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:

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.


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:  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.  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: Moral Relativism Investigated

CBC Ideas Program: After Atheism

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

Posted by: gcarkner | April 11, 2020

René Girard on Deep Easter

The Gospel According to René Girard

~ Peter Barber, former UBC Ph.D. Student in Religious Studies~

The two principal assertions of Girard’s hermeneutical model are ‘mimetic desire’ and ‘scapegoating’. Mimetic desire is the idea that humans do not experience being and identity autonomously, but always only through an Other, a model for one’s desire. This could be an older sibling, an exemplar or a mentor. Desire and by extension ‘being’ is borrowed. This essential feature of human nature accounts for the enormous learning capability (the physical apparatus for which is now identified as the brain’s mirror neuron system), and is a positive basic feature of human existence. And yet, since desiring and being is through a model other, two or more persons desiring the same object(s) or things could end in rivalry over the object(s). This can and often does result in occasioning conflict and seeming to necessitate, in the estimation of the rival(s), the need for sacrifice of the Other, in order to gain the being blocked or inhibited by the model.

It is in this way that scapegoating regularly results from mimetic desire going sideways, as just described. Positive learning descends into destructive violence, the desire to destroy what you admire. The term scapegoat is chosen by Girard because it encapsulates our cultures’ reception of the spirit of Christ’s revelation throughout history, that sacrifice of the other is not ‘good’, is not even necessary, but is the false transfer of responsibility for rivalry and violence off of oneself and entirely onto the Other. The transferal is followed by destruction of the Other for his/her guilt, and for the danger or social pollution they still pose, in blocking access to the desired object(s). It threatens social chaos, and the scapegoat is sacrificed to restore peace and order. 

Girard applies this view of anthropology and social psychology as an interpretive lens for the Gospels. He asserts that all human cultures, being religious (including our own) insofar as they are defined and maintained by the three religious pillars – myth (group-formed narrative), sacrifice, and law – are subverted and conquered, both ideologically and practically, by Jesus Christ’s actions and words recorded in the Gospel accounts. In his reading of these texts Girard disagrees sharply with much mainstream scholarship by (a) asserting the historical and compositional unity of the texts, and (b) arguing that the Gospels themselves return to myth (culture) in order to decode and conquer it, rather than being the receptacles of mythical accretions over time.

The Gospels’ conquest of myth is perceptible in their structure and content, which as Girard observes is framed as God stepping into the ‘eternal return’ or sacrificial cycle of culture with the mission of dismantling it, and more, of providing freedom from the perceived need for it, freedom from the violence (sin) that scapegoating contains. The plot, or events, of the Gospels have therefore been summarized as ‘a redemptive return to the pattern of myth, as well as its overcoming’. Historical criticism and the historical Jesus movements have missed completely, then, the role and nature of the mythological content in the Gospels. The mythical pattern undergirding the accounts is known as the combat myth or hero pattern, and is common to foundational narratives of cultures all over the earth. I have engaged in detailed study of the Gospels’ systematic subversion of this pattern, and have concluded that it is performed in a manner comparable to the subversive Hebrew chiastic parallelism found throughout the Old Testament. Each phase is overturned along the way, and ultimately scapegoating is revealed and condemned by the Cross, with the Resurrection setting humans free – only a few culturally marginal persons at first, but the movement grows: freedom from identity and being via the Other, for real being and identity in Christ, in God. Girard concludes that culture is a tomb that God calls his children out of through Christ. This demythologization of scapegoating culture involves a fundamental commitment to protection of the victim and the innocents.

~Peter Barber

See also Link to Interview with Rene Girard on the CBC Ideas Series  This five part interview gives a rich understanding of the thought of this brilliant mind. See also Girard’s depiction of the profound impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus in  I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001)

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 8.17.56 AMRené Noël Théophile Girard is a Franco-American historianliterary critic, and philosopher of social science whose work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy. Girard is the author of nearly thirty books, including Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the Earth, with his writings spanning many academic domains. Although the reception of his work is different in each of these areas, there is a growing body of secondary literature on his work and his influence on disciplines such as literary criticismcritical theoryanthropologytheologypsychologymythologysociologyeconomicscultural studies, and philosophy.

