God loveth adverbs

Jonathan Glover

  • Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor
    Cambridge, 601 pp, £25.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 521 38331 5

Moral philosophy has not much changed in method since Socrates. Reasons given in support of opinions on moral issues appeal to principles, often about happiness or justice. Opponents of the principles use counter-examples to evoke intuitions which go against them. Some of the principles appealed to in support of abortion also justify infanticide, and some principles used by opponents of abortion also rule out contraception. These more extreme consequences go against the intuitions of most people. Those who care about consistency must either override an intuition, or else abandon or qualify the principle they used to defend or oppose abortion.

In recent years, there has been a debate about the relative status of principles and intuitions. R.M. Hare has suggested that intuitions are prejudices derived from a particular upbringing. Some intuitions, chosen on theoretical grounds, should be taken seriously in everyday life, but none of them should play any part in moral philosophy’s critical thought about principles. Bernard Williams, on the other hand, has queried whether theory has any authority to override our intuitive convictions. Many other philosophers are uncomfortable with both of these positions. The dismissal of intuitions seems to open up the danger of a theoretical morality altogether too abstract, too remote from anything we actually care about. The dismissal of theory seems to open up the danger of morality being confined to a series of gut reactions.

Perhaps, in theorising about our values, it is necessary to look harder at these moral intuitions which are supposed to be either so important or so unimportant. It would be nice to know more about the psychological processes by which a person comes to have a particular set of intuitions. At the level of whole societies, it would be helpful to know more about the history of different sets of intuitions. It would also be good to have a clearer sense of whether anything is special about the rather narrow range of intuitions which figure in moral philosophy. Is the way we value justice or honesty really so different from the way we value living somewhere not ruined by redevelopment, or having friends with a sense of humor?

One great virtue of Charles Taylor’s discussion of our values is that it escapes the narrowness of what is conventionally thought to be moral, and looks much more broadly. Another notable advance is that he goes beyond merely stating intuitions, and both shows how they used to be different and suggests how they came to be as they are. His aim is make us see our own post-Enlightenment culture in historical perspective, so that we can stand back and see its characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

The book is a loose, baggy monster of philosophy. This is partly because it is written in an almost intolerably verbose and undisciplined way. But it is also loose and baggy for more Tolstoy an reasons: unlike most philosophy books, it is crammed with history, and with an attempt to portray aspects of the interwoven lives and thoughts of people at different times. He wants to articulate some of the values we live by, but which have been excluded or silenced in modern philosophy. He hopes to ‘put an end to the stifling of the spirit and the atrophy of so many of our spiritual sources which is the bane of modern naturalist culture’. The book is in some important ways unsuccessful in realising this hugely ambitious aim. Most seriously, its main thesis is not sharply in focus. But it is a remarkable study in the history of ideas which will substantially enrich moral philosophy.

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