Republican and Galilean

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

by Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, 601 pp., $37.50

Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor; drawing by David Levine

Charles Taylor is concerned with the ways in which we can and should think of ourselves as people who have—or lack—a sense of what is important to us, of what we most care about, and of what is valuable. This sense of our moral identity, for most of us, is not fully explicit, and does not consist of a set of formulated beliefs. It may look sometimes as though our sense of what is valuable is described by a set of beliefs, when a system of moral philosophy or a political creed seems to sum up our outlook; but as Taylor brilliantly shows in several different connections, it is typical of such formulations that they fail to explain their own appeal.

Take, for instance, the general idea that it is a better world in which as many people as possible, whoever they may be, are happy rather than not. Utilitarian philosophies find in this idea, the idea of impartial benevolence, the basis of all value. And the same idea has a hold on our sentiments so firm that it may seem odd even to challenge it. But what is the appeal of impartiality and benevolence themselves? Where does that appeal—we might ask—come from? Again, the idea of modern man, lonely and unsupported by metaphysical comforts, braving an infinite and unfriendly universe, has played a large part in the rhetoric of secularism; but how do we account for the value of the qualities of heroism and solitude to which that rhetoric appeals? It is because he had no answer to that question, and barely saw the need to ask it, that some of Bertrand Russell’s writings evoking the heroism of the lonely modern, such as A Free Man’s Worship, are so disastrously sentimental.

If we ask where the appeal of such values, their pull on us, “comes from,” we are likely to be met with familiar philosophical questions. What does “come from” mean? If it is a matter of philosophical explanation, showing how some values depend on others, then perhaps there is no value more basic than impartial benevolence; but (it will be said) why should there be a more basic value than that? In the well-tried phrase, we have to stop somewhere. If, on the other hand, we are concerned with psychological or historical explanations, these will not give any further insight into the value of anything, but merely tell us how our values came about. Taylor exposes and rejects the assumptions that sustain this kind of defensive analysis, in particular its uncritical trust in a distinction between fact and value.

What we value is, unsurprisingly, connected with what we believe about human beings and the world. If we have a faith in the value of impartial benevolence, for instance, this implies some pictures rather than others of what human beings are. Such a faith may go with a secular picture…

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