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Fr. 515

April 30, 2014

If Taylor’s equivalence between moral framework and identity can be seriously pursued and the twinned process of exploration/restitution begun, then what we are in search of is something like the constituent elements of identity and the self. Furthermore, as in Taylor’s exploration of modern identity, it seems possible to explore this, at least at first, in large, expansive terms and issue several general observations.

Although Taylor seems more concerned with modern identity than self, his account does include several tantalizing hints as to how the exploration and restitution of self might be carried out. First, Taylor isolates an element that we might term “subject” in relation to legal status and human rights: “The notion of a right, also called a ‘subjective right, […] is that of a legal privilege which is seen as a quasi-possession of the agent to who it is attributed” (p. 11). As we have elaborated elsewhere, in contemporary society, the subject is conceived as the bearer of rights which are due to the subject independently of religious, political, social or familial affiliation. In this way, the subject is understood to precede or be logically prior to any individual differences that might develop under the form of the former affiliations. Subjective rights must be secured before individual difference. (Such is notably the view in Rawls’ work.)

Yet, like others, Taylor notes that this legal subject does not exhaust the modern self. For there is joined to this invariable legal subject something that we have elsewhere termed the individual: the concrete particular that develops over and sometimes against the abstract, universal legal entity. Of this individual, Taylor remarks: “To talk of universal, natural, or human rights […] is to conceive people as active cooperators in establishing and ensuring the respect which is due them […] With the development of the post-Romantic notion of individual difference, this expands to the demand that we give people the freedom to develop their personality in their own way […]” (p. 12).

In short, there develops in parallel with the legal subject and its universal rights a post-Romantic individual at once destined and obligated to manifest its difference from any other. Accordingly, the individual is conceived as the concrete development of the self in relation to religious, political, social or familial affiliation. Moreover, the individual makes, as it were, the person, and it cannot be separated from the above affiliations. Only afterwards do subjective rights devolve upon the individual. Thus, the individual is understood to precede or be logically prior to any subjective rights that might be later granted in virtue of being a person. In the end, individual difference must be guaranteed before subjective rights. (Such is notably Stout’s view.)

In this way, “subject” and “individual” come to stand in as correlates of the elements of the modern identity given by Taylor throughout Sources of the Self: “subject” for the moral source of Enlightenment naturalism; “individual” for the moral source of post-Romantic expressivism. For this reason, it is possible to see the beginnings of a sketch of self present in Taylor’s work. (It remains to be seen to what the theological moral source might be correlated in the vision of self being elaborated here, were we to reprise all of Taylor’s elements.)

Yet there remains, however, an interpretative difficulty in the reading that we have sketched up to this point. Certainly, we can understand why naturalism and expressivism oppose one another, to some extent or other, as moral sources. We have, however, considerably more difficulty seeing why subject and individual must be opposed, found as they are joined in any person. In making use of such categories, why are thinkers such as Rawls and Stout adversaries? In order to find the reason for this opposition, we need to consider more closely the element of self to which respect is granted or accorded for these thinkers. The answer will show why they are in fundamental tension.

To return to Taylor, let’s consider what he himself has to say on notions of respect and dignity:

“[…] there is also the range of notions concerned with dignity. By this I mean the characteristics by which we think of ourselves as commanding (or failing to command) the respect of those around us […] I’m not talking now about respect for rights, but rather of thinking well of someone, even looking up to him, which is what we imply when we say in ordinary speech that he has our respect. (Let’s call this kind ‘attitudinal’.)” (p. 15)

Indeed, as Taylor suggests, the term “respect” seems polysemous. We respect a person in a different way than we respect his rights. In the terms that we have laid out above, Taylor is here speaking of respect for the individual: habits, characters, affiliations of all sorts. That said, we can also show respect for persons and their potential “as active cooperators in establishing and ensuring the respect which is due them” (p. 12). The latter manner, despite being concerned with the subject and rights, is rather closer to the attitudinal respect that we show for the individual. In this continuum of rights, we can now locate more precisely the source of the opposition between Rawls and Stout. For Stout, our respect for a person depends upon her articulating and responsibly holding a position following from his or her development as an individual whereas, for Rawls, our respect for a person is linked rather to his or her being an active cooperator in establishing principles of justice as members of a consensus and upholding subjective rights. Hence the deeper opposition between the two.

Such is the provisional account of elements to be found in the self. It remains to be seen just how these two might be more closely related and how the general content of “individual” is to be delved.




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