Girard’s fundamental ideas, which he has developed throughout his career and provide the foundation for his thinking, are that desire is mimetic (all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism. Old and New Testament step apart from the ancient cultures to maintain the innocence of the victim.

The way to end violence is to answer/resist with non-violence; refuse to play the game of escalating violence and scapegoating. See Ghandi as an example in India or Martin Luther King Jr. in the American civil rights movement. Although Jesus puts himself forward as a scapegoat on the cross, he also ends scapegoating by exposing the evil game of scapegoating (previously hidden to human consciousness). When he said, “They know not what they do.” he meant they did not understand that Jesus, the victim of hate, was an innocent. The entire mob, the authorities and the disciples were guilty of scapegoating Jesus–they placed the evil of the whole community/world on him. Only the centurion among the institutional authorities understood that Jesus was innocent. They were all caught up in the thrall of the scapegoating phenomenon.

The resurrection, although convincing only to a few at the time, proved Jesus innocence before God. The preaching in Acts 2 begins with a claim that “we were all fooled (self-deceived, under a spell)  to hound him, the innocent good son (Messiah), to the cross.” Paul admits his own self-deception at his Damascus conversion; he had been a master scapegoater of young Christians. To become a Christian, one has to realize that one is a persecutor of Christ. The Passion of Christ shows the ugliness of such violence (it is not heroic but savage); Satan’s schema of mimetic rivalry and violence is exposed and broken; he is duped by the cross. While thinking he had won, he actually lost the game. Jesus stepped outside the circle of violence; his self-giving sacrifice ended violence, and provided for reconciliation. A new hermeneutic emerges that takes the power out of ritual sacrifice, a new morality and a new culture. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this at a deep level in his efforts to establish human rights for Black Americans in the 1960s: see the movie Selma. Once the cycle of violence is revealed/exposed, the alternative to violence and chaos for any culture is Christian love–Agape and justice. Even Nietzsche understood this.

Jimmy Myers, Can Beauty Save Us? This is the image of a Jewish man from Nazareth, crucified. In fact, his is the face of “the King of the Jews” and yet, it is supremely grotesque, bearing all the marks of suffering. His face reveals real forsakenness; his body aches of real bodily torture and real agony. His corpse lies mangled and bloodied, and his eyes, like Hippolite’s detestable physiognomy, proclaim the dreadful word that causes all who hoped in him to shudder: death. There is nothing at all glamorous, desirable, or romantic about this image of the crucified One.

But, of course, what is so profound about the face of this human is that his is also the face of God. His face radiates the Beauty of divinity, for he is Light from Light uncreated, the perfect image of the Father. He is, as Hebrews 1:3 says, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature . . .” The beauty of this person, wholly man and wholly God, lies in the mystery that he brings salvation to the world not by excluding suffering but by uniting himself to it. He refuses to recoil from a world that has become repellent; he does not laugh at the dereliction of others; he does not look at all that is bad and conclude, “all is well.” He does not stand far off. In his beauty, he comes near and embraces the “ugly” ones. He associates with strange and lonely and exiled folk, bringing the outcast in. He is the servant who suffers, and, protesting against “the way things are,” he takes up Hippolite’s lament and cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He exemplifies and creates a people committed to what David Hart calls “strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness” to those whom Nietzsche would have annihilated. Even to those who, like the dinner guests in The Idiot, laugh and mock and forsake the stranger he says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He brings the whole festival of divine grace to a world that has excluded itself from it and invites Hippolite and the rest of humanity to take part, to enjoy a feast of resurrection where all divisions, segregation, and exclusion are transcended, where all have their place at the supper of the Lamb, where all, who see the face of the Beautiful One and in that seeing are transformed, are inundated and radiated by Beauty itself. In a word, to paraphrase St. Athanasius, he becomes the Ugly One so that we, the original ugly ones who have made this world ugly with our violence, might become beautiful.

