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B.A., Tecnologico de Monterrey, 1980
M.S., University of Connecticut, 1984
M.A., University of Houston, 1999
Submitted as partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy
in the Graduate College of the
University of Illinois at Chicago, 2006
Chicago, Illinois
UMI Number: 3248837
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Recojjimendatipn^c^curred in: ^
Members of
Thesis or
111^ U N I V E R S I T Y O F I L L I N O I S
For Richard, with love, for his love and support
Para mi madre, por su amor incondicional,
memoria de mi padre, porque se que estaria orgulloso
I am deeply grateful to Marya Scheshtman, who served as my main advisor and to the
other members of my committee: Sam Fleischacker, Sandra Bartky, Jana Sawiky and
Anthony Laden, who read multiple drafts and patiently offered constructive comments
and suggestions. I also want to thank Ciaran Cronin, who offered valuable advice in the
earlier stages of my writing, and Charles Mills for his support and encouragement.
Thanks also to John Santiago for fruitful discussion and comments and to Elizabeth
Sprague and Mariya Strauss for their final proofreading. And last but not least, a special
thanks to my partner Richard Rykhus for proofreading my chapters, for doing so much
house work while I had to write, and for his loving support and understanding.
1 Introduction 11
2 The Selfand the Good 12
3 The Authentic Self 14
4 Ontological Approach to the Good 17
4.1 Different Types ofGoods 17
4.2 Strong and Weak Evaluations 18
4.3 Frameworks and Qualitative Distinctions 19
4.4 Frameworks, the Meaning ofLife, and Ontologies ofthe Good 20
4.5 Human Objectivityofthe Good 21
4.6 Hypergoods 22
4.7 Constitutive Goods and Moral Sources 23
5 Practical Reason 24
5.1 Best Account 27
6 What Type ofRealism? 28
6.1 Falsifiable Realism vs. Strong Realism 28
6.2 Strong Realism with Phenomenological Objectivity 43
7 Conclusions 47
1 Introduction 49
2 The Threat ofNormalization 50
2.1 Determining Hypergoods as a Requirement ofAuthenticity 55
2.2 Hierarchyofthe Worth ofProjects 58
3 Other Saving Factors in Taylor 63
3.1 PossibilityofIncluding Contingent Factors 63
3.2 Narratives Coherence as Support for Considering Contingent Factors 65
3.3 Life Transitions and Practical Reason 73
3.4 Creative Solutions in Accommodating Hypergoods 76
3.5 Articulation 76
3.6 Two Types ofHypergoods. Good as Obligatoryand as Optional 79
4. Intersubjective Agreement 85
4.1 Universal Hypergoods through the Overlap of Best Accounts 85
4.2 Personal Hypergoods without Universal Agreement 90
4.3 The Danger ofPrivileging some Discourses 92
5. Conclusions 94
1 Introduction 97
2 Foucault's Challenge to Taylor's Account 98
3 Basic Concepts 101
3.1 Genealogy 101
3.2 Power 108
3.2.1 Disciplining Power:Constitution ofIndividuals as Objects 108 The Examination 109
3.2.2 Subjectifying Power:Constitution ofIndividuals as Subjects 112 The Confession 114
3.3 Pastoral Power 117
3.3 Resistance 119
4 Taylor's Charges against Foucault 124
4.1 That Foucault Denies the PossibilityofFreedom 124
4.2 That Foucault Denies the PossibilityofTruth 130
4.2.1 Foucault's Refusal to Speak in Terms ofMoral Truth 142
5 Limitations ofT aylor's Model ofPractical Reason 144
5.1 Practical Reason and the Other 151
6 Distinctions ofthe Good in Taylor and Foucault 154
7 Complementing Methodologies 155
8 Foucault on Moralityand Ethics 158
9 Conclusions 162
1 Introduction 166
2 Foucault's Goals and Methodology 167
2.1 The Ethos ofModernity 167
2.2 Practical Systems and their Axes ofKnowledge, Power and Ethics 171
2.3 Problematizations 173
3 Foucault's Conception ofEthics and its History 175
3.1 Four Aspects ofthe Relation ofthe Selfto Itself 178
3.2 Four Problematizations ofSexual Behavior 180
3.3 Aesthetics ofExistence 181
3.4 Care ofthe Self 183
3.5 Styles ofLife 184
4 An Aesthetics ofExistence to Avoid Normalization 185
4.1 Dialogical Artistic Ethos and Communities ofAction 188
4.2 An Aesthetics ofExistence for Modem Times; The GayWayofLife Example.... 193
5 Normalizing T endencyin the Application ofT aylor's Model 197
6 An Aesthetics ofExistence to Increase Authenticity 208
7 Objection:An Aesthetics ofExistence Could Also Lead to Normahzation 214
8 GayPolitics Based On An Aesthetics ofExistence 218
9 Conclusions 226
1 Introduction 230
2 Habermas' Discourse Ethics 232
2.1 Rational Argumentation for Moral Validity 235
2.2 Rational Argumentation for Ethical and Aesthetic Validity 237
3 T aylor contra Habermas 238
3.1 Discourse Ethics and its Partial Consideration ofthe Good 240
3.2 Discourse Ethics and Hypergoods 247
3.3 Disengaged Reason Versus Expressive Language 249
4 Habermas and Foucault 252
4.1 Habermas contra Foucault 252
4.2 Foucault contra Habermas 257
4.2.1 The Test ofFree and Open Discussion 259
4.2.2. Discourse Ethics as Utopian 262
4.2.3 Decentering the Decentered Self 265
5 Potential Agreement as a Requirement for Moral Truths 269
6 Complementing Methodologies II 270
7 The Distinction ofMoralityand Ethics 272
8 Conditions for the PossibilityofDialogue in Two Areas ofMorality 278
8.1 Illustrations 283
9 Conclusions 287
VITA 297
"The diversity of goods"
Disciphne and Punish
The Ethics of Authenticity
"The Ethics of Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom" in Michel
Foucault, Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, Vol. 1
"Explanation and Practical Reason"
The Final Foucault, Bemauer and Rasmussen, Ed.
Foucault Reader. Rabinow, Paul, Ed.
"Friendship as a Way of Life," in Michel Foucault, Ethics,
Subjectivity and Truth, Vol. 1
"Foucault on Freedom and Truth"
Human Agency and Language
Foucault, History of Sexuality. Vol. 1
Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 2. The Use of Pleasure
Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol. 3, The Care of the Self
Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action
"Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" in the Foucault Reader
"On the Genealogy of Ethics," in The Foucault Reader
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity
Politics, Philosophy, Culture
Philosophy and the Human Science
"Polemics, Politics and Problematizations" in The Foucault Reader
"The Subject and Power" in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism
and Hermeneutics
Sources of the Self
"What is Enlightermient?"
"What is Human Agency?"
A dialogical account of the self - which considers having dialogue as essential to the
formation of identity - supports an ideal of authenticity worth defending. To be authentic
we need to be moral and virtuous, but we also need to have enough freedom from moral
obligations to pursue ethical but optional notions of what we see as good.
Charles Taylor defends a hermeneutical method to achieve such authenticity. Although I
agree with much of what he says, I argue that his ontological assumptions and strong
realism lead to a reduction of what we can see as ethical but optional.
Michel Foucault, a philosopher whom Taylor criticizes as a moral relativist, gives us
elements to solve this normalizing tendency in Taylor's methodology. We can combine
both Taylor's hermeneutical method and Foucault's genealogy and suggestions to
achieve authenticity.
To strengthen Taylor's and Foucault's positions I compare them to Jiirgen Habermas'
form of critical reflection and discuss the separation of the domain of morality into two
areas: one includes universal and the other optional notions of what we see as good.
My interest in authenticity comes from a common experience in modem societies.
Many people often wonder whether they are living their lives as they should; whether
they are not wasting those lives. This is not only a desire to know whether one is being
moral and behaving in the right way toward others. We also want to know, for example,
whether we are following a career that fiilfills us; whether we have a job that fits our
interests and abilities; and, in general, whether we have the relationships, goals, projects,
life plans, and ways of life that we should. Many people would say that they want to
know that they are doing what they were supposed to do in this world. The teleological
assumptions behind this way of expressing it do not make the desire any less real.
Although feelings like these might have always existed, for different reasons they
have increased in Modernity. In the Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor offers a brief
history of how this ideal might have developed. In the end of the IS^* * century many
people had the notion that people are naturally endowed with a sense of what is right and
moral. Because of this, they believed we should pay attention to one's "inner voice."
We can see the development of the ideal of authenticity as a displacement of the value of
listening to this voice. At this time people started to value listening to their irmer voice
not only as a means to God or to knowing what is good or right, but as an end in itself.
(EA, 26) Jean Jacques Rousseau and later Johann Herder not so much proposed as
articulated this value, which was already in the culture. Yet, their formulations also
influenced our adoption of these ideals. For Herder, each person can find a particular
way of being which is properly his or her own. Furthermore, they would find enormous
value in living in accordance with it. If we do not live in this way, we are missing
something important, namely, our own particular way of living life. We must therefore,
be true to ourselves. (EA, 28-29)
In our modem age, authenticity has become a moral ideal that I consider worth
defending. Being authentic implies finding or defining a valuable way of being that we
are called to live. It implies developing an identity that we can defend as worthy. For
Taylor, as we will see, we do this by finding certain ideas of the good that call us or move
us. These ideas of the good help define our identity and give meaning to our lives.
Because we are responsible for defining who we are or want to be, this ideal calls for a
higher degree of self-responsibility. In becoming authentic we realize our full potential
and gain the sense of a higher degree of ownership of our lives. It also represents the
promises of self-fulfillment and of fi-eedom to be oiu-selves.
This ideal, however, has been negatively affected by individualism, another
feature of modem life with which it closely developed. In part, the ideal of authenticity
fed from Descartes' individualism of disengaged rationality and Locke's political
individvialism. A reaction of Romanticism to an individualism that did not recognize
community ties, however, also nourished the ideal. Individualism encourages us to think
for ourselves, be independent, define our own values, and discover our tme feelings and
desires. Each of these practices has something going for it. The problem comes when we
exaggerate their value, denying or minimizing the ties we have to other people.
Individualism tends to see people as pimctual, isolated beings. Under the influence of
this ideal we often believe that, to be authentic, we need to look inward and then be true
to what we find whatever that might be. We can see how this way of thinking can lead us
to self-centered forms of the ideal of authenticity.
The individualist tradition also tends to see human beings primarily as
manipulators of representations. According to it, to successfully act and live we need to
have correct representations of the external world, which includes other people. We also
need good reasoning, which consists in the correct manipulation of these representations.
We can do all of this monologically. One problem comes, however, when we apply this
tj^e of reasoning, not to the objects of sciences, but to thinking about people. This type
of theory carmot explain very well how we become selves and develop a sense of
Instead I embrace a type of philosophy that, belonging to a different tradition,
does not see human beings primarily as thinking beings. I uphold the Heideggerian or
Wittgestinian view that what is primordial about himian beings is their practical activity
and engagement in the world. We can see practical activity as primordial in two senses:
(1) Whether directly or indirectly, we use it all the time - which is not the case with our
manipulation of representations, and (2) We can only understand our representations
against a background of inarticulate practical imderstanding.
Out of this outlook I want to stress its consequences for the view that we must
have about human beings. If individualism encouraged thinking of people as
monological beings, this tradition encoxwages thinking of people as essentially dialogical.
In my view, this theory has more resources to explain how we develop selfhood and are
able to become authentic.
A dialogical account of human beings sees dialogue as fundamental for our
development and existence, since this dialogue and conversations with others determine
who we are. We define who we are with the terms that we learn through these dialogues,
and because of this, they are fundamental for us. Within the dialogical account, however,
we must think of dialogue not only narrowly as a form of verbal commimication, but in
the broader sense in which we sometimes speak of language. Thus, we can speak of the
languages of the body, of art or of love. (EA, 33) We acquire these languages in dialogue
with others, which accordingly, cannot always be verbal. These different forms of
dialogue serve to explain facets of our identity that we carmot explain through a
monological or atomistic conception of the self Our identity does not come only from
what we are able to define verbally and on our own. The sense of who we are also comes
from, for instance, the non-verbal commimication that we have with others. Moreover,
we do not define our identity in isolation from others. As we grow up, we need our
significant others to recognize who we are. Sometimes we develop our identities in
struggle against the ones they want to impose on us, but even this presupposes a dialogue
with them.
Some people might accept dialogue as important for us, but still see as an ideal
being independent and developing an identity without paying much attention to what
people say. But this ideal does not deny the fimdamental place of dialogue. Even to
identity as those more independent or non-conformist selves we need other people who
think as we do. At a very minimum we need to make sense to others. Although they
might not agree with us, they should at least find intelligible our aspirations or way of
being. Thus, we never outgrow our need for others. We might go on to belong to
different communities, either physically or spread out in time and space, but we still need
them to be selves. This dependency on "webs of interlocution" is what Charles Taylor
sees as a transcendental condition for being selves at all. (SS, 36-38)
Recognizing this interdependence in dialogue helps us see the deviancy in the
ideal of authenticity that an individualist culture tends to advocate. This deviant form of
the ideal, in the name of authenticity, condones egotistically acting out of one's own
desires without paying much attention to concerns that go beyond the self This variant
of the ideal sees as authentic, for instance, a person who follows his own financial dreams
at the expense of family, fi-iends, or civic commitments. As long as the person is being
faithful to whatever dreams or desires his "inner voice" monologically discloses, we can
see him as authentic. By contrast, for the dialogical account, being authentic will require
us defining an identity that we can really value and defend as worthy. This we can do
only if we have the recognition of others.
In chapters four and five of the Ethics of Authenticity Taylor presents the outline
of an argument to show why the self-centered form of authenticity is self-defeating.
Based on the dialogical account of the self we must accept that developing an identity
requires recognition by others. This has always been the case, but it is even more
pressing in the modem world. In the 18th century people started having more social
mobility. People no longer automatically defined who they were based on their place in a
hierarchical society. Furthermore, moved by the ideal of authenticity itself, people
increasingly started looking inward in order to know who they were and to find a sense of
identity. This inwardly generated sense of identity, however, makes the recognition of
others more fragile than this used to be in hierarchical societies. In such societies this
recognition was practically granted, since it was based on publicly known distinctions.
By contrast, to inwardly generate an identity, we depend more on the recognition of
others. On an intimate level, to have this recognition we cannot treat our loved ones as
disposable or as mere means to our ends ~ which is what, in many ways, a self-centered
authenticity encourages. On the social level the culture of authenticity - in either of its
forms - supports seeing different identities as equally worthy. To have real recognition,
however, we need to agree on values that can allow us to see the different identities as
equally worthy. In other words, we need horizons of significance that we can only
defend dialogically. If we don't have this, we won't have real recognition, and without it,
we won't have the world that even people in the self-centered form of authenticity would
want. We can thus see how, on an intimate or on a social level, the self-centered form of
the ideal of authenticity is self defeating.
We can already see how our dialogical nature supports an ideal of authenticity
that also requires us being moral. Yet, we don't want to forget the promise of freedom
we found implicit in the ideal of authenticity. The requirements of morality, especially
when we start to think in terms of moral obligation, have a way to climb on us. Can a
dialogical account of the self support a form of authenticity that, while requiring that we
are moral, also allows us to find fulfillment in more personal notions of what makes a
good life? If so, how can we do that? These are questions behind much of what I write
in this dissertation.
We find the two intuitions in a common understanding of authenticity. People
often believe that being authentic implies exhibiting several moral and ethical qualities
that are natural or most fitting to himan nature such as being generous, altruistic, and
courageous. On the other hand, we also often relate being authentic with being free from
society's constraints. The ideal of authenticity I endorse requires us to keep certain
universal virtues and moral qualities, but also encourages us to pursue our own personal
goals and commitments.
In the view I support, being authentic requires us finding and following values
and ideas of the good by which to lead our lives, but these do not come from pre-
established truths about ourselves that we simply discover. We find these ideas through
dialogues with others. Depending on these dialogues we can have different values, ideas
of what we see as good and senses of self Since we can be members of different
dialogical communities we can find many different notions of what constitutes good and
worthy lives. In my view, we only become authentic when we create free, joyfiil, and
empowered lives and ways of being. Diversifying our dialogues helps us see more
opportunities for different lives and thus increases our possibilities for being authentic.
In this dissertation I contend that our dialogical nature supports a dialogical ethics
such that one that values and seeks to promote dialogue with others. Such ethics in turn
supports the ideal of authenticity I endorse, which offers us the highest degree of situated
freedom to which we can aspire. I propose that we can reach this type of authenticity
through participation in two types of dialogues. One type seeks to determine through
universal consensus notions of the good that are often obligatory and apply universally.
The other type does not necessarily seek universal consensus, takes place within smaller
communities with different others, and attempts to determine ideas of the good that are
often optional. The first set of notions represents the moral; the second represents what
we can see as ethical but optional.
In Chapter Two, I review some of the fundamental concepts in Charles Taylor's
account. I also clarify what type of moral realism and objectivity he defends. I compare
his realism with the realism or objectivity of a naturalistic account. Although he
dismisses naturalism as conflicting with any moral accoimtj I consider a form of
naturalism that seeks to explain the moral through a scientific reduction without rejecting
morality. 1 argue that his method of finding an ontology of the good leads us to a form of
strong realism congruent with a compatibilist, non-projectivist, sophisticated, ethical
naturalism. This form of realism, however, does not necessarily lead to special extra-
natural or transcendent features that explain why we experience certain values and moral
goods as objective, although it remains open to them.
In Chapter Three I analyze some reasons for thinking that Taylor's account leads
to normalization. By normalization I mean the phenomenon of making us all the same,
and of living essentially the same form of life. I investigate different redeeming factors
in Taylor's accoimt to show that it does not lead to such normalization for the reasons we
thought. I also look at some objections to Taylor's objectivism, including the low
likelihood of finding a best account for our moral experience. I propose to take the
overlap of oiu" different best accounts as a reassurance of the phenomenological
objectivity of universal hypergoods. In this way I suggest that acknowledging the
difficulty of agreeing on a single account does not have to let us renounce the
phenomenological objectivity of some moral principles or hypergoods. Toward the end
of the chapter, I raise the possibility that Taylor's requirement that we all feel moved by
what we see as good restrict too much what we can see as such goods. In this sense even
if the account itself does not imply normalization, the application of his method may
restrict too much our options for living different types of life
In Chapter Four, I investigate the limitations Michel Foucault's studies show for
the application of Taylor's account of practical reason to reach authenticity. Before
doing this, however, I answer some of the objections Taylor and Jiirgen Habermas raise
against Foucault's account. After doing this, we see the potential of Foucault's
genealogies to challenge some of the conclusions we can reach through Taylor's
hermeneutical method. In showing how some ideals oppress others or parts of ourselves,
Foucault's genealogies show us that Taylor's hermeneutical method might lead us to see
as vmiversally good what is not so. In such cases he advocates resisting and creating new
practices, types of relationships, and in general distinctions of the good. We can thus see
Foucault's genealogies as a way to test some of the conclusions we can reach through
Taylor's method and as its complement. But I suggest that we can also use Taylor's
hermeneutical method to test the morality of the new practices of freedom that we find by
following Foucault's suggestions. We thus see that we can combine both Taylor's
hermeneutical method and Foucault's genealogy and suggestions to develop our authentic
In Chapter Five, I defend Foucault from Taylor's objection that he does not pay
enough attention to our dialogical nature by reviewing his suggestions to create new
forms of subjectivity through an aesthetics of existence. I use the example of a gay
identity or way of life as a way to illustrate a modem subjectivity that some people can
achieve by following such aesthetics. I argue that other people can use this aesthetic of
existence to become more authentic, or as Foucault would put it, for creating their lives
as works of art. I also argue that Taylor's model leads to expect fewer distinctions of the
good than Foucault's. Because of this, I argue, it keeps the risk of leading us to more
normalization than is needed or desirable. The difference between the two authors comes
from their divergent positions with regard to rationality. For Taylor, a hermeneutical
process should lead us, in the limit, to an objective, realistic ontology of the good.
Foucault denies that we can find a privileged form of rationality to determine the whole
of our ontology of the good. To the extent that we see genealogies as successful and we
accept other forms of thinking as valid, we can accept that not everybody has to agree on
our ontology of the good.
Finally, in Chapter Six, I introduce Jurgen Habermas into the discussion, partly to
see whether we could use his form of critical reflection to develop authentic selves. After
discussing differences among these authors, I accept Habermas' discourse ethics only as
one more form of reflection to determine candidates for just social norms. I also discuss
the separation of the domain of morality into two areas: one in which we find moral
obligation and another in which we find optional ideas of the good life. Based on
Bernard Williams' observations about moral reflection, I illustrate one way in which we
could classify some issues as belonging to the moral and others to the ethical but
optional. This discussion serves only to show one way in which we can conduct oiir
moral reflection and still find the two areas of morality that we need to have to develop
authentic selves.
1 Introduction
In this chapter I review some of the fundamental concepts in Taylor's account and
discuss why I see them as important. I start by clarifying what Taylor means by "self
and by "authentic self and stress the connection of these concepts to the idea of the
good. I then go on to show how Taylor advocates using our moral and spiritual intuitions
and reactions to investigate our ideas about what we see as good and worthy, and
distinguish among different types of goods. For Taylor, practical reason should lead us to
our best moral and ethical accounts which in turn give us ontologies of the good that we
see as objective.
I believe in the importance of finding valid ways of justifying what we see as
good and valuable to avoid moral radical relativism and subjectivism. I also believe that a
promising way of doing this relies on a hermeneutic method, such as the one Charles
Taylor proposes, and in inter-subjectivity as a basis for objectivity. Yet I am concerned
that Taylor's method could overstep its limits and lead us to see as normative or
obligatory what it is not. In this chapter I want to investigate this possibility.
I also attempt to clarify what type of moral realism and objectivity Taylor
defends. I confront his realism with the realism or objectivity of a naturalistic account.
Although he dismisses naturalism as antagonistic to any moral account, I consider a
different form of naturalism that might explain the moral through a scientific reduction,
without rejecting it. After looking at the two types of accounts, I conclude that both
present the possibility of normalization, by which I mean the process of making us all
behave or act alike, and live essentially the same type of life. I argue that Taylor does not
make a distinction in the way we reason about moral and non-moral goods, and this sets
the stage for the objections we investigate in Chapter Three.
2 The Self and the Good
We use the term "self in different ways. Psychologists often connect it to the
notions of reflective consciousness or awareness and ego. These approaches, however,
see the self as something we can study scientifically in a way not very different from the
way we study other objects. By contrast, for Taylor, the self is not something we can
study in the detached, objective way we see in science. Part of the appeal of his approach
comes from his phenomenological method which takes selves as they live their lives,
observing what matters for them, their reactions, motivations, and intuitions. This method
reveals an intimate link between the self and the good: "we are only selves insofar as we
move in a certain space of questions, as we seek and find an orientation to the good." (SS,
34) Whether we are conscious of it or not, our everyday actions and choices presuppose
a series of ideas about what we consider good, such as what life is worth living, what
ways of being have dignity, or what it means to be just or moral towards others.
The main strength of Taylor's approach, however, does not come from his
phenomenological method but from the idea of looking for the transcendental conditions
outside of which we could not conceive of a self at all. We can see, for example, being
concerned with one's orientation to the good as a transcendental condition for being a
self, especially if we acknowledge that the individual only has to have some conception
of the good but not any one in particular. We can't conceive of someone living outside
this space of questions and conceptions about the good. Agency itself presupposes
having an idea of some good or other.
Taylor also looks for this connection between good and self through the concept
of identity. For him, we find our identity by discovering how things matter for us: "My
identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the fi-ame or
horizon within which I can try to determine fi-om case to case what is good, or valuable,
or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose." (SS, 26) Thus, when I define
myself as a Catholic or as an anarchist it is because I think these identities say something
important about what I value, or at least about the perspective from which I am judging.
For Taylor, being a self requires having or being concerned with finding an identity;
"[selves] are beings of the requisite depth and complexity to have an identity... (or to be
struggling to find one)." (SS, 32) Since not knowing what is the good or where we stand
in important issues of life is a pathological state in which we speak of a 'loss of identity',
normally we all qualify as selves.
Although attractive, Taylor's conception strikes some as somewhat narrow and
idealistic. It concedes importance to our values and ideals, but it seems to leave out more
physiological and psychological or somatic factors, such as our temperament, habits, and
emotional dispositions. Amelie O. Rorty and David Wong have called this a 'top-down-
view' of the self (Rorty, A., 36). As they point out, normally, we do not identify
ourselves solely or even primarily by our ideals. We often think of ourselves through
terms such as 'compulsive', 'intelligent', 'nervous', 'extroverted', 'moody', 'feminine',
'masculine', 'short', 'straight', 'Caucasian', 'overweight', and so forth. All of these
terms are closer to what we could call the 'bottom end of identity'. Given that Taylor
uses phenomenology, or a direct observation and depiction of human life to support much
of what he says, we could see not paying attention to this part of our experience as an
important omission.
In Taylor's defense we should say that he does allow for considering some of
these characteristics at the bottom end of identity. The only proviso is that such
characteristics matter to us in certain ways or for a good reason. "The answer to the
question 'What is my identity?' cannot be given by a list of properties of other ranges
about my physical description, provenance, background, capacities, and so on. All these
can figure in my identity, but only as assumed in certain way. If my being of certain
lineage is to me of central importance... then it will be part of my identity... my lineage
is part of my identity because it is bound up with certain qualities I value." (HAL, 34)
3 The Authentic Self
In The Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor offers a historical development of ideas that
stand behind our modem culture of authenticity both in the form he endorses and the
deviant form he rejects. According to Taylor, from Johann Herder we imderstand "the
idea that each of us has an original way of being human." (EA, 29) We must find out this
original way of living our lives and, by doing this, be true to ourselves. This inherited
moral ideal thus "accords crucial moral importance to a kind of contact with myself, with
my own inner nature." (EA, 29) We have to listen to our inner voices, which for each of
us has something original and thus valuable to say. But nobody can do this for us:
"Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only
I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing
a potentiality that is properly my own." (Taylor 1991, 29)
Taylor accepts all of the above ideas as part of oiir modem ideal of authenticity
but notices that, by themselves, these ideas can lead to a deviant and self-centered form
of authenticity. The proper ideal should contain further conditions. We cannot be true to
ourselves in isolation from others and without taking into account concerns that go
beyond the self. Thus a real authentic self carmot be someone who places his own
personal satisfaction, such as becoming wealthy, over other obligations, such as feeding
his family.
This example suggests that, for Taylor, in order to be authentic we need to be
moral. As we saw above, for Taylor, to be selves, we need to be concerned with finding
what is good and with how we stand in relation to it. But moral goods - even if, as we
will see, turn out to be the overriding goods - form only part of the goods important to
people. We are also concerned, more or less consciously, with what kind of life is worth
living, which projects or goals deserve oxu" attention, or even with which relationships we
should have. Being concerned with our standing with respect to all these different types
of goods constitutes an essential part of being selves.
For Taylor, to be authentic we need to determine these different goods and act or
be in accordance with them. In other words, while to be a self we need to be concerned
with finding out and realizing the good in general, to be an authentic self we need to have
determined and be realizing what that good is for us. How can 1 justify this? Much of
what Taylor says in Sources of the Self applies to the self in general. All selves through
history have needed an orientation toward the good. Modem selves also need this
orientation, but now we think we find this good by looking inward and being truthful to
what we find as our own original way of being. Taylor advocates looking inward to our
feelings, emotions, and moral intuitions and articulating them as the way to get clear
about our conceptions of the good: "we should treat our deepest moral instincts.. .as our
mode of access to the world in which ontological claims are discernible and can be
rationally argued about and sifted." (SS, 8)
But this looking inward does not mean that the good for us stands imrelated to a
more general conception of the good or what others consider important. We do not learn
or realize what is good in isolation from others. To articulate our reactions and intuitions
we use a language that we share with and learned from others. We fiirther address our
articulations to others to whom we need to make sense. To do this, we need to consider a
whole background about what those others consider important or good. If we could not
make sense to others, we could not make sense to ourselves either, and thus, could not
determine the good for us. Taylor writes, "A human being can always be original... [but]
the drive to original vision will be hampered, will ultimately be lost in inner confiision,
unless it can be placed in some way in relation to the language and vision of others." (SS,
37) To be authentic I need to determine the good for me and act accordingly. But, as I
will argue, for Taylor, something is really a good for me if it is objectively good and
others can see it as such.
