Friday 10 November 2023

Notes mainly on pp92-4 of Taylor, C. (1989) Sources of the Self

I have been trying to understand part of the framework of Charles Taylor’s (1989) Sources of the Self which I first read 20 years ago and filed away for my retirement. Quite how it is possible for a philosopher, in their study, to write about modernity as such is still beyond me but I have more time now to try to catch up.In fact, I’m stuck a bit before the book gets to that bit.


Taylor begins by setting out the stalking horse: a broad conception of morality, or a broader category than the category of morality as usually understood, to capture ‘what makes life worth living’.

I want to consider a gamut of views a bit broader than what is normally described as the ‘moral’. In addition to our notions and reactions on such issues as justice and the respect of other people’s life, well-being, and dignity, I want also to look at our sense of what underlies our own dignity, or questions about what makes our lives meaningful or fulfilling. These might be classed as moral questions on some broad definition, but some are too concerned with the self-regarding, or too much a matter of our ideals, to be classed as moral issues in most people’s lexicon. They concern, rather, what makes life worth living. 
What they have in common with moral issues, and what deserves the vague term ‘spiritual’, is that they all involve what I have called elsewhere ‘strong evaluation’, that is, they involve discriminations of right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower, which are not rendered valid by our own desires, inclinations, or choices, but rather stand independent of these and offer standards by which they can be judged. So while it may not be judged a moral lapse that I am living a life that is not really worthwhile or fulfilling, to describe me in these terms is nevertheless to condemn me in the name of a standard, independent of my own tastes and desires, which I ought to acknowledge. Perhaps the most urgent and powerful cluster of demands that we recognize as moral concern the respect for the life, integrity, and well-being, even flourishing, of others. These are the ones we infringe when we kill or maim others, steal their property, strike fear into them and rob them of peace, or even refrain from helping them when they are in distress. Virtually everyone feels these demands, and they have been and are acknowledged in all human societies. [SS 4 underline added]

‘Morality’, of course, can be and often is defined purely in terms of respect for others. The category of the moral is thought to encompass just our obligations to other people. But if we adopt this definition, then we have to allow that there are other questions beyond the moral which are of central concern to us, and which bring strong evaluation into play. There are questions about how I am going to live my life which touch on the issue of what kind of life is worth living, or what kind of life would fulfill the promise implicit in my particular talents, or the demands incumbent on someone with my endowment, or of what constitutes a rich, meaningful life-as against one concerned with secondary matters or trivia. These are issues of strong evaluation, because the people who ask these questions have no doubt that one can, following one’s immediate wishes and desires, take a wrong turn and hence fail to lead a full life. To understand our moral world we have to see not only what ideas and pictures underlie our sense of respect for others but also those which underpin our notions of a full life. And as we shall see, these are not two quite separate orders of ideas. [14 underline added]

Both these passages connect the broader than normal conception of morality to a proprietary notion of ‘strong evaluation’. Since this features only 23 times in Sources, it is necessary to follow a footnote back to another paper: ‘What Is Human Agency?’ in his Human Agency and Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). He adds in the footnote: ‘A good test for whether an evaluation is ‘strong’ in my sense is whether it can be the basis for attitudes of admiration and contempt’.

The broad story of ‘What Is Human Agency?’ is a Frankfurtian story of human agency or autonomy which adds to Frankfurt’s proceduralist account of a hierarchy of higher and lower level attitudes, including attitudes about attitudes. Taylor agrees with Frankfurt that:

what is distinctively human is the power to evaluate our desires, to regard some as desirable and others are undesirable. This is why ‘no animal other than man… appears to have the capacity for reflective self-evaluation that is manifested in the formation of second-order desires’. I agree with Frankfurt that this capacity to evaluate desires is bound up with our power of self-evaluation, which in turn is an essential feature of the mode of agency we recognize as human. But I believe we can come closer to defining what is involved in this mode of agency if we make a further distinction, between two broad kinds of evaluation of desire… In the first case, which we may call weak evaluation, we are concerned with outcomes; in the second, strong evaluation, with the quality of our motivation. [HA 15-16]

Not just any evaluation of ground level desires is sufficient for proper human agency. It requires strong evaluation.