See Gill Bailey, Violence Unveiled.

New Book: Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in a Post-Truth Era by Daniel Levitin

Rene Girard, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning.

Other Blogs on Mimetic Rivalry:

Who Am I? Casting Crowns Why it is still important to discuss a genuine resurrection

Easter Poems by Malcolm Guite

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.

Posted by: gcarkner | March 11, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 3.

Charles Taylor Confronts the Low Quality Will

Many people attempt  to operate on the assumption of moral neutrality. They want a morality that does not offend anyone–with a tone a bit like elevator music. They promote a live and let live attitude, their moral language is a bit undeveloped. But is that realistic, helpful and liveable, especially amidst the difficult challenges of our day? Don’t we need a higher quality will? The weakness of our twenty-first century morality is at the very heart of many of our current existential crises, including that of our identity. It has left us virtually naked in a wind storm, ill-equipped for life. The focus of this weak view is on the centrality of the autonomous individual, unqualified, creative will.  It is problematic because of its thinness and lack of substance, content and sensibility to context.  It seems that this conception of the will is hollowed out, reduced to negative freedom of autonomous choice (freedom from any restrictions or limitations). It tends to include freedom from responsibility for others, for the common good, for the health of the planet, and our cultural heritage. This naked will does not like duty, obligation or long-term commitments, the costlier aspects of relationships.

Ethics is reduced to pragmatic, lived experience as one chooses to live and stylize one’s life day by day, like the aesthetic solipsism in Michel Foucault or Oscar Wilde. Such subjectivistic autonomy can lead to moral autism–a loss of moral language of any substance and merit. So writes Matthew Crawford in The World Beyond Your Head (2015, 183f); it makes us vulnerable to the only value left in such a society–performance with its consequent workaholism. We are sent into life, work and marriages with no proper tools of moral and ethical engagement, so we default to elevator music morality. We have no discipline/depth of thought or action, no foundation for discernment in our decisions. We don’t even know how to ask the right questions in an argument or debate. Morality is defined, not through the conformity or guidance of behaviour via codes, norms, traditions, principles, wisdom of the ages, precepts or virtues, but in reference to my rights, my desires, my goals, my freedom of consumption of goods and experiences. This often boils down to the way in which an individual naked will determines and justifies itself. We should be suspicious of such self-justification and its tendency towards psychopathy. It calculates as a form of entitlement or even narcissism, celebrating the good of oneself alone, often to the exclusion of the good of the other, the community or the planet.

In this post, we are calling this whole project into question as a legitimate moral modus operandum. Charles Taylor raises serious questions regarding assumptions about a moral self that does not have any relationship to the higher/greater good (even acts in denial of that relationship). It becomes an abstract reflexive self focused on its own desires.  Such an individual lobbies the government to protect the personal right to express those desires and indulge decisions in line with one’s own private self-interest and personal expression. See our complementary blog series ‘Critique of the Aesthetic Self’.

In his short book The Malaise of Modernity (the condensed version of Sources of the Self), Taylor sets out a helpful template of self-construction to assist us in our understanding of the problem that is at work in this outlook. 

   Taylor’s Moral Self-Construction Diagnostics

Category A (Creativity)

(i) Creation and construction (as well as discovery) of the self.

(ii) Pursuit of originality in one’s self-crafting.

(iii) Opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what one recognizes as morality, or the moral order.

Category B (Social and Moral Accountability)

(i) Openness to horizons of significance prevents one’s self-creation from losing the background that can save it from insignificance and trivialization.