4 Ontological Approach to the Good
4.1 Different Types of Goods
As I mentioned before, Taylor does not restrict the good to the moral. In living
our lives, we are not only concerned with moral goods, such as the one realized in
respecting others. We are also concerned with finding out other more personal or
spiritual goods such as the specific goals, projects, or ways of being that allow us to live
dignified, meaningful, and fiilfilling lives. He criticizes modem moral philosophy for
restricting its considerations of the moral to rights as opposed to goods ~ and to our
duties and behavior towards others. Besides being concerned with the goods realized
through these obligations, moral philosophy should also include imder its scope
investigating more personal or spiritual goods. He notices three different axes or areas
for such goods: "As well as the two just mentioned - our sense of respect for and
obligations to others, and our understanding of what makes a full life - there is also the
range of notions concerned with dignity. By this I mean the characteristics by which we
think of ourselves as commanding (or failing to command) the respect of those around
us." (SS, 15) We can only access these goods through the articulation of our moral or
spiritual reactions and intuitions. In the case of the moral, in its narrow sense, he writes:
"The most reliable moral view is not one that would be grounded quite outside our
intuitions but one that is grounded on our strongest intuitions, where these have
successfully met the challenge of proposed transitions away from them." (SS, 75) And
also, as quoted above, "we should treat oiir deepest moral instincts, our ineradicable sense
that human life is to be respected, as our mode of access to the world in which
ontological claims are discernible and can be rationally argued about and sifted." (SS, 8)
4.2 Strong and Weak Evaluations
Taylor uses the term "spiritual" to include all those reactions that go beyond the
moral in its narrow sense to give us a hint into what has importance for us and makes life
worth living. These spiritual intuitions presuppose a characteristic that Taylor sees as
essential for human agency: the capacity for carrying out strong evaluations. "What they
have in common with moral issues, and what deserves the vague term 'spiritual' is that
they all involve...'strong evaluations', that is, they involve discriminations of right and
wrong, better or worse, higher and lower, which are not rendered valid by our own
desires, inclinations or choices, but rather stand independent of these and offer standards
by which they can be judged." (SS, 4) We use strong evaluation to judge the worth of
our personal and spiritual desires and commitments, by seeing if we want to live the kind
of life that contains them. When we make strong evaluations we deploy a language
contrasting evaluative distinctions and characterizing our different desires.: we describe
them "as noble or base, integrating or fragmenting, courageous or cowardly, clairvoyant
or blind, and so on." Taylor contrasts these evaluations with 'weak evaluations', which
only require us making an assessment of how desirable -as opposed to how worthy - a
given action is, or a utilitarian calculation of what action leads us to the best overall
outcome. "In weak evaluation, for something to be judged good it is sufficient that it be
desired, whereas in strong evaluation there is also a use of 'good' or some other
evaluative term for which being desired is not sufficient." (WHA, 18) Also, when we
evaluate weakly we consider contingent factors in a way we do not when we evaluate
strongly: "when in weak evaluation one desired alternative is set aside, it is only on
grounds of its contingent incompatibility with a more desired alternative." (WHA, 19)
We see that, while in making weak evaluations we still might require rational
deliberation, we don't make them in terms of contrastive discriminations. Finally, while
only humans (that we know) have the capacity to make strong evaluations, we share the
capacity for weak evaluations with other animals.
4.3 Frameworks and Qualitative Distinctions
By carrying out strong evaluations of our spiritual reactions and intuitions then,
we make discriminations about what we see as the higher and lower, or the good and bad
standing behind those reactions. But oiir spiritual and moral reactions and intuition and
thus, our strong evaluations, do not occur in a vacuum. We react, feel, and value what we
do because we have a framework or background of assumptions and beliefs about what is
good and worthy, and bad and worthless: "a framework always incorporates a crucial set
of qualitative distinctions. To think, feel, judge within such a framework is to fimction
with the sense that some action, or mode of life, or mode of feeling is incomparably
higher then the others which are more readily available to us." (SS, 19) The qualitative
distinctions we find in frameworks coincide with the discriminations of right and wrong,
higher and lower, and so on, that we find through strong evaluations.'
Many people often have only an inarticulate sense of the frameworks behind their
moral and spiritual intuitions. Others are not quite ready to stand by one particular
framework. This is particularly true of our modem skeptical age, in which we see a "loss
' We reinforce this interpretation when we read how Taylor comments on the use of the word 'incomparably' within the last quote.
Taylor notices that qualitative distinctions are incomparable in the sense that their desirability cannot be assessed in the same scale. I t
is not the case that some of them are merely more desirable than others in the same way but to a higher degree. Rather, qualitative
distinctions tell us about the intrinsic worth of different goods. We find the same type of incomparability in the discriminations we
establish through strong evaluations
of horizons" or disenchantment with many traditional frameworks. This tentativeness in
standing by particular frameworks, however, does not mean that we don't have them.
Taylor sees them as essential to live our lives: "a framework is that in virtue of which we
make sense of our lives spiritually. Not to have a framework is to fall into a life which is
spiritually senseless." (SS, 18)
4.4 Frameworks, the Meaning of Life, and Ontologies of the Good
To find the meaning of our lives, then, we need to articulate the frameworks by
which we live or want to live. We must notice that, for Taylor, articulation does not
imply only describing what we find but also inventing new formulations and expressions.
"We find the sense of life through articulating it. And modems have become aware of
how much sense being there for us depends on our powers of expression. Discovering
here depends on, is interwoven with, inventing." (SS, 18) and also, "Discovering a
framework is interwoven with inventing." (SS, 22) Including "invention" as part of what
we do when we articulate a framework might be a factor that works in Taylor's defense
later. We articulate the frameworks by spelling out the qualitative distinctions that are
behind our moral and spiritual instincts and reactions. But these distinctions are never
final. New articulations with different expressions can modify our reactions, and thus our
qualitative distinctions, or what we see worth pursuing.
A more complex articulation can lead us to moral accoxmts that make claims
about what makes an object or action merit certain response. Each of these accounts then
also establishes a particular moral or spiritual ontology. In the specific case of our moral
reactions, for example, he tells us: ".. .they seem to involve claims, implicit or explicit.
about the nature and status of human beings...a moral reaction is an assent to, an
affirmation of, an ontology of the human." (SS, 5) And also, "Ontological accovmts have
the status of articulations of our moral instincts. They articulate the claims implicit in our
reactions." (SS, 8) Some fi-ameworks, such as that of the warrior ethics, resist further
elaboration. But others lend themselves to theoretical articulation that can produce
highly spelled out philosophical ontologies (SS, 21).
4.5 Human Objectivityof the Good
But the second type of articulation not only can lead us to moral accounts that tell
us which claims de facto stand behind our moral intuitions. It can also tell us which
claims we should rationally make: "[This form of articulation] could only be carried
forward by showing that one or another ontology is in fact the only adequate basis for our
moral responses..." (SS, 10) For example, we might have different accoimts for
explaining our intuition that hiunan life should be respected. Some believe human life
merits this respect because we are all God's children while others believe that it merits it
because we all have the potential for rationality and self-determination. Both of these
accounts establishes a different ontology. Of course, in this case, we cannot find an
imcontroversial answer; but for Taylor, potentially, we can find an account that makes
best sense of our intuitions or a best account. At least this is what follows firom
acknowledging that this type of superior articulation is possible. When this happens, we
see the ontology given by this account as objective. Yet, since our reactions can change
with new articulations, these ontologies are always provisional.
The higher elements we find in our qualitative distinctions of our best-justified
accounts constitute our ontology of the good. Among other things, these higher elements
refer to actions, feelings, or modes of life that we see as worthy or noble. They form part
of a good life and that is why Taylor calls them "life goods." (SS, 93) For us, these
goods have an actual, objective existence. They do not exist in a Platonic heaven but
within the human world. This fact, however, does not make them less objective. "Our
value terms purport to give us insight into what it is to live in the imiverse as a human
being...This reality is, of course, dependent on us, in the sense that a condition for their
existence is our existence. But once granted that we exist, it is no more a subjective
projection than what physics deals with." (SS, 59) The goods referenced by our value
terms exist because we realize them, can feel their force, and can use them to guide our
4.6 Hypergoods
In general, we live our lives within several frameworks, and thus can see
simultaneously as good different goals, behaviors, or commitments. But many people feel
how one framework trumps all others and establishes one or few goods as incomparably
higher than all others. Taylor calls these hypergoods or ".. .goods which not only are
incomparably more important than others but provide the standpoint from which these
must be weighed, judged, decided about." (SS, 63) We could ask, however, whether or
not everybody should see the importance of these goods and thus find these hypergoods.
As Abbey observes, Taylor vacillates between the two positions. (Abbey, 36) When he
first introduces them, we see them as more personal goods. He writes, "Most of us not
only live with many goods but find that we have to rank them, and in some cases, this
ranking makes one of them of supreme importance relative to the others." (SS, 62) From
this we imderstand that not everybody necessarily finds a hypergood to lead her life. A
hypergood in this sense could be a project, something we value, or a way of life or being
that we see as central to our lives. A quick reflection on what we see around shows us
that many people live their lives without giving one good of this type any clear priority
over others. Later on, however, Taylor refers to hypergoods as more objective goods that
should apply to everybody. He does this when he identifies them with the moral. "But
then, it would appear that we all recognize some such; that this status is just what defines
the 'moral' in our culture: a set of ends or demands which not only have unique
importance, but also override and allow us to judge others." (SS, 63) We can think of
hypergoods, then as personal and optional, and as universal and commanding.
4.7 Constitutive Goods and Moral Sources
Behind all life goods and hypergoods though, we find what Taylor calls
"constitutive goods." He calls them constitutive because they constitute the goodness of
the first or because they are what makes them good. He writes,".. .life goods refer us to
some feature of the way things are, in virtue of which these life goods are goods. These
features constitute them as goods, and that is why I call them constitutive." (SS, 93) For
Plato, for example,'.. .the constitutive good is the order of being, or perhaps the principle
of that order, the Good." (SS, 92) According to Plato we can capture what is beautiful,
wise, or just by capturing, through reason, the Forms of Beauty, Wisdom, and Justice,
behind which we find the Form of the Good. But we can find many other examples of
constitutive goods. Theists, for instance, see God as their constitutive good while
Kantians see rational agency as theirs.
We can see constitutive goods as grounding all others. We could ask what
grounds constitutive goods and see the threat of an infinite regression. As we will see
below, Taylor seems to stop this regression by justifying these goods with a special form
of what he uses to justify other goods, namely, the most detailed version of the best
account of our moral intuitions.
Intimately related to the concept of constitutive good we find that of a moral
source. For Taylor, realizing our constitutive goods inspires us to pursue what is good
and in that sense constitutes a moral source. He writes, "The constitutive good is a moral
source, in the sense I want to use this term here: that is, it is a something the love of
which empowers us to do and be good." (SS, 93) And of course a moral source is a
source of the self Since we are defining the self through the goods that move her, in so
far as reflection, articulation or contemplation of a constitutive good generates the love
and energy to realize what we see as good, it also makes us who we are.
5 Practical Reason
For Taylor we can determine the hypergoods that should govern our lives through
rational argumentation. But we don't do this by the application of some criteria detached
from our intuitions and fi^om the way we live our lives. We use practical reason to justify
some frameworks over others. His model of practical reason contrasts with the apodictic
method of the physical sciences. For him, "Practical reason.. .is a reasoning in
transitions. It aims to establish, not that some position is correct absolutely, but rather
that some position is superior to some other." (SS, 72) This way of arguing is ad
hominem. We appeal to what the opponent already recognizes or cannot easily repudiate
(EPR, 53). Sometimes we do this by showing that a move from a position A to a position
B constitutes an epistemic gain, such as demonstrating how A was based on a
contradiction, a wrong assumption, or failed to consider some important factor.
We use practical reason to argue not only about moral positions but also about
transitions between scientific theories or to take decisions in our own personal lives. For
Taylor, the simplest form of practical reason takes place at this latter personal level. In
this case, we know we are in a better position because we have lived through the
transition. As an example he mentions the case of Joe who was previously confused
whether he loved Anne because he also resented her. Now he realizes that the emotions
of love and resentment are compatible, and so ".. .is confident that his present self
reading (I certainly love Anne), is superior to his former self reading (I am not sure
whether I love Anne), because he knows he passed from one to the other via the
clarification of a confusion." (EPR, 53) In biographical cases such as this, we directly
see our new position as truer than the previous one by realizing for instance, how we
were confused about something, screened out an important factor or made a wrong
In the case of arguing about moral positions, Taylor notices two important
resources of practical reason that we have at our disposal. We can develop a previously
unacknowledged insight marginally present in all cultures. Once we do this, the
articulated insight may be hard to deny. One such insight".. .is that of the worth of each
human being, the injunction that humans must be treated as ends." (EPR, 56) We use this
developed instinct to argue, for instance, for the defense of marginalized groups. Taylor
trusts that we can find transcendental moral intuitions that exist in some way or another
in all cultures and that we can use them to articulate objective qualitative distinctions.
Someone could object that what we take as moral instincts could be the product of
conditioning, and thus, not suited for proving the existence of transcendental, objective
values. They could argue that if we had different training or came from different
traditions, we could have different intuitions and could have disclosed different
frameworks and qualitative distinctions. To answer this objection we can note that the
fact that an intuition is not original to our nature, or that it was developed at some point,
does not make it less useful or desirable.
The other resource consists in seeing the relation of some practice or ideal to
certain beliefs. If we show the falsity of the beliefs, we can discredit the practice or ideal.
As an example, Taylor refers to the horrific forms of torture and the spectacle made out
of them that took place in Middle Age Europe. He sees as part of the explanation for this
practice the belief in some sort of cosmic order. In committing a crime, a criminal had
distorted the established order, and the only way to restore it was to punish in a way
proportional to the crime. For Taylor, the scientific refutation of the belief that society
mirrors the cosmic order has helped us show the superiority of our more modem and
humane forms of punishment.
In all of the above cases, we see an epistemic gain. According to Taylor, an
essential feature of practical reason consists in a link we all experience between seeing
this epistemic gain and being moved by the winning hypergood: ".. .oiir acceptance of
any hypergood is connected in a complex way with our being movedhy it." (SS, 73) To
the objection that the goodness or importance of the hypergood comes only from its
capacity to move us, Taylor responds by noticing that this subjectivist argument goes
against our moral phenomenology: "We sense in the very experience of being moved by
some higher good that we are moved by what is good in it rather than that it is valuable
because of our reaction." (SS, 74) For Taylor, both our experience of being moved by
these hypergoods, and our awareness of an epistemic gain made through the accounts that
define them, represent important reasons to see such hypergoods as real and objective.
The most common application of practical reason takes place at the biographical
level. In this case, we see a position as better because we have lived the transition, but
especially because we can give arguments and show an epistemic gain. What I discover
as good should be something objective in the sense that everyone else would also see my
transition as an improvement. Perhaps it would be difficult that in this more personal
case, others were moved by what I see as a good for me. After all, this might not apply to
them because they are in a different situation. When I talk to others about my plans,
projects, commitments, and goals, such as starting a career, getting in shape, marrying, or
taking a trip, they may feel moved or simply understand why I would want something
like that, without feeling inspired to do it. Insisting that what I see as good for me is an
objective good whose force everybody should feel, as we shall see in the next chapter,
raises a problem for Taylor's account.
5.1 Best Account
For Taylor, practical reason leads us to what he calls a best account of our moral
experience. Such account may include terms that not only work to explain our moral
reactions, emotions and intuitions, but also help us to take moral decisions or to make
moral judgments. In other words, they fimction in both theoretical and practical
applications. Taylor puts it this way:
The terms we select have to make sense across the whole range of both
explanatory and life uses. The terms indispensable for the latter are part of the
story that makes best sense of us, unless and until we can replace them with more
clairvoyant substitutes. The result of this search for clairvoyance yields the best
account we can give at any given time, and no epistemological or metaphysical
consideration of a more general kind about science or nature can justify setting
this aside. The best accoimt in the above sense is trumps. Let me call this the BA
principle. (SS, 58)
Thus, our best account may include virtue terms such as courage or generosity, or
terms for hypergoods such as the principle of universal equality and recognition. If we
find such terms indispensable to live and make sense of our lives we have no reason to
doubt the objective existence of what they represent. They constitute an objective
ontology of the good.
As I mentioned earlier, Taylor justifies constitutive goods through the most
elaborate versions of the best accounts. We can see this when he writes, "But nothing
prevents a priori our coming to see God or the Good as essential to our best accoimt of
the human moral world." (SS, 73) In these accounts, we find not only what we see as
good but also what makes it so.
6 What Type of Realism?
6.1 Falsifiable Realism vs. Strong Realism
We cannot easily characterize Taylor's brand of moral realism. In
Taylor, Ruth Abbey classifies Taylor as what she calls a falsifiable realist.
This, she
explains is a position between a weak and a strong interpretation of his realism. The
weak interpretation maintains that the belief people have in the objectivity of goods
comes from their experiencing them that way without holding that such goods are indeed
objective. (Abbey, 27) The strong interpretation of his realism holds that their goodness
exists independently of us. "On this reading, humans' perception that these goods exist
independently of them is not just a feature of moral life, but also a true depiction of the
moral world." (Abbey, 28) In other words, in contrast to weak realism for this strong
realism, our urge to see some goods as objective comes from the objectivity of those
goods. Since to have a moral world we need to have humans (or human-like beings)
around, this strong realism does not imply Platonism. Yet, once we have humans, we
have objective goods. At different places we can find in what Taylor tells us, support for
both interpretations. I believe, however, that overall, Taylor holds what Abbey calls
strong realism.
For Taylor, we have good reason to believe that the values, virtues, and moral
principles our best account of our moral experience tells us exist do, in fact, exist. They
do not exist merely because we believe they do - if this were the case they would be only
our projection. According to him, naturalism, one of his main antagonists, holds this
projectivist view: "Goods or 'values' were understood [by modem naturalism and
subjectivism] as projections of ours onto a world which itself was neutral." (SS, 53) As
Abbey observes, Taylor indicates that we must take seriously our experience of goods as
something independent of us. She quotes: "The best accounts we can give of our own
actual use of moral terms, in deliberating, or in describing, judging, explaining our own
and others' actions, will all treat these goods as not projection-dependent." (Abbey, 29;
Taylor, 1994c, 207) If the goodness we find in some of our values, and goods do not
come from our projecting it on them, it must be something objective. It must be, in some
ways, independent of us.
Does this mean that for Taylor the objectivity of morality must come fi-om
something beyond the natural? This would seem to be the conclusion if he accepts
Abbey's interpretation of his realism as falsifiable. According to Abbey, for Taylor a
theory that could . .explain why the human urge to respond to goods as if they had an
independent existence is uncormected to reality" (Abbey, 29) would falsify strong
realism. I interpret this as meaning that a successful falsifying theory would have to
explain why we tend to see some values and principles as real when in fact they are not.
But here we need to ask in what ways, for Taylor, a good would have to be real. Could a
good be real if we can explain why we see it as good through a naturalistic accoimt? Or
would being real necessarily imply that it belongs to some objective moral realm beyond
the natural? Because of Taylor's attack on naturalism, many authors interpret him as
holding the second view: that what makes a good real and objective is some special
feature beyond the natural.
Since the theories Taylor attacks in Sources of the Self as antirealists are
naturalistic and subjectivist theories, these seem to be the theories that attempt to falsify
strong realism. Naturalist theories tend to explain our seeing some actions or values as
objectively good by telling a story of how they help our general survival or our well-
being. But if Taylor does not recognize this as enough to explain their objectivity, it
would have to be because for him, what makes a value or principle objective is a special
type of quality beyond a naturalistic capacity to increase species survival or well being.
In order to see if this is a position Taylor actually defends, we need to look at
what the theories he attacks as anti-realists attempt to do. If we could see that one of
such theories can successfiilly explain the objectivity of the moral without postulating a
special reahn beyond the natural, and yet, he rejects it, we would seem justified in seeing
him as wanting to explain the moral through some special transcendent realm.
According to Taylor, most naturalist and all the subjectivist theories, hold that we
see goods as good because we project or impose such goodness on them: These theories
understand goods or values . .as projections of ours onto a world which in itself was
neutral." (SS, 53) Naturalism supports projectivism, while neo-Nietzschean theories, a
form of subjectivism among which we find Michel Foucault's position, hold that morality
comes from an imposition of our views. According to these theories, the goodness of our
values and ideas of the good would not come from something in themselves but from our
seeing them that way. As far as any of these theories could succeed then, they would be
falsifying strong realism. Taylor, however, does not believe any of these theories can
actually succeed.
An objection he raises against some reductionist naturalistic theories is that they
cannot help us in the practical contexts of actually living our lives. "Theories like
behaviorism or certain strands of contemporary computer struck cognitive psychology
which declare 'phenomenology' irrelevant on principle, are based on a crucial mistake."
(SS, 58) They try to eliminate moral and ethical terms, seeing them as representing
something non-real, and explaining these phenomena in more basic or scientific terms.
These other terms do not help us in the practical tasks of living our lives. For Taylor, the
fact that our best account with its moral terms helps us not only to explain our own and
others behavior and feeUngs, but also to live fully human and satisfying lives constitutes
the best evidence that such terms in fact represent something real. He rhetorically asks:
"What better measiare of reality do we have in human affairs then those terms which on
critical reflection and after correction of the errors we can detect make the best sense of
our lives? 'Making the best sense' here includes not only offering the best, most realistic
orientation about the good but also allowing us best to imderstand and make sense of the
actions and feelings of ourselves and others." (SS, 57) To give up oiu* belief in the reality
of these best-justified moral terms we would have to find a different accoimt: one with
non-moral terms in it, which would produce results at least as good in all the different
practical and theoretical uses. Taylor does not think a naturalistic theory can do this.
These theories explain away moral terms by reducing them through non-moral
terminology. In doing so, however, they fail to provide a language that can help us live
our lives, arid privilege explanatory over practical contexts. Taylor sees this as
ridiculous: "What is preposterous is the suggestion that we ought to disregard altogether
the terms that can figure in the non-explanatory contexts of living for the purposes of our
explanatory theory." (SS, 58)
Nevertheless, we could argue, as Gary Gutting does, that some naturalists would
be happy to keep moral terminology. He writes, "But there is another sort of naturalism,
one that regards morality not as an illusion, but rather as an intersubjective reality. This
view accepts values as part of the furniture of the world, but only of the social world.
Values are fixed in the face of the desires of individuals simply as individuals; but they
do depend on the desires that derive from the fundamental orientation of individuals as
members of social groups." (Gutting, 141) According to Gutting, Taylor opposes an
ethical naturalism that. .holds that any claims to 'ethical knowledge' need be grounded
only in the psychological and social processes that lead us to make ethical judgments, not
in any objective truth independent of these processes." (Gutting, 136) Taylor would
oppose by saying that what justifies the objectivity of moral values comes from our
biological and social desires to survive or live happier lives.
Taylor does hold that our moral experience represents our only access to moral
truths. This, however, does not mean that he would have to reject a naturalistic
explanation of our moral reactions. Yet, sometimes, this is what he does. Thus, in
Sources of the Self, he argues against naturalistic theories that attempt to explain (as
opposed to explain away) our moral experience. For Taylor, compatibilist accounts such
as this do something dubious. They really want to do away with the moral and yet they
sneak it back in. According to Taylor, this is what antireaHsts such as Blackburn do. For
Taylor, these theories overlook the importance of our moral experience: they "...make
non-realism compatible with moral experience by making this experience somehow
irrelevant to it, by making the determinants of this issue of the status of the good lie
elsewhere." (SS, 60) These non-realists "tend to argue from a more sociobiological (as in
some respects Mackie) or consequentialist (Blackburn) cast of first-order moral theory."
(SS, 60) According to Taylor, by in arguing this way they contradict themselves. It
would follow from their position that".. .there really ought to be no place for what we
vinderstand as moral obligation at all." (SS, 60)
For Taylor then even if the naturalist succeeds in producing a naturalistic
explanation of why we see some actions and values as good she is not entitled to say that
such actions are objectively moral - even if this means only for us humans. Why would
he think this? It could be that for him a purely descriptive, naturalistic language would
never give us normativity. If we were somehow to replace morally thick terms, such as
'generosity' or 'courage' by neutral physicalistic terms, we would seem indeed to loose
any sense of obligation. However, as we have seen, a naturalistic reduction does not have
to go all the way down to physicalistic terms, and it could account for moral normativity
by telling us why we experience something as good.
But even if he were to accept this form of accoimting for normativity, he does not
believe the naturalist can really do this type of reduction: "The non-realist would have to
get down to the detail of the moral life, and show in particular cases how a projectivist
view made more sense of them, if he were to convince us. But we have seen how the
logic of our moral language resists this kind of splitting." (SS, 60) The other attempt at
reduction would be to explain or decide the goodness of an action or value through a
general concept like the utilitarian does. But for him we make a mistake if we overlook
the great diversity and richness of human emotions and reactions and reduce all of them
to general concepts such as happiness and unhappiness, or, pleasure and pain. For Taylor
naturalistic theories such as this would be too general and detached from the best
evidence of their reality, our moral reactions, and emotions.
Another explanation for not seeing the compatibilist as a moral realist is seeing
such compatibilist as someone who understands values only as our projections. Taylor
agrees that morality oiily exists in a human world, but he also holds that the goodness or
morality of values, actions, and principles doe not come from humans projecting such
goodness on them. Something in these actions, principles, and values moves us and
merits our seeing them as good: "Our acceptance of any hypergood is connected in a
complex way with our being moved by it." (SS, 73) For him, then, the goodness of these
goods does not come from our own projection, but from something in them with the
capacity to exert a force on us. But the compatibilist does not have to be a projectivist.
The compatibilst can consistently hold that the goodness of values and actions does not
come merely from our projection. She can say that, by nature, we can only see as good
certain actions or behaviors and not others. She could argue that what we discover as
good depends on our biological or social structures, which would explain why we are
moved by certain values and principles and not by others. The goodness we find, she
could say, does not come from our projecting it on certain actions, values and principles,
but from the marriage between our structure and the world, or, the fact that we are
sensitive to certain qualities and that we happily detect this qualities in certain actions.
From a human perspective, such behaviors and actions would still be objectively good
and we would still be able to retain the objectivity of the moral.
Taylor acknowledges the possibility of a more sophisticated naturalism that would
not see values as projections: "This [sophisticated naturalism] would understand our
valuations as among the perceptions of the world and oxu* social existence which are
inseparable from our living through and participating in our form of life." (SS, 67)
Nevertheless, he rejects the plausibility of this form of naturalism for being inconsistent
with our moral experience. When we make a moral judgment we think it applies beyond
the limits of our culture and, for him, this sophisticated naturalism makes moral judgment
of other cultures impossible: "Precisely because it conceives of 'objectivity' of our
valuations entirely in terms of their embedding in our different ways of life, it allows in
principle no purchase from which the goods enshrined in a given way of life can be
shown as wrong or inadequate." (SS, 67) The marks of this sophisticated realism then,
according to Taylor, are incorrmiensurability and moral relativism. But these features,
also according to Taylor, run against our moral experience. From the perspective offered
by our best account, we see the hypergoods we discover as objective not only within the
limits of our society. We use these hypergoods to judge the practices and institutions of
other cultures. "When we stand within the moral outlook of universal and equal respect,
we don't consider its condemnation of slavery, widow-burning, human sacrifice, of
female circumcision only as expressions of our way of being... If we caimot accept hiring
practices which don't ensure that women get their share of the jobs, how can we accept
polygamy, purdah, female circumcision." (SS, 67, 68)
We can argue that the sophisticated naturalist could always propose looking at
deeper anthropological needs and desires shared by all cultures. This would be why we
could criticize the practices of other cultures that oppose such basic needs and desires.
As we saw before in Section 5, Taylor himself proposes using moral insights that we can
find in all cultures to discover what is moral. The difference of course is that, in the case
of the naturalist, we would not be looking for moral insights but for beliefs and desires
described fi-om a third person point of view.
Taylor's objection against this non-projectivist accoimt then comes fi-om the
charge that it does not sufficiently take into account our moral experience. To investigate
how it fails to do this let's see more closely in what ways this non-projectivist account
would be different from one of Taylor's best account. As we saw before, a best account
gives priority to our moral experience. It should work not only as a theoretical
framework to explain why we see as important what we do, but also in the practical tasks
of predicting the behavior of others, and of making moral judgments and decisions that
help us live fuller lives. Perhaps the most natural way to make this account would be
from a first person point of view, since its terms are so closely linked to our personal
experience, yet, nothing would prevent us from catching it in a third person point of view.
In fact, we would want to do this since we want a best account that applies to everybody
and not just to us individually. A best account often involves reference to emotions such
as indignation, greed, shame, or pride. It sees them as emotions that anybody can feel. It
further tries to explain when we are justified in feeling them and how acting on such
emotions can lead us to better or worse lives. A compatibilist account might do all of
this. It could show, for example, how being ashamed of stealing can help communities
survive and prosper. A best account goes one step further, trying to determine priorities
among values or a hypergood that will make us put all other goods in perspective. To
produce this best accoimt we must follow closely our moral experience.
We can see how a naturalistic account could successfully explain what we see as
good in terms of more basic desires and beliefs, but it is difficult to imagine how it could
determine in this way, which would be the highest good we should follow. If it did, we
could think, it would have to be in a detached way. It would do it, for example, by
determining which value or good would support best our desire for survival or well
being. This is a very simplified and detached criterion. This, indeed, would seem an
improbable way of determining hypergoods.
We can imagine a compatibilist theory that investigates whether we are justified
in seeing something as a highest good only after we have determined it as such through
our moral experience. Bernard Williams offers us one form of the sophisticated
naturalism that seems to follow such approach. In his accoimt, we must keep thick moral
terms whose meaning we can only determine by living in the culture where they are used
or by a close imaginative understanding of it. (Williams, 141-142) Williams thus
acknowledges that we need to experience the pull of the values and virtue terms before
we can understand them and see them as real. We can also criticize them, according to
him, and see which of them we would be justified to keep. For him, we can use the
human and social sciences to criticize cultures and see which ones would lead us to
societies where human life can flourish. (Williams, 147) This form of defense presents
its own problems, (especially in regard to the danger of normalization) but it does answer
Taylor's concern that this form of naturalism leads to relativism and incommensurability.
Taylor should not have a problem with this type of approach. This theory would be what
we can call a naturalistic best accoimt that uses scientific beliefs that form part of theories
that we now accept as true. Taylor accepts these kinds of scientific truths. He writes, for
instance, "One of the reasons why we can no longer believe in this kind of [cosmic] order
is the advance in our civilization of a scientific understanding of the natural world, which
we have every reason to believe represents a significant gain of truth." (FFT, 97) He
should have no problem then allowing a naturalist best account that made use of accepted
scientific knowledge to explain why we see certain values as objective and how
beneficial they are for us. This sophisticated naturalism could explain, for example, how
there is nothing intrinsically good about justice, only that humans, regardless of their
culture, have a sociobiological structure that makes them be moved by it, and that it tends
to promote our general survival and well being. This theory would not be projectivist
because it does not propose that what makes justice good is only our seeing it that way.
Not just anything that we choose would have value, only those things that adapt to our
structure and help oiir survival and well being. Taylor rightly points out that we cannot a
priori reject moral accounts just because they include non-naturalistic elements such as
the idea of God. He writes, "But nothing prevents a priori our coming to see God or the
Good as essential to our best account of the human moral world." (SS, 73) But nothing
should exclude a priori a naturalistic accoimt either.