(1 ) In weak evaluation, for something to be judged good it is sufficient that it be desired, whereas in strong evaluation there is also a use of ‘good’ or some other evaluative term for which being desired is not sufficient ; indeed some desires or desired consummations can be judged as bad, base, ignoble, trivial, superficial, unworthy, and so on . It follows from this that (2) when in weak evaluation one desired alternative is set aside, it is only on grounds of its contingent incompatibility with a more desired alternative. I go to lunch later, although hungry now, because then I shall be able to lunch and swim . But I should be happy to have the best of both worlds: if the pool were open now, I could assuage my immediate hunger as well as enjoying a swim at lunchtime. But with strong evaluation this is not necessarily the case. Some desired consummation may be eschewed not because it is incompatible with another, or if because of incompatibility this will not be contingent. Thus I refrain from committing some cowardly act, although very tempted to do so, but this is not because this act at this moment would make any other desired act impossible, as lunching now would make swimming impossible, but rather because it is base. [HA: 18]

I should also like to add, but with perhaps less certainty of universal agreement, that the capacity for strong evaluation in particular is essential to our notion of the human subject. [HA: 28]

The added richness of this account – which makes it logically less plausible than Frankfurt’s as a necessary condition on human agency or subjectivity – is what enables strong evaluation to connect into Taylor’s broader picture of morality. (Simply having any desires about any other desires would not. These might be more trivially weak.)

Jumping briefly ahead, this connection is reiterated on p122 of Sources in a passage that connects moral sources of the self, Plato’s notion of the Good (others will be available!) and strong evaluation.

The vision of the good is at the very centre of Plato’s doctrine of moral resources. The good of the whole, whose order manifests the Idea of the Good, is the final good, the one which englobes all partial goods. It not only includes them but confers a higher dignity on them; since the Good is what commands our categorical love and allegiance. It is the ultimate source of strong evaluation, something which stands on its own as worthy of being desired and sought, not just desirable given our existing goals and appetites [ie. weak evaluation]. It provides the standard of the desirable beyond the variation of de facto desire. In the light of the Good, we can see that our good, the proper order in our souls, has this categoric worth, which it enjoys as a proper part of the whole order. [SS: 122 underline added]

Returning then to the earlier outline of the project of Sources of the Self on p92. A key aim of the work is to set out the moral sources of concepts (ancient, Christian and modern) of the self. Why?

Why try to say what the underlying sense of the good consists in? Why make it articulate in descriptive language? Why try to find formulations for it which can figure in moral thinking? There is, of course, a one-line Socratic answer to this. It emerges from a particular ethical view, or range of views, which sees reason, in the sense of the logos, of linguistic articulacy, as part of the telos of human beings. We aren’t full beings in this perspective until we can say what moves us, what our lives are built around. I confess that I share some version of this conception. [SS: 92]

So one reason for the project is the intrinsic value of leading an examined life. Taylor shares sympathy with the idea that making underlying conceptions of the good explicit is a good thing itself. But there is also an instrumental reason. (The above quotation continues:)

But without prejudice to this more general issue of the value of the unexamined life as such, what I want to examine now is the more particular importance of articulacy for our sense of the good. In this I may also be following a Socratic idea. The central notion here is that articulation can bring us closer to the good as a moral source, can give it power. (italics added)

In a way yet to be explained, making the deeper historically conditioned moral sources of self-identity explicit can empower conceptions of the good (this may be a matter of moral motivation, see below). This is necessary in the face of a different modern approach to moral philosophy such as Kantian deontology or utilitarianism which promotes single codifications of right action (‘thus cramming the tremendous variety of moral considerations into a Procrustes bed’).

The understanding of the good as a moral source has also been deeply suppressed in the mainstream of modern moral consciousness, although it was perfectly familiar to the ancients. I have been speaking of the good in these pages, or sometimes of strong good, meaning whatever is picked out as incomparably higher in a qualitative distinction. It can be some action, or motive, or style of life, which is seen as qualitatively superior. ‘Good’ is used here in a highly general sense, designating anything considered valuable, worthy, admirable, of whatever kind or category.