(ii) Self-definition needs to be developed in dialogue with significant Others, that is, fellow moral interlocutors. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 65, 66)

Taylor’s concern with Neo-Nietzscheans and Post-Romantics is the extreme emphasis that people like Michel Foucault place on Category A (Creativity), to the near exclusion of any emphasis on Category B (Accountability and Mutuality). And why should, according to A (iii), one’s creative identity development include a form of social or moral anarchy (Foucault calls it transgression)?  This seems rebellious to an extreme rather than displaying any depth of critical realism reflection. Here’s how Taylor puts it:

What must be wrong is a simple privileging of one over the other (e.g. A over B) … That is what trendy doctrines of “deconstruction” involve today … they stress (Ai) the constructive, creative nature of our expressive languages, while altogether forgetting (Bi). They capture the more extreme forms of (Aiii), the amoralism of creativity … while forgetting (Bii), its dialogical setting, which binds us to others … These thinkers buy into the background outlook of authenticity, for instance in their understanding of the creative, self-constitutive powers of language … while ignoring some of its essential constituents. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 66, 67)

By abolishing all extra-self horizons of significance, and demoting the significance of dialogue with other moral interlocutors, morality can become a virtual monologue, an abstract self-projection imposed onto the world, rather than a source of communal conversation, appropriate debate and cooperation. It lacks the social dialectic element of self, sports a reductionistic hermeneutic of self. Is there not more to life than love of oneself or self-fulfilment?

Characteristics of the Post-Romantic Aesthetic Self as gleaned from Taylor, 1989, pp. 434-455: see also blog post ‘Can Beauty Save Us?’

  1. Art is superior to morality, and sees itself in conflict with the social moral order.
  2. Humans live in a chaotic or fallen natural and social world, rooted in chaos and the will to power. One can take an affirmative stance towards the world through seeing it as beautiful—seeing the world through an aesthetic lens. This is the only remaining basis for its justification.
  3. Being itself is not good as such, nor is human being per se taken as good.
  4. Hope resides in a strong belief in the power of the creative imagination to transfigure or transform the world and the self, or to reveal it afresh as beautiful (aesthetic).
  5. Constitutive language is a key means of changing the world, or at least the way one sees the world—key to one’s poetic self-expression, and re-writing or re-inventing the self.
  6. This tends to result in an aesthetic amorality, a move beyond good and evil, an embrace or affirmation of violence and cruelty as well as patience and care. There can be no logical or moral distinction between them.

Taylor, while sympathetic with the expressive aspect of self, raises hard questions about this kind of aesthetic self. He wants to open up the discussion of ethics to new and fresh philosophical examinations and investigations. His discussion centres around the possible recovery of the ancient concept of the quality of the will, and the importance of re-examining sources of human motivation (his concept of the constitutive good). He believes that there are higher and lower motivations, and that individual can move toward growth in moral maturity–seeing better, thinking better, living better. There is insight here on crossing the moral gap between knowing what is wise or right and doing it–a perennial human problem. He is asking us to take a step back from life as it is lived as moral praxis, back from self-actualizationto reflect on the values of our choices and actions, to look at our second order desires. He suggests that there might even be a way to recover a fruitful connection between religion and ethics, meaning and moral agency. God and agape love is at least one traditional source of the good or goodness in human society down the centuries. Oxford scholar Larry Siedentop writes brilliantly about its transformative power in his The Invention of the Individual.  

Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience of grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality…. Paul spoke of the Christ as offering salvation to all humanity. ‘The Christ’ stood for the presence of God in the world…. Paul felt he had discovered something crucial—the supreme moral fact about humans—which provided the basis for reconstructing human identity, opening the way to what he called ‘a new creation’…. In Paul’s eyes, the Christ reveals God acting through human agency and redeeming it…. Through an act of faith in the Christ, human agency can become the medium of God’s love—which Paul sometimes calls ‘faith acting through love’. The faith accepting that love amounted to an inner crucifixion, from which could emerge a transformed will, embodied in the person of Jesus. For Paul it was a personal transaction, the creation of another, better self…. It is an invitation to see a deeper self, an inner union with God. It offers to give reason itself a new depth. Rationality loses its aristocratic connotations. It is associated not with status and pride but with a humility which liberates. (Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, 2014, 58-60)

