psychologist Angela Duckworth researches.

Examples of the hypergood (Ibid., 65) are: happiness, equal respect, universal justice, divine will, self-respect and self-fulfilment. It is important to examine one’s hypergood critically for its value, weight or gravity. Think of those Millennial ISIS warriors searching for a purpose, but headed in the wrong direction. Can our hypergood carry us through the perturbations and uncertainties of life, lead to a good life?

Sometimes there are conflicts between hypergoods, as there often are between the persons who embody them. The difference in another person can open our eyes to wonderful new insights about life, or even little nuances, to what is important, imaginative and meaningful. This conflict can deepen our own convictions about what drives us morally–our deepest convictions. Indeed, this is one of the major fringe benefits of a university education. We can identify this conflict among the three major modern hypergoods in Western culture: (a) universal justice and reduction of human suffering (concern for the victim), (b) self-determining freedom and autonomy, and (c) affirmation of everyday life or equal respect.

The hypergood has a major influence on how one’s individual moral horizon gets articulated and how one is generally oriented in moral space. The hypergood is independent, one could say transcendent of self and choice. It shapes our desires and choices. It is not merely an ideal or the mere object of a high admiration or contemplation (no mere poetic entity). The hypergood can demand much, often requiring great sacrifice, but it also gives much in terms of motivation, meaning, direction and purpose.

What is the role of the hypergood in self-constitution? What is one’s possible relationship to this good? And how does it actually impact a person’s identity? All good questions. According to Taylor, a self with the requisite depth and complexity to have an identity, must be defined in terms of such a good, is intimately and inextricably interwoven with it. One’s identity is essentially defined by orientation for, or against, such a hypergood. Perhaps you are right now reacting to the hypergood of your father.

It is also a core concept at the centre of one’s sense of calling in life, as it provides the point against which the individual measures her direction in life, her hard focus. Taylor (Ibid., 63) notes that, “It is orientation to this which comes closest to defining my identity, and therefore my direction to this good is of unique importance to me.” It is something which one grows towards, something that moves the individual emotionally. Taylor (Ibid., 73) says significantly, “Our acceptance of any hypergood is connected in a complex way with our being moved by it.” The hypergood moves our universe, leverages our future, and so we need to recognize its work in our inner self. It grabs hold of us even as we grasp hold of it. We benefit greatly from wise mentors and partners who have a strong hypergood, a true north, because we can visualize it in embodied form within societal embededness. Learn the hypergood of those you invest with or make covenant with, or suffer the consequences. Don’t become a victim of a moral Ponzi scheme, all flash and no substance. Many have been hurt and disillusioned by these fake substitutes.

It is not just a theory of the good: for Taylor, there is no such thing as moral neutrality, a space where one can take no stance on such a good.

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I try to decide from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done or what I endorse or oppose …. It is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand …. It is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary. (Ibid., 27, 28)

The hypergood has a major impact on one’s moral stance, one’s moral and spiritual grounding and outlook. His claim is that this is not only a phenomenological account of some selves, but an exploration of the very limits of the conceivable in the reflective healthy human life, an anthropological given.

Back to the Diversity of Goods

So why in the end is this diversity of goods important to Taylor? He tries to explain in Sources of the Self with a chapter entitled “The Conflicts of Modernity” (1989, 495- 521), a broad, profound reflection on the diversity of goods and the conflicts of the good among the major movements within Western modernity. Taylor is quite convinced that there exists a diversity of goods for which a valid claim can be made, and that they have a legitimate claim on us. Think about basic civility, mutual respect, truthfulness, integrity and honesty. We can grow up out of our selfishness and sense of entitlement, into these values on our way to maturity. Many would argue that our lives are meant to be a journey of growth into moral maturity, even as this often involves suffering, rather than a pursuit of happiness (Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Commencement Address).

Ethics ought not be reduced to the choice of just one good or principle, such as happiness (utilitarianism), efficiency, unfettered-freedom, or self-interest, to the exclusion of all others. This kind of choice is too narrow, and it is Taylor’s conviction that the denial of certain goods or families of goods has led us into serious trouble. Such a stance has eventually led to negative consequences for how people live together in the world, pushing them towards extremes, error and harm to self and others, to wasteful overall stewardship of one’s gifts. It can abstract us out of normal harmony and balance like that diet of peanut butter.

A one-good ethics becomes a destructive ideology. He warns against a selective denial or exclusion of certain goods: (Taylor, 1989, p. 503), “They find their way through the dilemmas of modernity by invalidating some of the crucial goods in contest.” There is an avoidance of such goods as benevolence or one’s responsibility for the Other in favour of self-interest alone. Justice is sometimes articulated as justice for me (my rights) over against the corporate/communal good or the good of the weaker other (orphan, stranger, outsider). Boston College philosopher Richard Kearney, an interlocutor of Taylor’s, is very sensitive to this concern which he articulates as the stance of hospitality.