This sense of ‘good’ appears to be that of strong evaluation, again. But, Taylor suggests, there is a also fuller, or perhaps deeper, sense of good or the Good.

But in some of these distinctions, there is something which seems to deserve the attribution in a fuller sense. To take Plato’s theory as an example: the distinction between higher and lower actions, motivations, ways of living turns on the hegemony of reason or desire. But the hegemony of reason is understood substantively. To be rational is to have a vision of rational order, and to love this order. So the difference of action or motivation has to be explained by reference to a cosmic reality, the order of things. This is good in a fuller sense: the key to this order is the Idea of the Good itself. Their relation to this is what makes certain of our actions or aspirations good; it is what constitutes the goodness of these actions or motives. Let us call this kind of reality a ‘constitutive good’. (italics and underline added)

This deeper notion of the Good seems to have two roles of which this is the first. It is what makes shallower goods – though still matters for strong evaluation – good. It constitutes their goodness. Hence it is a ‘constitutive good’. But it also plays a second role.

We can then say that for Plato the constitutive good is the order of being, or perhaps the principle of that order, the Good. But we can see right away that this plays another role in addition to constituting or defining what good action is. The Good is also that the love of which moves us to good action. The constitutive good is a moral source, in the sense I want to use this term here: that is, it is a something the love of which empowers us to do and be good. (italics added)

The Good is a ‘moral source’ in that it explains moral motivation or will towards ‘life goods’.

But spelling this out puts the discussion of the previous sections in a new light. In the argument of the last chapters, I have been concentrating on qualitative distinctions [ie strong evaluation] between actions, or feelings, or modes of life. The goods which these define are facets or components of a good life. Let us call these ‘life goods’. But now we see, in Plato’s case, that the life goods refer us to some feature of the way things are, in virtue of which these life goods are goods. This feature constitutes them as goods, and that is why I call them constitutive. (italics added)

There is a notion of reference in play. Life goods refer a subject to a deeper constitutive good in perhaps the way that a cheque refers to the bank balance on which it may later call. Constitutive goods are thus involved explicitly by Taylor, and implicitly by subjects according to Taylor, for two reasons: to explain 1) what really constitutes the goodness of life goods and 2) what motivates the subject to pursue those life goods.

The constitutive good does more than just define the content of the moral theory. Love of it is what empowers us to be good… (italics added)

Such a picture of goods and the broader picture of morality it helps fill out is thus a richer notion than most moral theory (Kantian deontology or utilitarianism) which ignores, but according to Taylor merely effaces, the kind of discriminations made by moral subjects (ie human subjects) in strong evaluations (see Sources chapter 3). Thus, such theories are bound to ignore constitutive goods which are even less obviously in play because they ‘stand behind’ them.

This obviously takes us far beyond the purview of the morals of obligatory action. These theories balk even at acknowledging life goods; they obviously have no place at all for a constitutive good which might stand behind them. I argued at the end of the previous chapter that the refusal of these theories to accept qualitative distinctions, while understandable, was based on a confusion; that they themselves were motivated by goods of this kind. In other words, I argued that they were grounded on an unadmitted adherence to certain life goods, such as freedom, altruism, universal justice. And indeed, if the argument of the previous chapters is anywhere near right, it is hard to see how one could have a moral theory at all or, indeed, be a self, without some such adherence. Can an analogous point be made about constitutive goods? Do they too form part of the unacknowledged baggage of modern, or indeed of all, moral theories? Or is this Platonic notion of a good as the object of empowering love something which belongs to the remote past? (italics added)

Given that one topic of Sources is modernity, it had better not be the case that if there is broader moral thinking – strong evaluation – in the modern era that only Platonic thinking allows for constitutive goods. If this were true it would undermine Taylor’s claim that constitutive goods are necessary to constitute the good quality of life goods and motivate subjects to pursue them.