Naturalists could argue that the assumptions they make, such as the belief that we
all have the basic desires for survival and for avoiding pain, are justified by the
observation that practically all creatures want to persist and seek some form of pleasure.
Thus, without endorsing utilitarianism in the sense of believing that it can tell us in each
case the morality of every relevant action or without believing that naturalism can tell us
which is the highest good we should follow, we could accept a sociobiological
explanation of why we tend to see certain actions, values, and principles as objectively
good. We can fiirthermore agree that because we all see these basic desires as good, for
us hmnans they are good, which is enough to justify their objectivity in a human world.
The naturalists could thus acknowledge that they do not have an unbiased point of
view and that they take the continuity of life and well being not only as basic desires, but
also as values that is good to have. In doing this, they are not using only descriptive, but
also prescriptive language. This can make us raise the charge against them that they are
not being completely objective. This is not a charge that Taylor wants to raise, since he
is asking for an account that takes our experience seriously. A naturalistic account of
this sort would be at least a candidate for a best account of the type Taylor wants. In this
regard, he and the compatibilist are saying something very similar. For both of them,
these values and principles are real only in a human world.
But this compatibilist makes a further claim: that the good of something comes
from our most basic desires. This seems to contradict Taylor's observation about our
moral phenomenology, namely, that we desire something because we see it as good, and
not that we see it as good because we desire it. He writes, "we sense in the very
experience of being moved by some higher good that we are moved by what is good in it
rather that it is valuable because of our reaction." (SS, 74) But the compatibilst is not
saying that what we desire is valuable simply because we individually desire it. For such
compatibilist the value of what we desire comes from our sharing more basic desires
which determine our meanings. Once formed, these meanings can force us to see some
things as good, even if we don't individually happen to desire them. In this sense what
we see as good could be independent of our transient individual desires and yet not
independent of our meanings and the deeper desires we share with others. We can see a
practice such as distributive justice, to use an example used by Gutting, as something
objectively good, even if we don't always have the desire of sharing what we have, but
based on the meanings of ownership or private property.^ This meaning in turn would be
rooted on our deeper desires for our own and other people's survival and well being.
(Gutting, 150)
The meaning of private property might bring up connotations related to particular economic systems such as capitalism. I'm
thinking of the term in a more general way to refer to the basic idea that we all have a right for a bear minimum, such as the sense that
a baby has a right to food and that it would be wrong that someone were to deprive him from it.
According to Gutting, Taylor opposes an ethical naturalism that holds that ethical
knowledge needs to be grounded only in psychological and social processes, that is, in
our deepest desires and believes. I will come back to this issue when I discuss what
Gutting calls Taylor's phenomenological objectivity.(Gutting, 149) Although Taylor
does attack naturalism on different fronts, and rejects even William's account as detached
from our moral experience, a lot of what he says agrees with the possibility of a
naturalistic account which would first take seriously our moral experience. He should not
have a problem with such a naturalistic account and be open to acknowledge that the
reality of moral goods can be explained solely by our deepest desires and beliefs. In spite
of his battle with naturalism, in some passages Taylor implicitly leaves open the
possibility of a naturalistic account, as I show in a quote imdemeath. (SS, 342)
This conclusion would be even easier to accept when we think that a naturalistic
explanation of what we see as important does not have to contradict the conclusions of a
more personal one. We might find out that a detached scientific approach to what is
important coincides with a more personal account, such as a belief in God. A
compatibilist naturalist account does not have to deny the objectivity of morality in a
human realm. It would only deny that this objectivity has to be explained through some
non-natural feature of reality. If, after much reasoning, we establish this as our best
account, nothing should preclude Taylor from accepting it.
The only problem Taylor still has with a naturalistic account is that he does not
believe we can produce it. (SS, 57-60) When he says this however, he seems to be
thinking about the naturalistic accoimts that don't take first our moral experience
seriously. If he were to accept that we could produce a naturalistic best accoimt, and that
this account would not deny the reality or objectivity of morality, his strong realism
would not require that this objectivity of morality come from some transcendent moral
realm beyond the natural. We could still see his realism, as strong realism. For humans,
some values and moral principles still would be real and objective, even if they can be
explained through our most basic needs and desires. But in such case, naturalistic
theories would not be falsifying strong realism. They would not be explaining why we
tend to see some values and principles as real when in fact they aren't because for these
theories such principles and values are real. Since Taylor does not really see naturalistic
theories as being able to prove the non-reality of values, a naturalistic best accotint would
not really disprove strong realism and Abbey's classification of Taylor's realism as
falsifiable does not make much difference. Taylor realism would still be strong realism.
It would only mean that it is not as strong to assert the need of transcendent moral
features to justify the objectivity of our values and moral goods.
In agreement with this view, we find the comments of Isaiah Berlin, who
describes Taylor as an essentialist. He writes:
"I think that Taylor believes in essences, whereas I do not. I believe that it is
human beings, their imagination, intellect, and character that form the world in
which they live, not, of course, in isolation but in communities - that I would not
deny; but that this is in a sense a free, unorganized development ~ which cannot be
causally predicted." (Tully, 2).
In his reply to Berlin, Taylor does not deny he is an essentialist, which makes us think he
accepts the label. But in what sense could this be? As we saw before (Section 5) he does
not believe ethical goods and values exist outside of the human world, and thus we
cannot see him as a Platonist. "Our value terms purport to give us insight into what it is
to live in the universe as a human being...This reality is, of course, dependent on us, in
the sense that a condition for their existence is oiir existence. But once granted that we
exist, it is no more a subjective projection than what physics deals with." (SS, 59) Yet,
he insists our moral phenomenology and his apparatus of strong evaluations and practical
reason give us access to moral truths that are so independent of what we happen to desire.
In other words, even though we get to these distinctions through articulating our reactions
and intuitions, once we have realized them, we see that their reality does not depend on
our individual desires.
What Taylor says about the link between seeing the good and being moved by it, in
particular, also supports our seeing him as a strong realist. As he says, if we observe
ourselves when we feel moved by a good, we sense that the goodness of the good comes
from something substantive about it and not merely that the good is good because of its
capacity to move us. (SS, 74) For Taylor we feel this because, when we reason correctly,
we discover something valuable in itself, something essential with the power to move us;
but, as we have been arguing, that we experience some values and ideas of the good as
objectively true does not prove the existence of special transcendent features that make
them so.
6.2 Strong Realism with Phenomenological Objectivity
Taylor's method for finding life goods, hypergoods and constitutive goods takes
seriously our moral reactions and intuitions. We have described this as doing moral
phenomenology. If Taylor's method were successful, the most it could claim would be
what Gary Gutting calls "phenomenological objectivity." In its broadest sense, the term
'objectivity' indicates the existence of something independent of the subject and her
knowing it. Since the term 'phenomenological' indicates paying attention to how things
occur for us, there is something contradictory in the expression "phenomenological
We can make sense of it by spelling out what Taylor has told us. For him, what
we see as good and valuable exists independently of whether at some particular moment
we want it or not, but not independently of human meanings or "the meanings that things
have for us." (SS, 69) As he tells us, we should derive these meanings from our universal
moral reactions and intuitions. Thus, even if not everybody has the phenomenological
experience of seeing the goodness of a benevolent act, or has the desire to do it, we can
still see it as objectively good based on the meanings we have discovered. All of this
agrees with the compatibilist naturalistic theory we mentioned before. In that discussion,
we used the example of our virtually unanimous agreement on seeing distributive justice
as something good. As we saw, even if we don't always have the desire of sharing what
we have, we see distributive justice as good or the practice of stealing as bad, based on
other meanings and deeper desires we have, such as seeing value in the survival and well
being of every member of the species. Given all this, we can think of "phenomenological
objectivity" as indicating both that some things occur for us as if they were objective, and
also that we are justified in seeing them that way.
We could also think of such phenomenological objectivity as something easier to
accept than a Platonic or absolutist objectivity. Certain actions, practices, and values are
good because there are humans who experience them and imderstand them that way. But
even here, we can find two ways of understanding this phenomenological objectivity.
We could give a naturalistic explanation, and say for instance that the good exists
because there are humans with a similar nature who have to go on living together.
Because of this specific nature, all human societies have to have certain structures and for
these structures to continue to work we need to see certain distinctions as objectively
good and valuable.
Alternatively, we could imderstand this phenomenological objectivity as arising
from non-natural features that form an ontology of the good that exists because himians
exist. Taylor accepts and even defends the premises for the naturalistic picture in the
paragraph above. He accepts that we have a nature that includes being social. He would
thus accept the idea that to keep the flourishing of society we need to see certain
distinctions as good. Yet, he would deny that this naturalistic reduction is the end of the
story. The fact that these distinctions help our survival and flourishing is not necessarily
what makes them good. For Taylor, the real explanation would have to come from a
first-person best account of our moral experience. Our best accoimt, for example, might
reveal that the goodness of this survival and flourishing comes from preserving God's
creation. Although, as a Catholic, Taylor believes this, to his credit, he is not suggesting
he has proved it. He believes that our best self-interpretation must acknowledge the
significance of human life. But he posits that the best explanation of this significance
cannot be given in a "non-theistic, non-cosmic, purely immanent human fashion." He
adds, "It all depends on what the most illusion-free moral sources are, and they seem to
me to involve a God. But all of this remains to be argued out." (SS, 342)
These two ways of explaining the phenomenological objectivity of some values
and principles make us think in different contexts or points of view from which a
naturalistic theory and a personal account could each find its applicability. We could
think of the naturahstic theory as one recounted from an external point of view and of
Taylor's best account as one told from the first person point of view. These theories
attempt to explain what makes us see some distinctions as objectively good or valuable.
The naturalistic theory might say that we see certain dispositions as good because, for
example, they help us to survive or flourish. But from the intemal perspective of the best
account what is important is the content of our meanings and dispositions, not the fact
that we have them. Thus, from an external point of view being just might be important
because it helps us survive as a species or feel good about ourselves individually. From
an intemal point of view however, we experience justice as something objectively good
and not good because of the consequences that it might bring. So, depending on the
point of view we adopt, we can see different qualitative distinctions as objectively real, or
as derived from naturalistic elements such as oiir desires and meanings. We can even
take different stands at different times. Many people feel the force of these distinctions
and take them as objectively real while being involved in making moral decisions and
judgments, but are able to detach and see them more theoretically at other times.
One might object that even a naturalistic theory from a supposedly detached,
third-person point of view has a value system that can only come from an intemal
experience. The type of scientific theory I have been mentioning for example, values
survival and well-being. Such evaluations, although general, come from the subjective
In this analysis, I draw from Bernard Williams' distinction between an inside and an outside point of view of our ethical
dispositions. He writes: "It is not true from the point of view constituted by the ethical dispositions -the intemal perspective - that the
only things of value are people's dispositions; still less that only the agent's dispositions have value. Other people's welfare, the
requirements of justice, and other things, have value. If we take up the other perspective, however, and look at people's dispositions
from the outside we might ask the question "what has to exist in the world for the ethical point of view to exist?" The answer can
only be, "ethical dispositions." (ELP. P.51.)
experience of being alive. But this objection does not necessarily invalidate the results of
a scientific account. Characterizing all scientific accounts as completely abstract and
detached seems inaccurate. Perhaps we can do this in mathematics or physics but there is
no reason to think that all sciences work in this way, especially, not human sciences, like
psychology or anthropology, which are the sciences that explain why we see certain
values as objective. The methods of these sciences must include, as Taylor advocates,
paying attention to oxor human experience. (SS, 56-59; PHS 1-3) This inclusion however
does not necessarily invalidate the objectivity of these sciences' results. They may
disclose desires that are indeed part of our nature or desires that we all can have good
reasons to embrace as worthy.
However, this also points to another factor we should consider if we are worried
about the possibility of normalization. Even a scientific account is not neutral. Its
questions and type of reasoning might be historically determined. As Michel Foucault
has warned us, science can also be used to support the values and principles of specific
power and truth regimes. For this reason we cannot automatically trust the values and
principles justified by a naturalistic account. I will expand on and deal with these
concerns in Chapter 4, Section 3.2-3.3
7 Conclusions
In this chapter 1 argued that Taylor's method to find an ontology of the good leads
us to a form of realism - contrary to what he says (SS, 59) - congruent with a
compatibilist, non-projectivist sophisticated naturalism such as that of Bernard Williams.
Since a naturalistic theory as this still considers values and principles as real it would not
falsify realism. We could use this naturalistic theory in a naturaUstic best account. For
this reason we see Taylor's not as the falsifiable realism that Abbey's argues but as a
strong realism. This form of strong realism, however, does not necessarily lead to special
extranatural or transcendent features that explain why we experience certain values and
moral goods as objective, although it remains open to them.
We thus accepted that some values and notions of the good show
phenomenological objectivity and that this objectivity could be explained from two
different points of view. Taylor makes a good case for the necessity of the internal point
of view. I argue, however, that the results found from this point of view can be
compatible with naturalistic explanations found from an external point of view.
I continue to hold a more practical concern about Taylor's ontological account of
the good. When we try to extend this phenomenological objectivity to not only
hypergoods and constitutive goods but also to everyday hfe goods, Taylor's account
presents the possibility of normalizing us. I content that we are led to conclude that we
all should act alike and live essentially the same kind of life. If realizing an idea of the
good, regardless of what makes it so, necessarily implies being moved by it and strong
reasons to follow it, 'all things equal', we all should do so. Of course, I do not believe
Taylor wants to normalize us. I see this only as an unintended possible consequence of
his theory. I investigate this possibility in the next chapter.
1 Introduction
I am concerned that Taylor's method of practical reason to find out what is good -
against what he would want - would lead or contribute to normalizing us, that is, to
making us act alike and live essentially the same type of life. In this chapter I analyze
Joel H. Anderson's reasons for believing that this is the case. After some analysis, I
investigate different redeeming factors in Taylor's account, concluding that it does not
really lead to normalization in the way Anderson suggests. Towards the end, however, I
argue that his account raises the possibility of normalization in a different way. Taylor's
ontological approach, I contend, reifies what we see as good or bad. It does this by
taking some intrinsic feature of the distinctions invoked by our best accounts as
responsible for our seeing them as good or bad and by taking these features as real and
objective entities. For Taylor, then, we all should, however indirectly, see their
goodness. This expectation - that we all should recognize certain distinctions such as
actions, projects, or ways of being as good- makes us overlook other possible ways of
acting and being that might be more in agreement with our original natures and thus with
being authentic.
1 also look at some objections to Taylor's objectivism, including the low likelihood of
finding a best account for our moral experience. I argue that our practical inability to
reach consensus does not deny the phenomenological objectivity'* of hypergoods. (See
Section 2.6.2) I also propose that we take the overlap of different accoimts as supporting
their existence.
2 The Threat of Normalization
My worry about the justification for the objectivity of hypergoods comes fi-om
their potential to be used for normalization. And, as we have seen, they could have this
potential whether we see them as objective because they belong to a special moral realm
or because science endorses them as good for us. By normalization I don't mean
normativity. I believe in the authority, need, and benefit of following moral principles,
rationality, and truth (taking these in their broadest and most unproblematic sense). By
normalization I mean the phenomenon of making us all the same, by compelling us to
follow rules where we don't need to, value the same things, and behave basically in the
same ways. Normalization - a concept more common in European Continental
philosophy - also has the negative side effect of creating a marginalized "other",
constituted by all those who fail to adhere to the rules or fulfill the idea of the stipulated
For Gary Gutting, who introduces this term (Gutting, 149), phenomenological objectivity is the idea that some of our
values and ideas of the good are objective given that humans experience them that way; in a human world, they are objective. Based
on the meanings humans must have, they offer valid reasons for seeing them as objective.
This potential for normalization seems to follow from a feature of practical reason
that Taylor emphasizes, namely, the link between seeing the good and being moved by it
and from the belief that all type of goods, moral and personal, have the same type of
objectivity. According to Joel H. Anderson, if our recognizing something as a good
necessarily involves being moved by it, or getting closer to what is objectively good,
anybody not acting or being in accordance with that good would be, in some important
way, mistaken. In other words, the person would not be recognizing what should be
recognized as an objective good. Anderson writes: "It is unclear on what groimds Taylor
can reject - as his pluralism commits him to doing - the claim that if my commitment,
say, to the preservation of wilderness areas realizes an important good, then no one else
can be justified in failing to share this commitment. The upshot of this would be that we
would all be required to live basically the same life." (Anderson, 185, emphasis his.)
We can accept this in the case of moral distinctions: we all should feel moved, for
instance, by the good of respecting human life, and repulsed by the baseness of inflicting
unnecessarily pain on someone. But we find harder to accept this in the case of what we
have called personal hypergoods, such as a particular career, commitment, or life style. It
would seem that, although others could see the goodness of our project, they would not
be required to choose it as their own.
What Taylor tells us about identity supports the view that not everybody has to
adopt the same personal hypergoods, and thus that his account does not lead to
normalization. For him, what defines us as individuals and makes us authentic comes
from our different evaluations, which include ovir personal affiliations and commitments:
"Now our identity is defined by our fimdamental evaluations. The answer to the question
'What is my identity?' cannot be given by a list of properties of other ranges about my
physical description, provenance, backgroxmd, capacities and so on. All these can figure
in my identity, but only as assumed in certain way. If my being of certain lineage is to
me of central importance... then it will be part of my identity... my lineage is part of my
identity because it is bound up with certain qualities I value." (WHA, 34) Being a
Catholic or a farmer for example, might be an important part of one's identity, but we
carmot expect everyone to be moved by, and want to adopt the values behind these
So the question becomes whether Anderson misinterprets Taylor or whether there
exists a tension or contradiction within Taylor's account. Ultimately, Taylor would say
we want the fi-eedom to choose between different worthy projects, to allow for our
personal natures, abilities, and circvimstances. But we want to know whether his method
of practical reason, and in particular the link between seeing the good and being moved
by it, allows this flexibility. To investigate this question I will attempt to bolster
Anderson case and then see whether there is anything in Taylor to refute his charges.
Something Taylor tells us about qualitative distinctions supports the idea of
extending the link between seeing them as goods and being moved by them to all life
goods. He tells us that all goods fimction in the same way whether we are talking of
hypergoods or more general goods:
"Prearticulately, they function as an orienting sense of what is important, valuable
or commanding... Articulating these distinctions is setting out the moral point of the
actions and feelings our intuitions enjoin on us, or invite us to, or present as
admirable. They have this place as much in the broader domain of goods that we
pursue across the whole range of oiir lives, as in the more special domain of higher
goods which claim a status of incomparably greater importance or urgency." (SS,
Realizing the moral point of these actions and feelings, then, moves us to act or be in
accordance with them, whether we are talking about higher goods or more personal and
spiritual goods. They all inspire us and serve as standards of how to act and be, and help
us determine our particular projects, goals and commitments. He also tells us that when
we explore our moral phenomenology we see "that we cannot but crave to be rightly
placed in relation to the goods we recognize." (SS, 81) Once we recognize a good then,
if nothing gets in our way, we should be moved to realize it.
According to Anderson, Taylor follows the same process to determine what is
good, whether we are talking about hypergoods or about the goods involved in our
practices and goals. Anderson writes, "Thus practical reason about what makes my
commitments worthwhile coincides with practical reasoning about subject-transcendent
standards of worth themselves." (Anderson, 185) If this is the case, however, it is
difficult to see how we can reasonably disagree about the worth of our projects, or even
of our relationships and ideals. Indeed, Taylor tells us that, to determine what is good,
we not merely look inside ourselves but try to convince others and make them see why
we value it. He writes "I can only convince you by my description of the good if I speak
for you, either by articulating what underlies your existing moral intuitions or perhaps by
my description moving you to the point of making it your own." (SS, 77, italics mine)
For Anderson, this applies also to the good within practices. So, the good within the
project of saving the forest is something objective, and, if someone does not see it, or
fails to be moved by it, they would be making a mistake. The problem according to
Anderson is that Taylor's model of practical reason does not make a distinction between
what is good for me in particular, and what is good in general: "Trying to determine the
question of whether is more worthwhile for me to promote the protection of bio-diversity
or the establishment of recreation areas thus turns out to be the same as trying to get clear
on the good of unspoiled nature in general." (Anderson, 190, emphasis his)
We could try to argue against Anderson that Taylor is not talking about goods
such as those realized by specific goals, commitments or projects when he writes about
"the broader domain of goods that we pursue across the whole range of our lives" (SS,
78) beyond hypergoods. We could think that he is talking about notions of what type of
life we see as worthy, and of ways of being that could elicit the respect and admiration of
others. This broader domain of goods could include different lifestyles and diverse ways
of being virtuous such as being generous or courageous. Different ceireers, projects, and
commitments might all serve as ways of living a worthy life or might bring ample
opportunities to be virtuous and respectable. For example, we can see saving the
rainforest and helping victims of domestic abuse as two worthy and commendable
projects. Each of these projects would offer us opportunities to be generous and
But when Taylor writes about how we make strong evaluations he also cites
examples of determining the relative goodness or worth of different paths of actions,
plans, or projects. When we do this we don't see one simply as quantitatively better than
the other, but we establish a qualitative distinction. Perhaps this would be easier to see if
we think in a case such as having to decide between saving the rainforest and collecting
Elvis memorabilia. But as we will see later, according to what Taylor says, even in the
harder cases, we should be able to determine which project entails the highest good. And
having done this, we would rightly want to do it.
We can find additional support for Anderson's claim that we also determine the
worth of projects through strong evaluations and practical reason by considering what
Taylor tells us about identity. As we saw previously, for him, our identity comes from
whatever we value, which, among many other things, could include projects dear to us:
"The answer to the question 'What is my identity?' cannot be given by any list of
properties of other ranges, about my physical description, provenance, background,
capacities, and so on. All of these can figure in my identity, but only as assumed in a
certain way." (WHA, 34) This implies that we can assess projects as good or valuable
through strong evaluations and practical reason. Someone might object that the fact that
we can assess projects in this way does not mean that we have to do it. This seems an
important objection and I will deal with it in the following section.
2.1 Determining Hypergoods as a Requirement of Authenticity
To see whether Taylor's account leads us to normalization we need to consider
whether his account of authenticity requires us to do, not just what is good but in
particular, what is best. If this were the case and if we could build a hierarchy of the
worth of different projects, Taylor's method would indeed seem to lead us to
normalization. If we had to follow what is best and what is best were the same for
everybody, everybody would seem to have to act in the same way. But what we see as
best for us is nothing else than what we have identified as personal hypergoods. As we
have said, some people find these hypergoods, such as projects or values that help them
set all their other life goods into perspective and guide their lives. Taylor does not
explicitly say that to be authentic we need to find such hypergoods. Yet, from what he
says about them, we see that having them would lead us to the most significant and
meaningful lives. Living our lives guided by hypergoods would be using them to do
what we see and feel as most valuable or important, and thus would enable us to do what
Taylor sees as an implication of authenticity, namely "realizing a potentiality that is
properly my own." (EA, 29) To be as authentic as we can, then, we would need to find
these hypergoods and thus, not just what we see as good but chiefly what we see as best.
To make complete sense of the criticism that Taylor's accoimt leads us to live
essentially the same type of life we also need to prove that everybody should feel the
force of this type of hypergoods. As we have seen we find some ambiguity in the way
Taylor defines hypergoods. When he introduces them, we understand them as personal
and optional "Most of us not only live with many goods but find that we must rank them,
and in some cases, this ranking makes one of them of supreme importance relative to the
others... They [people] recognize the value of self-expression, of justice, of family life,
of the worship of God, of ordinary decency, of sensitivity and a host of others, but they
consider one of these - perhaps their relation to God, or perhaps justice - as of overriding
importance" (SS, 62) But later on he relates hypergoods to the moral and we see them
more and more as universal and commanding. "But then it would appear that we all
recognize some such; that this status is just what defines the 'moral' in our culture: a set
of ends or demands which not only have unique importance, but also override and allow
us to judge others." (SS, 63) As the latter they exert the same force on everybody - as for
example, moral principles in the strict sense do - but not necessarily so as personal.
Anderson interprets Taylor as defining all hypergoods, and in fact all goods, as working
in the same way and thus as exerting their force on everybody. (Anderson, 185) The fact
that Taylor does not explicitly distinguish between the two types of hypergoods supports
Anderson's interpretation.
We can support the objectivity of personal hypergoods and saying that others
should feel their force by remembering what Taylor tells us about how we find what is
important to us. For him, to be authentic we need to look inward and follow that for
which we hear a call. We need to find our identity in terms of what we find important or
significant. But we don't do this completely independent of others. What we hear a call
for and see as good always comes from the distinctions we have learned from and with
others. Things have significance only against one background or other: "I can define my
identity only against the backgroimd of things that matter. But to bracket out history,
nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be
to eliminate all candidates for what matters." (EA, 40) With all this, of course, we have
not proven yet that a single background or framework would trump all others and would
fix a personal hypergood. All we can say is that at least some group of interlocution
needs to agree with me in what I see as important. But we must remember that
hypergoods need to form part of a Best Account that successfully resists the objections of
others. All of this leads us to see how, at a minimum, personal hypergoods should exert a
force on others in the sense that, when these others realize the moral point of those
hypergoods, they'll feel moved or inspired by them. So, we can accept that if nothing
stands in people's way to adopt the project they see as good and whose force they feel,
they should adopt it as their own. I will come back to this point when I deal with the role
of contingent factors in Taylor's account.
We have been dealing with the question of whether, because we can use practical
reason to determine the goodness or worth of a project, what Taylor says implies that we
should adopt the project that realizes the maximum good. We all normally have many
opportunities in our regular lives to do what we see as good through worthwhile projects,
being virtuous and behaving morally towards others. Finding the project that realizes the
maximum good for us seems to be an additional requirement. Yet as we saw above, to be
authentic we need to do what we feel called to do, which should be our personal
hypergood. Doing this would make us reach our full potential. This in turn, seems to be
an important characteristic of authenticity: In articulating my own originality "I am
realizing a potentiality that is properly my own." (EA, 29) The only problem would seem
to come from thinking that my personal hypergood would have to exert the same force on
everybody. If we grant this, we can still make sense of the charge that Taylor's method
leads to normalization. We could find, however, that many different projects had
essentially the same value. If this were the case we could all still be authentic by
choosing different projects. We thus need to address this possibility.
2.2 Hierarchyof the Worth of Projects
Let's say that through practical reason we can point out the good of several
projects. As long as we can establish a hierarchy of value among these practices,
Taylor's method would indeed seem to require us to do those projects higher in the
hierarchy. Thus if through practical reason we can show that protecting abused children
realizes a higher good than saving the rainforest, it would follow that we should do the
former. Showing that we can build such hierarchy would support the claim that Taylor's
methodology narrows the possible ways of being authentic. Let's then look in more
detail to see whether we can build such hierarchy.
I don't think we can always use practical reason to prove the superiority of one
project over another. We can argue about the goodness of, say, dedicating one's life to
the preservation of wilderness areas. According to Taylor, if we convince others about
the worth of this project, they will see its goodness and feel moved by it. But they could
also see as important other projects, such as fighting global warming or the danger of
nuclear proliferation, protecting abused women, educating children, and so on. We could
get to see two or more of these projects as equally important, worthy, or noble. Perhaps
an instance of this would take place in deciding between fighting global warming and
nuclear proliferation. The good realized in each of these cases seems to be at the same
level. In other words, they seem to be commensurable distinctions. Each of the projects
seems to realize the same type of good in different ways, or to do the same type of
service to the same type of object, say, helping the planet. We would find it difficult to
assess at any given time which we need the most. To see the goodness or urgency of
each project we would need to make rational assessments based on calculations affected
by contingent factors. This would seem closer to a utilitarian calculation than to Taylor's
form of practical reason which includes the use of strong evaluations.
But we can find other cases in which we can use practical reason to see how a
project can be higher or nobler than others. We could do this whenever the goods realized
by the different projects represent seemingly incommensurable qualitative distinctions.
In this case we seem to have a second order of incommensurability. We know that each
of the projects represents a good or qualitative distinction. But now, we can see one of
these goods as higher or nobler. Perhaps an example of this would come from trying to
compare the value of protecting abused women, or saving children, and preserving
wilderness areas. We could argue for this along the lines that in one case we recognize
the value of human life while in the other we are talking about the value of other living
creatures. (I am not endorsing the superiority of one value over the other, only that we
can see them as goods represented by temporarily incommensurable qualitative
distinctions). The job of practical reason would be restoring commensurability.
We have found that there might be several projects that are equally worthwhile,
and among which we could choose either arbitrarily, by following inclination or by a
utilitarian calculation. But we have also seen that we can always compare the value or
goodness realized by any of these equally worthwhile projects against that of some
others, and find that some are worthier than others. In other words, we always seem to be
able of ordering hierarchically the value of projects, where some of them will be at the
same level. What Taylor says about the link between seeing the good and being moved
by it implies that an authentic person would feel moved to use her life for one of the
projects on top of this hierarchy. We could still find many different projects at this top
level of the hierarchy, anyone being as worthy as the others. If this were the case, the
threat of normalization behind Taylor's method would not be as severe, since we could at
least choose among all those projects at that top level and still be authentic.
