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Fr. 512

April 23, 2014

Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity concludes with an open-ended question, following a short review of the work’s main goals. Foremost amongst the latter, Taylor counts: first, the unearthing of moral sources or “constitutive goods” otherwise forgotten or neglected in contemporary consciousness (the dignity of the self-responsible rational agent at the basis of naturalism and the Enlightenment, expressive wholeness as captured by, first, the Romantic movement and, later, the modernists, and the transformative power of grace on the theistic outlook); second, the modern identity as portrayed by Taylor is bound up with aforementioned constitutive goods in complex ways that are, nevertheless, denied or occluded by the partisans of one constitutive good or other, their worldview being simplified to the extreme with little attention paid to the interwoven reality of the situation. In short, Taylor consists this recovery of moral sources and this increased awareness of selective blindness towards metaethics to be the lasting contributions of the work above.

Part of Taylor’s reason for (re)invoking these constitutive goods owes to their preponderant role in the formulation of the “life goods” to which the contemporary individual is likely to hold: universal justice, benevolence, affirmation of ordinary life, elimination of suffering, promotion of basic rights, etc. As these stem from the constitutive goods above yet have become largely independent of them in the past century, the life goods qua norms are under increasing pressure to stand alone and support the specific prescriptions that follow from them. Yet these norms must now do so without the sense of meaningfulness and empowerment that the constitutive goods or moral sources previously lent to the norms and the individuals holding them. For this reason, in holding to such norms as universal justice and lacking the motivation stemming from the moral source underpinning this view, the contemporary individual is more and more likely, as Taylor remarks, to carry out his or her obligations towards this norm out of a sense of inadequacy or guilt, rather than the positive motivation at its root. Accordingly, when life good (norm) becomes dissociated from constitutive good (moral source), it loses some of the positive momentum at work in its original formulation and increasingly takes on a negative charge, cognitive, emotional or otherwise, for the individual tasked with living up to this life good.

This dissociation poses a grave threat in that ethics becomes no longer that to which the individual aspires out of hope. Instead, it can become, as Nietzsche predicted, a work born of hate or, at the very least, a task to which the individual will find him or herself naturally inclined in lesser frequency. In other words, the ethic of benevolence or universal justice becomes something of a dishonest charade in which all participate merely for the sake of appearances. To take a concrete example, it is easy enough to see something of the preceding in contemporary discussion surrounding the issue of universal love in regards to world poverty and economic policies of foreign aid and redistribution. In extending our love to the whole of the human race, it would then become possible to act with greater benevolence and care towards all its members, even the most distant and with whom we will never be acquainted, be this in the form of food or monetary aid. (Something like this is present in the work of Peter Singer.)

Although it is easy to see and understand the appeal of the life good or norm operative here (the combination of benevolence and justice in love), it is, however, difficult for such a norm to empower the individual or group to concerted action. To put the issue somewhat bluntly, the individual experiences insufficient motivation when presented with such reasons for action. There is, as it were, no further reason to back up this norm, no overwhelming drive to bring this state to fruition. Were Taylor to diagnose this issue, he would most likely ascribe the flaw in the call to universal love to the following: the individual is called upon to uphold this norm independently of any constitutive good or moral source that would empower him or her, give him or her the taste for it, as it were. In order to reinvigorate such an ethic, it would instead be necessary (if perhaps not sufficient) to join again one or more of the moral sources that gave rise to it, such as the theistic outlook or some naturalist variant.

Yet this reinvigoration itself comes fraught with difficulties, as Taylor is quick to recognize. For these moral sources carry with them a great potential for action and transformation, neutral potential that can manifest itself as either good or bad, good or evil in function of the concrete circumstances. Such is notably the case of theistic outlooks in the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition. This is perhaps one of the causes for the 20th century development of proceduralist ethics that attempt to do away with the talk of goods or moral sources altogether. Taylor is, however, swift to call out these same ethics for their dishonest metaethics, particularly in regards to themselves, and reminds the reader that these produce a levelling effect in society where value is homogenous and one situation is experienced much like another.

Moreover, he points out the extent to which the negative consequences resulting from a given moral source do not discount the initial force of empowerment to be found in that source, but simply its given application and extension in a particular set of circumstances. There is no essential link to be drawn between source and manifestation, as its critics may be tempted to think. Accordingly, when presented with the choice between a flat ethics in which one thing is very much worth the same as another and a vertical moral source (transcendent or otherwise) from which a certain sense of purpose, meaning and empowerment flows, we should give some attention to the moral source and its exploration. This is not to say that the potential dangers and previous crises are to be ignored. Rather, there is no essential connection between source and disastrous consequence. In the end, although Taylor cannot provide a definitive answer as to why source is to be preferred to its occluding, he leans towards the selection of empowerment over that existence in which one decision is very much like another, in a homogenous whole stretching towards infinity.

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