This makes sense historically, since ‘God’/theology has composed a major contribution to Western moral identity. Theology has a long-standing, fruitful history with ethical reflection. It is also Taylor’s claim that many of the goods that are commonly aspired to in the West have their roots in the constitutive good of Christian theism (R. Abbey, 2000, pp. 50-51, 98-99; and Taylor, 1999, Part IV; Morgan, 1994, p. 49). This is hinted at in Sources of the Self (Taylor, 1989), but becomes more overt in A Catholic Modernity? (Taylor, 1999) and he further develops it in A Secular Age (2007). Taylor believes that there is real fruitfulness in reconnecting many contemporary moral goods to their historical roots in theism in order to empower them once again. Consciousness of the source of these goods boosts their impact on individual lives and in society, grounding a person morally, offering clothing for this naked will. Part of the moral guilt and frustration we carry is that we lack empowerment to do what we know is right, constructive or ethically appropriate.  Taylor asks us to re-examine the value of moral goods and how they might re-empower, re-clothe late moderns.

He attempts to retrieve something lost in Western moral consciousness in this important constitutive language of moral sources. From his perspective, moral sources are not about highest principles, but about the quality of the will, a concept which has been tragically absent in moral philosophy for over a century. For instance, the primary question for Taylor’s moral ontology is: ‘What or whom do I love?’ (motivation), rather than ‘What am I obliged to do?’ (right action). He wants to broaden the domain of morality, and come to grips with high moral desires, ideals that drive humans at their best or noblest. This is also hope for moral growth through the course of one’s life as a kind of quest. The second obligation question, to him, is the last one to ask (even though it is often the main concern of contemporary ethical debates). The second key question is ‘What do I want to become?’ (character), a question that is in recovery to some degree in the late twentieth century through virtue ethics, heralded by such intellectuals as Alasdair MacIntyre and positive psychology (with roots going all the way back to Aristotle). This will lead to what Taylor calls a thick self. More on this in future posts in this series.

Modern man is not a zombie or a monster, but a drifter with an unhappy conscience, because, having a right to everything, he is fulfilled with nothing, and due to this dissatisfaction, he does not even know the name of what he is looking for. He is in self-exile from his own universe…. But periods of metamorphosis hold within themselves the hope of meaning. (Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, xxvii)

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

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.

Adams, R. M. (1999). Finite and Infinite Goods: a framework for ethics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crawford, M. (2015) The World Outside Your Head: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction. Toronto, ON: Allen Lane/Penguin.

Gill, D. (2000). Becoming Good: Building Moral Character. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wallis, J. (2014). The (Un)Common Good: how the gospel brings hope to a world divided. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Top Expert from NIH on COVID-19 Francis Collins
Posted by: gcarkner | March 4, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 2.

Charles Taylor Wagers on (Critical) Falsifiable Moral Realism

Indeed, who are we late moderns and where are we headed as a culture? Charles Taylor challenges the current superficiality regarding moral convictions with its over-emphasis on living one’s desires on a philosophical trajectory of freedom-choice-self-interest. Some call this the cult of self. Can we not aspire to higher ideals? His argument for moral realism is five-fold. In terms of moral givens, he argues that certain perennial features of the self are present irrespective of culture or the way they are expressed or understood. He starts his analysis with the question of how humans operate as moral beings in their actual moral experiences, and how they actually reflect upon those experiences. So he is interested in praxis (behavioural practices) as well as moral theory. Beginning with humans and the way they experience morality (the moral phenomenon), he claims that the most plausible explanation of morality is one that takes seriously a human’s perception of the independence of moral goods. It has been my privilege to wrestle with Taylor’s engaging ideas for more than a decade and I find them weighty and full of resonance with my experience and observations. There is real depth and nuance to his take on morality. It ought to captivate the best minds and the most genuine hearts.

He does not feel it appropriate to substitute a philosophical abstraction (for example utilitarianism) for how people live and think. Firstly, he argues for the ubiquity of moral intuitions and judgments in human experience. These are intuitions that transcend basic human desires for survival, sex, or self-realization. They are also referred to as second-order desires, strong evaluations or qualitative discriminations. One notes the important reference to the quality of the will. This concept of second-order desires invokes the ancient idea of the good. It is one which, although interwoven with the self, transcends the self in significant ways. It is higher and deeper, so to speak, not reducible to choice.