It is obvious that Platonism is not alone in conceiving a constitutive good as source in this way. Christian and Jewish theism do as well. It was natural for Christian Platonists like Augustine to see God as occupying the place of Plato’s Idea of the Good. The image of the sun serves for both, with of course the major difference that the love which empowers here is not just ours for God, but also his (agape) for us. But what happens when, as in modem humanist views, we no longer have anything like a constitutive good external to man? What can we say when the notion of the higher is a form of human life which consists precisely in facing a disenchanted universe with courage and lucidity? It seems to me that one can still speak of a moral source here. There is a constitutive reality, namely, humans as beings capable of this courageous disengagement. And our sense of admiration and awe for these capacities is what empowers us to live up to them. [all above quotations: 92-4, underline added]

Returning to Plato:

In the light of the Good, we can see that our good, the proper order in our souls, has this categoric worth, which it enjoys as a proper part of the whole order. [122]


The two roles of constitutive goods have two related problems. (NB ‘constitutive good’ is only used 44 times in Sources and nowhere is it really explained, nor the relation of constitution, itself used only 10 times and never for this purpose.)


There is no obvious knock-down argument that one sort of good must be constituted as good, as having the value of goodness, by something deeper, ‘standing behind it’, in Taylor’s phrase. But it is undermotivated. Given that life goods are already in play, what is the argument for introducing a distinct form of good that ‘stands behind’ them?

Note, for example, that strong evaluation already carries a weight of justificatory evaluation. An act is good in virtue not just of it being liked by a subject but of some further aspect of it which goes deeper than its conflict with other subjective preferences (eating lunch versus going for a swim). The question ‘what is it about this action or aim that makes it good?’ already has some answer even to be in the space of strong evaluation in the first place and thus a candidate for a life good. All such explanations will terminate somewhere (like Wittgenstein’s spade being turned) but the fact that explanations do not endlessly continue does not undermine the idea of strong evaluation (or any justificatory reasons). The explanation of the good of a life good via a constitutive good would not escape the same challenge were it a problem.

Some life goods might support other life goods in strong evaluation. Others, in contexts, may be incompatible (cf prima facie moral reasons) without that meaning that a putative good is not a good at all, ceteris paribus. So what marks out the realm of constitutive values as justificatory but not themselves life goods (but standing behind them)? Why is there any need of them if their purpose is to answer constitutive/justificatory questions (of the sort: what makes this good, or why is this good?) and that is already provided by life goods being subject to strong evaluation?

If the job-description is not justificatory but more darkly metaphysical – a kind of brute metaphysical supervenience of visible life goods on invisible constitutive goods – why call the latter goods? (Perhaps all life goods are connected to / constituted by patterns of atoms but atoms, as such, are not goods).

Moral motivation:

One answer to the last question might be moral motivation. If the explanation for why a subject is motivated to pursue, because they value, life goods is that they already value constitutive goods, perhaps the latter have to be good-like. But why is there any explanation needed here? If a life good is a good then its recognition as good carries with it – ceteris paribus and prima facie – its own direct explanation of motivation. To be a subject’s good is to be something to which the subject is drawn. Isn’t that what ‘a good’ means?

But if Taylor severs that internal relation between a good and motivation, by what magic do constitutive goods regain it. Consider the (modern) example of such an explanation of motivation above: ‘There is a constitutive reality, namely, humans as beings capable of this courageous disengagement. And our sense of admiration and awe for these capacities is what empowers us to live up to them’. Why should either admiration or awe motivate subjects if their life goods are incapable of that? Once goods are construed as motivationally inert, admiration and awe look equally inert. Is it obvious that one should seek out awe? Why not avoid it as an unsettling experience? One might say and ask: ‘yes I admire and am in awe of this aspect of my own or some other’s character, but what about that brute fact should ipso facto motivate me?’ If awe, as a matter of fact, is sufficient to motivate a particular subject, why not becoming an accountant, or becoming wealthy (by becoming an accountant), or being able to support one’s family (by becoming wealthy by becoming an accountant)? (I think that MacIntrye is more to be trusted here because he gets to what is right about all this without weird metaphysics.)

Once it is allowed that a good needs connecting to an action by something else – a principle say – what connects the latter to an action? (Cf Wittgenstein regress of interpretations eg of signposts.)

A different book?

There could be a book called Sources of the Self which connected conceptions of moral subjecthood and agency across the ages to broader world pictures. It would chart how human cultures move from one episteme to another. It would be a history of metaphysics (of the moral subject/agent and of the moral realm). But it would not itself be a work of metaphysics.