Posted by: gcarkner | July 14, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 10.

Investigating the Power of Agape Love: a Wager on Deep Meaning

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Can Millennials expand their horizon beyond the above markers of their generation discussed in Reginald Bibby et al, The Millennial Mosaic? Where will they find the wisdom and inspiration to navigate the contemporary world of COVID-19 and economic stressors, to take up their place and role of leadership? Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg writes: “Wisdom is involved when practical intelligence is applied to maximizing not just one’s own or someone else’s self-interest, but rather a balance of various self-interests (intrapersonal) with the interests of others (interpersonal) and of other aspects of the context in which one lives (extrapersonal), such as one’s city or country or environment or even God.” Wisdom is the foundational virtue, a commitment to grow in insight and character throughout one’s whole life journey. It is a core virtue concept, a posture, which entails management of other virtues. It entails the full picture, the natural and purposeful end, of our moral and physical capacities, intentions, towards the fully functioning and flourishing human life. It requires a vision of what is possible in a good life, in good lives forming community. (James 3: 15-18)

There are five key components to wisdom according to the Berlin Wisdom Project (Mark McMinn, The Science of Virtue). They are worthy of our attention and reflection.

  • Factual and scientific knowledge
  • Procedural knowledge
  • Life-span contextualism (sensitive to past, present and future span of things)
  • Values relativism or tensions (recognizes competing values/convictions at work in a situation)
  • Managing uncertainty and complexity: not all things go according to plan or principle. Wisdom implies competency with respect to the complexity of life.

Wisdom helps one in ‘postformal thought’—the ability to think about complex issues in flexible ways—for example, to learn through dialogue. It requires nuances and understanding of motivational complexity when dealing with others. Charles Taylor calls this the ‘palette’ of assumptions, motives and sensibilities. Humans are indeed complex beings. Wisdom is a key marker in this discussion. It becomes part of our emotional intelligence which is so critical to a successful, stable life, the thick self. Tristan Harris, Silcon Valley renegade, former Google employee notes a concern: “At the same time we have been upgrading our machines, we have been downgrading our humans.” In this post, we want to talk about how to upgrade our humans through a poignant discussion of wisdom and the agape impact. Wisdom increases from ages 13 to 25. It remains roughly the same after 30 without dramatic intervention. This is the same time of major brain rewiring to the frontal cortex, according to current neuroscience (Frances E. Jensen, MD and Amy Ellis Nutt, The Teenage Brain.)

We ended the last post, in our series, Quality of the Will, with a suggestion of the potential for agape to become such an anchoring hypergood for one’s identity, a stabilizing force that can inspire for the long run. We argue that it is the gold standard of virtues/goods. Below, we posit that it can also help to mitigate a current existential identity crisis in Millennials. Love entails deep structure wisdom in one’s life. It proves to be foundational.

Love is gentle and patient. Love is kind. It does not brag or judge or remember wrongs done. It forgives, heals, promotes unity. It perseveres. It understands human weakness and draws out potential. It is committed to the truth, not lies, spin or deception. Love is unusually resilient.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of a potential transcendent turn to agape in both Sources of the Self and A Secular Age. This could address a major crisis in Western identity called the Crisis of Affirmation, discussed below. Love is part of what he calls constitutive language. He makes a bold claim to be discussed.

Constitutive language can open new spaces for human meanings and identity: new terms, new expressions, enactments, new fields of articulacy and how to recognize and bring to expression new domains of meaning. The disciplined languages of objective description suitable for science are comparatively late achievements of human culture.  In light of all this, it is clear that the regimented, scientific zone can only be a suburb of the vast, sprawling city of language, and could never be the metropolis itself.  (C. Taylor, The Language Animal)

Can such a love show us the path to the heart and depth of meaning, provide an exit from despair, an entrance to a whole new stance towards self and the world, through strong transcendence?

Could there be some light at the end of the tunnel that we humans have been seeking for a thousand years, the Holy Grail, or the pearl of great price? What is the hermeneutical key to life as we know it? Love surpasses all other values, includes all the best goods and rearranges them in a new order as we allow ourselves to come under its influence.

Can such love pin our fears, anxieties and insecurities to the mat, reduce out daily stress? Can fear and hatred be transformed to confidence and compassion by love? First, we must believe that we ourselves are loved, despite our unworthiness and failures, in order to love ourselves and others.

Is this the space, the frame, within which we can discover the truth, overcome alienation from the truth, stop the weaponized lies, challenge the propaganda lines?

Some claim that agape is the hub of all virtues and values, the preeminent virtue in our hierarchy of values? Who are these people? Thomas Merton, Paul K. Moser, Glenn Tinder, Malcolm Guite, James K. A. Smith, Oliver O’Donavan, Larry Siedentop, Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Taylor and many other top scholars and leaders.

How does such gift love fit within a whole economy of God’s grace and with his best intentions for humanity? How does the logos of John 1 fit into this economy?

Can it heal our broken relationships, melt our hatred, promote forgiveness and peace-making, bring into play our humility and self-honesty?


A virtue is a state of praiseworthy character—with the attendant desires, attitudes and emotions. Formed by choices over time, a virtue disposes us to act in certain excellent ways. Knowing which way is the truly excellent way involves avoiding the extremes of vice by looking to people of virtue as role models. As certain virtues shape our character they influence how we see the world. And the entire process of forming virtues is shaped by a particular narrative and community. The settled disposition to act well, which makes us who we are, is nurtured by the stories we imbibe and the communities of which we are a part. (II Peter 1: 3-9; Philippians 4: 8, 9)

~Steven Bouma-Prediger (For the Beauty of the Earth, 140), Creation Philosopher-Theologian.

I Corinthians 13: Love is the Greatest.

James K. A. Smith writes that “we are what we love/desire”. We posit that love, agape, is a solution to a major crisis or horns of a dilemma in the West. Today we are torn between self-hatred and spiritual lobotomy. We cannot seem to affirm both self and the world at the same time, because the world is so broken and we don’t want to admit our complicity in this brokenness. It is called the crisis of affirmation, a demon or dark angel that haunts us. Two choices seem open to us says Charles Taylor following his reading of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski:

a. We can blame the world for evil and suffering and tragedy, in order to preserve love of self–try to keep ourselves pure, blameless and above the fray. This is the route of self-righteousness and the powerful vice of pride. This posture leads to arrogance, hatred, terrorism and violence. We self-justify in this posture, thinking that we are different than the masses, the less-valuable Other.

b. We can open ourselves to grace. Because we accept a God of love, we can love both ourself and the world despite its problems. And we can accept that we are also part of the problem of the world (equally unworthy of such love). Love does not wager on background or pedigree. But that is not the end of the story. There is forgiveness and possibility of transformation that makes us better people, and the world a better, less violent place. Our moral choices, our spirituality and our identity are intertwined in this dilemma. That is why it is so challenging to discern–it requires deep honesty as in an addiction recovery group. Thus, the consequences of our stance are substantial. We must choose between meaning and nihilism at this late modern fork in the road of Western culture, and worldwide culture.

