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Guest Post: Mattheus von Guttenberg on an Exploration of the Validity and Necessary Content of Transcendental Argumentation

The following guest post is from Mattheus von Guttenberg, who is currently studying history and economics at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida and writes for the blog Economic Thought. Click here to get in touch with Mattheus!

Charles Taylor, in his seminal work Sources of the Self, puts forward an argument on the relationship between identity and moral truth using a variety of methods, but most notably that of the transcendental argument. Taylor, belonging to what might roughly be called a Neo-Aristotelian camp of moral philosophers, argues that we can derive moral truth by virtue of a moral ontology intrinsic to us as perceptive and evaluative subjects. While the transcendental argument Taylor employs does not appear to us readily and clearly, it is nonetheless the entire vertebrae of his argument without which we would have no reason to accept his conclusions. D.P. Baker, of the University of Natal in South Africa, has written cogently on this topic. Because it carries such persuasive potential, I feel a devoted exploration of Taylor’s transcendental argument, as well as Baker’s contribution to the discussion, is in order. It is my opinion that Taylor does not successfully prove his claim on morality as the content of his argument is inappropriate to the form in which he carries it.

The primary portion of Baker’s article addresses the schema of Taylor’s moral stance and articulates his position on virtue. Baker draws a distinction between a pragmatic-Aristotelian position and an absolutist-Aristotelian position that he largely takes from Mackie. He reproduces a large and worthwhile discussion, but for the purposes of celerity I will cut to the chase on the distinction:

For them [followers of Aristotle], the fundamental notion is that of the good for man, or the general end or goal of human life… But this approach is open to two radically different interpretations. According to one, to say that something is the good for man… is just to say that this is what men in fact pursue or will find ultimately satisfying… According to the other interpretation, to say that something is the good for man or the general goal of human life is to say that this is man’s proper end, that this is what he ought to be striving after, whether he in fact is or not. On the first interpretation we have a descriptive statement, on the second a normative one.

After some rumination on the plausibility and coherence of the descriptive, or pragmatic, Aristotelian position with regards to Sources of the Self, Baker concludes that Taylor must be taking the absolutist position if for no other reason than Sources is a protracted argument on the premise that some moral sources or frameworks are more valid and justifiable than others, and this argument relies on normative force. Despite his interpretive pluralism, Taylor eventually ceases waffling on moral arbitration and comes down hard on specific intellectual violators of what he considers morally important, namely the committed naturalists. Taylor’s disagreement with whom he considers naturalists – we often are in the dark here about whom he is specifically referring to – is that they are not owning up to their normative, evaluative judgments. The naturalist/utilitarians, say Taylor, are smuggling in strong moral evaluations about the primacy of utility while at the same time asserting they are remaining neutral on the question of normative force. His repeated and sustained assault on the naturalist takeover of morality illustrates his absolutist stance on issues of worth and value.

After this careful discussion on normative principles, Baker then goes on to show that Taylor is essentially making two transcendental arguments for his position on the affirmation on Aristotelian virtue – a general transcendental argument on agency and then a more specific transcendental argument which includes Taylor’s own moral goods reliant on the former. First, though, a brief explanation of the transcendental argument might be fruitful.

A transcendental argument is a specific type of logical argument that finds its genesis in the writings of Kant. Transcendental arguments are made up of chains of deductions that are derived a priori from indispensable premises – or self-evident axioms. Taylor tells us that transcendental arguments “consist of a string of what one could call indispensability claims.” These indispensability claims are the necessary bedrock of the argument; they are supposed to be so self-evidently obvious or necessary that one could not deny it at all. For instance, the claim “all justification is propositional justification” or that subjects have ownership and property rights inherent in themselves cannot be denied for the reason Taylor gives. Rejection of this indispensability claim is therefore tantamount to absurdity or a performative contradiction –Transcendental arguments, if done correctly, lead to logically true conclusions with apodictic certainty. This apodictic certainty is of a different logical category than what we construe as likelihood or probability. Apodictic certainty does not refer to the direction natural laws have on objects; it would be a mistake to refer to the repeated occurrence of some external event as having “apodictic” certainty. It is simply the most ironclad logical proof possible in the realm of intellectual inquiry.