There is a strong tendency in today’s Western societies for many Millennials to slide into a radical form of subjectivism, sensuality, entitlement, self-pity or narcissism. The overemphasis on the primacy of self-flourishing, self-esteem or self-actualization reproduces and reinforces some negative consequences that tend toward the use and sacrifice of the Other for one’s selfishness. Community affiliations, solidarities of birth, marriage, the family, all relations with the other, or the polis, all are subjected to one’s concern with oneself. This is definitely skewed and dangerous–sometimes toxic and painful.

Our normal understanding of self-realization presupposes that some things are important beyond the self, that there are some goods or purposes the furthering of which have significance for us and hence which can provide the significance of fulfilling life needs …. A totally and fully consistent subjectivism would tend toward emptiness: nothing would count as fulfilment in a world in which literally nothing was important but self-fulfilment. (C. Taylor, 1989, 507)

A society of self-fulfillers, whose affiliations are more tentative, revocable (without covenant) and mobile, cannot sustain a strong identification with community solidarity. This weakens the self and erodes personal resilience.

Thus, Taylor affirms that the tension between communal and individual goods can instruct us. They can mature us, need not hinder us, even if the tension at times annoys us. Relationship to a good comes at a real cost, but it is very much worth it. There are times when one good has to be sacrificed for another, especially a lower for a higher–such as self-sacrifice of time or suffering with another in care and compassion. He strongly claims that a conflict between goods should not entail or require the conclusion that one must refute or cancel out other important goods to reduce the tension, nor even worse to refute the validity of such goods in general. He wants to revive these goods in moral currency to “uncover buried goods through rearticulation— and thereby to make them sources again that empower” (C. Taylor, 1989, 520). He wants to affirm the complexity of multiple, active, efficacious moral goods.

With some weighty understanding, Taylor suggests that the hypergood that shapes the moral self could include the fulfilment of one’s duties and obligations (responsibility) to others. “Responsibility for the Other transports the self beyond the sphere of self-interest. Other-responsibility could also be seen as the greatest form of self-realization, featuring as the highest vocation of human subjectivity” (Taylor, 1989, 112). As a hypergood, Other-responsibility is integrated into the structure of selfhood without compromising the exteriority of the claims of the Other, as we find in the work of French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas. We can see our responsibility in the face of the Other. This commitment to benefit the Other is a measure of the credibility (weight) and trustworthiness of an individual. Watch what they do and what kind of wake they leave in their path. Do they leave a trail of broken, abused people or inspired and empowered people?

Crucially, it is the affirmation of the tension between these goods and the evolution of the moral framework that keeps an ethical theory on the cutting edge. The tensions are not beyond resolution, even though they can indeed be stressful. Taylor (1989, 503- 507 & 514) promotes an important inclusive, anti-reductionist stance on the good. Recognition of the complexity of the good is a way to maturity. Following his ideas of the good, Millennials can ask themselves some important questions as they struggle with their identity: How am I situated with respect to the good? Am I operating in a balanced way with respect to the multiplicity of goods and obligations that pull at me and sometimes enchant me? How do I discern between good, better and best? What is my central passion or my core good, the one that moves my universe and helps me make sense of life, the one that employs my giftedness towards the good of humanity at large? What are my sources of wisdom/mentorship and how do I get access to them? How do I find the unity or common ground amidst the bountiful plurality? These are some of the life questions examined in the Marvel movie Black Panther. Technology is not sufficient for good leadership, it requires growth in character. Thereby, Millennials can avoid the perils of being reduced to a performance identity, with its burnout consequences. They can discover the transcendent power of moral conviction, rediscover important moral language, grasp the impact of effective moral action and offer leadership with integrity and hope. Time for faith amidst uncertainty, faithfulness amidst change.

What do we learn from superhero movies like Black Panther? My teenage daughter strongly encouraged me to watch it with her recently. Here are a few notes of wisdom for Millennials: Life is not all about technology and know-how. In the end, it is about principle-centred, servant leadership, self-examination and personal growth. Find your loyal companions or trust circle and stick together. Learn the nature and complexity of your enemies, both within and without. Learn from those who disagree with you or have a different calling; it could expand your horizons and imagination. Don’t shrink back from challenges or necessary suffering on the road of your calling. Fight for the common good and help the weak ones. Use your bandwidth strategically, making friends of your competition if possible.

In a later post, I will discuss the work of singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian poet who has contributed much to young people wrestling with their identity (Kicking at the Darkness by Brian Walsh).

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, PhD philosophical theology, Meta-educator with postgraduate students at University of British Columbia

p.s. Another way to play in this discourse is through the science of virtue or politics of virtue (Mark McMinn, The Science of Virtue; Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue; John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future)

Adams, R.W. (1999). Finite and Infinite Goods: a framework for ethics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (especially chapter 13. Vocation, 292-317)

Gill, D. (2000). Becoming Good: building moral character. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

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.

See also English Professor Emeritus Dennis Danielson’s booklet Milton and the Search for Meaning.

Interesting article by Tom Holland:

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