Biblically, the theme of love runs throughout the entire narrative spanning centuries, from Genesis to Revelation. The span includes a journey from the fire of creation, to the covenant call to love of Abraham in shaping a community of love, to the prophetic love that turns straying people back to God’s love and care, to the exultations about God’s love in the Psalms (139), to the incarnate unparalleled love of Jesus of Nazareth (John 14: 16-18), to Paul’s teaching on love in his letters to young churches (I Corinthians 13; Romans 8: 31-39; 12: 9-21), to the promise of the new creation to come in Revelation, where our work on developing the language and culture of love really pays off, for eternity. Agape (Ahavrah in Hebrew) forms the lingua franque of heaven. We have evidence from thousands of years of history to test and prove its veracity (David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions).

Agape creates infinite value in everyday life, as the heart and soul of all values/virtues. It speaks of excellence of character. It is the end game, the ultimate purpose, of all life’s struggles and endeavours. We must let love win in the end; the alternative is death-dealing destruction. It has big impact, enduring power, transforming society as well as the late modern self. Practice agape. Turn into love. Live large in love. Open yourself to God’s love. It is a solid place to stand, to be accepted and understood. It adds such quality to your life as the path to joy. Let it it be your first priority. Loyola philosophy professor Paul K. Moser thinks and writes profoundly on the subject: “God’s agape love directed at the human conscience is a deep invitational call to an existential depth.” (Paul Moser on Christ-Shaped Philosophy

There is cultural and personal momentum in love. Hear what retired University of Massachusetts political scientist Glenn Tinder has to say in his brilliant The Political Meaning of Christianity on how agape shapes a political culture in the West, and bolsters human rights at their best. Timothy Jackson’s Political Agape: Christian Love and Liberal Democracy, demonstrates how love can shape a whole culture. See also Larry Siedentop, The Invention of the Individual.

Agape is a prophetic love. It refuses to equate anyone with his immediate observable being. A human being is not deeply and essentially the same as the one who is visible to the employer, neighbour, salesman, policeman, judge, friend or spouse. A human being is destined to live in eternity and is fully known only to God.  Agape is about the spiritual destiny of the individual; destiny is a spiritual drama. My destiny is my own selfhood given by God, but given not as an established reality, like a rock or a hill, but as a task lying under divine imperative…. Agape is simply the affirmation of this paradox and of this destiny underlying it. Agape looks beyond all marks of fallenness, all traits by which people are judged and ranked, and acknowledges the glory each person—as envisioned in Christian faith—gains from the creative mercy of God. It sets aside the most astute worldly judgment in behalf of destiny. (Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity, 25, 28)

See also Glenn Tinder(1999). The Fabric of Hope: An Essay. Eerdmans (42-52). “God, Community and Self”

Hospitality to the Stranger/Outsider: a Wager on Transcendent Agape

~inspired by Richard Kearney, author of Anatheism: Returning to God after God.

What does agape look like when implemented in practical ways? Hospitality bears witness to the meeting of grace with nature, and eternity with time. In Jesus, God demonstrates what  humans are like when they are truly and fully alive. He is the great gift of self-giving compassion to the least of these (Matthew 25), the bread from heaven broken for us, the cup of self-sacrifice showing the way through Gethsemane. It may come as a stark realization that we mere humans are created to be hosts of the divine in this world, living out the calling  of Creation Day 7. In this light, we host the Son in every act of service, love and care towards other human beings. Through such profound hosting, we make him present to our friends and neighbours in a special way. This is part of the incarnation.

If Millennials reject the common quest for power, entitlement and self-interest, reject the pride of ego, triumphalism and radical individualism, along with the fear of lacking more wealth and power, they too will entertain angels (I Corinthians 13). The cross itself offers a meta-critique of contemporary power-interests, an alternative vision of ‘power through weakness’, the humble fruits of the Holy Spirit. Biblical Christianity promotes a renunciation of privilege and entitlement in favor of servanthood, gratitude and generosity. Instead of self-assertive power, we identify our weaknesses, only to realize that God the Father by his grace loves to work through such honest and fragile vessels (II Corinthians 12: 9) who have identified with his Son. This recapitulates the ancient ways of wisdom (James 3: 17-18), promoting righteousness and justice to facilitate the empowerment of others: the poor, vulnerable, sick, homeless, have-nots and broken. This is the essential message of the Good Samaritan story and the willingness to go the extra mile. In poetic brilliance, the book of Proverbs  reverberates with the song of this outlook–the way of wisdom.

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

This intentional will-to-life celebrates a dynamic, vibrant economy of grace, the transcendent in the immanent, the divine Word in human flesh, the cup of cold water for the thirsty soul. We gladly purge ourselves of the illusions of power and greed, in order to recognize our responsibility/obligation/call in the face of the other (Emmanuel Lévinas), in relation to the biosphere of God’s beloved creation. This posture leads us into an experience of epiphany, a breakthrough illumination. It can even issue in a divine encounter. We see the world through refreshed eyes, accept a change in the calculus of life, and deepen our identity by caring for the distant stranger, the outsider, the immigrant, the other, the alien, the different.

It is a true conversion/reconfiguration/redirection of self and its passions. As we learn this art of hosting, the sacred shows up dramatically within the context of the secular, kairos within chronos, as we commit to self-giving agape in the name of our trinitarian God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Paul writes about Christ in Philippians 2, we must first go down (self-empty; self-offer) in order to go up. The hermeneutic of this posture in life is superabundant grace all the way down. Within this economy, this stance, we naturally become the resistance to radical evil: by becoming whole, complete human beings, building our capacity to love, honoring the sacred in the everyday, casting off the mask of the false self, building bridges across difference. This is the pinnacle of human existence and the solution to the angst/despair/inequality/desperateness/alienation/tribalism of our age.

Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way. Today God is calling us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honouring God’s name by honouring his image, humankind. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name)

IMAGINE (a sonnet from Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis)

Imagine a new natural philosophy;
I hardly know what I am asking for;
Far-off echoes, that primeval sense,
With blood and sap, Man’s pre-historic piety,
Continually conscious and continually…
Alive, alive and growing like a tree
And trees as dryads, or as beautiful,
The bleeding trees in Virgil and in Spenser
The tree of knowledge and the tree of life
Growing together, that great ritual
Pattern of nature, beauties branching out
The cosmic order, ceremonial,
Regenerate science, seeing from within…

To participate is to be truly human.