These arguments can be a multi-tiered edifice of many premises resting on multiple conclusions, or they can be short; all transcendental arguments must have at minimum two steps, however. Furthermore, transcendental arguments are logical arguments that do not require experiential confirmation for their validity. They are internally logical and reside in an altogether different realm of inquiry than do empirical claims. Assuming the formulator of a transcendental argument does not err in his deductions, we can be sure his conclusion is true without recourse to observation. Depending on the formulation of the argument, empirical evidence is either unnecessary or totally useless to challenge the claims made. They rest instead on the validity of the premises.

Transcendental arguments are usually given with regards to certain metaphysical or ethical questions, as the form of the argument allows for clarity in these fields. For instance, the claim that “an object cannot be red and green all over at the same time” is an a priori transcendental argument that is derived from the nature of color. Taylor attempts to use this form of argument in the field of ethics and identity. Baker gives Taylor’s “general” transcendental argument thusly:

  • We are essentially subjects;
  • It is essential to our manner of being as subjects that we perceive the world in moral terms;
  • It is essential to a moral outlook that it take a ‘hypergood perspective’;
  • It is the nature of a hypergood that it orders and shapes other goods into a framework;
  • We are therefore beings whose experience is defined by a moral framework which is dominated by a hypergood.

We can understand Taylor’s argument more coherently now as having argued from the fact that we are subjects to the conclusion that the moral realm is necessarily characterized by a moral framework whose direction is dominated by a hypergood. This general argument however is not sufficient for the more specific claims Taylor wants to make regarding the worthiness of certain types of virtue. While I believe this general transcendental argument is a step in the right direction, it can only get us so far. True, it does present problems for the committed naturalist, who, in Taylor’s conception, wants to deny the reality of deliberating and choosing a normative “side.” If there truly are naturalists as Taylor describes, this argument would present difficulty for them in arguing that no normative “framework” need exist. These alleged naturalists would thus be caught in a quagmire whenever they open their mouths to assert some truth with regard to what is good, proper, right, etc. Without adopting a moral framework, these naturalists would do well to adopt Wittgenstein’s dictum: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Taylor’s general transcendental argument is a legitimate proof that weighing of moral goods requires a certain framework. The vegetarian who sneers at the customers in a steakhouse no less than the most ardent personal busybody make use of respective frameworks to make sense of the moral question: what is proper to do? These frameworks align and arrange values so as to come to a coherent viewpoint on matters. Without a framework to guide our judgments, we could no way of arbitrating between competing claims on moral goods. Without frameworks, we are either wantons or nihilists; ravenously taking and arguing for every position on every topic or conceding that no answer at all exists. If the truth is in-between these extremes, it must be the case that frameworks are necessary to rationally contemplate sources of morality. These frameworks are themselves guided, however. Taylor argues there exists a hypergood – the “highest” good to which all other values and goods are subordinate. My position as a libertarian on various moral questions is directed and dominated by the highest moral virtue, the non-initiation of force. This hypergood is that prime moral value that demonstrates in a coherent fashion the illegitimacy of theft, vandalism, murder, and other breaches of one’s right to property. Just as the Temperance movement of the 20th century made its assault upon alcohol consumption directed by their hypergood, moderation, so too does my opinion regarding taxation, military conscription, eminent domain, and imprisonment come directly from the aforementioned principle of non-aggression. Taylor’s general argument is thus applicable across a wide range of ethical positions because it only seeks to show the necessary connection between ethical claims and their source from which they are granted evaluative power. This is still a far cry from proving or supporting any specific moral framework or hypergood. This is purportedly done through what Baker calls Taylor’s specific transcendental argument.

This general transcendental argument can be found rather quickly in Part I of Sources, but the elucidation of Taylor’s specific argument lies sprinkled throughout the narrative he gives in the rest of the book and is therefore more difficult to recreate sufficiently. The conclusion of Sources, however, displays a rare succinctness on Taylor’s part. It’s as if the preceding twenty chapters were a long, meandering discussion of various ideas and concepts, but in the conclusion, we see Taylor shift to high gear and race for the finish line to prove his thesis. His affirmation of certain moral goods over others is finally explained by reference to Judeo-Christian theism. His contention is largely that Judeo-Christian theism allows us to adopt the correct framework to interpret moral questions properly. As I did before, I will take Baker’s reproduction as a solid footing to discuss this second argument put forward by Taylor. It runs as follows:

Presupposition: a moral framework, dominated by a hypergood, is an inescapable feature of our moral experience (in other words what I have here called the specific argument relies on the general argument showing what it hopes to show.)

