Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays

Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays
Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, 424pp, £29.95

Charles Taylor was for some years Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, and a fellow of All Souls College. A Canadian, he is now professor emeritus at McGill University. He has been a winner of the Templeton Prize for affirming life's spiritual dimensions - an honour that, with noticeable lack of irony, takes the form of a cash prize of £1m sterling - and the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy of half a million dollars, for something similar. The essays collected in this volume cover the period of roughly the past 15 years.

I should say from the outset that I may not be his ideal reader. Taylor, a practising Roman Catholic, is a hand-wringing, pessimistic, religious spirit; I am a moderately cheerful pragmatist. Taylor surveys wide sweeps of history, standing on a mountaintop from where he sees darkly such things as the Modern Self, the failure of the Enlightenment, the decline of community, the loss of transcendence, and other large and regrettable elements in the march of the west. I am more of a miniaturist; I find that these large vistas go all blurry. Taylor, like Alasdair MacIntyre, with whom he is inevitably compared, looks with a nostalgic eye on the enchantments of bygone times, and especially the Middle Ages. I am happier where I am, however pleasant a summer's day haymaking in the manner of Bruegel might once have been. I cannot help reflecting that the best statistics available show that I am a hundred times less likely to be murdered in 2011 than I would have been in those times. I do not mind trading a little bit of community and transcendence for that, to say nothing of modern dentistry and the rest.

The first essay in this collection salutes Iris Murdoch as a pioneer, at least among the ranks of Anglo-American philosophers, in appreciating real ethics. Taylor places her on the highest of three tiers. The most narrow kind of moral philosopher concentrates on obligations, rights and justice. A more realistic kind brings in considerations of goodness and flourishing, and what it is to live a good kind of life, which may well be one that includes a great deal more than fulfilling obligations. Yet Murdoch, according to Taylor, takes us still higher, "to the consideration of a good which would be beyond life . . . a good that we might sometimes more appropriately respond to in suffering and death". Perhaps fortunately, Taylor remains vague about what kind of "good" this might be, though he seems to think that Buddhists are at one with Christians in making room for it, which I should have thought doubtful. Christianity's maso­chistic pride in pointless suffering is not very much like Buddhism's ideal of escaping from suffering altogether.

There are things in life to which suffering is an appropriate response: grieving is a kind of suffering, and when we lose friends and loved ones a decent measure of it is the appropriate response. But the loss itself is not a "good", or, at least, it is not regarded as such by the one who grieves. So, what goods could Taylor possibly have in mind? A good film? A good meal? A good action? "Oh, look, he just succoured that poor beggar. What kindness. I'd better flog myself." Christianity celebrates suffering only as some kind of just response to the facts of our fallen nature, and those facts are not in themselves good, for it is guilt about them that fuels Catholicism's delight in the pornography of suffering. But just as annoying is the dim light, the way in which gestures that are supposed to point us towards something "higher", something "transcendental", only appear to do so, because there is no specificity about what that higher thing might be. To be fair to Taylor, this is a trick to which Iris Murdoch was chronically addicted: there is very little in Metaphysics As a Guide to Morals that survives even a casual attempt at focus (which is particularly annoying, because the message of the book is that close vision is an especially Good Thing).

If Taylor's third tier of ethics is lost in fog, he nevertheless has a keen eye for the problems of poor humanity. He sees that the best intentions can lead to the worst outcomes, and cites Dostoevsky's grim remark: "Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrived at unlimited despotism." Human shortcomings are a presence that stalks these essays, and they can lead Taylor to say interesting things, about the dynamics of terrorism, for instance, or the ways in which the disappointments that meet the best intentions can turn things very sour.

Utopianism soon tries to find scapegoats for its failures, as the grim history of the French Revolution, Russia under Lenin and Stalin, or Cambodia under Pol Pot illustrates. Taylor is suitably even-handed, acknowledging that "the transformation of high ideals into brutal practice was illustrated lavishly in Christendom". Unfortunately, there are no recipes for stopping it happening again, nor guarantees that it will not. Narrow rationalism will not protect us. There is only the cloak of "faith".

I hope few readers of this periodical will agree with that. Narrow rationalism certainly sounds bad, but exercises of reason informed by human awareness, civility and compassion have brought us everyday decencies, together with structures of laws, and rights, and national and even international safety devices, that amount to progress. From Taylor's Olympian standpoint, the incremental, compromising, faltering but steady drip of improvement is invisible. Unrealistic hopes may indeed turn into brutal practice, but small, hopeful, clear-sighted, compassionate working to improve the human lot is a good deal less vulnerable.

The art of motorcycle maintenance cannot be practised with hands clasped in prayer. It demands very little zen, but only a cheerful willingness to learn the trade and get on with it. So does the art of social maintenance, even if you win no prizes for saying so. l

Simon Blackburn is Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. His most recent book is "Practical Tortoise Raising and Other Philosophical Essays" (Oxford University Press, £25)

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City