Secondly, he argues that there is a need for a larger moral picture to facilitate the task of making sense of moral experience (debates, deliberations, decisions and actions). He calls this picture (or map) a moral framework. Each framework is made up of several goods held together in a coherent relationship with one another, producing a moral worldview. The individual moral self discovers a dialectical relationship with its framework. It is not a static set of conditions, but rather dynamic and developmental. It matures over time.

There are three consequential axes of moral frameworks that are not properly defined by natural laws of science. They are meta-scientific:

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

Thirdly, he recognizes that there is a key defining good within each moral framework, which he calls the hypergood. The hypergood is the preeminent good and operates as a controlling influence and organizer of the other goods within the hierarchy of the framework. It is a driver, sets the moral tone and defines the overall character of the framework.  Thus, it is quite central to the discussion of the moral agency and to understanding a person at depth.

Fourthly, Taylor recognizes a significant narrative and communal texture to the pursuit of the good in moral self-constitution. Humans tend to interpret their lives in narrative and communal terms as they pursue moral goods. These goods give the individual a vision and mission to life, a trajectory for life. This important narrative-articulate dimension of self helps one find a unity amidst the complexity of moral experience and the plurality of goods vying for one’s attention. It offers a sound basis for evaluating one’s progress in life. Taylor dedicates a whole chapter to this concept in his 2016 book The Language Animal. Moral goods are also contained and maintained by a community of persons and this defines the community’s identity.

Fifthly, Taylor speaks of the sources of the moral or sources of the self, which he refers to as the constitutive good. The constitutive good (a category of moral motivation) gives meaning to and empowers the hypergood and the other life goods within the moral framework: it acts as a moral driver. It provides the ground of the worth or value of the life goods, and allows the individual to live the good life. This is a very significant, core idea for Taylor, one worth pondering more deeply. He expands on this idea of constitutive language in The Language Animal (chapter 6)–it acts as a complement to scientific language.

Thus, moral identity is intricately interwoven with the pursuit of the good in life in Taylor’s moral ontology. Healthy people build an intimate, passionate relationship with the good asa source of inspiration and motivation. Psychopaths and sociopaths, on the other hand, deny the relevance of any moral framework or good: narcissists and pathological liars follow this path (5% of the population). They are the hard core of the cult of self-interest, but they do not discredit the power of moral frameworks for most people.

Taylor discerns these five categories as givens, structural features that are common to the life of all morally and psychologically healthy human beings. He wants to problematize the occlusion or exclusion of such parameters, such qualitative distinctions for moral reasoning, because he believes that within the life of the self, there is a multiplicity of goods to be recognized, acted upon and pursued. These goods animate our lives and enhance culture. Taylor emphasizes the importance of being wise and self-conscious/circumspect about these goods. It is quite a challenging and enlightening proposal, a moral ontology of the self at its best, noblest or most whole. It also offers a positive, constructive, open platform for dialogue on moral self-constitution and ethics.

I will further unpack Taylor’s view in future posts. The nuances are exceedingly important. Clearly, this approach pushes back against current forms of ethical relativism and moral subjectivism which often lead to nihilism, moral autism (Matthew Crawford), confusion and anxiety/depression, decreased moral power/agency and tribalistic divisiveness within society. The cult of self leads to auto-intoxication (Camus) and results in a collective moral suicide, a tear in the social moral fabric. Taylor offers a healing paradigm for our contemporary Western moral brokenness, our estrangement/alienation from self, others and the sacred, from the forces that give us ultimate meaning and purpose. To live well/nobly, he suggests, is a high human achievement, a form of resistance to radical evil (anti-humanism). One can apply his critical moral realism to a range of issues: everyday life to the biggest ethical conundrums.

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

Key Readings/Dialogue with Taylor:

Posted by: gcarkner | March 2, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 1.