Love is all About Building the Unity of Mankind–Thomas Merton

(riveting quotes from New Seeds of Contemplation)

As long as we are not purified by the love of God and transformed into him in the union of pure sanctity, we will remain apart from one another, opposed to one another, and union among us will be a precarious and painful thing, full of labour and sorrow and without lasting cohesion. (70-71)

All over the face of the earth the avarice and lust of men breed unceasing divisions among them, and the wounds that tear men from union with one another widen and open into huge wars. Murder, massacres, revolution, hatred, the slaughter and torture of the bodies and souls of men, the destruction of cities by fire, the starvation of millions, the annihilation of populations and finally the cosmic inhumanity of nuclear war: Christ is massacred in his members; God is murdered in men, (71)

As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a body of bones…. Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and sorrow that are the price of resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion…. Hatred is the sign and the expression of loneliness, of unworthiness, of insufficiency. (72)

From blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God who delivered himself to the cross and suffered the pathological cruelty of his own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death he opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death. (73)

To serve the God of love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbour. It is the rankling, tormenting sense of unworthiness that lies at the root of all hate.(74)

The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God. The faith that one is loved by God although unworthy–or, rather, irrespective of one’s worth! (75)

Hatred tries to cure disunion by annihilating those who are not united with us. It seeks peace by elimination of everybody else but ourselves. But love, by acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds. (75-76)

We should recognize in every other human being the same nature, the same needs, the same rights, the same destiny as in ourselves…. But I cannot treat the men as men unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least as much compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer…. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires…. For Christianity is not merely a doctrine or system of beliefs, it is Christ living in us and uniting men to one another in his own life and unity. (76-77)

Agape takes the side of the victims as René Girard articulates so well (Violence and the Sacred; Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World). It is against, it refuses violence, especially vengeance and retaliation, promoting peaceableness through patience and self-giving. It is a stance of gratitude.

To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything he has given, and he has given us everything. Every breath we draw is gift of his love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from him. Gratitude takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference. ~ Thomas Merton

Matthew 5: 1-20 Jesus’ Love Sermon on the Hill

Jesus uses agape love to divide selfishness from self, sin from the sinner. Using critical wisdom, Jesus challenged many of the religious systems of wisdom in place in his time. In the Sermon on the Mount, he messes with people’s understanding of virtuous living. His wisdom is often countercultural, always discerning, sometimes mysterious, involving a metaphoric social grenade periodically. Remember the story of the highly moral young prince who lacked the ability to self-empty and love his fellow humans. His wealth was his Achilles heal. This is thinking outside of the box, with a high commitment to justice and goodness. Fear the Lord and forsake evil. Found in Matthew 5-7, the teaching lays out the tenants of life in the kingdom of God. It is a prophetic statement on what we need to internalize God’s will, God’s posture toward the world. The most radical statement is his challenge to his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5: 43-48) as God himself does, to refuse to take revenge. This is the direction of full integrity, completeness.

Will we choose Nietzsche or Jesus?

God is love from first to last. He is fully invested in love and he believes that it the best thing for human beings. The sermon deals with the deep things of the inner person and shows how love internalized can transform us from greed to radical generosity, from pride to deep humility, from violence to peacemakers, from narcissists to servanthood people. It claims a whole new posture of radical freedom in Christ, freedom to love beyond one’s imagination. Only with a radical change in outlook and motivation can it be possible.

The Sermon sets the tone for the entire teaching ministry of Jesus. He welcomes marginalized players to the game of life: the poor, weak, meek, downtrodden, addicted, broken, wounded, hurting. It is a counter-cultural stance compared to the brutal Roman Empire, which is all about power and control, dominance, enslavement, crushing the weak, expanding superpower territory, exploitation, currency devaluation. This is his disciples’ best new opportunity, a way to become whole, more fully human and alive to all of life.

This strong version of transcendence means that, while such love comes from outside human culture, it offers transforming dynamics within the economies of the full range of culture spheres: in science, the arts, ethics and religion. Charles Taylor believes that the epiphanic discovery of agape love can act as a hypergood, in that it influences a rearrangement of the hierarchy of one’s moral goods or values, bringing into play both a transfiguration and transvaluation within the horizon/frame of the moral self. This enables self-transcendence and motivation for embracing the good, sacrificing for the other, facing pain, mitigating evil and personal challenges.

You are to be congratulated (blessed), says Jesus: I want you to be my people, my friends, my co-conspirators for bringing heaven to earth, in real time, in the here and now. It’s a live option, a calling. The kingdom of God is yours, here and now! Come join my new world order, a new paradigm or way of seeing everything, a new way of being human, of dealing with power, the freedom of self-giving, sacrificial love. Jesus shows incredible kindness and warmth to the disadvantaged, even as he expresses outrage at the injustice of calcified religion (just like Kierkegaard). He stands against treachery, systemic greed and oppression. John 1: 14 captures it: he is full of grace and truth. You will be called the children of God, not human refuse, not untouchables. You are a new wave, a phenomenal turn-around story. Jesus offers a restoring, rectifying, healing of relationships, a new narrative, a re-ordering of power and wealth and status. It is positively revolutionary.

Jesus, the perfect image of God, is the master of critical wisdom. He didn’t come to abolish the traditional wisdom but to enliven it, to flesh out the greatest commandments of loving God and loving neighbour as self, to remind us of life’s deep mystery, to call us back to fear and awe of God. We so easily settle for a religion composed of cognitive beliefs and behavioural lists that make us feel holier than others. (Mark McMinn, The Science of Virtue, 26)

You are welcomed, included, celebrated in your giftedness and I want you to know that you are the very epicentre of God’s interest. You have a high purpose, a new identity with cosmic significance. It is very good, very meaningful at a deep level. Allow God to make you into beatitude people, beautiful people, salty people, spicy people, light and life-giving people. You are being offered friendship, communion with the Lord of the Universe, the God who is love. He wants to bless you as you are transformed into the image of Christ. What the world needs is people just like you, citizens of the kingdom of heaven here on earth, ambassadors of his grace. Are you willing to bet your life on this? Can you throw your weight into it? What are the potential losses if you do not?

The “incarnation” has no meaning, therefore except as “the beginning,” the foundation of the Church, a new sort of community of charity and forgiveness, a space for the possibility of this offering. For Augustine, it is the Church that is the adequate sacrifice to God; in other words the perfect realization of community. The centrality of incarnation and the cross in no way contradicts the truth that the central aspect of salvation is the creation of perfect community. Christianity is primarily about the hope for community…. The Christian claim is that narratives about Christ show what love–a difficult and demanding practice requiring more subtlety, style and correct idiom than mere “well-meaning”–is. Here is the Logos, the lost harmonic pattern of genuine human life. (Professor John Milbank)

Love is the perfect foundation and motivation for ethics and positive freedom, empowering moral choice in startling ways. In the Old Testament Psalms and Proverbs, love is featured extravagantly–to the lengths and widths, depths and heights of the human condition, the full expanse of the complex human story. Our relationship to this love is the key. Do we lean into it or move away from it? Human relations at their best are rooted, they flourish in the nurturing agar of God’s love. The more we root our identity in grace and gift love, the more fun, creative, surprising and rich life becomes. It is the ultimate hypergood that changes all the dynamics of our existence, all our goals and purposes. That bodes well for cultural progress and personal mature identity (Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual; Tom Holland, Dominion).

Incarnational thinking involves a moral conversion, including the development of moral language skill and proper categories. We can learn how to make wiser moral judgments, using the capacity of our intelligence and reasoning skills in the service of moral and affective orientation (our loves). Gnostics are radically dis-oriented, with a twisted, artificial view of the world. Love (I Corinthians 13) is a foundation for ethics, bringing hope, liberating the individual to see virtues as transcendent of desires. Love opposes revenge and promotes forgiveness and reconciliation, collaboration, tolerance and patience with the imperfections (and differences) of others.