But does Taylor's theory really give us such flexibility? We can investigate this
question by looking at Taylor's opposition to the theory of radical choice. A choice
between any two projects fi^om the top level of the hierarchy of goods would have to be a
form of radical choice. If we can't find reasons to act one way or another we would be
experiencing the tragic dilemma of the young man undecided about staying to help his
mother or joining the French resistance in Sartre's famous example. (Sartre, 41) If after
trying every possible articulation we can't decide between two options from which we
feel an equal pull, for all practical purposes we can consider these as having equal value
for us. If we could say something else it would be because we have reestablished
commensiu-ability. We would have foimd a way to evaluate my strong goods and see
which makes more sense for me. But for Taylor the goodness of the project I choose is
something objective. In choosing it, I would have to convince others to see it as a higher
good and in doing so, to get them to feel moved by it. In doing this, however, I would be
solving the incommensurability not only for me, but also for everybody else. I would be,
in other words, destroying the homogeneity of the value of the different projects at the
top level and creating a new level that everybody would have to acknowledge. And if
we can't restore commensurablity we would have to decide through a form of radical
According to some authors^ Taylor's method does not allow for this possibility of
radical choice. Anderson, for example, writes: "Since Taylor seems to think that there is
something incoherent in choosing arbitrarily, even between permissible options, these are
choices about which it must be possible to say what is better or worse." (Anderson, 189)
What Taylor tells us about identity supports the claim that for him we cannot choose
arbitrarily. Our identity, defined by what we value and see as good, comes from our
strong evaluations. These however, by definition, cannot be arbitrary. Choosing
^ Barbara Fultner,Can Radical Choice be Eradicatedfrom Human Agency?; Ernst Tugendhat,Korreferat
zu Charles Taylor: 'What is Human Agency?
arbitrarily between two different options would mean that we don't care much one way or
another. In Taylor's defense, however, we can argue that choosing one of two options for
which we have reasons is not choosing completely arbitrarily. Although Taylor denies
what the theory of radical choice tells us, namely, that what makes something valuable is
simply the fact that I choose it, he also says that radical choice makes sense between
strongly valuated options. (WHA, 33) In acknowledging this, Taylor seems to be
admitting that at some point, choice also matters. As Sartre would say, in choosing one
option rather than the other I am declaring the superior value of that choice for me
(Sartre, 36) and, we can add, choosing through some sort of unarticulated inclination. In
this case, the action itself indicates that for me such choice moved me and thus is the
strongest one. If this is correct, Taylor allows for the possibility of this type of radical
choice between projects that we sense as equally valuable and thus for some type of
differentiation between strong evaluators.
The foregoing argument seeks to show how Taylor might consistently avoid the
charge that he does not allow for differentiation between strong evaluators. Someone
could argue that this way of choosing is equivalent to choosing by preference, which
implies choosing as a simpler weightier, through weak evaluations and considering
contingent factors. But, choosing by preference goes against the way we form our
identities as strong evaluators. In what follows I consider this and other objections.
3 Other Saving Factors in Taylor
3.1 Possibilityof Including Contingent Factors
We can argue that a person might recognize the predominant importance of a
project and yet, due to her particular circumstances, decide not to adopt it. Moreover, we
can also argue that contingent factors could play a role not only after we have seen the
overriding importance of some good or project, but precisely in seeing which good or
project to adopt. By saying this, we are simply reinstating the observation that personal
hypergoods seem to be both diverse and optional, as opposed to universal and
commanding. Taylor recognizes that many people who see one good as incomparably
higher than others, still need to pay attention to their circumstances. He writes, "This is
not to say that they give [their higher good] unflinching priority in their deliberations and
decisions. There may be all sorts of considerations, ranging from a sense of their own
limits to the recognition that the other goods are valuable also, which restrain them from
this." (SS, 62) For Anderson however, what Taylor says about the level of reflection of
practical reason forecloses considering contingent factors. Anderson thinks that for
Taylor, in choosing hypergoods, practical reason occurs only at the level of strong
evaluations, and thus, that contingent considerations should not bar the person from
adopting the project. She should adopt it, otherwise she would not be following what she
sees as good, and we can add, not being authentic. In Anderson's words, "We all start
out in different positions and live under different circumstances... But given that these
sorts of considerations are based on contingent factors, they are matters of weak
evaluation... Taylor still remains open to the charge that reflections having to do with
strong evaluations are such that they are necessarily geared toward the design of lives that
realize the same values." (Anderson, 186)
We can defend Taylor by noticing that he acknowledges a place for weak
evaluations. While he sees the capacity for making strong evaluations as an essential
function of the human subject (WHA, 28), he does not say they are the only type of
evaluations we make. In What is Human Agency? he writes, "We can concur that a
simpler weigher is already reflective in a minimal sense." (WHA, 23) He is recognizing
weak evaluation as one type of legitimate evaluation. Our capacity for evaluating
weakly, and thus for considering contingent factors, seems to make possible being
motivated by a hypergood without having to adopt it. Anderson, however, could reply
that for Taylor's weak evaluation and strong evaluation occur at different moments, and
they do not mix. As we saw above, according to him, for Taylor, once we have
determined a hypergood through strong evaluations, we do not pay attention to
contingent factors to see whether we seek to realize it or not.
But we can see that in deciding what to do, we typically consider a mix of strong
and weak evaluations. For instance, we could determine through practical reason that
protecting abused women is a worthier project than preserving wilderness areas. We can
also see, however, that if everybody chose the first task over the last one, sooner or later
the latter project would have to take a new priority. In a case such as this, we would need
to take into account more than our pure qualitative distinctions. More generally, we
could argue that in life many things are interrelated and that, indirectly, by protecting
wilderness areas we could be respecting human life, since failing to protect such areas
would eventually affect us or our descendants. Perhaps, practical reason could lead us to
see one project as worthier than the other. Yet, we cannot disregard other possible
connections or consequences of our projects. If we failed to do this, we would not be
acting responsibly and thus, we would not be being authentic. Doing this would go
against the contextualist spirit of Taylor's account. Moreover, we could also find
contingencies about our ability to do a project.
It is unclear whether Taylor would in fact insist on the separation of strong and
weak evaluations in our process of choosing among hypergoods. He does make a clear
separation between these two types of evaluations in the examples he describes, such as
the case I discuss below of an overeater who through strong evaluating decides he
admires a life of self control as more dignified. Furthermore, given the fact that, for him,
hypergoods express something essential about oiir identity, he would seem to be
coirmiitted to maintaining that we should overlook contingent factors in deciding whether
we adopt those hjqjergoods or not.
So far I have been focusing on the question of whether Taylor allows the
possibility that personal hypergoods might be optional. As we have seen, saying that we
choose hypergoods exclusively through strong evaluations denies this possibility. I will
turn now then to the question whether something else in Taylor's accoxmt allows us to
consider contingent factors.
3.2 Narratives Coherence as Support for Considering Contingent Factors
Considering contingent factors relates to another element Taylor sees as central to
all human beings, namely, the need to make sense of our lives and of finding an identity
through the continual and ongoing making of narratives. What we might call narrative
reasoning, we can add, seems indeed necessary for strong evaluations by, for instance,
allowing us to understand or imagine projects, values, and ways of life worth living. He
emphasizes two elements in the construction of these narrative identities. The first he
adopts from Alasdair Maclntyre, and consists of the ideas that we live in a quest to
determine the good our lives have to realize and that we use narratives to determine such
good. He writes, "And as I project my life forward and endorse the existing direction or
give it a new one, I project a future story... This sense of my life as having a direction
towards what I am not yet is what Alasdair Maclntyre captures in his notion... that life is
seen as a 'quest'." (SS, 48)
In this quest for what we see as good we are both constrained and aided by the
second narrative element Taylor emphasizes, namely, the need for coherence in one's
whole life. What we want to determine is whether what he says about the coherence of
one's life story, in particular, allows for the possibility of having different personal
hypergoods. This would be the case if we were to find that what justifies a particular
project or value as a hypergood for me, although not for others, is that, given that we all
recognize it as a good, it fits into a story of my life, although maybe not into those of
For Taylor, making sense of my life requires seeing it in a story that I can
imderstand as a whole and thus, as a story with certain coherence. He embraces the
Heideggerian idea that we are embodied beings with a temporal structure constituted by
our concerns. Our past determines or heavily influences which options we have for our
present and future, opening up some possible actions and closing down others. What we
have lived helps us see not only which goods move us, but also how close or far we are
from them and also to project what we want to do: "From my sense of where I am
relative to [the good], and among the different possibilities, I project the direction of my
life relative to it." (SS, 47) Oiir stories generally extend over the whole of our lives
because this is the duration of many of our personal concerns: selves exist in a "space of
questions, through certain constitutive concerns. The questions and concerns touch on
the nature of the good that I orient myself by and on the way I am placed in relation to it.
But then what counts as a unit will be defined by the scope of the concern, by just what is
in question. And what is in question is generally and characteristically, the scope of my
life as a whole." (SS, 50, his italics) All of this shows how, for Taylor, we cannot
separate our concerns and our conception of the goods from our particular circumstances.
But what most directly supports that we all might find different personal
hypergoods is his implicit acceptance of the Heideggerian notion that we are thrown into
the world. Each of us was bom into different circimistances which we did not choose.
Many of my experiences, concerns, and possibilities, then, are different from those of
other people. As a result, what we see as good or the available options for projects and
commitments is often also different. Having to make coherent life stories, then, would
seem not just to allow but even to require us to choose different personal hypergoods.
Because I am in a certain situation, I need to make certain choices that under other
circiomstances I could not or need not make. Some trivial differences among us arise
from our different places in the world - from our throwness. I was bom in a certain
coimtry, with a certain gender, with certain religion, as a member of a family. To some
degree, I might embrace or reject the views and concerns that normally come with these
circumstances. But the possibility of doing this is not necessarily open to other people in
different circumstances.^
The notion of throwness, then, helps us explain why we choose some goods over
others, when we see such goods as the ones open to us. To see this, let us pay closer
attention to the way we personally determine what we see as good. As we have seen, he
advocates using our moral phenomenology as a guide to determine our moral ontology.
But this moral phenomenology, we could argue, includes our experience of how we come
to see something as good. Typically, as Taylor tells us, what we see as good does not
occur as an isolated or sudden revelation about something we had never thought about: "I
can't know in a flash that I have attained perfection, or am halfway there." (SS, 48)
Thus, for him we sense the importance of different ideas of the good ".. .by seeing how
they fit into our surrounding life, that is, what part they play in a narrative of this life."
(SS, 48) We can only determine what is good by experiencing how we got there: "We
come to understand in part what really characterizes the moral states we seek through the
very effort of trying... to achieve them." (SS, 48) The stories we tell to justify what we
see as good reflect this experience. Our life stories explain, for example, why we see
something as important, or why it becomes our hypergood instead of some other noble
project. And part of what makes these stories coherent includes consideration of our
personal experiences, sensibilities and inclinations. I choose to collaborate to save the
One might point out that, in agreement with Taylor's ontological approach to the good,everybodyin the
same circumstances should embrace and reject the same values and identities, and yet,because we can
occupyso manydifferent places,we still find enough diversity. Since no one has myexact historyand
experiences,we could think, we all could be moved in different degrees bydifferent goods. However,this
still seems to leave us with few options to differentiate from each other, at least within our groups.
rainforest, say, instead of supporting shelters for battered women, because I have
witnessed the destruction of wilderness. Alternatively, I choose the second instead of the
first because I have suffered abuse myself or witnessed it near me.
That our personal histories influence what we see as good does not of course
imply that they should entirely determine what we should do. Taylor holds that we need
a clear justification for the worth of our choice. But assuming for the moment that we
have reasons to see two projects as worthwhile, we generally accept consideration of our
personal situations as compelling factors for choosing one project instead of the other.
Given that Taylor affirms that we look for coherence in our lives, he seems to be
committed to accepting that we use contingent factors to choose between equally
worthwhile projects. In the end, he tells us, we will choose the project or values that our
past experiences make us see as important or worthy. Although this would resolve the
problem of personal differentiation, it seems to be in tension with his ontological
approach to the good since what I come to see as good or important depends on my
circumstances and personal history. This tension disappears if we think that we can see
the two goods as important, but optional and one as "closer to my heart", or the only one
open to me.
We have returned to the question of whether we can choose between two projects
that to us occur as having equal value. We ruled out before that we could choose by
giving reasons that apply to everybody, or by simple preference. But now we are
investigating the possibility that what Taylor tells us about the way we determine the
good our lives have to realize includes offering reasons that only apply to us. Out of
different worthwhile projects, we choose the one we choose because it is the one that fits
the rest of my life better, which most likely makes it the one that directly moves us the
most, the one "closer to our hearts". As we have implied, Taylor means here a fit with
my life not in the sense that it conveniently lets me pursue other goals I want, but in the
sense that it goes with what I lived before, and resonates with what I want to do in the
future. Through reason and imagination others could still see it as a good, and thus still
grant its objectivity, even if they do not feel the same pull from it as I do.
Something Taylor says, however, goes against the possibility of simply choosing
what moves us or inspires us most directly, or what fits my life better. He writes, "We
may accept something as good although we are relatively unmoved by it, because at the
lowest, we... glide along in conformity... or because we choose certain figures as
authoritative for us, sensing in them that they are moved by something authentic and
great, even though we don't fiilly imderstand it or feel it ourselves." (SS, 74) Taylor is
suggesting that we should adopt the hypergood we find most valuable, even if it is not the
one that directly inspires us the most. In a case in which we are ready and able to
perform two different valuable projects, Taylor's ontological approach still requires us to
choose the one we can determine as most valuable. If indeed we can find some goals,
projects and ways of being objectively worthier than others, imder Taylor's account, we
all should do the one deemed worthiest. Thus, someone could object that his ontological
approach to the good, which seeks to justify our reactions and choices in terms of
objective goods, implies that, in the end, even if our experiences, talents and sensibilities
are different, we all should find the same set of highest goods. Even if our personal
histories only allow us to make certain evaluations and determine certain values or
projects as good, a rational discussion with others should convince us of the superiority
of their good, if it indeed is superior, and then we should feel more moved by that good
and piu"sue it. We wonder then to what extent we have to go before deciding that a given
project or commitment is the one we should pursue to be called authentic.
Some of his examples suggest that, for Taylor, to be authentic we do not have to
go out of our way to search for the noblest, most important, or urgent project to adopt. It
would seem that each of us, right from our circumstances, faces a series of situations in
which we can become authentic by deciding correctly what to do or how to be. We see
this, in the examples of an addict to overeating and that of someone trying to decide
whether going to Nepal or staying in his same place and job. (WHA, 21 and 27) In each
of these cases, we must acknowledge, the person is not searching for a hypergood, only
for a life good among others. But if Taylor allows, as these examples indicate, that we
can be our better selves by responding to the challenges our circumstances present to us,
he agrees that we can be authentic by very different ways. To be authentic, for instance,
the overeater only has to determine that a life of self control is more dignified than one of
indulgence. Other people will be authentic by rising up to the challenges and endorsing
the goods that their circumstances make salient for them.
In What is Human Agency he offers the example of someone (himself) being
ambivalent between two projects; wanting to take a different job in Nepal or staying and
continue teaching. Under its own perspective and interpretation, each of the courses of
action represents a different good, while its corresponding altemative represents
something to be scorned. When he wants to stay, he defends this option as the mature,
responsible thing to do, while leaving seems adolescent nonsense. When he wants to
leave, this option seems the adventurous, courageous act while staying seems a
pusillanimous choice that would only keep the routine. While he struggles between these
interpretations he faces incommensurability between the two options. To see what to do,
the person would have to determine through articulation the goodness or attractiveness of
each project, eventually realizing which represents the highest good by restoring
commensurability. "The question at issue concerns which is the truer, more authentic,
more illusion-free interpretation, and which one on the other hand involves a distortion of
the meanings things have for me. Restoring this issue is restoring commensurability."
(WHA, 27) Taylor does not hint to any favored answer. It could be that, based on
individual natures and temperaments, different articulation would appeal differently to
different people. This leaves open the possibility that different persons could find
different valid answers, and thus be authentic in different ways. This solution however,
does not square with his ontological approach to the good, for which after articulation we
should all agree on which represents the highest option. The only solution we can see
would be if practical reason could show us that the two courses of action were optional
and both worthy. In such case we could include our personal preference among the
reasons to justify oiir choice.
We thus continue to find tensions in Taylor's account. In what follows I consider
in what way Taylor's mode of practical reason can allow us to choose different
3.3 Life Transitions and Practical Reason
What Taylor says about life transitions and practical reason at the level of
personal narratives also seems to open the possibility that different people could choose
different hypergoods (EPR, 51). This is so since determining a hypergood constitutes
determining a truth, namely, that something represents a good for us. We want to clarify
whether through practical reason at this personal level we can discover that something
can represent the highest good for us, although not necessarily for others. Taylor's model
of practical reason, as we saw last chapter, contrasts with the apodictic method of the
physical sciences. For him, "Practical reason.. .is a reasoning in transitions. It aims to
establish, not that some position is correct absolutely, but rather that some position is
superior to some other." (SS, 72) This way of arguing is ad hominem. We appeal to
what the opponent already recognizes or carmot easily repudiate. (EPR, 53) The simplest
form of practical reason takes place at this personal level, when we see through a story
that a move from a position X to a position Y constitutes an epistemic gain, by
imderstanding for instance how A was based on a contradiction, a wrong assumption, or
failed to consider some important factor. As Taylor writes, "We might identify the
transitions directly as the overcoming of an error. Say we knew that it consisted in the
removing of a contradiction, or the overcoming of a confusion, or the recognition of a
hitherto ignored relevant factor." (EPR, 51)
In this case we can be sure we will be in a better position because we know we
have realized something more truthful. "Instead of concluding that Y was a gain over X
because of the superior performance of Y, we would be confident of the superior
performance of Y because we knew that Y was a gain over X." (EPR, 51)' We saw the
example of Joe who was previously confused whether he loved Anne because he also
resented her. But now he realizes that the emotions of love and resentment are
compatible. Seeing this allows him to realize how the second gets in the way of feeling
the strength of the first, so that he now "is confident that his present self reading (I
certainly love Anne), is superior to his former self reading (I am not sure whether I love
Anne), because he knows he passed fi-om one to the other via the clarification of a
confusion." (EPR, 52)
Other examples also suggest that if we are in the same situation, after applying
practical reason we all should arrive to the same conclusions. "After a long period of
stress and confusion, I come to see that I really love A, or I really don't want to take that
job. I now see retrospectively that the image of myself as quite free and uncommitted
had a merely superficial hold on me. It did not correspond to a profound aspiration. It
just stood in the way of my recognizing the depth of my commitment to A." (FFT, 96)
Perhaps these personal truths come from realizing an objective fact, as in the case in
which Joe discovered resentment was compatible with love. Or perhaps what I find
comes from a strong evaluation, through which I realize that I don't really want to be
imcommitted and free. As a strong evaluation it should also move others. In either case,
such realizations open the way for seeing something personal, in this case, whether Joe or
^ This seems to endorse the insight behind the saying 'truth will set you free'. Someone could object
however that this is not always the case,arguing the insight behind the saying 'ignorance is bliss'. I will
overlook for the moment this discussion.
I want to commit to loving someone. But if we are in the same situation and we learn
the same lesson, we should be moved to act in the same way.
However, in so far as Taylor allows that we can find different truths or epistemic
gains depending on what we have lived or our individual natures he allows that we all
could find different personal hypergoods. The examples above suggest that among the
truth we discover we find objective facts of life, such as saying that loving and resenting
someone are compatible emotions. Yet, what we discover depends on our situation.
Anyone in our situation would leam the same but someone in a different situation may
discover something different, which applies to her situation.
We want to acknowledge that in certain cases, such as the ones in which what we
discover helps us grow morally, normalization is desirable. Taylor mentions the example
of a boy who was behaving miserably at home because he confusedly thought that as the
eldest son he had special rights. Once he understands the falsity of this principle and
repudiates it he behaves more congenially and grows morally. Most probably this
transition process will eventually include strong evaluation. In cases such as this, what
we discover is a type of behavior, or way of being which everyone else would have to
find worthy. And even the previous examples - about discovering something personal -
illustrate truths that seemingly we all should find out. Committing to someone, or at least
to a way of life that includes commitment to something, would simply seem a superior
way of being for everyone. We could argue, however, that in all these cases of moral
growth we are discovering the force of something normative as contrasted to
3.4 Creative Solutions in Accommodating Hypergoods
Taylor could also say that even if we were to find the same personal hypergood, it
would not mean that we have to live life in the same way. Depending on our
circumstances, we could still find creative ways to accommodate a hypergood. Thus, I
might see a certain project as the worthiest one, but if I am not in the position to directly
undertake it or if my capacities and inclinations lend themselves better for a different
project it would seem to give more coherence to my life to choose to do the second, and
only indirectly contribute to the first project. If a person is naturally gifted for playing
some musical instrument and loves it, choosing to become a virtuoso, rather than any
other by comparison more altruistic project, would give more coherence to her life. This
choice also would bring something Taylor requires for authenticity, namely, following
one's own inclinations and developing one's own potentiality. The person could always
find a creative solution to support her hypergood. She could, for example, perform to
raise funds for the project she finds worthiest. This solution, however, seems only a
pseudo-solution since is not telling us that we can actually find different hypergoods, but
only that we can find ways of doing other things even if we find that we all should adopt
the same hypergoods.
3.5 Articulation
Another axis to investigating whether we can choose different hypergoods comes
fr-om the fact that how we articulate our moral and spiritual intuitions and reactions also
affects which type of life, or project we choose to direct our lives. We can see this type
of articulation as an integral part of Taylor's account of practical reason, along side the
logical component discussed above. As we saw in Section 4.4, for Taylor through
articulation we both discover and invent what we see as good: "We find the sense of life
through articulating it. And modems have become aware of how much sense being there
for us depends on our powers of expression. Discovering here depends on, is interwoven
with, inventing." (SS, 18) and also, "Discovering a framework is interwoven with
inventing." (SS, 22) Out of these two elements, it is "invention" which promises some
help in allowing us to choose different hypergoods. Since we are not bound to find one
qualitative distinction as the definitive incarnation of the good, we seem to have more
freedom on which good to choose. We only need to produce a different articulation, to
invent a new idea of what we see as good.
We articulate frameworks by spelling out the qualitative distinctions that are
behind oiir moral and spiritual intuitions and reactions. But these distinctions are never
final. New articulations with different expressions can modify our reactions and thus our
qualitative distinctions, or what we see worth pursuing. In fact, for Taylor, we can
always re-evaluate any of our sfrong evaluations. For him "evaluation is such that there
is allow room for re-evaluation." (WHA, 39) We can always re-evaluate that which we
see as having frmdamental importance. When we do this, we suspend our judgments and
go into our depths to check what is really important to us. (WHA, 40,41)
Taylor understands that I can never make these articulations alone. Even when I
do a radical re-evaluation, I always have to go through the public stage of trying to make
sense to others, successfiilly countering their objections and criticisms and getting them
to be moved by the good that I found. If it passes this test, I have foimd a new qualitative
distinction or idea of the good. If this happens, however, others would have to respond as
I do, and then what I have lived would affect not only my choice but also those of others.
This would be the case of those who Nietzsche would describe as making a
'transvaluation of values' (Nietzsche, Section 1). Taylor explains this public condition of
making sense to others when we articulate a new good through the concept of webs of
interlocution: "We may sharply shift the balance in our definition of identity, dethrone
the given, historic community as a pole of identity, and relate only to the community
defined by adherence to the good (of the saved, or the true believers, or the wise). But
this does not severe our dependence on webs of interlocution. It only changes the webs,
and the nature of our dependence." (SS, 39) Sometimes we feel that the web of
interlocution must extend to every rational being and we insist that everybody must agree
on what we see as good. This is what happens in the case of very general moral
principles: "there is the effect of working out and developing an insight which is
marginally present in all cultures. In its developed form, this will make new demands,
ones which upset the moral codes of previous cultures. Yet the insight in its developed
form might carry conviction; this is, once articulated it might be hard to gainsay." (EPR,
We can understand the need for universal agreement in this case of moral
principles or commanding hypergood, but Taylor's ontological approach also seems to
require imiversal agreement for all the other types of good. He is explicit about such
imiversal agreement in the case of constitutive goods. Since he sees them as objective
sources to which we seek to get closer, everybody should potentially recognize and feel
moved by them: "Moral sources empower. To come closer to them, to have a clearer
view of them, to come to grasp what they involve, is for those who recognize them to be
moved to love or respect them." (SS, 96) One problem here is that we often disagree on
constitutive goods. As we have seen, some people find God while others the freedom of
the will as the constitutive good behind the moral principle of universal equality. But it
would seem that Taylor's ontological approach also reqviires that even my articulation of
life goods and personal hypergoods should be such that, potentially, if these goods are
real objective goods, everybody should feel their force. This follows from Taylor's
understanding of practical reason. Although this is only an ad hoc form of reasoning, a
reasoning in transition in which we show that our good is better justified than some other,
in the particular situation, anyone should see that what we find as good is indeed
If a requirement for the objectivity of a good discovered or invented through
articulations is that potentially every rational being imderstands it as a good and, however
indirectly, feels its force, Taylor's accoimt still keeps its potential for normalizing us.
The only way to avoid it would be if some of these goods were optional. If we are
allowed to have personal hypergoods different from those of others it would be because
not all hypergoods are universal and obligatory. Thus we need to recognize two tj^es of
3.6 Two Types of Hypergoods. Good as Obligatoryand as Optional
In so far as Taylor allows that we take into consideration oiir inclinations,
aptitudes, and sensibility to decide what the good is for us he would be including the
elements he left out of what Amelie O. Rorty and David Wong have called a 'top-down-
view of the self (Rorty, A., 36), which we discussed in Section 2 and which relates to the
somatic and 'bottom' part of our identities. But we can only do this, or do it more
readily, in the case of personal and spiritual goods. We have the intuition that moral
precepts apply to everyone and should be followed regardless of our particular attitudes
and circimistances. This difference makes us think that we should apply practical reason
in different ways in the case of the moral in its narrow sense and in the case of the
spiritual and personal. But Taylor follows an ontological approach for both cases:
through practical reason we find an ontology of moral and ethical goods that justify our
choices. Can this model of practical reason make room for considering circumstances
such as abilities and inclinations in one case but not the other?
Taylor applies the same model of practical reason in both cases because of the
generality with which he conceives of the good. For him, the different goods we discover
do not exert the same type of claim on us. We hear the claims of some goods as
inescapable, notably those of the moral. But we hear the call of other goods or qualitative
distinctions as suggestions, as in the case of more personal plans and projects. We can
see this when he writes, "Articulating these [qualitative] distinctions is setting out the
moral point of the actions and feelings our intuitions enjoin on us, or invite us to, or
present as admirable." (SS, 78, italics mine) In this ad hoc way he answers the question
whether his account could accommodate the intuition that personal hypergoods do not
impose on us as obligatory: when we discover a moral good we don't pay much attention
to other contingent factors or to our natural inclination because the claim imposes itself as
unavoidable; in the personal cases the weaker strength of the claims allows us to consider
circumstantial factors.
To allow for this resolution, however, we need to accept the existence of the two
types of hypergoods: personal and optional, and universal and commanding. Abbey Ruth
first noticed this ambiguity in Taylor's definition of hypergoods. (Abbey, 36) If all our
hypergoods were universal and commanding, we would have to seek to realize them
regardless of our circumstances. Not following one of these hypergoods for whatever
personal reasons would be a mistake. We must acknowledge that following some of
these hypergoods might admit of a variety of types of actions. This, we can argue, helps
Taylor avoid the charge that his account normalizes us. But according to Anderson,
Taylor's account also implies determining the goodness behind particular actions or
projects. For him, this account commits us to imdertake the action or project that realizes
the highest good, which is the charge against which I have been arguing. In any case,
beyond these obligatory actions we find others that we see as good but optional. Thus,
our moral experience backs the existence of both types of hypergoods. We find some
people for whom a personal project or commitment governs their lives, but we also find
ourselves experiencing at least some of the claims of morality as inescapable.
Accepting the two types of hypergoods brings some additional benefits.
Universal and commanding hypergoods allow us to keep the objectivity of morality,
while personal and optional ones allow us to fiirther differentiation among strong
evaluators. Yet, proposing to accept two types of hypergoods goes against Anderson's
suggestion of eliminating the distinction, since according to him hypergoods turn out to
be only an intermediary between life goods and constitutive goods: "Since 'hypergoods'
turn out to be merely intermediate points in a chain of justification that culminates in
'constitutive goods' (though these should not be understood as foundational or 'basic'
reasons (SS, 76-7) the concept of hypergood doesn't really do any work in the account"
(in the discussion at the 'Author Meets Critics' session on Sources at the APA in
Chicago, 1991)." (Anderson, 173) This however, does not seem correct. Taylor sees
constitutive goods not only as more important than hypergoods or life goods, but also as
goods in a different way; even though they are not supposed to be fovmdational, they
justify those life goods and hypergoods in the first place. Anderson points out that Taylor
himself has suggested dropping this distinction and has discontinued it in his later
writings. But if we drop this distinction, it is harder to make sense of the
phenomenological objectivity of Taylor's moral realism since we are only left with life
goods and constitutive goods. And, as we have seen, people tend to agree more on
hypergoods than on life and constitutive goods.
But does Taylor's account allow for the possibility of having two types of
hypergoods? His lumping together of the two different types of goods - those that we
must follow and those which are only desirable to achieve but not mandatory - would
seem to prevent him from accepting this possibility, or at least from calling both of them
hypergoods. We could argue that because his notion of the good includes both the
obligatory and the merely desirable, hypergoods, which are in the top, should also include
both. Yet we see the obligatory and the merely worthwhile or desirable as qualitatively
different. I'm obliged to respect others' lives even if I don't find doing it the most
desirable. At the same time, I'm not obliged to do whatever is most desirable or
worthwhile in my life. From these two tj^es of goods we tend to identify the obligatory
and imiversal as more important than the other, and thus we tend to see them as the only
hypergoods, often identifying them with the moral. We could think that the next ones in
importance are those goods that we see as most desirable but not necessarily obligatory.
But then these could not be hypergoods, since they are the second highest in our
hierarchy. This is why we find it easy to interpret Taylor as saying that all hypergoods
are commanding for everybody, and see his account as leading to normalization.
Understanding all hypergoods as commanding and universal also runs against
Taylor's proposal that morality should deal with goods that go beyond our obligations
towards others - the area of traditional modem moral philosophy - to include notions of
how we should live our lives - the area of the ethical that includes the personal and
spiritual. For him, through practical reason we should uncover an ontology of the good
that explains our moral reactions, but also tells us what we should do, how we should be,
and what would be most desirable. Doing this implies uncovering both goods that are
mandatory and goods that are desirable, but optional. But Taylor thinks that no general
theory can distinguish between the obligatory and the optional and that, as we argued
above, in each separate case we can discriminate the type of call a good makes on us.