The Recovery of Positive, Constructive Ethical Dialogue

Many people today are discouraged and confused by the moral drift in Western society and wonder if they can have any voice or influence in a world with such a strong emphasis on individual choice, subjectivist approach to values, aesthetic taste in ethics and radical, self-defining (self-justifying) concepts of freedom. Freedom currently in the West is often claimed as an ontological position, a reality within which one can justifiably choose one’s own moral parameters and construct or re-invent the self. In his important book, Sources of the Self (1989), and followed by A Secular Age (2007), Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor attempts to track and understand the moral soul of early and late Western modernity, especially what he calls the North Atlantic viewpoint. The narrative is a complex one, but vital to comprehend if we are to truly understand ourselves and our friendsThere are many ideological forces at work and many experiments in promoting an ethics of happiness, or consequence, or situation, one of pleasure or principle. The focus of ethics can be radically varied.

Religiously-oriented  people today can feel powerless and a bit odd, even guilty, for holding any moral convictions at all, that is, besides a consumeristic will that follows its self-interest desires. On this important topic, visiting Notre Dame Early Modern European History scholar Brad S. Gregory has a most profound Chapter 4. “Subjectivizing Morality” in his 2012 publication The Unintended Reformation. Many today feel themselves caving in or abandoning their inherited standards of behaviour under the weight of the cultural slippage–towards nihilistic relativism and radical individualism. Where can people turn for assistance, discernment and wisdom on this matter?

McGill University, MontrealMcGill University where Taylor taught

In the West, is there any basis left for normativity, for accountability, even for responsibility for the Other? Is it all just about my agenda, my choice, my naked will, or my aesthetic self-invention and personal fulfilment? “What is the quality of this choice, this will?” asks Taylor as he retrieves an ancient idea of qualitative discriminations in ethics–the language of the moral good or goods (See Part 1. of Sources of the Self). In what is  choice grounded, and how is it guided? We late moderns can be very naive about our Faustian deals when we make choice or expressivism an absolute within an ideology of unshackled freedom and self-determination. Post-Romantic philosophers like Michel Foucault offer an Art of Self or an ethics as aesthetics as a morality substitute in an age of nihilism and anomie (transgressive, norm-less existence).

This twelve part blog series on the Quality of the Will  suggests that pre-eminent Canadian philosopher of the self Charles Taylor can be a very strategic assistance on the issue at hand in his discussion of moral frameworks as a source of identity. He wants to recover/retrieve a robust moral grounding in order to avoid contemporary solipsism (think Julia Roberts in the movie Eat, Pray Love). He believes that these goods can empower us as moral beings once again. They need not remain buried in contemporary moral discourse. Following in the footsteps of one of Oxford’s greatest philosopher Iris Murdoch, this project (Malaise of Modernity; Sources of the Self) entails a dynamic, adventurous and exciting recovery of the ancient language of the good and a renewal of a fresh social normativity–a renewal of moral discourse in the polis. Taylor is highly skilled in employing an engaging language that a pluralistic audience can understand, both at the intellectual and practical choice/moral agency level. It resonates with many in a significant way! One has to be willing to think harder and go much deeper than much contemporary thought on ethics and morals. We attest to the fact that is worth the effort, the grappling with unfamiliar vocabulary. It offers fresh hope for Western pluralistic cultures and sub-cultures.

This twelve part series outlines his monumental contribution to moral and ethical thinking (the ontology of the good). It reveals a phenomenological aspiration to the good inherent in most humans if they are willing to reflect more deeply with Taylor, an aspiration which can be a robust challenge to the ethical solipsism and Zarathustra will-to-power outlook so common today.

What are the valid and sustainable parameters of our current moral quest, our current quest for freedom, wholeness, identity, happiness within our various spiritual journeys, the quest for meaning and identity in our lives? How do we map this in today’s world and put it to work for positive change? Taylor is an avid moral geographer. Moral ontology is deeply important and central to all other discussions about the moral self. It offers real insight into the inner landscape (infrastructure or deep structure) of the self. Therefore it remains central to engage the current debates of our day in the midst of a cultural loss of moral consensus, as astutely noted by virtue philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Moral autism is not an acceptable or stable place to rest.  Conversation (2012-06-16) with Charles Taylor rooted in A Secular Age (his Templeton Prize winning tome).

