Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Diversity of Goods

Charles Taylor is one of those philosophers (like so many) that I've learned about through Rorty and have their books on my shelves (which I've been talking about a lot lately, all those unread books, staring me down). Taylor and MacIntyre are both philosophers who have been called "communitarians" as part of the revolt against liberalism. Many others have been called communitarians, too, and part of why I think this particular battle line, communitarians v. liberals, bad and outdated is because most of the communitarians look like good liberals to me.

What intrigues me about Taylor is that, like Bernard Williams, he appears to advocate the ripping down of Kantian moral philosophy, but he also still advocates a hard distinction between the natural sciences and humanities. I've commented before in relation to Williams that I find this quite striking, particularly with the thoroughness in Taylor and Williams' narratives of moral philosophy (I'm thinking of, for instance, Sources of the Self and Shame and Neccessity). I still don't know what to make of it, but lately I've been setting aside such issues to emphasize the positive.

Taylor's "The Diversity of Goods" (found in the Anti-Theory book I've been reading) is a general attack on monolithic moral theories, specifically utilitarianism, and what Annette Baier called "normative moral theories". Taylor opens by saying that utilitarianism had a lot going for it, “its seeming compatibility with scientific thought; its this-worldly humanist focus, its concern with suffering. But one of the powerful background factors behind much of this appeal was epistemological.” (223) This attack on modern, Cartesian epistemology is what I take to be in common to Rorty, MacIntyre, Taylor, and Baier. Taylor suggests that utilitarianism caught on because of the craze to make everything “scientific,” that with it we “could abandon all the metaphysical or theological factors—commands of God, natural rights, virtues—which made ethical questions scientifically undecidable. Bluntly, we could calculate.”

There is another contemporary variant of moral philosophy distorted by modern epistemology, and these are the kinds of neo-Kantian formalisms that we get with Hare and Donagan. What both utilitarianism and formalism offer is “the hope of deciding ethical questions without having to determine which of a number of rival languages of moral virtue and vice, of the admirable and the contemptible, of unconditional versus conditional obligation, are valid.” (224) What Taylor suggests is that both of these options flow directly out of a substantive moral insight, “one of the most fundamental insights of modern civilization, the universal attribution of moral personality: in fundamental ethical matters, everyone ought to count, and all ought to count in the same way.” (224-5)

Taylor points out that this insight is historically parochial, that the Greeks for one did not share it. What modern moral philosophies have done is to take this moral insight and enshrine it as a principle to which everything else in the realm of morality must follow. However, Taylor says, “they look like formal principles only because they are so foundational to the moral thinking of our civilization.” (226) But as insights, rather than first, axiomatic principles, we find that these insights are “in need of justification like the others. This points us to one of the motives for construing them as formal principles. For those who despair of reason as the arbiter of moral disputes (and the epistemological tradition has tended to induce this despair in many), making the fundamental insights into a formal principle has seemed a way of avoiding a moral scepticism which was both implausible and distasteful.”

The reason the Cartesian epistemological tradition has come to cause this despair is because it modeled itself on the successes of the fledgling natural sciences. Because “reason” during this time period became so associated with science, and moral and political conflict seemed so interminable in comparison with the rapid beating back of nature, post-Cartesians thought that the only thing that could save morality from being completely irrational was making it quantifiably empirical or axiomatically formal. The successes of Galilean science were so rapid that they essentially made reasoning look simple. And anything that was hard must not be using reason. This seems patently silly, but one can see the line of reasoning that brings us there. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to make life easier? So utilitarians and formalists suggest their ethical theories as providing firmer foundations, as making life easier.

Taylor says that “these claims to firmer foundation are illusory. What is really going on is that some forms of ethical reasoning are being privileged over others because in our civilization they come less into dispute or look easier to defend. This has all the rationality of the drunk in the well-known story … who was looking for his latch key late one night under a street lamp. A passerby, trying to be helpful, asked him where he had dropped it. ‘Over there,’ answered the drunk, pointing to a dark corner. ‘Then why are you looking for it here?’ ‘Because there’s so much more light here,’ replied the drunk.” (234)

Taylor argues that “the price of this formalism, as also of the utilitarian reduction” has been the creation of “the unity of the moral”: “one of the big illusions which grows from either of these reductions is the belief that there is a single consistent domain of the ‘moral’, that there is one set of considerations, or mode of calculation, which determines what we ought ‘morally’ to do.” (226) Taylor suggests, instead, that the “boundaries of the moral are an open question” and that he would argue “that the universal attribution of moral personality is valid, and lays obligations on us that we cannot ignore; but that there are also other moral ideals and goals—e.g., of less than universal solidarity, or of personal excellence—that cannot be easily coordinated with universalism, and can even enter into conflict with it. To decide a priori what the bounds of the moral are is just to obfuscate the question whether and to what degree this is so, and to make it incapable of being coherently stated.” (226-7)

Taylor says that we need a notion of “qualitative contrast” to embrace the plurality of purposes and goals of ethical thinking. The notion of qualitative contrast “is the sense that one way of acting or living is higher than others, or in other cases that a certain way of living is debased.” (229) He suggests that treating them monolithically as all pointing towards the attainment of some common good distorts these individual values. “Integrity, charity, liberation, and the like stand out as worth of pursuit in a special way, incommensurable with other goals we might have, such as the pursuit of wealth, or comfort, or the approval of those who surround us. Indeed, for those who hold to such views of the good, we ought to be ready to sacrifice some of these lesser goods for the higher.” (230)

Not only that, but recognizing the distinctions between these goods “is an essential condition of his realizing the good concerned.” We wouldn’t often apply the virtue of charity to a person’s actions if they themselves didn’t recognize the high value of acting charitably. Taylor says that “motivation enters into the definition of the higher activity or way of being in all these cases.”

Another part of these virtues is that they are obligatory in some sense. Wealth may be a goal for some people, but we don’t usually look down on those who don’t have that goal. “By contrast, it is in the nature of what I have called a higher goal that it is one we should have. Those who lack them are not just free of some additional instrumental obligations that weigh with the rest of us; they are open to censure.” (231)

Not all qualitative contrasts are in the moral realm. Taylor points out the aesthetic domain and the judgments we make there. It is here that Taylor lays out most plainly the fuzzy nature of the moral realm. Taylor suggests at several points that perhaps one term, “moral”, may not suffice for all of our language, for our ways of condemnation and appraisal. We can make ad hoc distinctions, but they all remain fuzzy. Most of Taylor’s paper consists in attacking the pretensions and illusions engendered by epistemological distorsions (including a very good one about another motivation for formalism and reductionism: naturalism), but it paves the way in suggestive ways for the greater appreciation for “qualitative contrasts”.

*All citations for Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism, ed. Stanley G. Clarke and Evan Simpson.

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