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Fr. 513

April 25, 2014

Charles Taylor opens Sources of the Self with analysis of all that is involved when an individual experiences a moral reaction to some phenomenon or other. Whereas physical reactions of taste or smell resist breakdown into more basic, component claims, moral reactions carry within them a finer grain of analysis at the level of component claims, which are themselves part of a larger network of claims. What then is the nature of these sub-claims, for Taylor?  If, on one hand, physical reactions resist analysis, “[…] on the other, they [moral reactions] seem to involve claims, implicit or explicit, about the nature and status of human beings. From this second side, a moral reaction is an assent to, an affirmation of, a given ontology of the human” (p. 5).

In other words, in each and every moral reaction Taylor sees a connection between the claim in question and a larger set of claims that frames the former. More particularly, this framing set is ontological in nature: human ontology. Thus, each and every moral reaction draws upon a particular view of what it is to be human in order to orient its response to a given phenomenon. In this way, there is much more to be read into our moral reactions that at the superficial level of the reaction itself. Taylor underlines this again when he remarks that “ontological accounts offer themselves as correct articulations of our ‘gut’ reactions of respect” (p. 6).

Yet we might wonder why there is a need to drag ontology into this at all. More specifically, it seems possible to challenge Taylor on this claim that we need read further into the moral reaction than what is superficially available. In just what way is a moral reaction of judgment (e.g. killing is wrong (or even bad)) to be distinguished from a physical reaction of taste (e.g. blackberries are good)? More simply, it seems that more explanation is needed as to why these moral reaction do not just remain unanalyzables like their physical counterparts.

One reason for this lies in the relation between our different moral reactions, as opposed to the (non-)relation between physical reactions. Taylor summarizes this as follows: “We feel the demand to be consistent in our moral reactions. And even those philosophers who propose to ignore ontological accounts nevertheless scrutinize and criticize our moral intuitions for their consistency or lack of it. But the issue of consistency presupposes intrinsic description” (p. 7). Indeed, the author seems to get something fundamentally right here in that we do expect our various moral reactions to hold together in some way much as we expect in the case of others’ moral reactions.

To illustrate his larger point, let’s return briefly to the examples given above. As an example of a moral reaction, we gave the example: “killing is wrong”. Although this statement could be made and felt relatively in isolation from any other, it naturally resonates with other such statements once the juxtaposition is made. If, for instance, the same person makes the successive claims that “killing is wrong”, “torture is wrong” and “suffering is wrong”, he or she might then be given or prompted to relate these to one another in view of some larger background claims about humanity. Namely, causing phyiscal, mental or emotional harm to another human being proves reprehensible in the eyes of the person experiencing the moral reaction. There is a case to be made or given in relation to these claims, which makes sense of how these hang together.

On the contrary, there is no case to be made or given in relation to physical reactions. Above, we gave the example “blackberries are good”. Let’s add to this claim the following: “blueberries are okay”; “raspberries are bad”; “strawberries are terrible”. How might we relate these claims to one another? There does seem to be a general category at work, but it is unclear what, if any, work this category is doing here as, in reference to this same category, a variety of judgments follow with different values. Despite being berries, there is no larger background arguments, claims or notions in terms of which the different outputs could be elucidated. Even were we to suppose that our subject had deemed them all “good”, the fact remains that the category “berries” has no explanatory power here beyond the person’s “liking berries”. As there is nothing which determines why these things are fit objects of the person’s approval, there is no way of making sense of the person’s reactions.

Taylor makes this point with considerable force:

“What is the picture of our spiritual nature and predicament which makes sense of our responses? ‘Making sense’ here means articulating what makes these responses appropriate: identifying what makes something a fit object for them and correlatively formulating more fully the nature of the response as well as spelling out what all this presupposes about ourselves and our situation in the world. What is articulated here is the background we assume and draw on in any claim to rightness, part of which we are forced to spell out when we have to defend our responses as the right ones” (pp. 8-9).

For this reason, when relating one moral reaction to another, we are forced to articulate the moral framework that is operative in the pertinent reactions. More simply, we must explain the background that, on one hand, implicitly informs our reactions and in view of which, on the other, another person could be brought to understand the position from which we set out. Accordingly, there is great need for articulation of the moral framework operative in our reactions.

Yet two large questions remain. In what form is this articulation to be given? And who is to do the articulating of our moral framework?


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