Here we find Milbank answering the question why there is something rather than nothing. The answer is ‘gift’. The gift of Christ to redeem us is the plenitude that allows us to ‘glimpse’ the Fall and thereby Creation. The answer is to assume that love is basic to our existence as reason, which is something Balthasar endeavoured to show. We do not understand reason well if it is unrelated to love. We can only know what we love and love what we know. Love is the perfection against which Creations and reason appear…. Only on the basis of an ontology of love can gift be understood. Because love, and not pure reason, is the basic structure of being, the failure of human reason to achieve its infinite desires is not negative but positive…. Gift, another name for the Holy Spirit, is the fullness of being, the perfection that surrounds us with an inevitable desire for truth, beauty and goodness. It illuminates our lives. (D.S. Long, 2009, 158-59)

Love goes beyond the Golden Rule, taking risks in its initiatives, listening to the stories and engaging the needs of others. Jesus is the law of love, the divine-human example to inspire us. Psalm 119 reveals the richness of the language of our relationship, within covenant love, with God’s statutes, principles, duties, rights and obligations. It also articulates his moral excellence of goodness and authority, his power and desire to help us live the honorable life and avoid evil. We are capacitated to indwell this poem (as with other scripture) and grow from it. It offers a worship experience that changes our outlook. Love has that transforming effect people.

We can always do better, think better, behave more honestly, honorably and authentically. As we have seen earlier in this series, philosopher Charles Taylor helps us recover the whole discourse of the moral good in the first part of his landmark tome Sources of the Self (1989). It is a powerful platform for dialogue on morality, filled with deep insights about what we value and why. Duff McDonald (2017) shows why this arena is important in today’s world through his gripping critique of the moral failure of our business community (The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite). Should we not research and experiment in our institutions concerning the powers of good character and the virtues, build out our creative work in this critical space? Pastors also would do well to seek training in ethics so that they can fruitfully integrate moral themes into regular teaching. This is where people live and struggle, need wise guidance.

A note on the church:

The church is not a self-contained society, nor is the church a mystical communion with no relations to social or political formations. Both understandings of the church remove it from its relationships to other social formations, which is where we discover the church’s truth. The church is non-necessary formation grounded in charity. It exists within kinship systems, nation-state and other political systems, and market exchanges, but it is not defined by any of those systems. It defines them. The reason is that charity is the basis for our existence. No institution or social formation can do without it; even the most corrupt form of social formation will eventually have to bear witness to the primacy of charity over power, will, and coercion. Only the church can explain why this is so. (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God, 304)

In Conclusion

The pursuit of mature happiness, rich freedom, human flourishing, resilient identity and substantive meaning, amidst the suffering and tragedy of a broken world, is a powerful, existential quest. It is the heartbeat of the field of Positive Psychology. The West is not without a response to the crisis of affirmation from its own philosophical, cultural, and spiritual tradition. Agape love posits a stance towards self and the world that is morally courageous and life-affirming. Yes, it is even heroic and prophetic, enhancing the common good and promoting the wellbeing of the community.

We can indeed love and accept self and the world, despite the brokenness, disappointments and failures, without resentment. Agape offers to reduce violence, promote justice and improve an individual’s mature response to circumstances. It follows in line with a happiness that is virtue-, character- and principle-driven (David Brooks, The Road to Character). It offers the motivation to do the good that we know to be part of our better self, our truest self. It addresses our desire to bridge the troubling moral gap between what we know to be the good, true and beautiful and the motivation to accomplish such things. Taylor suggests that the prime question of ethics and identity is “Who or what do we love?” We think he is on the right track; we tend to love what we think is good, what we admire. But it leads us into an awesome and terrible responsibility for the other (Lévinas). To participate in such love is to be truly, deeply human (Jens Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism).

What the secularists forgot is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose. (Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference)

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

Next: We will venture into how the incarnation impacts ethics.

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Houston, J.M. and Zimmermann, J. (eds). (2018). Sources of the Christian Self: a cultural history of Christian identity. Grand Raids, MI: Eerdmans.

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McMinn, M. (2017). The Science of Virtue: why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Merton, T. (2007). New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Books.

Sacks, J. (2003). The Dignity of Difference: how to avoid the clash of civilizations.

Sacks, J. (2017). Not in God’s Name: confronting religious violence.

Siedentop, L. (). Inventing the Individual: the origins of Western Liberalism. Belnap Press.

Smith, J.K.A. (2016). You Are What You Love: the spiritual power of habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos

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.

Tinder, G. (1991). The Political Meaning of Christianity: the prophetic stance.

Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion and Embrace: a theological exploration of Identity, otherness, and reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Zimmermann, J. (2012). Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church in the world. Downers Give, IL: IVP Academic

Research on Love’s Impact on Culture

If you are not aware of it already would like to draw your attention to The Kenarchy Journal,, a new online academic resource launched this summer embracing a wide and interdisciplinary perspective relevant to the politics and theology of love. Its purpose is to advance applied research, and it includes a forum that we very much hope will provide the opportunity for thinkers and activists beyond academia to engage with the online material.

Volume 1, Starting Points, deals particularly with the theology of Incarnation, Trinity and Lament and then focuses on reinstating the feminine, advocating for the poor and reintegrating humanity and the creation. Volume 2, Spring 2021, will continue to explore Starting Points focusing on the remaining themes central to kenarchy, namely the priority of children, welcome for strangers, justice for prisoners, and health for the sick.

We are currently inviting submissions exploring the theology of the child, immigrants and asylum seekers, restorative justice, and health and wellbeing. Please encourage students and colleagues or fellow researchers to consider submitting an abstract for an article relevant to these themes via the website, or to let us have sight of an unpublished article they may have already prepared on one of these themes. We would of course, be delighted to have a submission from you!

In peace and love,


Roger Haydon Mitchell PhD

Honorary Researcher, Lancaster University Centre for Alternatives to Social and Economic Inequalities

Political Theologian with the Westminster Theological Centre

Co-director, 2MT

Lead Editor, The Kenarchy Journal     


Afterthoughts from N.T. Wight’s Gifford Lectures

  • Love is the most complete form of knowing and the resurrection is the most complete form of love. Ludwig Wittgenstein notes: “It is love that believes the resurrection.”
  • A new creation people, a new moral order, a new future in the present, emerges through the cross and resurrection: Jubilee
  • Jesus’ resurrection, by unveiling the creator’s love for the world, opens up the space and time for a holistic mode of knowing, a knowing which includes historical knowledge of the real world by framing it within the loving gratitude which answers the creator’s own sovereign love.
  • Knowing is a whole person, communal, here-and-now activity that is redeemed by love. Essays on Agape by Jason Lepojarvi

Ten Ways to Improve Your Life from Dr. Jordan Peterson, University of Toronto (paraphrased). He can be blunt while offering some practical wisdom.