Sometimes we will feel them as obligatory, others as merely convenient, desirable or
worthwhile. For him, through practical reason we can show why something is our
obligation, or, alternately, why something is desirable. But if this is the case, we still
need to acknowledge that the hypergoods can be of the two different kinds. Furthermore,
the question of what makes some obligatory but not the others seems a legitimate
^ Perhaps Bernard Williams in Chapter 10 ofEthics and the Limits of Philosophy presents a good wayto
differentiate between the obligatoryand the merelydesirable and optional. His approach,however,
represents that ofa sophisticated naturalism which Taylor rejects.
question. For Taylor, of course, this question only arises out of our modem penchant for
general theories.
The fact that we find some goods as desirable yet still optional reinforces our
previous arguments to reject Anderson's claim that Taylor's account leads to
normalization. Whenever I find one of these goods I can use personal reasons, such as
saying that it is or it is not my preference, or give a personal narrative to justify choosing
it or not. Even though everybody might recognize, say, a project or a cause as worthy,
because of its very optional nature, it allows the use of contingent factors in our
justification for choosing it or not. Because of this nature we no longer find a tension
between the flexibility of choice and thinking of the good as something with objective
The idea that many goods or projects can be optional could make us wonder
whether this still leaves room for being moral or ethical, and thus for being authentic as
Taylor understands it. Taylor's conception of authenticity implies that we all should find
hypergoods with phenomenological objectivity such as moral precepts about our duty to
others, and virtuous and optional ways of being such as being generous. It would seem
that if we are not virtuous or pursue the worthiest projects available to us, we would not
be being the best we can be. We could argue, however, that as long as we choose among
the most equally worthy projects we can, we could still count as authentic. Furthermore,
since nothing Taylor says implies there are only few equally worthy projects, we might
have many from which to choose.
Although we can see now how Taylor's account does not lead to normalization, it
still requires that potentially everybody recognizes goods, even optional goods, as good.
We might wonder whether this is justified, and whether in some way restricts too much
what we might see as good. That everybody recognizes their moral obligations seems to
be important, but it does not seem to be as important if not everybody recognizes optional
goods. In the next chapter I will investigate the possibilities that personal hypergoods
don't have to be agreed to by everybody, that their objectivity comes from intersubjective
agreement of a smaller group, and that we could accept them as long as they don't oppose
some more universal moral obligation.^ Before making a case for these possibilities, I
will address another objection to Taylor's account. This is the idea that, because of the
difficulty of finding universal agreement on our best account, hypergoods can't really
4. Intersubjective Agreement
4.1 Universal Hypergoods through the Overlap of Best Accounts
The search for potential agreement in Taylor's methodology is implied in the way
we build personal best accounts of our moral experience. To accept these accounts I
must succeed at convincing others, getting them to be moved by the same values and
ideas of the good that move me. For Taylor, we can be sure we have found our
hypergoods and constitutive goods if they form part of the best account we can have of
our moral experience. He writes, "We will naturally, and rightly, let our ontology be
Christine Korsgaard's work on practical identitysupports this possibility.
determined by the best account we can arrive at in these terms. We will follow what I
called the BA principle." And he adds:
"If naturalism and the Platonic precedent shouldn't deter us from following this
[Best Account] principle to the point of allowing for courage and generosity, nor
should they frighten us away from what I have been calling hj^ergoods, if these
turn out to be really ineliminable from our best account." (SS, 69)
For him, these hypergoods and constitutive goods are real and objective. He writes:
"How else to determine what is real and objective, or part of the furniture of things, then
by seeing what properties or entities or features our best account of things has to
invoke?" (SS, 68) Although Taylor acknowledges that we can only take these properties,
entities or features as real and objective in a human world, doing so effectively
corresponds to reifying them. So, once we find our best account, anybody not seeing the
reality of its hypergoods or feeling their force would indeed be making a mistake.
As Gary Gutting has argued, however, nothing ensures us that each of us will find
one singular best account of our moral experience, let alone that we all will agree on one.
(Gutting, 155) He sees this difficulty as a problem for proving the phenomenological
objectivity of hypergoods. (See Section 2.6.2). To find imiversal hypergoods we would
need to agree with others on a single best account that we all share. If practical reason
does not lead us to such single best account it does not lead us to the imiversal
hypergoods. This indeed would speak against the phenomenological objectivity of
Taylor's realism and against the idea that we can find moral goods to be realized by all
human beings. But, denying that hypergoods have even this weaker form of objectivity
amounts to denying their existence.
To illustrate Cutting's point about the difficulty of agreeing on a single account
we can recall the two accounts we discussed last chapter in an attempt to explain our
intuition that human life should be respected. These were a theistic account according to
which human life merits this respect because we are all God's children, and a secular
account which holds that human life merits respect because we all have the potential for
rationality and self-determination. Given how heated arguments about these questions
can get and for how long they have taken place, it seems imlikely that practical reason
will be enough to find a singular best accoimt on which we all can agree.
I want to argue, however, that we can find hypergoods even if we don't all agree
on a single best account. I will do this by clarifying an ambiguity between hypergoods
and constitutive goods that we find in the way Taylor refers to the above accounts. We
find this when Taylor explains how the adoption of a new "hypergood perspective" (SS,
70) threatens us. Once we adopt a new hypergood, he tells us, we have to reconsider
much of what we used to see as good and often reject it. "The fact that the perspective
defined by a hypergood involves our changing, a change which is quahfied as 'growth'...
and even involves repudiating other goods, is what makes it so problematic." (SS, 70)
The two hypergoods in this case, he implies, are "God's love {agape) for the world" and
"the moral law itself and its universal demands." (SS, 70) But he also describes these as
examples of constitutive goods: "It is obvious that Platonism is not alone in conceiving a
constitutive good as [an empowering] source in this way. Christian and Jewish theism do
as well. It was natural for Christian Platonists like Augustine too see God as occupying
the place of Plato's Idea of the Good.. .the love that empowers here is not just ours for
God, but also his (agap^ for us (SS, 93), and "In Kant's theory, rational agency is the
constitutive good." (SS, 94)
The second interpretation - seeing the two distinctions as two different
constitutive goods - aligns better with other statements Taylor makes. If we were to see
them as hypergoods, we could only take them as personal hypergoods. This is so because
he seems to see their adoption as optional. To find these hypergoods we only need to
find a personal best account of our moral and spiritual experience. This feature of being
optional, on the other hand, does not accord with the idea of a trans-cultural,
commanding, imiversal hypergood, such as the one of our most general moral principles,
which should be the same for everybody. But for Taylor, different best accounts can
disclose - and different constitutive goods can agree with - the same hypergood. He
writes, "Underneath the agreement on moral standards lies imcertainty and division
concerning constitutive goods." (SS, 498) Thus we can also consistently interpret the
cases above as one in which two different accounts with two different constitutive goods
endorse one single hypergood, namely, the universal and equal respect for all himian
beings. He defines hypergoods, in their most objective sense, as those higher goods
whose force virtually all of us feel and identifies them with the moral: "But then it would
appear that we all recognize some such; that this status is just what defines the 'moral' in
our culture: a set of ends or demands which not only have unique importance, but also
override and allow us to judge others." (SS, 63) Both secular people and believers feel
the force of the principle of universal respect and equality, even though they give very
different accounts to explain it. We could thus find agreement on hypergoods even if we
don't agree on what makes them so, that is, even if we don't share the exact same best
account. This second interpretation makes it easier to accept the phenomenological
objectivity of Taylor's strong realism, at least in the case of commanding hypergoods.
For Taylor, the certainty we have in the objectivity of universal hypergoods
comes from our being able to find a best account of our moral experience: "We will
naturally, and rightly, let our ontology be determined by the best account we can arrive at
in these terms. We will follow what I called the BA principle." (SS, 69) If I can see that
my best account represents an epistemic gain over any other position I can trust the
hypergoods it discloses. Taylor supports this conclusion through moral phenomenology,
that is, by observing our actual moral reactions and experiences. But our moral
experience also includes the fact that often we cannot see the epistemic gain of one
theory over another, and yet, as I illustrated, both theories lead us to champion the same
values. Often our trust in the phenomenological objectivity of xmiversal hypergoods
comes, not so much from having a singular best account in which we all agree, as from
seeing our virtual universal sharing of what we see as good and worthy and from the fact
that we can all understand others' personal best accoimts, even if we are not ready to
accept them. For these reasons, I am proposing to take the overlap of our different best
accounts as a reassurance of the phenomenological objectivity of imiversal hypergoods.
Through this modification I am proposing that the acknowledging of the difficulty of
agreeing on a simple account does not have to let us renoxmce the phenomenological
objectivity of general hypergoods.
Although we deny that our personal best account is what single-handedly
determines our hypergoods, we can still affirm that such an account determines our life
goods and constitutive goods. Such an accoimt of course, still would need to make sense
and convince others, but it would not require universal agreement. This would leave
open the possibility that different people find different ways of being authentic while
keeping the restraints of morality, such as our obligations towards others.
Another way of being authentic would then be to search for those personal best
accounts that, although not universally shared, ring true for us, and do not oppose the
universal hypergoods of other best accounts of oiar moral experience. This suggestion
supports a culturally diverse world in which beyond certain basic principles and values,
we could have very different conceptions of what is good for us.
4.2 Personal Hypergoods without Universal Agreement
As we have seen, Taylor allows that personal hypergoods be optional, but even in
this case he implies that potentially, everyone should feel their force. But another
important aspect of our moral experience is that often, in practice, we can't agree on what
we see as good. Not only we sometimes find difficult to choose between two different
goods, but also different people often find difficult to agree on what they see as good.
Some people will be moved by some goods, and will be quite insensitive to others. We
must acknowledge that we can find some values and moral principles - such as the
principle of universal equality and respect for human life - whose force virtually
everybody feels. Outside these few principles however, people tend to vary widely on
what they see as goods. This tells us that the goods we need to realize to be authentic
may not always enjoy phenomenological objectivity in the sense that everyone will need
to agree on their goodness.
But failure to reach universal agreement should not mean that we can't have
personal hypergoods. We often find people committed to causes, hobbies, or types of
relationships that others cannot recognize as worthy and yet sense these commitments as
an integral part of what makes them authentic. It is true that we don't regard as authentic
those people who overlook their bigger responsibilities or deeper desires to wallow on or
satisfy their more mundane leisure pursuits. In fact, we often see such people as escaping
the real issues and deluding themselves. But once those deeper responsibilities are
satisfied we also count as part of an authentic person the fixlfillment of personal
Being authentic in a way that includes differentiation from others requires us not
to stop at the level of moral obligations. Taylor recognizes this when he advocates that
moral theory should extend its concerns to include what type of life we should live. But a
model of authenticity such as this, which calls for originality and differentiation from
others, would require us knowing when we can stop using our lives to fiilfill our moral
obligations and higher activities and start doing what is personally satisfying and
differentiating. For Taylor we can only do this issue by issue, through our dialogue and
reasoning with others. Perhaps this is what most people interested in becoming authentic
in fact do. But doing this does not oppose attempting to find some theory that could help
us differentiate the obligatory from the optional. Some people may adopt some such
theories as their own personal accounts.'"
Again,I'm thinking here oftheories such as those ofChristine Korsggard on practical identities,which
allows that our onlymoral obligation consists on not acting against our basic human identity. The actions
implied byother practical identities are permissible as long as theydon't contradict that fundamental
4.3 The Danger of Privileging some Discourses
The requirement that through practical reason potentially we all agree on what we
see as important might lead to a different way of normalizing us, if only by preventing us
from seeing other possible worthy projects or ideas of what is good to pursue. Insisting
that we all must see certain actions, projects, commitments, types of relationships, or
ways of being, as worthy, under the penalty of being consider irrational, puts pressure to
converge to certain views and to overlook alternatives. As we have seen, Taylor's model
of practical reason allows us to find out some universal notions of the good. But
believing that we all should potentially agree even in the goodness of more personal
hypergoods might still contribute to normalization. This way of thinking might also be
used to support mainstream discourses. Believing that potentially everybody should
agree on what we see as good sets an attitude in which there might be little space for
other ways of thinking.
We can use an example we mentioned earlier to illustrate this point. After strong
evaluation, an addict to overeating finds that he values restraint in sensuous pleasures
(WHA, 21). He sees this restraint as dignified, while giving up to food as shamefiil. He
finds that he is being his better, truer, authentic self, when he controls himself. Such
resolution came out of a certain framework, one including the dichotomy of dignity and
degradation. But he could have used a different framework, say, a hedonistic one that
moves us to admire the life of someone who can enjoy sensuous pleasures and to reject as
identity. For an alternative, Bernard Williams in Chapter 10 ofEthics and the Limits of Philosophy ofTers
one wayto distinguish between obligatoryand optional or voluntaryactions. Clarifying what distinguishes
these might be the beginning ofknowing when we can stop doing one to start doing the other.
boring a life of self-control. Taylor does not mention this or any alternative framework.
He seems to see self-control as the objective hypergood to realize. But we can see that
we live in a society in which we favor this framework. In this case, what we find through
practical reason aligns with and supports our mainstream discourse.
In Taylor's defense we must say that a full application of his method could allow
us to realize multiple goods by finding different frameworks among which we caimot
adjudicate. He acknowledges that sometimes we find tragic dilemmas in which we
carmot get to a resolution between two conflicting goods or positions. In 'The Diversity
of Goods' he writes: "The really important question may turn out to be how we combine
in our lives two or three or four different goals, or virtues, or standards, which we feel we
carmot repudiate but which seem to demand incompatible things of us." (DG, 236) What
we really need, then, is to promote an encounter with other frameworks. The more we do
this the higher the certainty of the goodness of our choice or the possibility of finding
additional goods.
The problem comes from always thinking of what is good as something objective
whose force, if we reason correctly, we all should feel. His method requires that
whatever the decision, for this to be the correct choice, potentially everyone should agree
that for that person in that situation it is a correct choice. Since we are determining this
good through strong evaluations and practical reason, it should also move others, and in
this sense be objective. This might be true for certain moral principles and ideals. Yet,
we can also recognize the existence of other good projects, practices and ways of being
whose force not everybody feels. We can explain their goodness as arising from
meanings or frameworks that only some people share and who experience them as real.
Moreover, nothing guarantees that when confronted with other frameworks or discourses,
one of these has to be recognized as superior by everybody. If these ideas of what is
good do not run against our moral obligations and the ideals that everybody recognizes,
nothing should deter us from pursuing them. It is possible that doing so, in fact, would
allow us to enjoy the freedom promised by the ideal of authenticity. In next chapter we
investigate whether Taylor's account really presents this limitation.
5. Conclusions
In this chapter I investigated the objection that Taylor's account leads to
normalization. We foimd that it does not do this in the sense of leading us all to
undertake exactly the same projects as Anderson charges. I argued for this conclusion by
noting several aspects of what Taylor tells us. First, I noted that his description of how
we look for narrative coherence in our lives commits him to say that we can consider
contingent factors in our choice of at least some hypergoods. I also noticed his
recognition that we can find different truths or epistemic gains depending on what we
have lived or on our individual natures. This recognition also implies that we all can find
different hypergoods. These commitments, however, could still be in conflict with
Taylor's account of the objectivity of distinctions of the good. The redeeming factor is
the fact that, for Taylor, we can recognize, through our best accounts, the different types
of claims that the different distinctions of the goods exert on us; while we experience
some as commanding and universal we experience others as worthwhile but optional.
Based on this experience I also supported distinguishing between two types of
hypergoods: personal and optional, and imiversal and commanding.
I also considered the objection that the difficulty of reaching universal agreement
practically denies the existence of hypergoods. I argued that hypergoods do not require
total agreement on a best account and that an overlap in different best accounts reinforces
our certainty on what counts as hypergoods.
In the end, however, I raise some doubts about Taylor's requirement that we all
potentially agree on the goodness of personal hypergoods. I suggest that Taylor's
ontological approach reifies what we see as good with the consequence that we are
expected to agree on seeing those reified distinctions as good. This expectation of
agreement makes one likely to overlook alternative visions of what is good and thus lead
to a reduction of the possible ways of being authentic.
We can take firom Taylor the idea that articulation creates value, that language is
powerful, without needing to accept that the good is something we discover as inherent in
certain distinctions. We can accept that at the most basic level, being human requires us
to universally agree on the value of certain distinctions. Outside of these, however,
psychological factors and social or natural differences might make some people differ on
what they rightfully see as good. Accepting this possibility does not make us relativists.
Some people, out of participating in different practices and dialogues within special
groups, can develop distinct frameworks and see imconventional choices as the superior
ones. We can imagine how such participation could transform some of these people's
intuitions and reactions in such a way that to them their framework makes more sense.
Taylor comments in a situation in which two cultures are so different that they carmot
establish commensurability. Since he usually mentions this situation in cases in which
we want to solve important moral issues, he sees it as something to lament. For him, we
make progress by showing through the use of practical reason how one position
represents an epistemic gain over another. If we have a breakdown in commensurability,
we cannot make any progress. But judging some people as inauthentic because they
make different personal choices seems wrong. Perhaps if we were less attached to our
own framework, we could see as authentic the hedonist lover of rich deserts. I see the
danger of advocating that people could be authentic by doing something that only a small
community sees as good. This seems to open the door to subjectivism. But I am not
proposing to stop reflection in the case of moral intuitions, only to be more open to and
actively seek other points of view that might give us more options for living our lives.
Michel Foucault has proposed ways of doing this. As I see it, we can use his
methodology to support reaching authenticity (although he would not agree with my use
of this word). We can read what he tells us as suggesting the development of different
groups and discourses which would enrich our options for ideas of what we see as good.
We acknowledge that we still need to subordinate these ideas of what is good to our
personal and universal hypergoods. Since Taylor describes hypergoods as setting our
lower life goods into perspective, Foucault's suggestions would not contradict his.
Although Foucault and Taylor share many of the same basic assumptions, they
seem to get to contradictory positions regarding authenticity. In the next chapter, I turn
to consider some of Foucault's basic concepts with the eventual goal of achieving some
resolution through a model of authenticity that could combine the best of both authors.
1 Introduction
In this chapter I investigate the challenges Foucault's studies raise to Taylor's
notion of an authentic self and to his account of practical reason. I also discuss some of
the objections Taylor raises against Foucault on different fronts and how they might be
answered. I argue that even if we can find problems with Foucault's reticence about
objective moral truths, Taylor does not deal with the objections Foucault's studies on
power raise for his proposal of using his model of practical reason to achieve
authenticity. In Chapter 3,1 examined how Taylor's model of practical reason seeks to
imcover an objective ontology of the good that moves us to follow that good and in this
way become authentic. I suggested there that, although his account does not imply
normalization, we find certain social forces which can lead us to its misapplication. It is
this misapplication which might lead us to becoming normalized beyond what is justified,
in the sense of making us all act alike in more personal areas of our lives. In showing
how some ideals oppress others, or parts of ourselves, Foucault's genealogies show us a
way to address this problem. In this way they go beyond Taylor's hermeneutical method
to help us develop our authentic selves.
Before starting I want to clarify a central distinction I will be using, namely, that
between the moral and the ethical. Although many people often use these terms as
synonyms, some philosophers use them to refer to different things. I will align with some
of them in seeing the moral as roughly referring to rights and our obligations towards
others and the ethical as roughly referring to some of our distinctions of the good that are
more personal and optional.
2 Foucauit's Challenge to Taylor's Account
We can find two different interpretations of Foucault's work, each of which raises
a different objection to Taylor's accoimt of authenticity. The first leads us to believe that
Foucault would simply deny the existence of an authentic self in the way Taylor
conceives it ~ that is, as a self constituted by following transcendentally objective goods.
According to this interpretation, Foucault denies the existence of metaphysical essences
or absolute and eternal truths. He writes, "If the genealogists refiises to extend his faith
in metaphysics.. .he finds that there is 'something altogether different' behind things: not
a timeless and essential secret but the secret that they have no essence." (NGH, 78). We
must note, however, that this statement is a hypothetical, and thus that it is not telling us
that that Foucault as a genealogist necessarily denies metaphysics or essential secrets.
The other interpretation, which I think correct, tells us that Foucault does not
really deny the existence of moral truths or of a human nature that could support these
truths, but that he is not interested in justifying or in finding them. Paul Rabinow holds
this interpretation, "Foucault is highly suspicious of claims to universal truths. He does
not refute them; instead, his consistent response is to historicize grand abstractions. In the
last analysis he does not take a stand on whether or not there is a human nature. Rather,
he changes the subject and examines the social functions that such concepts have played
in the context of practices." (FR, 4) We also see that, in his political declarations and
activism, Foucault always takes the side of the oppressed. This speaks of a moral attitude
and of his own, as Taylor would put it, unarticulated hypergoods. This stand, we must
acknowledge, does not justify saying that he defends moral objectivism. As I will discuss
later, immanently and fi-om our experience, we can justify struggling to avoid
But regardless of his position on moral objectivism, his research on power
challenges the thesis that we can reach authenticity through Taylor's model, especially as
it applies to finding what I described last chapter as life goods and personal hypergoods ~
what we see as good and worthy practices and projects, and tj^es of relationships or
lifestyles. Foucault encourages oppressed people to think or act through new practices of
fi-eedom, and not necessarily follow what the established power and truth regime
considers best for everybody. As we will see, a person does not create these different
practices of fi-eedom in isolation, but in connection with others. At the same time, not
everybody needs to agree that the practices of fi-eedom constitute a good. Perhaps this
freedom of choice only can exist in the more personal and ethical area which includes the
other two axes which Taylor advocated moral theory should also consider. These axes
were: considerations on what type of life is fulfilling and praise worthy and what type of
life respects our dignity. (SS, 15) Out of these considerations we might develop very
different subjectivities or practical identities. Thus, Foucault's account opens the
possibility of finding more ethical ideals and subjectivities that could define our authentic
selves than those we can find through Taylor's model.
For Taylor, as we saw in Chapter 3, once we see through practical reason
something's goodness in general, barring other contingent factors, we would see that it
would be good for us and that it expresses something about our inner selves. This is why
we would be authentic if we were to follow such good; we would be being truthful to
something within us. Foucault's resistant self also seems to be expressing something
internal when it acts in a way that it freely chooses, even if it does not fit what others
accept as a best account. Because of this we can see a resistant self as an authentic self.
The main difference then, resides in the method to find such self. We do not discover the
truths that will make us authentic only by looking for what is behind our reactions and
intuitions through reasoning with others. As we will see, for Foucault, we might be
trapped by our current ways of thinking and acting, viewing certain distinctions as natural
and inescapable. He proposes assessing our present situation to see whether something is
affecting us negatively. This might include looking at the possible oppressive effects of
notion of the good in our commonly accepted social discourses. We must then do a
special form of historical research - what he calls genealogy - and see whether the
practices, distinctions or ways of thinking that led us to such situations are not contingent
and could be otherwise. Only then we can know if we want to resist and develop new
practices of freedom. While Taylor's uses mainly phenomenology and hermeneutics,
then, Foucault's method incorporates also genealogy.
To understand Foucault's position we need to review some of his fimdamental
concepts, starting with the singular nature of his methodology.
3 Basic Concepts
3.1 Genealogy
Foucault's historical investigations follow a method quite different from that of
traditional history, which he criticizes for its teleological presuppositions and its search
for a deep, hidden structure. Instead, he adapts the method used by Nietzsche in his
Genealogy of Morals, which Nietzsche calls 'effective history' or 'genealogy'. In
''''Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" he joins Nietzsche in criticizing "the English tendency
in describing the history of morality in terms of linear development." (NGH, 76) its
presupposition that we unavoidably progress towards a better place and its assumption of
the existence of fixed laws, eternal values, and metaphysical essences. In contrast to
traditional history's concern for unity and continuity, genealogy is meticulous, paying
attention to the singularity of events and contingent changes in meanings and desires.
"Genealogy consequently, requires patience and knowledge of details, and it depends on
a vast accumulation of source material." (NGH, 76, 77) We see this erudition and
detailed documentation in his main genealogical works. Discipline and Punish and The
History of Sexuality.
Much of the detail we find in these genealogies refers to historical changes in the
ways practices and institutions have affected people's bodies. What we find in doing
these genealogies is the enormous malleability of the body. We see that people in
different time periods and cultures can have very different types of body. It changes
depending on the food we eat, the thoughts we think, the ideals of beauty we have, the
practices we undertake, the environment we inhabit and so on. Thus for Foucault, not
even the body offers any constant, "Nothing in humans -not even the body - is
sufficiently stable to serve as the bases for self recognition or for understanding others."
(NGH, 88) Both critics and supporters have raised questions about statements like this.
If nothing is constant, to what can we appeal to judge whether a specific practice or
notion of the good is bad for us? Foucault seems to be denying here that we can have
access and use the idea any human nature, including the idea of a natural body fi-ee fi-om
all external forces, to find the truth of how we should live. As David Hoy has argued,
however, this denial does not imply that we cannot have access to some form of
immanent critique. (Hoy 2004,63-66) Through genealogy we can find how at other
times we have been able to live very differently and have very different types of lived
bodies. Although we do not find an original nature or body which should serve as the
standard for critique, we see that we are not as constrained as we might think. In this
sense, this realization allows us see that, if we want, we could live differently.
Thus, another characteristic of genealogy is a special concern with some present
situation. Unlike traditional history, genealogy does not aim to find a totalizing account
of other epochs for their own sake but to locate the contingent origins of present
conditions, ideas and social practices. This is why Foucault sees himself as writing a
"history of the present". (DP, 31) His approach begins with a diagnosis of the current
situation that leads him to assess a widespread control and domination of the modem
subject. (Dreyfus, 119) Thus, he sets as one of his main goals the genealogy of this
modem subject through a genealogy of technologies of modem power and the new social
sciences. For him, these sciences directly contribute to constitute such subject. Because
of genealogies' avowed concem with the present, we can also see it as a "practice of
fi-eedom" that can help us leave* behind unnecessary views (Owen, 36) and as
exemplifying the enlightenment attitude. (Owen, 32) I will come back to these features
in Chapter 6, Section 4.2.
Furthermore, genealogy does not believe in the existence of subjects who pre-
exist a world and who intentionally move history along. Statements like this have caused
much misimderstanding, and, I believe, partially account for accusations that Foucault
does not believe in agency. We need to clarify that by "subject" Foucault does not mean
"self or "agent". Foucault uses the term 'self much more in the writings of his last
period, in which he turns to write about the history of ethics. In such writings, as we will
see in Chapter 5, Section 3, what characterizes the self is that it has a relationship with
itself Such entity has a capacity to work and transform itself Thus, we can interpret his
earlier writings as describing the process in which the self, with its capacity for agency,
becomes an embodied subject. Neither Taylor nor Foucault believes in a transcendent
subject in control of history. (Connolly, 367) But while Taylor believes that we, as
selves, can transform ourselves and realize our true potential, thus becoming the best
subjects we can, Foucault believes that the process of subjectification always carries the
danger of some negative side effects. He plays with the meaning of the word subject,
from the French sujet, to control, to convey the idea that a modem form of power
"subjugates and makes subject to". (SP, 212) Thus, what we are as embodied subjects
comes, to a large degree, as a result of the control by others. (Cruikshank, 21) This,
however, does not mean that we do not collaborate in our own subjection and so, that we
do not have agency. In an interview for example, he declares, "You know... that the mad
subject is not a non-free subject and that the mentally ill constitutes himself a mad subject
in relationship and in the presence of the one that declares him crazy." (Foucault 1987,
122) We see this contribution to our own subjection throughout much of today's
"carceral" society, "We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the
educator-judge, the 'social-worker'-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the
normative is based; and each individual, wherever he might find himself, subjects to it his
body, his gesturers, his aptitudes, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements." (DP,
304, italics mine)
Seeing that we are always subject to power relations helps understand saying that,
"In genealogy, subjects emerge on a field of battle and play their roles, there and there
alone." (Dreyfiis 1983, 109) Foucault's main goal in doing genealogy is to investigate
the different modes in which human beings have been made into these subjects. The
subject, then, has never existed unconstrained by forces of some sort. There was never an
original state in which humans were fi-ee and which allowed them to fulfill their true
nature. So, we cannot find this true nature by finding some original state. Among the
assixmptions genealogy refuses to make, we find that of the idea that the origin of
something can reveal its true essence. For Foucault, the search for the origin "is an
attempt to capture the exact essence of things, their purest possibilities, and their
carefiilly protected identities; because this search assumes the existence of inmiobile
forms that precede the external world of accidents and succession." (NGH, 78) For the
genealogies the supposed essences of things have been created in history. They result
fi-om an interpretation, imposed at some point, of the way things are and which has
displaced a previous interpretation. If "history is the violent and surreptitious
development of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to
impose a direction... then the development of humanity is a series of interpretations."
(NGH, 151) The work of the genealogist consists in uncovering the history of such
We can explain this view through the Heideggerian concept that Dasein, or
human beings, can assume many different interpretation. Each of these interpretations
constitutes an "understanding of being". For Heidegger, these understanding are not
primarily conscious. What we do and the way we do it constitutes who we are, much
more so than what we consciously think. Thus, we can understand the genealogy of the
modem subject as a study of the different interpretations that have led us to the
interpretation or understanding that we are today.
After all these remarks we might be tempted to understand genealogies only as
alternative, perhaps more accurate historical accounts. Foucault's emphasis on carefiil
and detailed textual documentation supports this view. This interpretation, then, leads us
to believe that Foucault's goal is telling us something truthful. Saying this, however,
runs in the face of some of Foucault's assertion that he has "never written anything but
fictions" (Foucault 1979, 75) and his declaration that his "discourse... does not set out to
be a recollection of the original or a memory of truth. On the contrary, its task is to make
differences." (Foucault 1972, 205, italics his) According to Charles Shepherdson if we
take seriously these declarations, we are forced to deemphasize Foucault's concern with
truth and stress the work of genealogy as a practice or discipline to tell us something
about our present situation. (Shepherdson, 315) This type of praxis, reminds us the work
of the psychoanalyst. As Freud came to recognize, what is important in getting cured is
not necessarily discovering the real traimiatic event - the truth of what happened. Rather,
we must be concerned with "intervening, rewriting the past, producing a shift in the
symbolic structure of the narrative that has brought us to the point where we are now."