  • It is indispensable that our moral framework that it include certain specific goods, which can be orientated to and described in different ways [my emphasis].
  • It is the Best Account of these goods that they be understood as part of a theistic account. That is, once the above mentioned goods are clearly articulated, it is indispensable to a Best Account of those goods that they be described in theistic terms.

Baker continues the paragraph with, “Thus by this reading Taylor has presented his account as a transcendental argument in favor of a theistic moral frameworks being the ‘Best Account’ of our moral phenomenology.”

Unfortunately, Sources is not primarily a work elucidating a positive account of what moral frameworks for which men should strive. It is primarily an exposition detailing the winding road of influences that have determined our modern identity. Despite this, Taylor does nod towards the end at the idea that adopting a Judeo-Christian framework is the appropriate conclusion to his argument. As he does not explicitly lay out a positive case for which moral framework we should hold, we are forced to infer his meaning from the various subtleties Taylor introduces in the latter half of his work. I will hereby take his specific transcendental argument to mean that the Judeo-Christian framework is the most proper moral framework to adopt because it satisfies two conditions: 1) The Judeo-Christian framework affirms the teleological nature of man in that Taylor incorporates from his Aristotelianism, and; 2) It is the only contemporary Western moral framework that allows for the role of the “sacred” in our lives, which Taylor believes is necessary to understand meaning and purpose. The Judeo-Christian moral framework also escapes the pitfalls of a naturalistic perspective which denies any necessity of a moral framework. Thus, Taylor writes in the penultimate paragraph of Sources about his “hope” for the Judeo-Christian framework and how it can potentially lead us to where we need to go. His absolutist stance on moral sources goes hand in hand with this conclusion.

While I think there is great merit in adopting the general transcendental argument Taylor gives, his specific argument falls prey to numerous deficiencies. In the first place, it is not at all obvious that only a theistic perspective can lead us to the proper moral framework by which we judge actions. In fact, it was the great merit of the Enlightenment that we created a broader scope for the application of disengaged reason to weigh in on these matters. While certain philosophers, Hume for example, denied that reason can play any role in arbitrating on matters of ethics, the contemporary philosophical community disagrees. There have risen a large and growing number of adherents to the notion that instrumental reason can play a role in deciding justifiable ethical theories. The entire literature on discourse ethics is predicated on what can be ethically justified without entailing performative contradictions.

In the second place, it is not entirely necessary that adopting a naturalistic stance means the complete elimination of evaluative judgments. Naturalism is a broad philosophical trend of which the main tenet is the rejection of supernatural explanations for metaphysical questions. It does not require that we eschew an interpretive framework of the type Taylor employs in his construction of the modern identity. Perhaps if Taylor were referring to strict positivists could there be universal agreement in the impossibility of making evaluative judgments – for only this type of naturalism is committed to the hard epistemological scientistism Taylor so thoroughly rejects. Naturalism is not an epistemic philosophy, but a metaphysical one. I am thus not convinced that to adopt the naturalistic turn is necessarily to adopt the nihilistic turn.

Baker concludes with some general remarks concerning the problems of utilizing transcendental arguments and specifically how Taylor fails to meet these challenges. The remainder of Baker’s article levels charges of circularity against Sources of which I am not equipped to comment, but I think a few short final remarks are in order. I think there is great value in Taylor’s philosophical attempt to give us “the path” of morality – specifically, on how we can arbitrate between competing moral frameworks. The transcendental argument is a uniquely clever attempt to prove this. However, I believe Taylor’s final acceptance of the Judeo-Christian framework is based more on his own personal biases on “epiphany” and “sacredness” that actually have little to do with morality per se. His acceptance of the theistic framework is not defended by any rigorous proof, but instead by what Taylor has referred to almost as an act of faith. While I applaud Taylor for pointing the way to what he considers morally important, he has failed to offer a convincing proof for the specific ethical claims he has made. This does not rule out other possible attempts using the transcendental method described above, however. Such an attempt will surely warrant further investigations into the competition of frameworks, which is a good thing. Perhaps the answer lies more properly in the circumscribed field of Enlightenment thought regarding concepts like duty, obligation, rights, and liberties and less in the ancient notion of “virtue” Taylor so desperately wants to resurrect


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