  1. Stop doing the wrong and stupid things. You know what I mean. Walk away from evil and malevolence.
  2. Make a schedule and stick to it—one that works for you. It’s not a prison; you can adjust it later.
  3. Clarify your thoughts. Get the cobwebs out of your brain. Journal about them. Read a lot of good books–they become your friends.
  4. Take the meaningful path involving courage and integrity, versus the pathological way of anger, resentment, nihilism, and self-righteousness. Put meaning ahead of expedience/short cuts.
  5. Analyze your past to see what went right, what went wrong, face your pain and failures, and then specify your goals for a future as if you cared about yourself. Fix yourself first before you try to change the world; you’ll be amazed at the difference this makes. Have self-compassion as well as self-discipline. Be diligent and industrious. Step up to life and its challenges. Engage the world. Face your fears head on. Take courage, my friend. Act in good faith.
  6. Stop saying things that make you weak, which includes all those white lies and deceptions you pretend are OK—they represent your false self, turn you into a coward and cause you debilitating shame. Say things that align with the truth, the good and the core of your being (Parker Palmer). These things make you resilient.
  7. Adopt the mode of authentic being (Kierkegaard). Speak and act with integrity. Orient yourself to the truth as best you can discern it right now. Just stop lying to yourself and to others. This makes you weak, guilty and ashamed, hating yourself, resenting others. It can also cause you to hate the world. Honesty is the better way.
  8. Learn from your failures, errors and mistakes. Don’t let them freeze your moral will. Say you’re sorry to the ones you hurt. Reset your relationships accordingly. Ask for forgiveness to make things right in relationships. Make your life a bit better today, and then a bit better still tomorrow. This will build your confidence.
  9. Have a heart-to-heart conversation with yourself. Get real. Take time to reflect on your life and your highest ideals or values, the greatest good that you can come up with and admire. Don’t be afraid of ideals and virtues in our cynical age. Step out from the crowd of sceptics and cynics. This can be very enlightening. Make a covenant with your future self, love your future self, and step into life robustly. Let that pull you forward into the good life, one well worth living–the moral high road.
  10. Aim really high at good goals. Why not shoot for the stars, the higher moral road of growth, order and maturity, personal responsibility. Don’t let your life slide into laziness, mediocrity, and chaos, or the evil forces of arrogance, narcissism, entitlement, deceit and resentment will eat you alive. This will also result in hurting a lot of people associated with you. Don’t settle for being a slacker, and become your own worst enemy. Hang out with people that make you better, that challenge you to your better self. You have no idea what you can accomplish with passion and perseverance (Angela Duckworth). Ask for help when you need it, be brave and see a counsellor, join an AA group, and generously give help to others. Talk with a pastor or priest. I highly recommend you study the biblical stories for realism and inspiration; they inform the whole background of Western civilization and they will wake you up as a person.

A creed that tells us that we are no more than selfish genes, with nothing in principle to separate us from the animals, in a society whose strongest motivators are money and success, in a universe that came into existence for no reason whatsoever and for no reason will one day cease to be, will never speak as strongly to the human spirit as one that tells us we are in the image and likeness of God in a universe he created in love. (Jonathan Sacks)

Posted by: gcarkner | July 10, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 9

The Hypergood, a Moral Culture Driver

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

The Examined, Reflective, Purposeful Life is  Well Worth Living

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

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

According to Taylor, the potential resolution of this dilemma of the plurality of goods, the tension between goods, comes by way of a highest good among the strongly-valued goods. Within the moral framework, this is called the ‘hypergood’ (C. Taylor, 1989, 63-73, 100-102, 104-106). “Let me call higher-order goods of this kind ‘hypergoods’, i.e. goods which are incomparably more important than the others, but provide the standpoint from which these [other goods] must be weighed, judged, decided about.” (C. Taylor, 1989, 63) The hypergood has hierarchical priority and dominance. It has a significant shaping power within the moral framework. It is the good that the individual is most conscious of, most passionate about, a good that rests at the very core of one’s identity. Jesus of Nazareth once said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Some things are inherently true and good in themselves and they are good for us both as people and as moral agents, and finally good for society as a whole. These goods resonate with us.

How Dose the Hypergood Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dionysian Danger

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

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

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

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

What is this vital role of the hypergood in self-constitution and personal growth? What is one’s possible relationship to this good? How does it impact one’s identity? According to Taylor, a self with the requisite depth and complexity to have an identity (a thick self), must be defined in terms of such a good, and is literally interwoven with it. This good becomes one’s main moral driver or motivation. One’s whole identity is essentially defined by one’s orientation to such a hypergood. It is deeply personal and can even be troubling. Taylor (1989, 63) notes that, “It is orientation to this which comes closest to defining my identity, and therefore my direction to this good is of unique importance to me.” It is also a core concept at the centre of one’s sense of calling in life. It provides the point against which the individual measures her direction and progress in life.

Finally, the hypergood is something which one grows towards and into, producing maturity of identity over time. It provides emotional and spiritual infrastructure and conflict resolution. Taylor (1989, 73) says significantly, “Our acceptance of any hypergood is connected in a complex way with our being moved by it.” The hypergood has a major impact on one’s moral stance in life. His strong claim is that this is not only a phenomenological account of some selves, but an exploration of the very limits of the conceivable in the reflective, healthy human life, an anthropological given.

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I try to decide from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done or what I endorse or oppose … It is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand … It is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary. (Taylor 1989, 27, 28)

Brilliant. With philosophical leverage, Taylor provocatively suggests that the hypergood that shapes the moral self could include the fulfilment of one’s duties and obligations (responsibility) to others. It has a social dimension as well. “Responsibility for the Other transports the self beyond the sphere of self-interest. Other-responsibility could also be seen as the greatest form of self-realization, featuring as the highest vocation of human subjectivity” (Taylor, 1989, 112). As a hypergood, Other-responsibility is integrated into the structure of selfhood without compromising the exteriority of the claims of the Other. In this line of thought, he posits the possibility that agape love could be such a hypergood to empower the moral self and bring purposeful unity amidst the plurality of goods. More coming on this in a future post.

Can agape love be such a hypergood?

Taylor puts it this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor, C. (1978). Language and Human Nature. Plaunt Memorial Lecture, Carleton University, 1978

Taylor, C. (1979). Hegel and Modern Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1985a). What’s Wrong With Negative Freedom? In C. Taylor (Ed.), Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1985b). Foucault on Freedom and Truth. In C. Taylor (Ed.), Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [also in Political Theory 12, 2 1984.]

Taylor, C. (1985c). Connolly, Foucault, and Truth. Political Theory 13  377-85

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989b). Taylor and Foucault on Power and Freedom: a reply.  Political Studies 37  277-81.

Taylor, C. (1991). The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, ON: Anansi.

Taylor, C. (1994). Charles Taylor Replies. In J. Tully (Ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question (pp. 213-57). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1999).   In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity?  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2017). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (2016). The Language Animal: the full shape of the human language capacity. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


Posted by: gcarkner | June 9, 2020

Quality of the Will Series: Post 8.