(Shepherdson, 296) In Lacan's terminology, the work done in psychoanalysis does not
occur at the imaginary level, at which we are concerned with correct representation or a
dialectical interplay between image and reality, but at the symbolic level of words. In a
similar way, genealogy seeks to go from the imaginary to the symbolic level; to
reconstruct the past, not to give us a more accurate representation, but to make a
difference in the present.
We can also see this process taking place in the understanding of fiction. In
reading a satire, for example, we might laugh simply by finding its distortions of reality.
At this imaginary level, however, we are only comparing the created image with what we
see as real. We need to pass to the symbolic level to let the story show us a previously
unseen dimension of reality. This is what happens in genealogy. The main concern of
Madness and Civilization, for instance, is not to give us a more truthful accovmt of the
construction of madness as a distortion of reason. Rather, working at the symbolic level,
wants to show us how a form of madness already exists in the modem man of reason.
At the second level, we are aware that language is not transparent or neutral, that
we always find a gap between words and that which we describe. We pay attention to the
way language works to produce effects and to who benefits in telling the story. When
traditional history insists that there is a real, correct story to uncover, when it insists in
finding the truth, it denies the way language works. Genealogy refuses to do this.
Instead, it denounces the impasse in traditional historical accounts of progress and
justification of our forms of subjectivity. Regular discourses of liberation, for example,
advocate that if we articulate correctly our desires - still trusting the transparency of
language - we can get at the truth of who we really are and that if we further remove
some restrictions we will be liberated and fulfilled. The impasse that genealogy shows is
that in struggling to do this, we end up normalized and dominated.
Knowing that fiill transparent representation is not possible, genealogy uses
rhetorical devises to dislocate established interpretations and show us that we don't have
to be the way we are today. Unlike the traditional historian, who takes his fictions as
truths, the genealogist acknowledges the distance created by language in his stories.
"The historian," Foucault tells us, "offers this confused and anonymous European... the
possibility of alternate identities... Historians supplied the Revolution with Roman
prototypes, romanticism with knight's armors, and the Wagnerian era with the sword of
the German hero.. .The genealogists will know what to do of this masquerade. He will
not be too serious to enjoy it; on the contrary, he will push the masquerade to its limit and
prepare the great carnival of time where masks are constantly reappearing." (NGH, 93-
We can thus see genealogy as a form of fiction. But here, fiction does not mean
"Fiction is not there because language is distant fi-om things; but language is their
distance, the light in which they are to be foxmd and their inaccessibility."
(Bellour, 149, Shepherdson 302) When "language is distant fi-om things", when
what words say is far fi-om what things are, we do have lies. Fiction, rather, uses
language in full awareness that although we carmot completely grasp reality
through words, we need words to see something about reality. Thus, we can see
fiction as a form of construction that still says something truthful. After saying
that he has never written anything but fictions, Foucault adds "For all that, I
would not want to say that they [fictions] are outside the truth. It seems plausible
to me to make fictions work within truth, to introduce truth-effects within a
fictional discourse, and in some way to make discourse arouse, 'fabricate,'
something which does not yet exist, thus to fiction something. One fictions
something starting from a political reality that renders it true." (Foucault 1979,
Seeing genealogies as fictions or fabrications could make us see them more as works of
art. Doing this agrees with Foucault's references about art, such as his complain that in
our society art has become something specialized and done only by artists, and that we
should work on our lives as works of art. (FR, 350)
3.2 Power
3.2.1 Disciplining Power; Constitution of Individuals as Objects
In Discipline and Punish Foucault presents a story of how modem power
developed and how it works to produce the modem individual through disciplinary
technology and the new social sciences. In the Classical age, up to the 18''' century, at
least in Europe, power was predominantly authoritarian, repressive and visibly exercised
by a sovereign. To support this thesis Foucault describes with almost morbid detail the
appalling public tortures of criminals, the excesses of which served to represent the
power of the monarch. By the 18'* ' century however, we see the emergence of a new way
of exercising power. In contrast to Classical power. Modem power was not localized in
the figure of a single person, but extended through many social institutions; it worked not
by denying and repressing but by producing new behaviors, thoughts and desires; and
was not visible, but hidden. Again, we can see these characteristics in the new ways of
punishment. The prisoner was now enclosed, hidden from public view, and often had to
follow very rigorous working schedules and receive moral instraction that had the
purpose of rehabilitation.
This use of labor, instruction and rigorous schedules points to another essential
characteristic of modem power: its use of discipline. Modem power could only produce
new desires and behaviors, that is, new individuals, if these were subjected to a strict
discipline and control. Disciplinary power aimed to produce 'docile bodies.' "A body is
docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved". (DP, 136) The Examination
Disciplinary power requires two techniques, surveillance and normalizing
judgments, which together constitute the examination. (DP, 184) We can appreciate the
development of these techniques in the prison. Although sovereign power itself had been
more visible than disciplinary power, now the prisoner was constantly visible, while
those that exercise the power were less noticeable. In the prison, guardians constantly
observed or surveyed the prisoner to see whether he behaved in desired or normalized
ways. For this system to work, the prisoner needed to know those expected behaviors
that constituted the bases for the normalizing judgments. The Panopticon, a type of prison
design by Jeremy Bentham, epitomized this system. It allowed the continual surveillance
of prisoners whose cells were located on a circular building that surroimded a central
tower where guards could see without being seen. The prisoner, knowing that he could
be seen at any time, controlled himself For Foucault, this type of building constitutes a
symbol of how modem power works by making us internalize the way we are expected to
act and to self-monitor to conform to the norm. The idea is that we self monitor, not just
because we fear punishment but because we know the normalizing judgment that tells us
the norm or correct way of being.
But the techniques of disciplinary power did not occur only in the prison. In the
18^ and 19* '' centuries many institutions including hospitals, the military, schools, and
factories started developing and applying these technologies. We can see in all these
institutions how modem power is exercised and inscribed on the body - by training it,
modifying it, and making it more productive. We also observe a strict control of spaces
and time schedules that help in the task of surveillance and in the development of new
areas of knowledge that establish the normalizing judgments telling the norm so that
individuals can monitor themselves or be set in their appropriate places. "The workshop,
the school, the army were subject to a whole micro-penalty of time (lateness, absences,
interruptions of tasks), of activity (inattention, negligence, lack of zeal), of behavior
(impoliteness, disobedience), of speech (idle chatter, insolence), of the body ('incorrect'
attitudes, irregular gestures, lack of cleanliness), of sexuality (impurity, indecency)." (DP,
For Foucault, the changes taking place in these institutions represent only
particular forms of the new disciplinary power that soon became extended throughout
modem society. In the new regime of power, we are examined and classified under more
and novel parameters, often those important to the new productive system. Each of these
parameters has a rank of possible values that go between the least and the most desirable
and we become known for the values we get. Dossiers are created on each of us with the
most detailed information. We become cases. Thus, although modem power starts at the
level of the body, it soon reaches our souls. It produces new ways of thinking, behaviors,
discourses and desires. Sooner or later, we begin to intemalize the new ways of
thinking; we survey and classify ourselves, and very often aspire to improve in our
I l l
rankings. All of this forms us as modem individuals. Foucault puts it succinctly when he
declares, "It is already one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain
gestures, certain discourses, certain desires, come to be identified and constituted as
individuals. The individual, that is, is not the vis-a-vis of power; it is, I believe, one of its
prime effects." (PK, 1980, 98)
Together with the rise of the new disciplinarian technologies then, we see the
development of new discourses and practices that represent the beginning of the social
sciences. To find the origin of 'the sciences of man''' "one should look into these
procedures of writing and registration, one should look into the mechanisms of
examination, into the formation of the mechanisms of discipline, and over a new type of
power over bodies." (DP, 191) Criminology, anthropology, and demography have their
origin in the practices of particular institutions such as prisons, armies, and administrative
offices. These sciences soon start supporting the goal of disciplinary power by
legitimizing normative judgments. Other sciences such as psychology and pedagogy, as
we will see in the next section, developed through the combination of this technology of
power with a different one, but they also provide normative judgments used for
classifying us and for making us look for the truth of who we are.
" In spite ofhis empathyfor minorities,Foucault's language keeps some sexism. He writes expressions
such as "the sciences ofman"to mean ofcourse ofmen and women. I keep the expression to stayas close
as I can to his language in the quotes I use.
3.2.2 Subjectifying Power; Constitution of Individuals as Subjects
In Discipline and Punish Foucault concentrated on a disciplinary technology that
constituted individuals as objects. These techniques produced 'mute and docile bodies'
that could be classified, molded or rehabilitated. In a newer series of books. The History
of Sexuality, Foucault studies again the constitution of individuals as subjects. As we will
see, one important characteristic to understand someone as a subject is that they are no
longer passive or mute but contribute to their own constitution.
The original French title of Volume 1 of this series, La Volente de Savoir (The
Will to Know) is very telling. Foucault wants to show how in the modem age, we
strongly believe that if we know our true nature, especially in the area of sexuality, we
can find fi-eedom. In other words, we believe that through knowledge, we can gain power
and liberate ourselves. These beliefs form part of what Foucault calls the repressive
hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, since the Victorian age we have lived a
heightened era of repression in which expression and talk about sex have been severely
condemned and restricted. This thesis also holds that we possess a true sexual nature that
has been repressed and to which we need to give fiill expression if we want to find
fiilfillment. We see our sexual nature as one of our key components, somehow affecting
each aspect of our lives and thus defining our whole beings. Furthermore, we believe
that we can only gain this knowledge through a process of introspection that often
includes therapists or experts, but always involves discourse and interpretation.
Foucault does not particularly want to deny that we have experienced increased
repression in the last centuries "I do not claim that sex has not been prohibited or barred
or masked or misapprehended since the classical age, nor do I even assert that it has
suffered these things any less from that period on than before." (HSl, 12) As Sandra
Bartky has pointed out in "Catch Me If You Can" in past decades we still have
experienced a great amount of repression under the old model of power. Foucault wants
to show, however, that the repressive hypothesis springs from the wrong
conceptualization of power. For him, we have failed to see that the main form of power
exercised in modernity is no longer a coercive, repressive power that prohibits and says
no. The new form of power is, as we have seen, productive, pervasive and intrinsically
linked to new forms of knowledge. Thus, the main way our sexual behavior has been
controlled during the last centuries has not been through repression, but through new
expert discourses that have reached the status of sciences; as he points out, "Begirming
with the verbal proprieties imposed by the Age of Reason, what was involved was a
regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse." (HS, 34) While talk about sex
vanished from polite conversation, it increased among doctors, psychologists,
pedagogues, and parents worried to confrol their children's sexuality.
All of this preoccupation with sex happens within the context of "bio-power" or
the power exercised by the state over life which takes the form of a state's concern for its
population, their health and welfare, all for the sake of productivity. "Hence, there was
an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies
and the control of populations, marking the beginning of an era of 'bio-power." (HSl,
140) In the 18'* ^ century this power includes both disciplinary power, which acts upon the
body as a machine and will account for productivity, and the power exercised over the
body as species and will accoimt for the control and reproduction of the populations. By
the 19^* ^ century, however, these poles coalesce in part through the deployment of
sexuality. These two techniques of power were to be joined "in the form of concrete
arrangements (agencements concrets) that would go to make up the great technologies of
power in the nineteenth century: the deployment of sexuality would be one of them, and
one of the most important." (HSl, 140) As a result, sex becomes something that needs to
be administered and not only morally judged. The Confession
Historically, Foucault tells us, we see two great procedures for producing the truth
of sex (HSl, 57). By this Foucault seems to mean what a society or time takes to be true
about sex, including the fact that different societies focus on different aspects or produce
different effects. Some societies, such as India, Rome and the Arabo-Muslim societies,
developed an ars erotica, or erotic art, which derives truth from pleasure itself. In their
case, the truths produced accumulate in the form of sexual techniques; the proof of their
truth residing in the intensity of the pleasure. In this art, "pleasure is not considered in
relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a
criterion of utility, but... evaluated in terms of its intensity.. .its reverberations in the
body and the soul. (HSl, 57) Such pleasure forms the bases for a knowledge that is
carefully guarded and transmitted to those "fortunate enough to receive its privileges... a
singular bliss, obliviousness to time and limits, the elixir of life, the exile of death and its
threats." (HSl, 58) By contrast, our civilization has what he call scientia sexualis, which
seeks to find truths about sex through scientific discourse and standards. To find these
truths, our civilization has developed for several centuries a procedure which the ars
erotica does not have - the confession.
Foucault sees the confession, together with the examination, as the main
technology for the creation of subjects. In Volxmies II and III of the History of Sexuality,
through a detailed documentation, he will trace the origins of this "technology of the self
from the Greeks, Romans and early Christians to the Middle Ages. In Volume I he
investigates its passage from the confessional to the therapist's sofa. He wants to show
above all the way this technique helps interconnect truth, power and subjectivity through
its application in psychology and other modem sciences that appear in the 19"* century.
The modem individual becomes persuaded that by revealing her thoughts and desires to
herself or to an expert other, she can know the trath about herself, her identity. Although
revealing our sexual desire is of fundamental importance, what we confess extends to
many other areas of our lives: "The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It
plays a part injustice, medicine, education, family relationships and love confesses one's crimes, one's's illnesses and troubles...
one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell to
anyone else.. .Westem man has become a confessional animal." (HSl, 59)
Foucault describes how what becomes important in confession within these
modem sciences is not only the act but the desire, which forms the basis for classifying
us one way or another. Desire makes you into the type of individual you are; it becomes
an index of subjectivity. Whereas before we found writings on bestiality, now we find
zoophiles and whereas "the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual
was now a species." (HSl, 173) What is important is no longer the act but the
psychology of the person who does it. The new categories of psychology become for us
something we see as natural and inevitable. This emphasis on desire explains his
assertion that in the last volumes of the History of Sexuality he is doing a genealogy of
the 'subject of desire".
By accepting that science can discover the truth about ourselves, we let it exercise
its power over us. Often when we confess, we confess to another who, we believe, is
better prepared to interpret what we are; to discern the deeper, hidden truth, and thus
reveal our identity. In this way experts and their discourse can exercise a subjectifying
power over us, that is, they can help us become different subjects. And even if we are
confessing something only to ourselves, we are depending on the discourse that tells us
we can find such deeper truth, and thus, power is still being exercised over us.
Within our procedure of scientia sexualis, sex gets constituted as something that
can be true or false, not only a matter of sensation and pleasure. By this I mean that
through these sciences, we can analyze sexual experience such as behavior and desires
through statements that we take as either true or false. Something like homosexuality, for
example, gets interpreted according to the rules of scientific discourse. The
'homosexual' type gets established in relation to sexual preference. We notice that we
don't have a discourse of truth and falsity about other preferences. We don't have a type
for, say, someone who prefers a certain type of food. For Foucault, seemingly, we could
have evolved into a world where we would have categories or types to find the truth
about all of those who love, say, vegetables or seafood. This seems far-fetched. People's
sexual choices seem to have a higher impact on their lives than a particular type of food.
At the same time, we can imagine other possible ways of classifying people that would
seem to have a higher impact not only in their lives but also in the lives of others. We
could classify people, for instance, according to their desire for performing altruistic
deeds. Insisting that there is something more natural about classifying people according
to their sexual choice than their food preference or proclivity to altruism simply shows
the attachment we have to our present ways of classifying.
For Foucault, however, all these categories of psychology that have become for us
something we see as natural and inevitable, like sexuality itself, are not something that
has always existed, but historical constructs. Whatever we find about our sexual desires,
it does not say something essential about ourselves - the fact that we find people with
different sexual orientations essentially the same in more fimdamental moral and spiritual
values supports this position. Foucault denies that there really exists a secret about our
sexuality that needs to be discovered. It is its representation as secret which forces us to
have confessions. It is only because a bourgeois culture vanished sexual talk from polite
conversation that we find a secret now that we need to unearth. This secrecy is part of
what makes possible the effective functioning of the new mechanisms of power. (HSl,
pp. 32-35)
3.3 Pastoral Power
Confession forms part of a technique of power which Foucault does not fully develop
until his later writings, namely, those of pastoral power ~ the power exercised by
Catholicism since the middle ages. According to Foucault, Christianity, as the only
religion which has organized itself as a Church, presupposes that certain individuals, in
virtue of their religious authority, serve others as pastors. In "The Subject and Power"
Foucault lists four essential characteristics that distinguish this type of power, which are;
its ultimate goal is to ensure the salvation of people's souls; as opposed to sovereign
power, this is a power in which the pastor must be ready to sacrifice himself for the
salvation of the flock; it cares not only for a whole community, but for each individual in
particular; and finally, this form of power requires knowing people's conscience and
most inner secrets. (SP, 214) This last element makes clear that the exercise of pastoral
power implies that, for each of us, there exists the truth of who we are.
Foucault recognizes that in the last centuries ecclesiastical pastoral power has lost
force. Yet, he argues, this form of power has been transmitted, in a modified form, to the
modem institution of the state. This new pastoral power aims not at the salvation of the
soul, but to a set of worldly aims such as people's health and well-being. The number of
agents exercising this type of power has increased to include state officials, police and
philanthropists, and new areas of knowledge of man developed in two different
directions: "one globalizing, and quantitative, concerning the population; the other
analytical, concerning the individual." (SP, 215)
This new pastoral power exercised by the state reminds us of what we called
above subjectifying power, which had as its main technique the confession. We might
ask, is pastoral power just another name for subjectifying power? In essence, it seems to
be, with the only difference that Foucault is now pointing at its occurrence at a different
level. Genealogically he investigated how different institutions applied disciplinary and
subjectifying power to form new individuals. Now he wants to know how the state is
involved in this process: "It is certain that in contemporary societies the state is not
simply one of the forms or specific situations of the exercise of power - even if it is the
most important - but that in a certain way all other forms of power relations must refer to
it. But this is not because they are derived from it; it is rather because power relations
have come more and more under state control." (SP, 224)
Furthermore, Foucault is taking a political stand with respect to this type of
power. For him, our goal should be "to liberate us both from the state and from the type
of individualization that is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of
subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on
us for several centuries." (SP, 216) To create these new forms of subjectivity we need to
3.3 Resistance
Foucault writes, "Where there is power there is resistance." (HSl, 95) For him,
exercising power requires that those on whom power is applied could choose to respond
in a way other than that wanted by those who are applying it. We get this clarification in
^The Subject and Power' where he writes, "Power is exercised only over free subjects,
and only in so far as they are free." (SP, 221) There, he also distinguishes between
exercising power and using violence to dominate, or rather sees the latter as a limit of the
first. "Where the determining factors saturate the whole [field of possible actions or
behaviors] there is no relationship of power; slavery is not a power relationship when
man is in chains." (SP, 221) This clarification of how power requires resistance goes
against his earlier rhetoric supporting the view of subjects as the passive product of
power relations. Although already in Discipline and Punish, Foucault writes about the
possibility of resistance, it is only in his later writings that he emphasizes its importance.
But Foucault goes beyond asserting a mere dependence of power on freedom. For
him, they require each other, "At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly
provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom. Rather
than speaking of an essential freedom, it would be better to speak of an 'agonism' - of a
relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle; less a face to
face confrontation which paralyzes both sides than a permanent provocation." (SP, 222)
This passage reveals a special conception of freedom, which recognizes that even to act
in what we normally understand as a free way, we depend on the external, social and
historical world in which we find ourselves, which in turn exists thanks to innimierable
power relationships that saturate it. If we did not have these power relationships we
would not have the world that makes possible resisting or being free in the way we do.
Foucault clarifies what he means by resistance through a new description he
offers about the nature of power in ''The Subject and Power'. Here he defines power as a
way of acting on the actions of others. Since those on whom power is applied are free,
they are always capable of acting in different ways, "the exercise of power... is a total
structure of actions brought to bear over possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces,
it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely." (SP,
220) He relates this definition of power to the concept of governance, understood not
with the restricted meaning we give it today of the management or structure of the state,
but with the meaning it received in the 16* ^ century. Back then 'government' indicated
"the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed: the
government of children, of souls, of commimities, of families, of the sick... To govern in
this sense is to structure the possible field of action of others." (SP, 221) We can notice
how the modem state also governs in this sense, by directing - mainly through incentives
and disincentives - the conduct of individuals and groups of individuals. But as he
observes, this way of understanding the exercise of power, as the actions of some people
over other people capable of a whole field of actions, necessarily implies freedom.
We find the possibility of resistance wherever we find power being exercised.
Thus, just like power, we can find resistance everywhere. In the History of Sexuality
Foucault hints at one specific way to resist the modem discourses of scientia sexualis and
their subjectfying power. Towards the end of Volume 1, he writes: "It is the agency of
sex that we must break from... to counter the grips of power with the claim of bodies,
pleasures, knowledges, in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance. The
rallying point for the coimterattack against deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-
desire, but bodies and pleasures." (HSl, 157) This passage suggests that even though we
should not look for liberation through realization of our desires as given by the tmth of
our own sexual nature, we can find some form of freedom based on "bodies and
pleasures." A key distinction for Foucault that can help us make sense of this passage is
that between desire and pleasure. Once in an interview he observed: "It is very
interesting to note, that for centuries people generally, as well as doctors, psychiatrists
and even liberation movements, have always spoken about desire, and never about
'We have to liberate our desire,' they say. No! We have to create new
pleasures. And then maybe desire will follow." (Halperin 1995, 95) 'Desire', especially
sexual, is a term charged with connotations. It has been used in all types of discourses,
from religious moralizing to psychological subjectifying. It is seen as something more
lasting or permanent, something that defines us as individuals and which is attached to
the subject. Pleasure on the other hand, is seen more as an event, as something more
natural which more easily escapes judgment and does not define us as individuals.
Pleasure can be impersonal not only because it is not attached to the identity,
individuality or history of the subject, but also because, especially if it is intense, can
dissolve our subjectivities, or consciousness of being specific subjects, by making us
forget for a fleeting moment who we are .
Some authors believe Foucault contradicts himself with this appeal to "pleasures
and bodies". (Best and Kellner 1991, 58) They see Foucault as making use of something
he denies we can take as bases for criticism, namely, the body. (Section 3.1) Saying that
we can resist by following our own pleasures seems to suggest the body has an original
capacity for naturally enjoying certain pleasures and that we should let these guide us in
deciding what to do. As David Halperin has argued, however, Foucault is only pointing
at the possibility of using a different economy of pleasures and bodies (Halperin 2002).
Ladelle McWorther further notices that Foucault's suggestion to resist through heeding
pleasure does not imply that he believes in a natural body. Rather he is making the point
that the natural body is a concept that develops precisely as a result of the new
disciplinarian techniques and discourses of normalization. (McWorther, 251,252) Yet,
because it now exists, we can tactically use it for resistance.
In this case Foucault is talking about sensual or sexual pleasure. But,as we will see when we discuss the
notion ofan aesthetics ofexistence,Foucault also writes about the pleasure that we can take in creating
ourselves as a work ofart. In this second case, its meaning is closer to Aristotle's use ofpleasure or
Seneca's use ofjoy. Pierre Haddot has argued that since Seneca distinguishes pleasure from joy,it was
misleading for Foucault to call "a form ofpleasure" what Seneca described as the joywe feel when we
reach the "best part"ofourselves (Haddot, 1989,262).
In the passage from the History of Sexuality quoted above, Foucauh mentions,
among the elements we can use to resist power, not only bodies and pleasures, but also
knowledges. In "Two Lectures''' he tells us something that help us understand what he
means by this. There he writes about how in the last years we have witnessed the
insurrection of subjugated knowledges. By these he understands two things: "historical
contents that have been buried or disguised in a functionalist coherence or formal
systematization" (PK, 81) and "a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as
inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down
in the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity." (PK, 82)
Examples of these knowledges are those of the patient, the nurse or even the doctor as
opposed to that of medicine texts. Thus I can only surmise that in the quote above,
Foucault is thinking of a type of knowledge such as the one we could find in the Kama
Sutra or among initiates in the ars erotica.
After reviewing Foucault's basic concepts, we have a better understanding of how
what he says threatens Taylor's account. It is possible that the ethical ways of being that
we think to discover as universal and necessary are only the product of our historically
determined forms of reasoning. The central objection to Taylor would be that he does not
pay sufficient attention to the limits of practical reason, which could lead us to see some
subjectivities and ways of being as necessary and imiversal when in fact they are not. Of
course Foucault has not demonstrated that every discourse and way of reasoning works to
produce domination, but he certainly has given us reasons to be suspicious of the
goodness of everything we might find through Taylor's model of practical reason and
that we can use it to find our way to our authentic selves. By contrast, Foucault proposes
to strive to achieve, through communities of actions, practices or ways of being with "a
minimum of domination". (FF, 18) Taylor, of course, also would be against domination,
the question is whether his method in some cases inadvertently leads us to it.
Taylor defends his account by charging Foucault with being inconsistent. (FFT,
83) I next want to review these objections as a way to test and clarify Foucault's account.
Only after that shall I turn to investigate more concrete ways in which what Foucault says
challenges Taylor's account.
4 Taylor's Charges against Foucault
4.1 That Foucault Denies the Possibilityof Freedom
In ''''Foucault on Freedom and Truth''' Taylor accuses Foucault's position of being
"ultimately inconsistent" (FFT, 83) for denying the goodness of two values of the
Enlightenment that seem to follow from his own investigations, namely, freedom and
truth. Taylor recognizes that Foucault's concept of resistance allows for some notion of
freedom, and that by writing about "urunasking" how power works, Foucault necessarily
accepts the existence of some truths. But for Taylor, Foucault's "Nietzschean-derived
stance of neutrality between the different historical systems of power" (FFT, 79)
precludes him from affirming freedom and truth as goods to uphold: "He dashes the
hope, if we had one, that there is some good we can affirm, as a result of the
xmderstanding [his] analysis give us." (FFT, 70, italics his)
Let's see first how, for Taylor, Foucault's analysis of power seems to leave no
place for freedom. The notion of power requires some notion of constraint imposed on
someone. For him, "'power' belongs in a semantic field from which 'truth' and
'freedom' camiot be excluded." (FFT, 91) We find power present only when it prevents
me from acting on a significant desire, purpose, aspiration or interest that I have or might
have, and thus we find it linked to our freedom: "Because it is linked with the notion of
the imposition on our significant desires/purposes, it cannot be separated from the notion
of some relative lifting of this restraint from an unimpeded fiilfillment of these
desires/purposes. But this is what is involved in a notion of freedom." (FFT, 91) Yet, he
goes on, Foucault "wants to discredit as somehow based on a misimderstanding the very
idea of liberation from power. But I am arguing that power, in his sense, does not make
sense without at least the idea of liberation." (FFT, 92)
In saying that that the concept of power requires the idea of imposition on some
significant desires, Taylor seems to be objecting to Foucault's view of the constitution of
subjects. If the subject is only the product of power, there is no agent with significant
desires, goals and projects of its own. Yet, as I argued earlier in Section 3.1, Foucault
does not deny agency. In my interpretation, the subject is not equivalent to the self,
which always retain the possibility of agency. In becoming a subject, such self is not
completely passive. Although much of this process is subconscious, something in the
subject - the embodied self - often contributes to its own subjugation. At other times,
however such self chooses to resist. The question remains, of course, of why the self
would choose to resist. If the self becomes the subject which is only the product of
external forces, such self would not seem to have much of a say. This self or subject
would be like an automaton unable to have desires or dreams of its own. But if, as
Connolly puts it, "subjectification... subjugates recalcitrant material in an embodied self
resistant to this form" (Connolly 1985, 371) such self would have something to resist. In
this view, the embodied self is more than the subject we become. During or after the
process of subjectivation, there is always a part of the self out. This part includes agency
1 'X
and is thus capable to collaborate or resist the process of subjectivation. This view
considers that Foucault presupposes a minimal account of the human subject. Paul Patton
defends this claim: "In order to account for the experience of.. .systems of power as
forms of domination, Foucault must presuppose the existence of particular forms of self-
interpretation and the existence of something like the feeling of powerlessness. In other
words, he must suppose a fuller conception of himian subjectivity which takes into
account both the interpretive and self-reflective dimensions of human agency" (Patton,
71). I will come back to argue for this view in Chapter 6, Section 4.1.
Or perhaps Taylor's insistence that for Foucault power and freedom are not
related comes from seeing it somehow implied by his stand of neutrality. If we can't
compare between regimes of power and see which is best or worst we don't have a way
to know in which one we would be freer. In this case power and freedom would be
unrelated, if only in the sense that we can't find a way of connecting them. We can
understand this when he writes that Foucault implicitly discounts the possibility of
moving from one set of practices to another "because of the fimdamentally Nietzschean
thesis which is central to his work: the move from one context to another cannot be seen
as a liberation because there is no common measure between the imposition of the one
and those of the other." (FFT, 92) This indeed seems to lead to an inconsistency: while
through his concept of resistance Foucault admits the possibility of freedom, his
Although there are differences,this view reminds us the Freudian idea that civilization always produces
some degree ofneurosis.
Nietzschean stand denies that there is any more freedom in one regime than in another.
In other words, on the one hand Foucault claims to be neutral and on the other he
advocates resisting power. And, if we can't know under which regime we would be freer
what's the normative force to resist in the way we choose? Thus we could also formulate
the objection by saying that while he says he is just describing how power works, he
takes a normative stand that he can't justify.
