Posted by: gcarkner | July 10, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 9

The Hypergood, a Moral Culture Driver

Within one’s moral horizon, the domain of the moral includes many different goods that repeatedly vie for our attention. This is quite positive, but it can be frustrating and confusing as well. There is often competition and even conflict between these goods, especially in society at large, but also within the individual self. Charles Taylor (via positiva) wants to strongly affirm these goods for the benefit of all, and in their full plurality, believing that they can empower. He wants to recover or retrieve many lost goods from our cultural history. He does not want to stifle their potential just because they come into conflict–a late twentieth century tendency. But how do we sort out which good to pay attention to at any given moment? How do we stay focused and sort out the weight we give each one? Below we examine the important role of the hypergood as a manager-supervisor of the lesser goods in our lives and our conscience. It is a fascinating concept of the highest good, essential to the use of power at all levels.

The Examined, Reflective, Purposeful Life is  Well Worth Living

We continue our force de résistance against the idea that unsituated freedom can be reduced to a mere matter of the naked, individual will–sovereign free choice alone. See our blog series on Freedom, Identity and the Good: William Connoly captures the concern at hand in reflecting on Charles Taylor’s posture on freedom of the individual in context.

Taylor seeks to transcend the illusion of the sovereign self in command of the world by situating it in a world both larger than it and partly constitutive of it. He does this by striving to articulate for us those elements in the self and its circumstances that come closest to expressing what we are at our best. The most expressive articulations are not simply the creations of subjects, nor do they represent what is true in itself independently of human articulation: “They rather have the power to move us because they manifest our expressive power itself and our relation to our world. In this kind of expression we are responding to the way things are, rather than just exteriorizing our feelings.” (C. Taylor, 1978) 

According to Taylor, the potential resolution of this dilemma of the plurality of goods, the tension between goods, comes by way of a highest good among the strongly-valued goods. Within the moral framework, this is called the ‘hypergood’ (C. Taylor, 1989, 63-73, 100-102, 104-106). “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.” (C. Taylor, 1989, 63) The hypergood has hierarchical priority and dominance. It has a significant shaping power within the moral framework. It is the good that the individual is most conscious of, most passionate about, a good that rests at the very core of one’s identity. Jesus of Nazareth once said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Some things are inherently true and good in themselves and they are good for us both as people and as moral agents, and finally good for society as a whole. These goods resonate with us.

How Dose the Hypergood Work?

The hypergood helps us keep focus, amidst the tensions, by effectively orchestrating the arrangement and hierarchy of other goods within one’s moral horizon or frame. It positions us in the world. It interprets their priority and their moral play. It can raise or lower their priority, promote or demote them, or even eliminate certain goods from moral play altogether. When one is engaging a particular problem, some goods are more important than others for solving that problem. The hypergood has a vital role and real power in organizing one’s inner resources. We would do well to pay close attention to this moral driver in individuals and groups. It tells us a lot about what is vital to the individual. We should listen hard for the heartbeat of the hypergood in a friend or colleague. A person seeking full personhood should be well-positioned with respect to this particular good. This pre-eminent good grounds and directs one’s overall moral beliefs, goals, and aspirations. We believe in it strongly, viscerally. It works to define and give important shape to our entire moral outlook. It helps us avoid a meltdown into nihilism, sociopathy and narcissism, which constitute the implosion of identity, creativity and personality . There’s much more to morality than negative freedom, freedom from oppression.

Complete freedom would be a void in which nothing would be worth doing, nothing would deserve to count for anything. The self which has arrived at freedom by setting aside all external obstacles and impingements is characterless, and hence without defined purpose. (C. Taylor, 1979, 157) 

Examples of the hypergood (1989, p. 65) given by Taylor are: happiness, equal respect, family, universal justice, divine will/agape love, self-respect and self-fulfilment. There can also be conflict between these hypergoods as there are between persons who hold them. If one is negotiating a contract or peace treaty, it is vital that we see where we are with respect to each other at this scale of commitment. One easily sees the conflict among the three major hypergoods in Western culture:

a. universal justice and reduction of human suffering (the humanist concern for the victim),

b. self-determining freedom (radical individualism and self-expression), a postmodern phenomenon,

c. the hypergood of affirmation of everyday life or equal respect (an ethics of the common person).

More about these later, but this can really help us understand one another better.

The Dionysian Danger

In this light, Taylor writes of the Dionysian danger, life without a hypergood, without meaning, in the following way:

If free activity cannot be defined in opposition to our nature and situation, on pain of vacuity, it cannot simply be identified with following our strongest, or most persistent, or most all-embracing desire either. That would make it impossible to say that our freedom was ever thwarted by our own compulsions, fears, or obsessions. One needs to be able to separate compulsions, fears, addictions from higher more authentic aspirations. (C. Taylor, 1979, 157)  

Critical thought indeed. There is a dark side to this release of the passions and appetites, on a trajectory of pleasures without end in late modernity. The sadistic, or narcissistic self can gain pleasure from causing other people pain. One ought to be able to distinguish between base compulsions and the ability to hold those compulsions in check for a higher purpose, for example, to save the life of a child, or help someone being victimized, to aid the homeless. The moral advance accomplished by Michel Foucault’s self in the pursuit of justice as a release of the captive self from repression is one side of freedom, for sure–negative freedom. But we cannot miss the darker possibilities of the desires of the moral self toward a possible addiction to the anti-human, irrational hatred, or racism as it troubles the uncensored Internet. This is what Taylor (1979, 158) cautions: “We have to be able to distinguish between compulsions, fears, addictions from those aspirations which we endorse with our whole soul.” It is a key point that absolute freedom misses the point about the distortions of inauthentic (suspect) and malevolent desires, and how they can lead to a life of mediocrity, self-indulgence, self-destruction and hurt towards others. The end point is prison and unfreedom or slavery.