We trust you will enjoy reading and reflecting upon, perhaps debating with, this series of posts as much as we enjoyed writing them.

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

Dissertation: “A Critical Examiniation of Michel Foucault’s Concept of Moral Self-constitution in dialogue with Charles Taylor.” Find it in the British Library in London, Oxford University Library, or Oxford Centre for Mission Studies Library.

See also Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, Moral Believing Animals.


Posted by: gcarkner | February 22, 2020

Dr. Raymond Aldred on Truth and Reconciliation

Meeting Postponed Until Further Notice due to Covid-19 Safety Concerns

Samples of Ray’s Perspective from YouTube


In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on residential schools, Canadians have often viewed Christianity as the enemy of Indigenous people. But there is another side to the story, claims Professor Raymond Aldred. Almost two-thirds of Indigenous people in Canada actually call themselves Christian and appreciate what they have learned from Christian leadership over the years. Aldred notes that there is currently real hope for a better day, a way forward for our Indigenous people. This hope begins in community, in rethinking our identity, who we are and where we have come from. In this address, he will show the need to tell the truth and use human imagination to heal relationships with the land/creation, with family, clan and community, and with the Creator. At the heart of Indigenous peoples’ quest for healing is a shift in identity from shame to dignity of heritage. Mohawk writer Patricia Monture notes that key to this shift is a decision to take responsibility for all relationships, “Responsibility is at the heart of Indigenous freedom and self-determination.” We must strive to live in harmony with all things and all peoples, including the new visitors. We also wish to heal our treaty covenant relationships: through the threefold strategy of telling the truth, listening to one another, and seeking a common plan to repair the damage of abuse. Employing the principles of restorative justice, the difficult task of retelling our stories offers an important, creative way forward. These stories help us revisit the pain, face reality, and rediscover the good roots of our heritage. These vital steps constitute the effective direction of hope, as Ray has discovered through much experience.



Reverend Dr. Raymond C. Aldred holds a Master of Divinity from Canadian Theological Seminary,  and a Doctor of Theology from Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology. Currently, he is the Director of the Indigenous Studies Program, whose mission is to partner with the Indigenous Church around theological education. He is professor of Theology: Narrative, Systematic, Indigenous at the Vancouver School of Theology on the UBC campus. A status Cree, he is ordained with the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Canada. Born in Northern Alberta, he now resides with his wife in Richmond. Formerly Ray served as the Assistant Professor of Theology at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta. He is former Director for the First Nations Alliance Churches of Canada, now a committee member, where he works to encourage Indigenous churches. Ray also has had the privilege of addressing several college conferences and meetings to raise awareness of these issues. He and his wife, Elaine, are involved in ministry to help train people to facilitate support groups for people who have suffered abuse.

Posted by: gcarkner | February 5, 2020

Sources of Identity: Thomas Merton

From: Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton

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In all the situations of life, the “will of God” comes to us not merely as an external dictate of impersonal law but above all as an interior invitation of personal love. (15)

We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening. (15)

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny…. We are even called to share with God’s work of creating the truth of our identity….. To work out our own identity in God, which the Bible calls “working out our salvation,” is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as he reveals himself, obscurely, in the mystery of each new situation. (32)

The secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. But unless I desire this identity and work to find it with Him and in Him, the work will never be done…. Not to accept and love and do God’s will is to refuse the fullness of my existence. (33)

To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self…. My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality  and outside of life. And such a self cannot help be but an illusion…. The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God…. Ultimately, the only way I can be myself is to become identified with him in whom is hidden the reason and fulfilment of my existence. (33-35)

The true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea, rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent. (38)

People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. (47)

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name. If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfilment, or joy. To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God. And to enter into his sanctity I must become holy as he is holy, perfect as he is perfect. (60, 61)

I who am without love cannot become love unless Love identifies me with himself. But if he sends his own love, himself, to act and love in me and in all that I do, then I shall be transformed, I shall discover who I am and shall possess my true identity by losing myself in Him. (63)

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