What Questions Are We Asking?

While discussing the place of Christians in contemporary academic and intellectual life, Charles Taylor writes in his concluding reflections to A Catholic Modernity? about how an atmosphere of unbelief has shaped not just the answers given in those places, but even the questions that are asked:

Add to this that beginning students are rarely too clear about what remarks they want to make anyway; we have more in the nature of confused intuitions at that stage (indeed, we have a lot of those at this stage, too), and we can easily understand how a student slides into a pattern of conformity, which may then become a lifelong habit.

A striking example of this preshaped agenda is the aspect of moral theory which I talked about in Sources [of the Self] and again in my lecture here. I argued in the lecture that a key issue for our times is that of moral sources, whether, for instance, we can maintain the high level of philanthropy and solidarity we now demand of ourselves, without these degenerating into their opposites: contempt, the need to control. The issue here is the quality of our moral motivation–in more old-fashioned terms, the quality of our will and the nature of the vision that sustains it.

Plato or Aristotle would have understood what I was talking about, although, of course, not the Christian or modern reference points of my discussion. But modern moral philosophy, particularly in the analytic world, has undergone a drastic foreshortening. These issues just fall off the agenda. For those thinking in the wake of the utilitarians and Kant, for instance, the principal moral question is, What ought we to do? (as against What is good to be? or What should we love?), and the principal task of moral philosophy is to find the principle or principles from which we can derive what we ought to do (the greatest happiness, or universalization, of whatever).

I was struck in some of the comments on Sources by how many people couldn’t seem to grasp what question I was addressing. They took “moral sources” to be another name for the highest principles. They literally couldn’t think outside the contemporary agenda.

But, one wants to protest, don’t you see that it also matters whether people can actually bring themselves to do the right thing? But then your interlocutor looks at you blankly and says: of course, but that’s not moral philosophy; how people actually get motivated, that’s in the domain of psychology, or sociology, or whatever.

In other words, these two issues, what we should do and how we come to do it, which were unproblematically seen as part of the same inquiry by Plato, Augustine, and just about everybody else until the last three centuries, have been neatly sundered and placed in noncommunicating intellectual universes. (119-120)