The hypergood, on the other hand, avoids this danger. It has a major influence on how one’s individual moral horizon gets articulated, the hierarchy of life goods and how one is generally oriented in moral life in the real world. The hypergood is independent/transcendent of the individual self and choice. In fact, it shapes one’s actual desires and choices. It is not merely an ideal or the mere object of a high contemplation (the poetic side). The hypergood can be quite demanding, set a strong course in life, and often requires great personal sacrifice. It is a driver on many ways. Think of Doctors Without Borders and the hypergood of reducing suffering and curing disease in vulnerable areas of the world–involving risk and personal cost or sacrifice. The image also comes to mind of young students laying down their bodies in front of logging trucks and risking arrest to save old growth forests on Vancouver Island. Or facing tear gas, water canons and arrest in the protest for democracy and human rights, against oppression, in various parts of the world. To capture an awareness of my hypergood is to capture a sense of myself at a deeper level.

What is this vital role of the hypergood in self-constitution and personal growth? What is one’s possible relationship to this good? How does it impact one’s identity? According to Taylor, a self with the requisite depth and complexity to have an identity (a thick self), must be defined in terms of such a good, and is literally interwoven with it. This good becomes one’s main moral driver or motivation. One’s whole identity is essentially defined by one’s orientation to such a hypergood. It is deeply personal and can even be troubling. Taylor (1989, 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 also a core concept at the centre of one’s sense of calling in life. It provides the point against which the individual measures her direction and progress in life.

Finally, the hypergood is something which one grows towards and into, producing maturity of identity over time. It provides emotional and spiritual infrastructure and conflict resolution. Taylor (1989, 73) says significantly, “Our acceptance of any hypergood is connected in a complex way with our being moved by it.” The hypergood has a major impact on one’s moral stance in life. His strong 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.

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. (Taylor 1989, 27, 28)

Brilliant. With philosophical leverage, Taylor provocatively suggests that the hypergood that shapes the moral self could include the fulfilment of one’s duties and obligations (responsibility) to others. It has a social dimension as well. “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. In this line of thought, he posits the possibility that agape love could be such a hypergood to empower the moral self and bring purposeful unity amidst the plurality of goods. More coming on this in a future post.

Can agape love be such a hypergood?

Taylor puts it this way.

God’s love is one active contemporary source of the good, the love of which has empowered people to do the good and exemplify the good in their character, social life and politics. Taylor suggests that to avoid nihilism, we need a transcendent turn to avoid the extremes of self-hatred, guilt and shame; or alternatively the extremity of hating morality itself—spiritual lobotomy. The transcendent turn to agape becomes vital: “The only way to escape fully the draw toward violence”, he writes, “lies somewhere in the turn to transcendence—that is, through the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” (Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?, 1999, 28).

Theologian Christof Schwöbel (1995) articulates the trajectory of this conclusion regarding the good and freedom.

The redemption of freedom is liberation from freedom for freedom, from the destructive consequences of absolute self-constituted freedom and for the exercise of redeemed and created human freedom which is called to find fulfilment in communion with God … Redeemed freedom is … essentially finite, relative freedom, freedom which is dependent on finding its orientation in the disclosure of the truth of the gospel … freedom as created, as the freedom of creatures whose freedom is not constituted by them but for them. (78)   

Three Conclusions from my PhD on Freedom and the Moral Good: a dialogue between Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor

Proposition One: Redeemed freedom means that one refuses freedom as an ontological ground of ethics, and embraces a new definition of freedom within an ontology of the moral good. Taylor’s horizon of the good is offered as an alternative to Foucault’s horizon of aesthetic-freedom.

Proposition Two: Redeemed freedom by definition takes on a distinctively communal character; it is contextualized within a discussion and relationships between fellow interlocutors, against the backdrop of a larger narrative which makes sense of self. Individual freedom gives up ground to community and makes space for the Other in order to avoid some of the pitfalls of radical autonomy and provide for a richer moral experience.

Proposition Three: Redeemed freedom flourishes within a transcendent trinitarian horizon. Trinitarian divine goodness proves to be a fruitful plausibility structure within which to think differently about freedom and the moral self.  Trinitarian goodness-freedom answers some of the concerns in the Foucauldian self and reveals new opportunities for identity, discovery, transformation and exploration. It also adds sophistication and meaning to some of Taylor’s categories without offering the final answer on the discussion. It is in the life of Jesus as a member of the Trinity that one can visualize this goodness-freedom dynamic most dramatically.

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD in Philosophical Theology, Meta-Educator with Postgrad Students at UBC

See also, Tools for the Spiritual Journey in this Blog.

Schwöbel, C. (1992). God’s Goodness and Human Morality. In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos. 

Schwöbel, C. (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom.  In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology  (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

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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