Science of Ethics, Science and Ethics, Ethics of Science

To continue our theme on human flourishing through finding a coherent frame for ethics and meaning, we now visit the important subject of the relationship between science and morality, science and ethics. In this blog series, we have been pushing to increase the gain as we go, to ramp up our knowledge of the power and fecundity of morality. Morality has muscle, it delivers impact, it is like gold relationally. It increases social capital and builds trust. There are some tensions and confusions in this topic as depicted wisely and critically by renowned University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter and philosopher Paul Nedelisky in Science and the Good. People’s moral vision can and has come into conflict over the years. We do rub against each other given our different sacred values. We need a way to discern between them. Sometimes these conflicts are intense, even dangerous. But can science solve this problem, demonstrate what morality is and how we should live? Can it help us avoid radical evil? Can it serve a pluralistic world with a common foundation for ethics and promote harmony? People such as Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) believe passionately that it can. Hunter and Nedelisky are more skeptical about some of the claims made about a science of morality.

This process of searching for coherence within ourselves, within our moral framework, is essential to a healthy, robust identity. It is essential to our own integrity, our ability to like and live with ourselves and overcome shame. In this post, we explore the long-standing question of the relationship between science and ethics, science and morality, which is at the heart of some current tensions. Some have thought that science makes ethics irrelevant, especially the ideology of scientism. What are the similarities and difference between scientific language and moral language? This issue is highlighted in the compelling critique by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky in Science and the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality. Hunter wryly notes: “To be human is to be an active agent within a moral universe.” The field of positive psychology makes claim to a science of virtue (Mark McMinn). Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values.) is one of the most outspoken advocates for a scientific foundation for ethics. He and others believe they can employ science and technology to build a new alternative foundation to morality, one to avoid the disagreements between religions or the pluralism of cultural traditions. He is bullish on science and feels that it has the real hard answers to our current dilemmas and disagreements. He is keen to avoid dreaded moral relativism, which he believes will be the downfall of Western civilization. Indeed, without a moral compass, societies and culture are headed for the abyss of nihilism, more division, violence, riots and self-destruction. Then, there is the Moral Foundation Theory of popular NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He applies his science to right and left wing US politics. Thus, powerful minds are at work on this all-important subject. While there has emerged new insights about the building blocks of moral decision making, what Hunter finds is that, “The new synthesis have provided no clear empirical support for any moral theory, let alone for any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, or how we should live.” (117)

This process of searching for coherence within ourselves, within our moral framework, is essential to a healthy, robust identity and substantial meaning in our lives. It is also essential to our inner-direction, integrity, our ability to like and live with ourselves, overcome shame, narcissism and nihilism (even psychopathy and sociopathy). In this post, we explore the long-standing question of the relationship between science and ethics, science and the moral good, an issue at the heart of some current tensions. In modernity, some positivists like A. J. Ayer have thought that science makes ethics irrelevant, especially within the frame of the philosophy (ideology) of scientism. Harris is the opposite, believing that we can apply science to ethics. What are the similarities and differences between scientific language and moral language? This issue is highlighted in the compelling critique by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky in Science and the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality. Hunter wryly, yet profoundly, notes: “To be human is to be an active agent within a moral universe.” Humans are hard-wired as moral and social animals, they cannot escape it. There is no morally neutral space on this planet.

The field of positive psychology (new since 2000, invented by Martin Seligman) makes claim to a science of virtue (for example, Mark McMinn’s work). We see some real value in this approach–a creative and capacious discourse involving a large eclectic contingent of scholars and psychologists. Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values) is one of the most outspoken advocates for a scientific foundation for ethics. He and many others believe they can employ science and technology to build a new alternative foundation to morality (replacing religion and philosophy). It is thought to be one that avoids the disagreements between religions or the pluralism of cultural, political and family traditions. A bold claim, it is an attempt to simplify ethics and get rid of the messiness of the variety of moral convictions and the many different moral goods on offer. Harris is bullish on science and feels that it has hard answers to our current moral dilemmas and disagreements. He is especially keen to avoid dreaded moral relativism, which he believes will be the downfall of Western civilization if we allow it to remain unchecked. His longing for a comprehensive, common ethics is admirable. We need ideas that unite us–a common good between us. Without a moral compass, societies and culture are headed for the abyss of trivialization, division, racism, oppression, violence, riots and prideful self-destruction.

Then, there is the Moral Foundation Theory of articulate and popular NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He applies his psychological science of morality to deciphering right and left wing US politics in The Righteous Mind: Many powerful minds are at work on this all-important subject and we need all the wisdom we can gather at the table. But while new insights have emerged about the building blocks of moral decision-making, what Hunter and Nedelisky reveal is that, “The new synthesis has provided no clear empirical support for any moral theory, let alone for any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, or how we should live.” (J.D. Hunter and P. Nedelisky, 2018, 117) They note how Harris attempts to use the scientific culture sphere to dominate the ethical culture sphere inappropriately. In this ledger, ethics must be interpreted in terms of science, another version of scientism. Science and ethics must encounter and engage each other in dialogue, even dialectic or tension, but not in domination. That leads to dysfunctional abuse.

“Harris’ defense is that values are intrinsically tied to science from the outset, … but in the end, what [Harris] is proposing is not scientific determination of values, but that science can show us how to promote something we’ve already assumed is valuable, independent from science. So what he presents isn’t really science but is rather science-plus-a-value-assumption, where the value-assumption cannot be demonstrated empirically.” (J.D. Hunter and P. Nedelisky, 2018, 158)


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.  ~Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

The Dickens quote above indicates the confusion, ambivalence and disenchantment of our age of uncertainty, as it did the age of the French Revolution in the 18th century. What will give us more moral clarity, more certainty, more hope, more vision? What is it that constitutes and animates the good life, the good society, and the good world? Heavy weight Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor weighs in on this topic in his most recent tome, The Language Animal. It is a truly brilliant piece of work that took thirty years to write. He is that kind of several-decades-thinker, building out from core ideas, recovering what is good from the past, in dialogue with a vast array of thinkers. I have followed his work closely over three of his great books. A big sky thinker, he explores the breadth of the full human linguistic capacity—including the oft-missing constitutive-expressive elements. He examines the nature of scientific (designative) versus moral (constitutive) language. These he claims are two distinct semantic logics, but they can complement one another, and in fact need each other. He demonstrates clearly that humans need much more than empirical-scientific language alone to flourish. Constitutive language (CS) can open up whole new worlds for Millennials and other generations in their quest for identity, purpose and significance, offering reasons why we should take each other much more seriously. For example, contemplative Thomas Merton notes that to work out one’s identity in God, which the Bible calls “working out your salvation,” is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears (T. Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, 32). Sometimes it requires a new vocabulary. Simon Sinek Seeking to Understand and Support Millennials

CS can also provide a space for healing, personal creativity and social change or reform, which Millennials often desire (for example, the Black Lives Matter movement). CS offers new tools, a new expansive skill set that is essential for human empowerment and imagination. This zone is the site where we can open new gates for identity. Millennials currently experience accelerated diversity due to immigration, education, technology, and globalization. Greater diversity is associated with unprecedented choices and a rise of radical individualism and a philosophy of self-interest. Access to the current tsunami of information is indeed unprecedented in history. This can be a challenge to one’s discernment, to centring one’s life and finding one’s calling. Eugene Peterson is quite articulate in the use of CS language about identity in Christ in Practice Resurrection. He decries reductionism (dumbing down) of human persons when he writes: “In our identity-confused society, too many of us have settled for a pastiche identity composed of social security number, medical records, academic degrees, job history, and whatever fragments of genealogy we can salvage.” But there is so much more to being human. Now, we take a closer look at these two types of language, or linguistic traditions.