David Hoy has convincingly argued that Foucault still has place for some form of
immanent justification of resistance. Hoy suggests "to argue for genealogy as a plausible
method of immanent social criticism, one that can work without presupposing an
independent, Utopian standpoint." (Hoy, 13) In both Discipline and Punish and The
History of Sexuality I, Foucault is critical of the present. But he can criticize it only
because he lives in it. It does not make any sense, as Taylor himself argues, to pretend
that we can judge from a detached or neutral perspective. Thus, to the extent that
Foucault succeeds in making us see the undesirability of certain aspect of the present, he
can justify it. As Hoy suggests, only if we are not all completely normalized, we might
be able to criticize certain ways of being or practices of the present and envision as
desirable other ways of thinking and acting. The genealogical resistance to assume
eternal truths or metaphysical essences does not imply that we cannot accept certain
views as true. Foucault could consistently say that from our present perspective, from
what we have become, we see some moral principles such as the principle of imiversal
respect as true. We don't need to prove that this is a universal eternal truth in order to
embrace it. But a resistance to assume eternal truths also leaves us in a position to
advocate creating new subjectivities that escape domination. We can then see that, in the
end, Foucault has his own vision of what he sees as good; a particular vision of freedom
which is not independent of power.
This line of defense agrees with a different Nietzschean stand, that which affirms
vitality and life, the 'will to power' and which offers, not nihilism, but trans-valuation.
And thus, Foucault seems Nietzschean also in this sense. His acknowledged neutral
stand at work in his genealogies allows him deep insight in seeing how power works.
This insight includes seeing the possibility of resistance. If later he advocates resisting as
a form of freedom he can say that people can justify resisting immanently, based on their
own experience. Saying this then, does not contradict his stand; it only stresses the other,
life and vitality affirming, Nietzschean stand.
Perhaps Taylor, as many others, could see this as a dangerous stand. Many
actions we normally see as immoral could give me power. If we simply affirm that what
I ought to do is what gives me power this might amoimt to permission for all sorts of
atrocities. But this is not what Foucault advocates. His genealogies, as we have seen
intend to serve as practices of freedom, not of domination. We also see, through his
declarations and political activism, that Foucault did not advocate moral relativism or
irrationality. Why then, was Foucault so reluctant to talk in moral terms and
acknowledge for instance the value of freedom?
The answer could be that he saw reasoning through grand abstractions to justify
morality or political action as dangerous or, in the best of cases, sterile. In "TTie Subject
and Power'^ for example, he writes, "The relationship between rationalization and excess
of political power is evident. And we should not need to wait for bureaucracy or
concentration camps to recognize the existence of such relations. But the problem is:
What to do with such an evident fact? Shall we try reason? To my mind nothing would
be more sterile... because such a trial would trap us into playing the arbitrary and boring
part of either the rationalist or the irrationalist." (SP, 210) Here we can see that Foucault
is taking a normative stand (it is better not to have concentration camps) and suggesting
that often using abstract or general reasoning does not help us change a situation. Even
more to the point, in another interview he declares, 'there is a very tenuous "analytic"
link between a philosophical conception and the concrete political attitude of someone
who is appealing to it; the "best" theories do not constitute a very effective protection
against disastrous political choices'. And he adds "I do not conclude from this that may
say just anything within the order of theory, but, on the contrary, that a demanding,
prudent, "experimental attitude is necessary; at every must confront what
one is thinking and saying with what one is doing.' (FR, 374)
We can thus see that Foucault does not really deny the value of moral theorizing.
According to Niko Kolodny, the problem for Foucault was that the application of moral
theory requires something which today moral philosophers often forget, "good
judgment"''* . Development of good judgment, however, requires cultivating habits and
traits that go beyond abstractions what Foucault calls "ethos" or "philosophical life".
Foucault writes "The key to the personal poetic attitude of a philosopher is not to be
sought in his ideas, as it could be deduced from them, but rather in his philosophy-as-life,
in his philosophical life, his ethos." (FR, 374) We will come back to this in Chapter 5
In third Concept of Liberty, Samuel Fleischaker makes a similar call for the need ofkeeping moral
theorygrounded in a practical context and shows how both John Adams and Kant developed philosophies
much more empiricallygrounded than recent political philosophers such as Habermas and Rawls.
when we discuss Foucault's ethics. For now, we can only say that for the ancient Greek,
seeing and having the authority to tell the truth did not come from the mere fact of having
evidence or a good theory. Only someone who showed a congruency between logos and
bios, between his words and the way he lead his life, such as Socrates did, could be
trusted with telling or seeing the truth. The Cynics, following a form of parrhesia or free
speech, preferred showing their disagreement with their society through the way they
lived their life rather than just saying what they thought (Kolodny 1996, 69-73).
According to Kolodny, Foucault, like the Cynics, chose to exemplify through the way he
lived his life, rather than to explain his views, the need for the development of good
judgment: "By evading normative theory, he attempted to draw attention to the problem
of judgment. His cryptonormativism was thus not an evasion of the interrogation of his
normative stance, but an answer to it." (Kolodny 1996, 72) Even after Foucault's
explanations about the imcertainty and fragility of theory, his critics insisted that he
disclosed whether he was for or against the Enlightenment (Bemstein 1994,216), that is,
for or against theory and reason. Had he surrendered to his critics demand for specifying
his theoretical commitments, "his point about the fragility of theory would have been
lost." (Kolodny 1996, 73)
4.2 That Foucault Denies the Possibilityof Truth
If Foucault was indeed emulating the parrhesiastic Cynic, he had to believe in the
possibility and value of truth. But Foucault, charges Taylor, is also inconsistent in regard
to this possibility and value. On the one hand, Taylor tells us, he is unmasking the way
modem power works. Foucault writes, "Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask
a substantial part of itself Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own
mechanisms. Would power be accepted if it were entirely cynical? For it, secrecy is not
in the nature of an abuse; it is indispensable to its operation." (HSl, 86) For Taylor,
however, unmasking implies truth; the truth, for instance, that the deployment of
sexuality has worked to control us. Once we discover this, we can liberate ourselves not
by fulfilling the true nature the scientias sexualis tells us we have but by strategically
resisting such deployment. This is something Foucault holds, and so he must admit not
only the possibility of truth, but even its standard relation to freedom: "The Foucaultian
notion of power not only requires for its sense the correlative notions of truth and
liberation, but even the standard link between them, which makes truth the condition of
liberation." (FFT, 93)
We need to pay closer attention to the notion of truth to see if Foucault indeed
contradicts himself If he is saying that truth does not exist at all, how can we understand
his propositions about how power works? Contrary to what many believe, he does not
deny the existence of truths. The fact that they are linked to power, to certain discourses
and rationalities does not make them any less true. His saying that truth and power are
inextricably intertwined does not mean truth does not exist. In an interview he declares
"When you point out to [people] that there can be a relation between truth and power they
say: 'Ah good! Then it is not the truth'." (ECSPF, 127) But, as he points out, one thing
does not follow fi^om the other. We can think of examples arising fi:om the exact and
natural sciences. If we had not had certain counting and measuring practices we would
not have developed the scientific method that allows us to have scientific truths, whose
validity Foucault recognizes. As an example of this recognition we find his declaration
that the fact "that the medicalization of madness.. .has been linked to... institutions and
practices of power... in no way impairs the scientific validity of the therapeutic efficacy
of psychiatry." (ECSPF, 296) In the same passage he also offers the example of
mathematics and its links to power structures, "if only in the way it is taught, the way in
which consensus about mathematicians is organized, functions in a closed circuit, has its
value.. .determines what is good (true) or bad (false) in mathematics." But, he continues
"This in no way means that mathematics is only a game of power, but that the game of
truth of mathematics is linked in a certain way - without thereby being invalidated in any
way - to games and institutions of power." (ECSPF, 296) We need to clarify, that here,
Foucault is not using the word game with its connotation of amusement. Rather, we see a
game of truth as "a set of rules by which truth is produced" or a "set of procedures that
lead to certain result, which, on the basis of its principles and rules of procedure, may be
considered valid or invalid." (ECSPF, 297). I will expand on this concept bellow.
One could insist that in the above passages Foucault is only not denying the
possibility of truth which is different from asserting its existence. But I believe the
burden of prove for saying that Foucault does not believe in truth is on Taylor. Taylor
believes this because of the supposed incommensurability between different power
regimes that Foucault's account implies. I will come back to this bellow. For now, I
only want to assert that Foucault believed in the possibility of factual truths. Regarding
the studies of the struggles in which he is interested, for instance, he tells us: such
struggles "are an opposition to the effects of power which are linked with knowledge,
competence and qualification: struggles against the privilege of knowledge. But they are
also an opposition against secrecy, deformation, and mystifying representations imposed
on people. There is nothing 'scientistic' in this (that is, a dogmatic believe in the value of
scientific knowledge), but neither is it a skeptical or relativistic refusal of all verified
truth. What is questioned is the way in which knowledge circulates and fimctions, its
relation to power. In short, the regime du savoir." (SP, 212, italics mine)
We see then, that Foucault, without necessarily denying the validity of certain
truths, is not interested in determining these, as much as in discovering the effects of
circulating discourses whose premises need to be assessed as true or false. I want to
propose, however, a way to make sense of the idea that Foucault could accept truth and
still speak of how we carmot have truth from one regime or another. He could hold,
without contradiction, a certain form of mild perspectivism^^ that does not oppose an
absolutist view of truth. Our power and truth regime, with its particular language and
discourses, gives us a perspective. These discourses use certain distinctions to observe
and predict the world which enable us to explain certain aspects of reality. Certain
practices allowed us to develop these discovirses and ways of thinking. Other practices
would have allowed other discourses and ways of thinking with different distinctions that
would have revealed different aspects of the world. At the beginning of the 20^ century,
for example, we had two theories to explain the nature and behavior of light: the
corpuscular and the wave theory. From their different perspectives each theory explained
" The perspectivism I have in mind would be different from Nietzsche's. Nietzsche's perspectivism seems
to hold,not that I should acknowledge a varietyofperspectives as equallytrue, but that we should tryto
see things as multiple and from multiple points ofview. For him,to make sense ofthings or have
meanings we need our unquestioned beliefs or horizons. These horizons give us our perspectives. In order
to know anything, we need to harmonize our different perspectives. This at least is what he seems to mean
when he writes,"Task:to see things as they are. Means:to look at them from a hundred eyes,from many
persons." (Nietzsche,Gesammt Ausgabe (Leipzig:Nauman, 1898),X II,p. 13 (#22),Strong 303-308).
and predicted different aspects and sub-phenomena. The corpuscular theory better
explained reflective patterns while the wave theory explained refractive ones. From the
perspective of each theory we could accept some of their statements as true.
Hubert Dreyfiis has called this perspectivist theory plural realism, and he
attributes it to Heidegger. (Dreyfus 1991, 262,280) According to Dreyfus, for Heidegger,
different forms of Dasein, embodying - through different practices - different
interpretations or understandings of being have developed different ways of
understanding the world. If each of the ways of understanding succeeds at disclosing the
aspects of reality they intend to disclose, we can say that they are telling us something
truthfiil. Thus, for example, we can say that, with respect to physical causes, Galilean
physics tells us something true. At the same time we can say that with regard to final
causes, what Aristotle tells us might also be true. (Dreyftis 1991,262) None of these
perspectives, however, tells us what is metaphysically true. When we privilege what
science discloses we are just being victims of the naturalistic prejudice of our modem
time.'^ This plural realism however, does not mean that with respect to some goal, say
causal explanation, we cannot find some theories that explain or predict more than others.
In this sense, relativity is superior to Newtonian physics. Yet, we can say that, with
regard to their own lexicons and practices, if each theory picks out the aspects that it
intends to disclose it describes something true.^^ Foucault could acknowledge then, that.
According to Alexander Nehamas in Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge:Harvard UniversityPress,
1985,p.65),Nietzsche alreadyhas this view which Dreyfus attributes to Heidegger.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn's view is verysimilar to this plural realism. But contrary
to Heidegger,Kuhn would denythat we could ever find lexicons that tell us how things are in themselves
(Dreyfus 1991,279).
at least in the natural and exact sciences, we often advance to more comprehensive
theories that explain the anomalies of previous theories and have a larger predictive
capacity. These could make us see the new theories as approaching more objective
truths. Again, not being concerned with the truth value of particular discourses, Foucault
would not deny this form of scientific progress. But he would insist that even these new
truths are the product of certain practices, come from a specific perspective and have
power effects.
In saying that Foucault (or we) could accept without contradiction a form of mild
perspectivism, I am not saying that he (or we) would accept as true anything the different
truth regimes take as true. Each of the different truth regimes might accept different
theories, but not all of these theories or the way they are applied need to disclose a
truthful aspect of the world. Part of the confusion might come fi-om using the term 'truth'
in two different ways. We use it to designate something real or the way things are.
Foucault sometimes uses it this way, but most of the time he uses it to designate what a
society takes as true. Thus Foucault could accept that different regimes disclose
something truthful without accepting that everything they say is true, even if they take it
as such.
We could accept for instance, that different theories of a given truth regime may
make sense and be able to explain different phenomena, which we can see as really true
given that perspective. Thus, psychoanalysis, Marxism or evolutionism can tell us
different truths. But not everything we say within these theoretical fi-ameworks makes
sense. We could not see those statements as disclosing something truthful and the fact
that there is a regime of power that upholds does not make them any truer. We can take
some examples of this from what Foucault tells us in the History of Sexuality Vol. 1 about
the new ways we create truths in the area of sexuality. In general, today's psychological
discourse classifies people according to the gender of the sexual partner they prefer, as
heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual. For the most part, people can be classified within
this framework. Yet, this is not a necessary, a priori, classification that the world
imposes on us. Part of Foucault's research traces the way discourses on sexuality and
technologies of power such as the confession made possible a classification of sexual
figures like these. From the perspective of the modem psychological regime this
classification represents something truthfiil. This is in part what Foucault means when he
says that power is productive. In this case it has produced these sexual subjectivities.
We can find other statements, however, that, although accepted as true at some point,
have never been so. In the 19'* ' century for instance, doctors viewed masturbation as
something exfremely dangerous that could easily become a degenerative disease and lead
the masturbator to death. Foucault would probably agree that these beliefs were false, but
as he repeatedly said he was not concerned with the truth or falsity of statements. Instead
he wanted to uncover the mechanisms and power relations that made them circulate and
function as true. (SP, 212; PK,131)
Even if Foucault was not primarily concerned with determining the truth of
different views, as I have argued, he accepts the possibility of truth. We can even find
some parallels and defend Foucault through a comparison of his work with the work of
the natural scientist. His investigations about the way power works and its relation to
knowledge and subjectivity are purely descriptive, and as such he does them from a
certain distance; from an outsider's perspective. In doing genealogy, however, we start
from a subjective concern we have with some aspect of the present. In this sense, it
differs from abstract sciences, although not from the most applied ones. One may insist
that we cannot defend Foucault this way because he himself denied the objectivity of
scientific truths. We must notice however that he directed his criticism not against the
natural sciences, but mainly against the social or himian sciences. As we saw above, he
notices that the natural and even the exact sciences were not divorced from power. Yet,
as I have argued, he could consistently maintain that all these sciences can have what I
have called perspectival truth. Similarly he could consistently accept that his descriptions
of power, knowledge, and subjectivity are true for us, since we can understand them from
the perspective and ways of thinking we currently have. They can, for instance, take us
to see that something we valued and saw as a human constant was in fact invented at
some point and often used to dominate. For Foucault, our modem way of pimishing by
imprisonment, for example, as opposed to torture, was not the product of moral growth
and of becoming more humane, but of contingent social and economic changes. It
constitutes only an example of a new technique of power that has the effect of producing
a new subject.
Taylor sees this type of conclusion as a prelude to as Foucault's moral relativism.
If we can't even say that something like our modem way of punishing is more humane
than our ancestor's torture, we can't regard anything as moral progress. Taylor agrees
that values and ideals are discovered at some point, but for him, this happens through
articulation of our moral reactions and intuitions. These, we should tmst. They help us
discover what should be constant in humans and make us authentic. Foucault on the
other hand is suspicious of all claims to a transcending human nature. Our moral
reactions and intuitions could be the product of views we have intemaUzed from
historical practices and dominant discourses. Furthermore, since each regime of power
and truth carries with it its own games of truth, we can never occupy an external position
from which we can judge.
Through his model of practical reason with its ad hominem argumentation,
Taylor, like Foucault, asserts that we can only judge from our perspective and experience.
Yet, for him, we should be able to go beyond our perspectives and reach a more objective
truth. These truths are the product of correct practical reason that shows an epistemic
gain with respect to others. They approach objective truths, and we could not
consistently say that they are just the truth of a new truth or power regime that may be as
valid as any other. Since, like Foucault, he also tells us we can only judge from the
perspective of what we have become, he also holds some form of perspectivism. Yet, as
we saw in Chapter 3, he holds a form of moral objectivism when he suggests that our best
justified account not only represents the truth for us, but also that it should represent our
best approximation to objective truth. For him, in morality just as in science, we could
move in the fiiture to a better justified account, and thus, to objective truth: "How else to
determine what is real or objective... than by seeing what properties or entities or
features our best account of things has to invoke?" (SS, 68) If we can justify our position
over others, we can see the truths we discover, whether moral or scientific, as more
This desire for objective truth stands behind his criticism of Foucault's notion of
regimes of truth. With it, we have come back to his criticism of incommensurability.
Taylor writes, "No position is to be seen as more or less justified than any other. All are
ultimately based on fiat. Such are the 'regimes of truth' of which Foucault spoke.
Needless to say, I find this view as deeply implausible as its empiricist cousins
[naturalistic views]. The point of view from which we might all constate that all orders
are equally arbitrary, in particular that all moral views are equally so, is just not available
to us humans." (SS, 99) For him, Foucault's view only would make sense if we were
totally detached and neutral between values; it "only seems plausible if one takes the
outsider's perspective, the view from Sirius." (FFT, 98)
But I believe that for Foucault, the existence of different regimes of truth does not
necessarily imply incommensurability. From one regime we can often judge others,
especially if they both include some of the same standards for truth. According to
Taylor, what Foucault describes is "a series of hermetically sealed monolithic truth-
regimes". (FFT, 98) Yet, as Connolly points out, this is an exaggeration. Foucault
writes, for instance, of a will to truth that has crossed centuries of our history and
describes differences and similarities between the medieval religious and the modem
psychoanalytic confessional practices. In response, Taylor clarifies that what he meant
was that tracing affinities and developments across centuries "never put us in a position
to affirm that one view was a gain over another; for all the connection, transitions are
between incommensurables." (Taylor 1985c, 382) But if we can compare ideas from one
epoch to another, and if we are correct about Foucault's views on truth described above,
it seems that Foucault would also allow that, at least in certain cases, we can find that one
view is more truthfiil than other. He would agree, for instance, that denying that young
people die from excessive masturbation represents a gain on truth over what used to be
believed in the 19"^ century. Foucault does not actually say something like this because
his main concern was not proving or disproving substantial claims. Rather, he was
concerned with showing how a particular domain of knowledge -in this case about the
sexuality of children - developed through the deployment of new relationships of power,
and with showing its effects. I only say he would see the statement as a gain of truth
because I take seriously his clarification cited above that he is not endorsing "a skeptical
or relativistic refusal of all verified truth" (SP, 212). Because of this, I believe, Foucault
could consistently believe that in the 19"* century people accepted and circulated the
claim about masturbation as true, when this in fact was a deformation of reality. We can
also see how a struggle to end the controls and surveillance of the "solitary habit" fits his
description of "struggles against the privilege of knowledge", which are also struggles
"against deformation, and mystifying representations imposed on people". (SP, 212)
Because of this he could see as less repressive a regime that makes less emphasis in
controlling this sexual practice.
Thus, regimes of truth are not as monolithic as Taylor concedes. People always
can find the possibility of changing rules within a given game of truth and sometimes the
entire game. This allows people within a society to judge the practices of other people
within that society and of other societies. Foucault even asserts that Western societies
have allowed more flexibility in games of truth than others, "This has imdoubtedly given
the West possibilities for development not found in other societies. Who speaks the
truth? Free individuals who establish a certain consensus..." (ECSPF, 297) Furthermore,
not in all games of truth, truth is a construction. We also find descriptive truths, such as
those of anthropology. Granted, we follow historically changing rules in making these
descriptions. This, however "does not mean that there's just a void, that everything is a
figment of the imagination." (ECSPF, 297)
Similarly, although he refuses to endorse any given regime, or to use the language
of traditional morality, saying that something is right or wrong, we cannot say that he is
totally neutral. His tone and rhetoric in Discipline and Punish for instance, clearly wants
to move us to reject normalizing power. It is not that he sees a time when monarchs
punished with gruesome torture as more desirable than modem times of pvmishment
through incarceration. Yet, we can see that he is concemed with the controlling
tendencies of the modem world. Such diagnosis after all, is what motivates his
genealogy as a "history of the present". As Connolly points out, "He is not neutral, for
example, about the will to tmth and its effects. Informed by the Nietzschean maxim that
'we have art so that we will not perish fi-om the tmth," he seeks to loosen (but not, I
think, to eliminate) the hold the will to tmth has over modem life." (Connolly, 369) Such
lack of neutrality betrays that Foucault takes a normative or moral stand. As we saw in
our discussion of genealogies (Section 3.1) we think of them as works of art that,
acknowledging the role of language, use different rhetorical elements to tell us something
about our reality. We don't use them to simply leam something tmthful about the past,
but above all, to change, if we want, our present situation. For this reason we can also
see them as a species of narrative therapy.
4.2.1 Foucault's Refusal to Speak in Terms of Moral Truth
I have attempted to defend Foucault from the charge that he completely denies
truth by trying to make plausible a milder form of perspectivism compatible with
objectivism, and which is also consistent with his statements. Foucault might have been
willing to accept this account especially as it applies to scientific and descriptive truths.
After all, this is a theory along the lines of theories which philosophers who Foucault
followed - Nietzsche and Heidegger - held. It is less clear, however, that Foucault would
be willing to assert the applicability of this theory to moral truths. Each time we establish
new truths through new games of truth we alter the power and truth regime. This does
not mean that we cannot have stable moral views that would endiire going from one
regime to another. The moral code, he points out, imderstood as a series of general
principles and exhortations has been quite stables through the centuries. (HS2, 32) Yet
he avoids affirming that these are objective, eternal truths. Taylor denies that one can do
this coherently, "It is a form of self-delusion to think that we do not speak from a moral
orientation that we take to be right." (SS, 99) But the fact that we speak from a moral
orientation that we take to be right does not imply that it is, or that moral objectivism is
true. Foucault agrees that from our perspective we can have moral truths; that for us,
they are true, and as such we take them to be universal. Yet, he avoids acknowledging
that these perspectival views possess any larger objectivity. He often talks with a
normative voice yet he never explicitly claims the existence of objective moral truths.
A refiisal to affirm the existence of universal or objective moral truths, critics
have charged, leaves Foucault unable to explain why we should change, or as Habermas
puts it, to explain "why fight?" (PDM, 284) As David C. Hoy has argued (Section 4.1),
we can see genealogy as a "plausible method of immanent social criticism, one that can
work without presupposing an independent, Utopian standpoint." (Hoy, 13) We must
notice, furthermore, that Foucault's genealogical investigations do not seek to destabilize
the most enduring principles of our moral code, such as a principle of universal
recognition and respect. As Taylor says, he seems to take some of these as his own
hypergoods. Foucault, it is true, does not specifically endorse these as objective moral
truths, but he does not deny them either. He simply avoids using such terminology. His
genealogical investigations take on more concrete ways of thinking and acting that might
affect how we apply those general principles to show how they change with time. Again,
as examples of these, we have the genealogical investigation of our punitive and
confessional practices and the modem classifications of sexuality.
He would deny that we can affirm finding objective moral truths if by this we
imderstand truths that we can assess from an external, neutral standpoint. As Taylor
would agree, the only moral truths available to us are those we accept from our own
position. We can only ask whether we can prove that those truths should trump opposing
views. For Taylor we can do this through practical reason. Foucault, seems to me, would
not necessarily deny these for the case of the most universal and enduring principles,
although, he sees reaching agreement, even in these cases, as Utopian. As we will see in
Chapter 6, this objection, which he raises against Habermas' discourse ethics (ECSPF,
298) also applies, although in a qualified way, to Taylor's use of practical reason to find
moral hypergoods. Foucault, however, wants to show the historical contingency of some
of the more concrete practices and ways of being that constitute us into our present
subjects. We can understand this as wanting to show that such practices and ways of
being are not universally and objectively required. Doing this, however, does not require
him to show that these practices are morally wrong. His aim, for instance, is not to show
that the controlling tendencies of our modem society are objectively wrong. This,
however, does not mean that a condemnation of such tendencies would be arbitrary. The
justification of this assessment and the will to change or resist would have to come
immanently from people who see or feel the effect of these controlling tendencies. I will
expand on this argument in Chapter 6, where I defend Foucault against Habermas'
In my view, then, Foucault would not necessarily deny the truth of all moral
statements; in particular, he would not deny the truth of the most enduring moral
principles. He does not care about doing traditional moral philosophy because he does
not believe that proving that something is morally right is very effective in making it
happen. Methodologically, he is concerned with the effects of asking this question all the
time, and in particular, of wanting to know the truth about ourselves. For him, this will to
know constitutes a way of being that we observe with acute intensity in the modem West,
like many other traits that we take to be human nature it has a history, and, as I see it, it
can trap us under forms of domination that would make us become all but authentic.
5 Limitations of Taylor's Model of Practical Reason
Foucault's research shows that often relations of power constitute arbitrary
impositions. Because Taylor overlooks this possibility the application of his model of
practical reason might lead us to normalization in a way that goes beyond what is needed.
I want to argue that Foucault's proposal serves as a complement to Taylor's method,
which does not take sufficiently into account practical conditions for its implementation.
In real life, mainstream discourses often dominate and alternative views that could
compete to form best accounts don't get developed. As we will see, we can take
Foucault's suggestions as encouraging the formation of these alternative views of the
good and of ways of reasoning that can then enter Taylor's model of argumentation. We
can specifically see genealogy as another way to argue within such model of practical
For Taylor, humans' expressive power can enable them to achieve a type of being
for which they seem to be predestined in the sense that when we achieve such ways of
being or subjectivities we are at our best. These subjectivities would be characterized by
traits, values, behaviors and principles that we would need to see as components of an
authentic self; part of our true nature. The best proof of this comes from the attunement
we experience when we live in agreement with all these components of an authentic life.
He can defend this even if he accepts Foucault's proposition that all of these components
are historical products. But Foucault also suggests looking at alternative discourses and
give voice to marginalized groups which might not have the same experience of
attunement. The participation of such groups in the process of argumentation increases
the probability of finding different distinctions of what is good, and thus, of personal
differentiation. Furthermore, some of these distinctions of the good could represent
alternatives to distinctions of the good that we find as universally required or desirable
through Taylor's model.
We must acknowledge that Taylor also raises a challenge to Foucault. Even if we
agree in not seeing moral truths as objective or eternal, some of these truths are better
justified and endure going from one power and truth regime to another. Granting them
certain objectivity would make more coherent Foucault's own proposals for resistance. If
he really supported certain principles and actions, he would have to agree with Taylor
that endorsing and living under these principles would be part of the subjectivity at which
we are at our best as human beings - what for Taylor means being authentic. But even if
Foucault were a moral relativist, or if he contradicted himself in holding this position, his
genealogies still can serve as a way to further challenge the objectivity of the good that
we discover through Taylor's model.
One central objection to Taylor, then, is that his model of practical reason could
wrongly lead us to see some conceptions of the good as universally required to be
authentic. This could be the case if this form of argumentation eventually appealed to
empirical discourses with distinctions and ways of reasoning that we see as universal and
necessary when in reality they are not. Taylor's model of practical reason, as we have
seen, requires us to respect a logical structure of argumentation. We can accept that all
arguments must respect basic rules of logic. But the actual content of the arguments
often comes from discourses in the natural and social sciences, or from moral and
religious traditions that were developed at some point. These discourses are the product
of one specific power or truth regime, which might not be true from other perspectives.
If this is so, the notions of the good they support might not be miversally required. If the
best account we achieve supports one of these discourses, we might simply be supporting
a given power or truth regime, and wrongly taking its notions of the good as universal.
In the Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor offers some examples of persons who we
would not see as really authentic. We would not see as authentic, for instance, someone
who places his career, or the goal of getting rich, before his commitments and
responsibility for his family. We carmot believe that someone could really feel at his best
if he were to do this. If he were to believe this, we would see him as deluding himself. A
more authentic self interpretation would make him see love and responsibility for his
family as higher goods he would need to realize to be his best self. We tend to agree.
However, Taylor gives us another example with which perhaps more people could
disagree. He supports as more authentic a life of committed long lasting love
relationships than one of fleeting, 'self-serving' relationships. It would seem then that,
for Taylor, a person living a life of uncommitted love relationships would not really be
He defends this view by arguing that the modem ideal of authenticity itself
requires us developing an "inwardly generated identity". (EA, 49) We can only develop
such identities if we have the lasting recognition of significant others. Only within these
relationships can we carry the self exploration needed to develop our identities. In
particular, we need the recognition of a long lasting love relationship. We, therefore,
cannot see love relationships as disposable. We could think that perhaps Taylor is
referring to love relationships in general, in which case his argimient could carry more
weight. It seems reasonable to say that we all need some type of long lasting
relationships to develop an identity. But at different points, Taylor hints at the need of
romantic love lasting relationships, as when he writes; "If my self-exploration takes the
form of such serial and in principle temporary relationships, then it is not my identity that
I am exploring, but some modality of enjoyment.'" (EA, 53, italics mine)
The above defense of the goodness of love lasting relationships is not based on
strong evaluation, or in scientific empirical arguments. But if being authentic requires us
this type of relationship, we can expect that if we were to think in these other ways we
should reach the same conclusion. Let's try reconstructing how reasoning through strong
evaluations could lead us to such conclusion.
We can articulate our intuitions in favor of love lasting, committed relationships
through distinctions of the good such as romantic love, intimacy, stability and loyalty.
On the other hand, we can articulate our intuitions in favor of non-committed
relationships through distinctions such as diversity, adventure, and non-possessive love.
