Charles Taylor writes in the preface of Sources of the Self (p. x, Harvard University Press 1989), emphasis mine:

But because my entire way of proceeding involves mapping connections between senses of the self and moral visions, between identity and the good, I didn't feel I could launch into this study without some preliminary discussion of these links. This seemed all the more necessary in that the moral philosophies dominant today tend to obscure these connections. In order to see them, we have to appreciate the place of the good, in more than one sense, in our moral outlook and life.

I realise that as I start diving into the section where he discusses these connections, he will also mention those 'moral philosophies dominant today'. However, I feel it could be useful for me to know already now what philosophies he's talking about exactly, to just have that in the back of my mind while reading further.

So: what philosophies does Taylor mean when he says that 'the moral philosophies dominant today tend to obscure [the connections between identity and the good]', and how is it exactly that those philosophies obscure those connections?

I'm also intrigued by the harsh term 'obscure'. Does Taylor mean an active obscuring (i.e. actively trying to push them away) or does he mean a passive obscuring (as in, not taking into account)?

  • He is hinting that dominant moral philosophies purporting knowledge of what is good snuffs individual thought as everyone values acceptance. Apr 3, 2015 at 0:01
  • Aiming at the Good by way of the Right is how Rawls describes classical utilitarianism in its broadest outlines; what I'm confused about is what Taylor means by identity - does it mean relating to the notion of the Self? Apr 3, 2015 at 12:24
  • @MoziburUllah basically, yes. In the preface he says: "With [the modern identity], I want to designate the ensemble of (largely unarticulated) understandings of what it is to be a human agent: the sense of inwardness, freedom, individuality, and being embedded in nature which are at home in the modern West."
    – user2953
    Apr 3, 2015 at 12:29
  • It's worth noting, that Hegels Philosophy of the Right is about moral philosophy; so 'Right' seems a term that cuts across both the continental/analytic divide - unless of course Rawls is importing in from Continental Discourse. Apr 3, 2015 at 12:34
  • 1
    Well, if Rawls is any guide to modern moral philosophy, this is something that is passed over quickly; he gestures to it, in the guise of the ideal 'impartial spectator' who is can sympathise with any/all individuals; whereas a poet like Whitman, enters into the other selves explicitly and at length; and also as part of the over-soul - he squares up to Jehovah. Apr 3, 2015 at 12:39

1 Answer 1



I don't have my copy of that text with me (it might be in my office or it might be 7000 miles away), but I'll do my best to answer from my familiarity with Taylor's work. As a bit of background, Charles Taylor's early philosophical work is actually in Hegel (as is mine), but interestingly Hegel is actually a type of Aristotelian (on both my and Taylor's reading).


I think we can quote the key sentence as follows:

the moral philosophies dominant today tend to obscure [connections between identity and the good].

There's three things going on here: (a) "moral philosophies dominant today"

(b) identity

(c) the good

I think it's easiest to start by thinking about the relationships between (c) and (a). (c) refers to the classical idea that there is an objective good -- perhaps even a form of the good. Thus, it is an appeal broadly to Plato and Aristotle's notion of the Good -- and especially its role in ethics. All classical ethics until about the point of the late middle ages believed that we necessarily pursue the good in our actions. (This helps to create the problem of akrasia or "weakness of the will" ).

The key difference between this and modern moral theories is that many contemporary moral theories (purportedly) are concerned with according our actions to what is "right". This model seems to sit well with textbook versions of "deontology" and utilitarianism. They seem primarily concerned with viewing actions in terms of conforming to the right moral principles. In contrast, classical ethical theory saw action as oriented towards the good, and viewed this as a process of adjusting our thoughts, feelings, and actions towards the good.

(N.b., that Taylor is not naive enough to think the moral theories in question are just textbook Utilitarianism and deontology. He's thoroughly aware of all the complex species running around -- but many of these are actually worse in terms of handling identity. E.g., moral and legal positivism and moral relativism both fair far worse in terms of thinking of our actions in terms of creating a moral identity).

This ties into identity. Unsurprisingly, Aristotle's ethics are built around the notion of a continuous formation of character. In other words, as we change, we are forming an identity. Since Taylor is post-Hegelian in at least some respects, this includes self-identity (as in the image we have of our own selves as we form our identities). (Thus, for Taylor, the self and moral vision is an idea interlinked with the idea of identity).

I don't know if that cleared anything up for you, but that's how I understand the passage if I sit down and think through it in light of Taylor's larger project.

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