A. Designative/Instrumental (Hobbes-Locke-Condillac): the language of science, statistics, biology (Chapter 6 of The Language Animal, 252-63). Language is taken strictly as an instrument, a pointer to objects in the world.  The object exists first, then we name it. Designative language is inherently restrictive and reductive. In its roots, it was never meant to provide the full scope of human language, the full meaning of us. It is clearly insufficient for robust, wholistic human self-understanding. HLC is not fully adequate for the discourse of Canadian multiculturalism, for example. We have to do much better than statistically log the various ethnic groups in our communities.

B. Constitutive/Expressive (Hamann-Herder-Humboldt): This tradition is important to meta-biological (human) meaning, and such things as purpose, call, identity, moral understanding, spiritual direction and higher aspirations to connect with the transcendent. Language impacts what we see and how we experience the world–it is hermeneutical, interpretive in force. It evolves as we invent new terms, new expressions, even whole new fields of articulacy, as we employ new symbols and metaphors. We recognize and creatively bring to expression new domains of meaning through such language: words help us to create world. Taylor notes an antiphonal relationship between such language and enactments or practice.

Taylor speaks on his work in The Language Animal

Homo sapiens is the animal with logos (the one possessing language), writes Aristotle. Human meanings, metabiological meanings, require constitutive use of language. “The emergence of language seems to have introduced much greater flexibility [into the species], a capacity to change, even to transform ourselves, which has no parallel among other animals.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 339). Taylor contrasts the scientific type of language as designative/instrumental—naming the objects in the world amidst cause-effect relations. Language is an important entity between people, a basis for communion, conversation, covenant, an attentiveness that we share. It shapes us as interlocutors and helps us see better, know where we stand with respect to each other. Dialogue is an essential human cultural phenomenon, we know how dialogue shapes us in the academy. In a tangible sense, morality is a dialogue about appropriate behaviour and attitudes, protocols, commitments and obligations, personal character and virtue. Language is a key part of human moral agency, and the way we position ourselves in and towards the world, including our stance towards the good and others, or the transcendent. It has vitality, it helps us find ways of dealing with the existential challenges of our lives. But also, it has burdened us with the charge to consider the meaning and calling of our existence, i.e. those elements that take us beyond mere physiological survival, the poetry of life. It is very much to our advantage to discover and learn about all the various linguistic tools available to us no matter what field in which we are employed. University should enhance our linguistic capacity substantially, this is a big take-away of a college degree.

Constitutive language can open new spaces for human meanings and identity: new terms, new expressions, enactments, new fields of articulacy. It reveals how to recognize and bring to expression new domains of meaning. Such language is wonderful and imaginative, life-giving. The disciplined languages of objective description suitable for science are comparatively late achievements of human culture. Taylor concludes: “In light of all this, it is clear that the regimented, scientific zone can only be a suburb of the vast, sprawling city of language, and could never be the metropolis itself”  (C. Taylor, 2016, 263). It is never appropriate for science to claim that it has all truth or insight. Why then do so many see the designative tradition as the most important if not the only theory of language? Why all the rage against metaphors? Taylor challenges us to ask: What are we humans like at our best (Arête), at our fullest, richest linguistic capacity? How can we access and employ that abundance and beauty in our life and work?

Discourse: Taylor also uses the term footings here in Chapter 7 of The Language Animal, (264-288). Language is also a shared consciousness of the world. We are particular voices in an ongoing conversation that cuts across mind/body, dialogical/monological, arbitrary/iconic speech. Such is the language of a national covenant or constitution. More, not less, language is desired for adjudicating life, to deal with morality and the whole person, its relationships, rights and responsibilities. We can ill-afford to let power, wealth, greed, strength and violence be the determinant factor in the right way to live or govern. But Taylor in his other tome, A Secular Age, notices a significant problem in our contemporary conversation. How can we empower and enrich our language once again?

“Our language has lost its constitutive power. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us, but their deeper meaning (the background in which they exist), the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and often invisible to us. Our language has lost the power to Name things in their embedding, their deeper, richer and higher reality. Our language, our vision and our lives often remain flattened in late modernity.” (C. Taylor, 2007, 761)

Taylor’s Hermeneutic Approach:

  1. Ethical stances or footings start in human culture as inarticulate intimations called a habitus. Footings involves a cultural discourse or conversation that carries the weight of our values and commitments. This is the first rung of the three-part ladder of meaning. These have to be given some shape, some interpretation—definition and clarification. The tacit experience (social imaginary) must be made explicit for us to talk about it, critique and engage it. Articulate speech is essential power, the second rung of the ladder. We start here and begin to make sense of it all. It is a wonderful experience to gain an articulate grasp of an issue, a value, or a wrong.
  2. The third rung is interpretation or hermeneutics. These meanings are interpreted and articulated differently by different people within different cultures, which inevitably results in debates, disagreements and conflict. This is a healthy process overall. They can also result in mutual learning and collaboration from a position of difference, one with understanding of the other, and hospitality. Conflict is possible, but not inevitable, where attempts are made to reach out and listen to others, to difference. For example, we have made great leaps forward in discerning a universal code of human rights globally amidst a vast diversity of cultures and histories. Charles Malik, President of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, was quite involved in shaping this vital charter.
  3. These meanings are defined, not singly and separately, but in skeins of constellations, where meanings of individual terms are defined in terms of each other. There are various forms of visual and oral gestalt/take or sense of the whole: for example, the good life or a life worth living. Hermeneutics indicates that the parts are only fully understood in terms of the whole. “Whatever meaning we attribute to the part has to make sense within the whole, whose meaning it also helps to determine” (C. Taylor, 2016, 218). Such is the beauty and complexity of meanings. Hermeneutics (interpretation), the third rung of the ladder, helps us make sense of human actions and reactions, responses and attitudes, behavioural causes and effects. This kind of reflection makes these humanly understandable, graspable, palpable or real for us. We can engage them, examine and question them. Such interpretation of self happens against the backdrop of a whole “landscape of meaning” within which an agent operates. This includes a whole constellation of motives, norms and virtues. Such packages of interpretation are rooted in an overall philosophical anthropology. So it is clear that philosophy is important to shaping ethics. This process of searching for coherence within ourselves (to re-frame), within our moral map, is essential to a healthy, robust identity. Reginald Bibby speaks to such dialogue for the health of Millennials:

Moving beyond tolerating each other to talking to each other gets us a junior high certificate. Enjoying each other and learning from each other results in a high school diploma. Incorporating into our lives the best features of our respective cultures and lifestyles—along with feelings of inclusion, belonging, engagement, and citizenship—gets us a university degree.   (R. Bibby et al, The Millennial Mosaic, 242)

A Dialogue on What Makes Us More Human

4. Ethical meanings involve a sense of call, one which can be either transcendent or immanent, to which someone can respond, and which brings about a counter response (guided by a sense of rightness). Taylor writes: “Language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life…. Language is the domain of right and wrong motives” (C. Taylor, 2016, 261). Meanings call us to live up to what is important, as we get it more clearly in focus, strive for a higher, fuller, truer form of human life as individuals, as societies, and as humanity in general. This invokes the concept of human excellence (arête) as a trajectory for life—a greater good. This is really important today amidst the weaponized lies and spin. There is, of course, the challenge of praxis of such high views, but the call is crucial, a motivating concept. In John 15, Jesus invites his disciples to step up, to lean into his love, to “abide in the vine.” This brilliant insight offers hope for change, for grasping afresh one’s evolving identity, as ones sheds triviality and selfish motives. Language has an important influence on developing both character and culture—it has constructive capacity.

Bernard Lonergan’s Four Wise Principles of Self-Transcendence

  • Be Attentive: pay attention
  • Be Intelligent: examine your assumptions, self-criticize 
  • Be Reasonable: speak carefully and listen to others
  • Be Responsible: own your part in the greater scheme

5. Narrative Progress: Moral growth (C. Taylor, 2016, 222) also entails growth in ethical insight or knowledge. This involves a tweaking of our present position, “getting better through seeing better,” as Taylor puts it. Articulation, reflection and self-critique are involved. A healthy hermeneutical circle is active, a back and forth between enactment/praxis, coming up with new language and interpretation—with a view to improving/refining and getting it more correct. This dynamic process is essential to human freedom, maturity and healthy agency. Openness here allows us to understand others better, reduces interpersonal conflict, and continually improves our moral applications/implementations. This includes a recognition and respect for difference that others embody as their “take” on moral meaning or the good.

In summary, the three rungs in Taylor’s ladder of moral meaning involves the following: a. pre-articulate enactment/embodiment/performativity (existential habits, covenants and commitments); b. verbal articulation/naming of a norm with its crucial features (for example, a code, principles to live by, virtues to emulate). This can also be done as a work of art or music, symbol, metaphor  or a meaningful novel or story such as Les Misérables; c. fuller hermeneutical account of its overall role in our lives (rationale for the code). Thereby, suggests Taylor, human rationality gainfully engages human morality. We don’t throw up or hands at moral challenges, we have more of an articulate grasp of the moral landscape and our place within it. We can examine our motives, our assumptions or even our presumptions–through a process of transformation. This is a critical thinking approach to morality-meaning-identity. The idea of moral growth has implications for the meaning of one’s personal unfolding story (Bildungsromans). Moral growth is a key reason for our existence, especially when it involves suffering? Good suffering can be a path to moral growth and self-understanding.

6. Ritual is also a form of constitutive enactment or portrayal that can provide restoration and healing with respect to a bigger story or myth, the social whole. This is how a worship service operates in a church or concert. It can help reconnect the individual with the cosmos and with other selves (re-enchantment), help one see how things relate to each other within a whole. Poetry was key for Post-Romantics here—also connecting people to meaningful lived time. Without discernment of such connections, we feel anguish or angst. Music offers a form of meaning, as many Post-Romantics like Schopenhauer understood, expressing a subject’s feeling and/or take on the world. These powerful works of art provide epiphanies or sources of identity, sources of the good, sources of the self: Sources refers to “the realities contemplation of which, or contact with which, strengthens our commitment to or élan [momentum] towards the good, or God, or Nature, the good society, or a force that lies beyond us.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 249). Thereby, the artist or poet can be impacted by her own art, which has a voice speaking back to her, giving her insight into life–here creation meets discovery. This is that feedback loop between expressive experience and articulation. This aspect of Taylor’s discourse on meaning is quite enlightening and profound. In this register, transcendence and theology can break through in the quest for re-enchantment of the world, and the opening up of one’s identity to the divine. Humanists like Jens Zimmermann (Incarnational Humanism) can help shape this linguistic bridge.

Ethics of Science & Technology

A further discussion on science and ethics would be how ethics asks science and technology for accountability. How can science be used for the common good? In his recently published Technology and the Human Future, Dr. Craig Gay of Regent College opened up one of the most critical conversations of our day: How do we manage the current technological revolution and mitigate its ill effects? How do we handle the exponential growth in machine learning and artificial intelligence that intersect with our lives and shape our world, without becoming disembodied machines ourselves, the victims of mechanism? He provides a lucid and chilling overview of what we all know, but often find it hard to talk about coherently: the more that technology, especially automation, our devices, and the internet, makes our life easier, the less that increasingly disembodied life seems to flourish. Dr Gay issues a call to a discerning stewardship of modern technological development, a perspicacious contribution to cultural self-reflection. UBC has several strong technological development programs, but they can also benefit from some social and moral reflection on their work.

Craig welcomed all the benefits of technology (he owns a smart phone), but asks his readers to think critically about what he calls the machine mindset, an ideology which can lead us into some unhealthy directions. Like the great French philosopher Jacques Ellul and American philosopher Albert Borgmann before him, Dr. Gay lays out four key contemporary concerns about our technological age. He also encourages us to think theologically and philosophically about technology, employing the hermeneutical themes of creation, incarnation, and resurrection. As he put it in his Christian critique, “When the trajectory of modern technological development loses touch with ordinary embodied existence, it is at odds with God’s purposes for his world.” The book offers a robust and lively exchange of ideas and insights, relevant to everyone living in our technological age, both boosters and critics. The book leaves us with several important issues to ponder. When Einstein realized that his breakthroughs in physics could lead to a nuclear bomb, he knew that science was not morally neutral, that the fact/value dichotomy was inadequate. See also Jaron Lanier below in this space about social media. See also this article on values & science:

Jaron Lanier

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Philosophical theology, meta-educator with postgrad students.

Bibby, R., Thiessen, J., Bailey, M. (2019). The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice Are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada. Toronto, ON: Dundurn.

Gay, C.M. (2018). Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage.

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values. New York: Free Press.

Hunter, J.D. and Nedelisky, P. (2018). Science and the Good: the tragic quest for the foundations of morality. New Haven, NJ: Yale Press

Merton, T. (1961). New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Publishing.

McMinn, M. (2017). The Science of Virtue: Why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church.

Pannenberg, W. (1976). Theology and the Philosophy of Science.

Taylor,C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: 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 | June 1, 2020

Summer Reading 2020

Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.

Kristie Anyabwile (ed.), His Testimonies, My Heritage: Women of Color on the Word of God.

Jim Proser, Savage Messiah: How Jordan Peterson is Saving Western Civilisation.

Anthony Doer, All the Light We Cannot See.

David Lyle Jeffrey & Gregory Maillet, Christianity & Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice.

Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola, Jesus: a Theography.

Dennis Danielson, Milton and the Search for Meaning.

Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World.

Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic.

Michael Massing, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind.

John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future.

David Bentley Hart,  The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? 

James K. A. Smith, On the Road with St. Augustine.

Paul S. Williams, Exiles on Mission: how Christian can thrive in a post-Christian World.

Charles E. Cotherman, To Think Christianly: a history of L’Abri, Regent College and the Christian Study Center Movement.

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.

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