When we evaluate strongly, from the perspective of the first option the second looks
superficial and frivolous. From the perspective of non-committed relationships, however,
committed relationships might look inflexible, monotonous, and possessive. To choose
between these two options we need to continue our articulations until we find an
interpretation with the distinctions that move us and thus let us see better what we want.
Furthermore, since these distinctions must have phenomenological objectivity, they must
be able to move others. But as we saw above, for Taylor, achieving authenticity requires
us opting for long lasting committed relationships. It would seem then that, after strong
evaluation, we should all potentially agree on the superiority of this option.
We could find, however, that our coming to be moved by some articulation rather
than the other depends on our having been acculturated into the tastes or aesthetics of a
particular power or truth regime. A second component in Taylor's model of practical
reason is based on the expressive power of language. If we are able to articulate a best
account with a distinction of the good that moves us and others we can be sure we have a
distinction of the good with some type of objectivity. We can argue however, that we
could be moved by something because we already have certain leanings and are sensitive
to certain discourses or views. It is in this sense that Taylor's method could still be
making us play into the power regime that supports this aestheticism.'^
To show how Taylor's model of practical reason could play into scientific
empirical discourses of a given regime we can look at another argument to support the
conclusion of the example we have been discussing. We could also support conmiitted
relationships as the type of love relationship necessary for authenticity by arguing that
science tells us that by nature we are monogamous creatures, and feel or act at our best
when we stay monogamous. We can think that Taylor, who makes ethical naturalism one
of his main targets in Sources of the Self, must not be very inclined to use science in
practical reason. But he believes in the progress of the natural sciences and would not
oppose using its results if these can advance some moral truth. He offers an example of
this, in Foucault on Freedom and Truth, when he argues that we can see our current ways
of punishing as progress over our ancestors' forms of torture. They believed that torture
restored a cosmic order which had been broken in the criminal act. But, "One of the
reasons why we can no longer believe in this kind of order is the advance in our
This component,as we will see next chapter,is not verydifferent to an appeal in Foucault to an
"aesthetic ofexistence". But,unlike Foucault, Taylor believes that this aesthetic feeling gives us access to
objective or universal distinctions ofthe good. What is subjective is onlyour wayofhaving this revelation;
the form ofcapturing the distinction ofthe good but not its content.
civilization of a scientific understanding of the natural world, which we have every
reason to believe represents a significant gain of truth." (FFT, 97)
The above imagined arguments intend to illustrate how Taylor's form of
argumentation eventually has to appeal to empirical discourses which only support
particular power and truth regimes. Someone could argue that Taylor's model of
practical reason is broad enough to be critical of the content of the different discourses
and discard them or whatever part is false in them. The Foucaultian contention, however,
is not with the truth of the discourses but with the necessity or consequences of using
such empirical discourses. A really successfiil and monolithic truth regime would be
difficult to escape. Within it, we would have very few possibilities of seeing things in
any other way. In such case the content of its discourses would be so firmly established
as true or entrenched in our minds that we would not stop to question it. We would see,
for instance, certain assumptions and ways to classify reality as natural and necessary.
We could ask, however, why does Taylor's method seem to work in some cases
and not others? If we are always appealing to empirical discourses, we are always
supporting one power regime or other. What is different, for instance, in the cases above,
in which I accepted that a person neglecting his family for the sake of some personal
material gain is not authentic?
We can say that we can never know, a priori, whether certain good will be
universally embraced and improblematic. We need to see if someone can really built a
genealogy which reveals a problem with our present situation. This problem may only be
so for some "other" who can't embrace the ideal. But, they won't be right automatically.
Their genealogy is a truth game that needs to convince others. It is unlikely that the
irresponsible rich father neglecting his children will find much sympathy from anybody.
It is more likely that the libertine could find some sympathetic ears.
5.1 Practical Reason and the Other
One way in which genealogies can enter the process of practical reason, is by
making clear how in developing some form of subjectivity we oppress others. This is
more likely noticed by those oppressed. Foucault is not denying that some subjectivities,
moral principles or ideals might be worthier than some others, but he makes us see that in
developing certain forms of the subject we might oppress others. In such case, we might
wonder whether such forms of the subject are really that authentic.
The challenge then comes from the realization that every time we set a distinction
of the good, an ideal or a subjectivity to reach, we produce "the other" - the outcast, the
delinquent, the deviant, the prostitute, the insane, the disabled - those who cannot
measure up, choose, or endorse such ideal. Some of these occupy the place they do in
virtue of a characteristic they did not choose such as race, gender, or illness. But others,
such as the delinquent or someone choosing an imconventional lifestyle, might be
marginalized for not choosing the good that others see as universal. In the above case,
for instance, Taylor seems to see monogamous committed long lasting relationships as an
objective good. Even if this good is not obligatory, all those not choosing it would not be
reaching their full potentiality. They will constitute "the other". Unless they were
choosing from an equally worthy good, in this area of love relationships at least, they
would not be authentic.
We find, however, that we can not equally defend the right of all "others"
spawned by a given form of the subject. In fact, if Foucault is correct, those others are
the best positioned to defend their rights or design new practices of freedom. They could
try to do this through Taylor's model of practical reason. But if the grip of the truth
regimes is too tight, they might need to lose this grasp through genealogy before
developing a language to articulate what is behind their dissenting intuitions. Thus, in
supporting otherness we might need to go beyond Taylor's method of practical reason.
To illustrate how genealogy works in this support of otherness, let's take an
example similar to the one we saw above. Taylor's model of practical reason might lead
some people to see what he calls "the affirmation of ordinary life" (SS, 13) as their
superior moral framework. They might defend this framework through a religious best
account which supports the hypergoods of a life of productivity and of love or
responsibility for the family. We can see these values as legitimate personal and optional
hypergoods that would make someone authentic. Often, however, a society - as truth and
power regimes - exerts pressure on people to see certain goods as the ones they should
uphold. Some people might not feel their force and yet feel that they should follow them.
This, of course, would not be a fault in Taylor's model. We could say that they have not
carried Taylor's model as far as they can, since they have not articulated what is behind
their moral and spiritual intuitions. It is possible however, that articulating their
intuitions would require them seeing the contingency of certain ideals and that these are
not as necessary or universal as they seem to be. A person feeling the anxiety and
pressure to start a family or be successful in her job might benefit from learning a
genealogy of the ideals of marriage and of a life of production. Learning for instance
how our society has encouraged us to see them as good through different mechanisms of
power and in order to maintain the modem massive productive system might help the
person liberate herself from some anxiety. In this sense, we can imderstand genealogy as
a form of narrative therapy. (Section 3.1)
Thus, Taylor's model itself does not necessarily lead us to see as a universal
hypergood that which is not. Since he encourages fiirther discussion and argumentation,
we always find the possibility of finding other possible distinctions of the good. In
practice, however, the more traditional or closed a society is - the strongest the grip of a
truth regime - the more difficult to continue Taylor's process of practical reason. If this
is so, Taylor should welcome Foucault's genealogies as one more way to advance the
articulations he wants. But, beyond a society's understandable tendency to order and
stability, we find in Taylor's method an element that encourages a convergence toward
fewer distinctions of the good. He wants to show the existence of certain subjectivities at
which human beings are at their best. In contrast, Foucault wants to raise in us the
suspicion that these subjectivities do not always work for everybody. As Cormolly puts
it: "Taylor seeks to draw us closer to the experience of attunement between the way
human beings are at their best and the actual identity available to the modem self."
(Connolly, 367) Foucault, on the other hand, seeks to "incite the experience of discord or
discrepancy between the social constmction of self, trath and rationality and that which
does not fit neatly within their folds." (Connolly, 368) Here, we can imderstand "that
which does not fit neatly within their folds" as referring to "the other" in the form of all
those who cannot measure up to the ideal. But we could also imderstand by it as that
internal part that gets crushed in all of those subjects who successfully endorse or
measure up to the ideal.
Thus, while Taylor's model of practical reason seeks a convergence of views on
what is good, Foucault's suggestions seek divergence. For Taylor, we must look beyond
selfish concerns and consider insights from otir different traditions, "history, nature,
society and the demands of solidarity." (EA, 40) After considering all this, however, we
can expect rational people to agree with us on what is valuable and good. For Foucault,
on the other hand, different people often can choose different goods, even if not
everybody agrees they are at their best in pursuing them. He proposes actively seeking
new truths that could arise from subjugated groups that struggle against the established
views to find new ways of thinking and acting and which, for the particular groups,
constitute new ideas of what is good. He suggests sfretching our regular ways of thinking
and acting by transgressing them. Through these transgressions, he explains, we have
been able in the last years to effect changes "that concern.. .relations to authority,
relations between the sexes, the way we perceive insanity or illness." (WE, 46-7) These
suggestions lead us to a proliferation of notions of what we can see as good.
6 Distinctions of the Good in Taylor and Foucault
We might wonder whether Taylor and Foucault are not referring to different
goods. That could explain why one is looking for convergence while the other is looking
for divergence. As we have seen Taylor is not restricting the goods he wants to
" This would agree with the view that,as dialogical selves,we are internallydiverse, and while one part in
us gets fulfilled, another has to surrender.
determine. Although Foucault does not use Taylor's ontological language of the good,
his examples and descriptions refer us to some of the same distinctions as Taylor does.
Foucault is concerned, for instance, with finding new practices of freedom, types of
relations, and personal - although not private - ways of being, that oppressed minorities
can develop and adopt. We can see all of these as life goods and some even as personal
hypergoods. Foucault, however, is not interested in finding or justifying the moral
notions we are calling universal hypergoods. (Chapter 3, Section 3.6)
We could think that because their approaches are so different Taylor and Foucault
end up talking past each other. While Taylor's approach is ontological, Foucault's is
epistemological and political. It follows from Taylor's ontological account that we all
should feel the pull of distinctions of the good, regardless of whether these are moral or
ethical. In practice of course, this will not happen, and we have to live our lives going
with our best interpretations. Foucault on the other hand, wanting to escape metaphysics,
allows that not everybody has to agree on what a particular group can choose as good. In
practical terms this might be very similar to what Taylor ends up accepting. But for
Foucault, disagreement is not a lamentable consequence of our incapability to see what is
objectively true, but the result of the way power and knowledge are related.
7 Complementing Methodologies
We can leave aside metaphysical and epistemological questions to focus on the
contribution each of these authors can make to a methodology for achieving authenticity.
We have seen that, at least in some cases, their methodologies look at the same goods.
While Taylor wants to prove that we all should feel moved by them, Foucault wants to
show that this is not always the case. To the extent that Foucault's genealogies can really
show this, they would be disproving a conclusion arrived at by Taylor's method of
argumentation. They can do this by showing that some of the behaviors, practices, goals,
and ways of life that Taylor's hermeneutical method leads us to see as personal
hypergoods are not necessary and universal and can lead to domination. Since we have
the intuition that in becoming authentic a person should not become a victim of
domination we can see genealogy as a test for the results of Taylor's method for reaching
On the other hand, Taylor's method can also serve to test the new practices and
subjectivities that we can get through the commxmities of action Foucault proposes. The
objections we could raise through genealogy to particular conclusions obtained through
Taylor's model of argumentation do not invalidate this model. This can still serve as one
more form of critique. In particular, it represents an effective way to determine some
universal hypergood, such as some moral principles whose existence we can't help but
seeing as true and universal. We thus see that we can use a combination of both Taylor's
hermeneutical method and Foucault's genealogy to better develop our authentic selves.
Combining the two methods might lead us to different results in different cases.
Through genealogy we might find that in a particular case a distinction of the good is not
as universal as we thought, and thus, that not everybody has to choose it. In other cases,
however, we could find that in endorsing some distinction of the good people really
become the best subjects they can. In such cases, we need to determine what to do with
such otherness or how to be with it.
My resolution also implies taking both methodologies as representing different
acceptable games of truth. This acceptance appears contradictory since both games seem
to have very different presuppositions. For Taylor, to find what is true we presuppose
that we can reach universal agreement and we look for convergence. For Foucault, on
the other hand, to find what is true we only might need the agreement of a smaller
community and we can accept a divergence of views. We can explain this apparent
contradiction by noting that the presuppositions apply to different types of goods. We
would expect Taylor's presuppositions to be correct if we are indeed referring to
universal moral goods. On the other hand Foucault's assumptions seem correct for
optional, ethical goods. He wants us to see that often "the other" does not have to
endorse the same good as everybody else. When we can see this we see that such good is
not as universal or objective as we might have foimd through Taylor's methodology. In
doing this, Foucault is encouraging diversity. Thus, when successful, Foucault's
methodology will allow us to see some particular good we found trough Taylor's
methodology, only as optional. To do this, a genealogy needs to convince others and in
that sense it presupposes that it can reach agreement. However, as we will see in Chapter
6, Section 4.2, we can measure the success of a genealogy by the degree of its public
acceptance after free and open discussion. Genealogies represent a form of agonistic
reason. They challenge established views and as such we do not expect them to be
universally upheld. It is enough that they remain in the field of free and open discussion.
Paradoxically, when we apply Taylor's method we find something similar. In practice
we cannot expect universal agreement. No matter how good a person's best account is,
she or he will always find some people who won't agree with them. For that person.
however, all those not agreeing will simply be wrong. So, although for Taylor, when we
really have a best account we expect universal agreement, in practice, we don't
necessarily retract our view if others don't accept it.
8 Foucault on Moralityand Ethics
In so far as Foucault denies the existence of objective moral goods, he would not
accept the resolution I propose. I have argued, however, that Foucault does not really
deny such moral goods and have offered reasons to explain his reticence in this area. In
what follows I offer a few more support for my view.
Someone could insist that if we accept Foucault's account of power we accept
that we carmot compare between different truth regimes, and thus, that we cannot
establish a way to consistently differentiate between the moral (imiversal principles, such
as moral obligations), and the ethical (optional notions of the good, such as different
lifestyles and practices). Whatever discourse or way of thinking we use to discriminate
between the two belongs to a particular regime. A different regime would give us
different sets of universal principles and optional notions of the good. And because all
regimes are the product of different practices and histories, each with their own truth
games, we carmot really compare them. If we were to hold that the different regimes of
truth are indeed hermetically sealed, the argument would be devastating. As I have
argued, however, Foucault's linking of knowledge and power does not imply that he
denies all possibility of truth. Also, as we saw in Section 4.2, the different truth regimes
are not hermetically sealed and we can sometimes validly judge one historical period
fi-om the standpoint of another. In so far as Foucault would indeed allow that different
truth regimes are not hermetically sealed and that we can have a more universal form of
rationality such as that of logic^'', he would have to allow the possibility that we can
determine certain views and principles as truths. In the case of moral truths, he could
acknowledge that such truths would be so for us from our historical perspective. Saying
this does not imply that they cannot be true in a more objective sense. In fact, we
generally see something as true from our perspective and still think it is universally true.
What he can consistently hold is that, as Taylor himself would agree, we do not have
access to a neutral "view from nowhere".
One could point at this denial that we have access to a point of view from which
we can find "any complete and definitive knowledge of what may constitute our
historical limits" (WE, 46) as more evidence of Foucault's relativism. This, however,
does not have to be the case. We can interpret this line as the recognition that we cannot
know, among other things, the immutable characteristics, fraits, values or notions of the
good that make us humans once and for all. Yet, this does not mean that anything goes,
or again, that he would deny moral norms. What we need to do is to keep a critical
attitude that allows us to develop new subjectivities but which keeps what we find
valuable. "[The] theoretical and practical experience that we have of our limits and of the
possibility of moving beyond them is always limited and determined; thus we are always
in a position of beginning again." (WE, 47) Once again, Foucault denies that we can
occupy a privileged point of view and that we will one day stop searching for what it
means to be human. In this aspect, his position resembles that of Taylor. His suggestion
I am taking seriouslyFoucault's declaration that mathematical truths are not invalidated bytheir
connection to power structures and the close connection between mathematics and logic.
of keeping a critical attitude, removing unnecessary impositions of power and replacing
them with our own practices of freedom implies that we can justify certain relations of
power and not others. This preference and suggestion reflect his moral values or
hypergoods of freedom and equality. His declarations in What is Enlightenment?
concede that we want to keep certain practices and values. We might need to keep for
example some power relationships between parents and children and between teachers
and students, as long as these power relationships are not abusive. He fiirther recognized
that many humans, across time and cultures, have embraced some of the same values and
granted the importance of having them. (HS2, 32) We can see this acknowledgement of
the constancy and inter-subjectivity of some values as recognition of some form of
In contrast to his earlier reftisal to declare his moral commitments, as we will see
next chapter, in his last works Foucault wrote extensively about ethics and its history.
We must notice, however, that his is a special conception of ethics, which he saw as the
part of morality that should study the self s relationship to itself. What, for instance, does
the self need to do, to fransform itself into the subject it wants to be? To what practices
should it submit itself in order to know what kind of subject it should be? He offered this
conception and history of ethics to respond to the questions "What kinds of subjects
should we be?" and "How should we govern ourselves?" (Anderson 1994, 118,119) All
of these questions imply that to be ethical the self must be free. In an interview, Foucault
tells us: "what is ethics, if not the practice of freedom, the considered {reflechie^ practice
of freedom" and also, "Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics." (ECSPF, 284)
This definition of the ethical as a considered practice of freedom coincides with
the way we have been defining the ethical as constituted by optional goods. To be ethical
we need to be free, and being free implies having options. In a society in which we are
normalized beyond what is necessary, we would not have many opportunities for being
ethical. For Foucault, if we are being dominated, we are not being ethical, since we are
not being as free as we could be. His political suggestion in such case is to resist, and, as
we will also see next chapter, we can do this by designing our lives as works of art
through an aesthetic of existence that tries to lessen the weight we give to the question of
truth. Through these means, he argues, we would be as free as we can while recognizing
that there is no escaping from power. Whether we can indeed be freer through this
strategy is something we will consider.
It is interesting to note that the ethical, as Foucault defines it, appears to
correspond to those two axes that Taylor wants to include within the domain of moral
philosophy beyond oiu* sense of obligations to others. These are our imderstanding of
what makes a frill life and the range of notions concerned with dignity or the
characteristics that we need to have to command the respect of others. (SS, 15) It seems
easier to expect divergence in our views of what represents goods in these axes than in
the axis of our moral obligations towards others. We also sense that often following this
diversity of ideas of what constitutes a worthy and respectable life is an optional matter.
I empathize with Foucault's reasons for refrising to speak in absolute moral terms
and see great value in paying attention to the way we constitute ourselves as ethical
subjects. Yet, I do not believe that practicing philosophy as a way of life, and doing
moral theory are mutually exclusive. As Foucault argues, due to the tenuous link
between theory and people's attitudes, focusing on theory might indeed lead to dangerous
political results. Beyond theory, cultivating the self seems an essential part of developing
"good judgment". According to Kolodny, had Foucault yielded to his critics' demand for
a theory he would have sacrificed his point: "It would have suggested that the real task
facing the political philosopher was the articulation of a theory, instead of the arduous
and uncertain work of developing the ethos to ensure that theory is properly realized."
(Kolodny 1996, 73) He might be right about this, and yet, this implies that we still need
theories to be realized or applied. It seems to me that especially in today's global world,
in which people with very different world views live in close proximities and firequently
interact with each other, we would profit fi-om being able to recognize a general
distinction between moral obligations that apply universally and more optional ethical
values. Such separation may help us keep more peacefiil and respectfiil relations. In
Chapter 6,1 discuss a suggestion for finding out the limit between an area of morality in
which we find more objectivity - in the form of stability and inter-subjective agreement -
(perhaps correlated with non- arbitrary relationships of power) and an area in which we
have more fi"eedom of choice.
9 Conclusions
In this chapter we saw some of Foucault's main concepts in what many see as a
second stage of his writings. This is the stage in which he goes beyond archeology and a
focus on discourse to develop genealogy which stresses detailed historical studies of our
social practices and institutions. I went on to defend Foucault's work fi-om Taylor's
objections of inconsistency. I claim that Foucault does not deny the possibility of
freedom and of finding more objective truths or their goodness. I take seriously his
suggestion of avoiding domination and arbitrary impositions of power. (Foucault 1987,
129) In my interpretation, Foucault holds a situated ideal of freedom in which this is not
independent from power. This recognition holds the promise of creating ways of being
and acting with the highest level of concrete freedom. To defend Foucault from the
frequent accusation that his account denies agency, I distinguished between the concepts
of a self and an embodied subject, and argued that the first which contains the agent
becomes the second. To defend Foucault from the charge that he does not have a
normative account I used David Hoy's argument that we can offer immanent
justifications for our choices. Thus, we can see Foucault as more consistent than Taylor
in his view that we can only judge from the position we occupy. Yet, Foucault has been
0 1
accused by some of his detractors, including Habermas and Taylor, of taking a
normative stand he cannot justify, namely, this proposal to invent and pursue ways of
being that minimize domination. To explain Foucault's refixsal to explicitly affirm his
moral commitments I found Kolodny's explanation very plausible. This was the idea that
Foucault was emulating the parrhesiastic Cynic in order to show his view that it is more
important to develop judgment and character than to adopt the right moral theory. We
can add that if Foucault is not explicit about making moral judgments about past regimes,
it could be because he is not concerned with past experiences that are not live options
anymore. This explains why for example, in works like Discipline and Punish he does
not even hint that modem pimishment is more humane or in any way better than torture.
Habermas contends that Foucault's appeal to autonomy, his account cannot answer the question 'why
fight?' (Habermas, 1987:284).
We also saw that Foucault's main concern is not to determine the truth value of
particular views, but to loosen the grip that certain discourses have on us. In spite of this,
I contended, his account does not lead us to an absolute denial of truth. I argued that he
could hold, without contradiction, a form of perspectivism or plural realism that does not
oppose an absolutist view of truth. We also saw how for Foucault, the existence of
different regimes of truth does not imply incommensurability. He allows that from one
regime we can validly judge the claims made in other regimes, especially if they include
some of the same standards for truth.
After rehabilitating Foucault's account, we saw how his genealogies represent a
potential threat to some of the conclusions we can reach through Taylor's hermeneutical
method. In showing how some ideals oppress others or parts of ourselves, Foucault's
genealogies show us that Taylor's hermeneutical method might lead us to see as
universally good what is not really so. For Taylor, to become authentic a person must not
only discover through practical reason what is moral, but also personal distinctions of the
good, such as what type of life is worth living and what relationships to have. Foucault's
genealogies, on the other hand, seek to show that in pursuing some of these notions of the
good we might end up being subjected to domination. In such cases he wants us to resist
and perhaps create new practices, types of relationships and in general distinctions of the
good. We can thus see Foucault's genealogies as a way to test some of the conclusions
we can reach through Taylor's method. But this use of Foucault's suggestions did not
intend to show that we should reject Taylor's model of practical reason. As we saw in
Chapter 3, in most cases, this method does not really lead to normalization and represents
a reasonable way to determine distinctions of the good. Because of this, we can also use
it to test the morality of the new practices of freedom that we might find through
Foucault's commxmities of action. We thus saw that we can combine both Taylor's
hermeneutical method and Foucault's genealogy and suggestions to develop our authentic
In the next chapter I turn to the more positive Foucaultian suggestions of what we
can do to create what I am calling authentic selves.
1 Introduction
In Chapter 4 I discussed some objections to Taylor's use of practical reason to
reach authenticity that arose from Foucault's accoimt of power. In this chapter I want to
address some of the more positive proposals I find in Foucault to achieve such
authenticity. To do this I will focus on Foucault's research goals and methodology. In
his later writings, he tells us, he was always interested in finding new subjectivities by
investigating the limits of what is possible to think and do. His research attempts to
prove the historicity of our ways of being; how for example, the interaction of the three
different axes of knowledge, power, and ethics reveal what in our subjectivities is "the
product of arbitrary constraints", and thus could be otherwise. (SP, 217-219; Tully 1999,
96). I describe how his historical research or genealogies intend to show us why people
from different epochs saw things differently, and through this, let us see the contingency
of our ways of thinking and being. I briefly review the findings about the history of
ethics he presents mainly in Volumes 2 and 3 of the History of Sexuality, and what,
according to him, we can learn from this history to use for the liberation of the modem
subject. I defend Foucault from Taylor's charge that he does not pay enough attention to
our dialogical nature by reviewing his suggestions to create new forms of subjectivity
through a dialogical artistic ethos, or an aesthetics of existence. I take the case of a gay
way of life or identity as an example of a modem subjectivity that some people can
achieve by following such aesthetics of existence. I contend that we can follow this
aesthetics of existence to become more authentic. We do this by working on our limits,
i.e., on the ways of thinking and acting in the areas that matter to us, and by interacting
with others working on the same limits to design more joyful lives.
I acknowledge that this form of authenticity requires that we share some universal
values, which seem to coincide with those of modem liberal societies. Foucault does not
exactly deny this, but he leaves open the possibility that we cannot prove the objectivity
of such values. In the next and last chapter I take up this discussion, comparing his
position to Habermas' discourse ethics.
2 Foucault's Goals and Methodology
2.1 The Ethos of Modernity
Perhaps in response to the critique of his work after the publication oi History of
Sexuality /, Foucault clarifies his goals and methodology. In the article, "What is
Enlightermient?" he situates himself in a philosophical tradition initiated by Kant. In a
publication entitled "An answer to the question: what is Enlightenment?" in 1784 Kant
had described the Enlightermient as a "way out" from the status of "immaturity" that
characterized humanity. By immaturity Kant meant "a certain state of our will that
makes us accept someone else's authority to lead us in areas where the use of reason is
called for." (WE, 34) Foucault also makes a connection between the Enlightermient and
the Critiques: "it is precisely at this moment [the Enlightenment] that the critique is
necessary, since its role is that of defining the conditions under which the use of reason is
legitimate in order to determine what can be known, what must be done, and what must
be hoped... the Enlightenment is the age of the critique." (WE, 38)
In this way Foucault sees Kant as the first to reflect in the connection between the
significance of his work and what is new in his particular historical circumstances. "It is
in the reflection of 'today' as difference in history and as motive for a particular
philosophical task that the novelty of this text appears to me to lie." (WE, 38) Foucault
also sees what Kant does in this essay as a new way of philosophizing which constitutes
the point of departure for the attitude of modernity. Reflecting on this text, Foucault
wonders whether we should look at modernity not as a specific period of time, but as an
attitude or ethos that starts with the Enlightenment: "And by 'attitude,' I mean a mode of
relating to contemporary reality; a volimtary choice made by certain people; in the end, a
way of thinking and feeling; a way too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same
time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what
the Greeks called ethos." (WE, 39)
Based on Baudelaire, he characterizes this attitude as one that seeks to retain fi-om
the present only that which we find valuable. For Baudelaire, this "deliberate, difficult
attitude consists in recapturing something eternal that is not beyond the present instant,
nor behind it, but within it. Modernity is distinct fi^om fashion, which does no more than
call into question the covirse of time; modernity is the attitude that makes it possible to
grasp the ''heroic^ aspect of the present moment." (WE, 39-40, italics mine) Foucault,
then, sees modernity as distinguished by an attitude or ethos that heroizes certain aspects
of the present which we find of profound value.
This attitude of modernity, however, does not intend to perpetuate the present
moment; it also seeks to transform it. The modem painter (for Baudelaire, Constantin
Guys epitomizes this figure) alters the world. "His transfiguration does not entail an
annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the
exercise of freedom... Baudelairean modernity is an exercise in which extreme attention
to what is real is confronted with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects this
reality and violates it." (WE, 41) For Foucault, then, modernity entails an attitude that
allows us to keep something we find valuable in the present, while at the same time
enable us to transform part of such reality. This modem attitude will allow people to
exercise a continual critique that they can use to eliminate arbitrary practices and ways of
being that are not necessary to constitute us into autonomous subjects. (WE, 43)
Substituting these arbitrary practices with others of peoples' own choice and design
would allow them a higher degree of freedom.
Beyond this relationship to the present then, modernity also modifies the
relationship we have with ourselves. For Baudelaire, Foucault tells us, this relationship
to oneself implies an intense asceticism. Modem individuals carmot just take themselves
as they are. They have to work on themselves. "To be modem is... to take oneself as an
object of a complex and difficult elaboration: what Baudelaire, in the vocabulary of his
day calls dandysme. "(WE, 41) The themes of a relationship of the self with itself and of
asceticism become prominent in Foucault's genealogical investigations of ancient Greek
and Roman culture.
We can ftirther characterize this ethos or philosophical attitude as a "historical
ontology of ourselves" "consisting in a critique of what we are saying, thinking and
doing." (WE, 45) The goal of this ontology is to find different subjectivities, that is,
ways of thinking and acting that make us into new subjects. To find these new
subjectivities we analyze and reflect on oiir limits. By these Foucault means the ways of
thinking and acting that constitute us, but that could be otherwise. He writes:
But if the Kantian question was that of knowing what limits knowledge has to
renoimce transgressing, it seems to me that the critical question today has to be
turned back into a positive one: in what is given to us as universal, necessary
obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the
product of arbitrary constraints? The point, in brief, is to transform the critique
conducted in the form of necessary limitations into a practical critique that takes
the form of a possible transgression." (WE, 45)
Transforming only that part of the subject that we find as the product of arbitrary
constraints entails that we can find something valuable to keep. This type of
transformation fits the type of transgression sought through the modem ethos.
For Foucault, if our ontologies are to have a real impact in our fi-eedom, in
investigating them we must keep at the same time a critical and an experimental attitude:
"I mean that this work done at the limits of ourselves must, on the one hand, open up a
realm of historical inquiry and, on the other, put itself to the test of reality, both to grasp
the points where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the precise form this
change should take." (WE, 46) We can only achieve this precision by carrying out our
ontological investigations on specific areas or subjectivities and not by attempting the
investigation of an overall change to a totally new type of human being or society. As
examples we can think of investigations in the subjectivities related to gender, race,
sexual orientation, mental health and so forth. (WE, 46)
He acknowledges that we cannot have a privileged perspective fi-om which to
judge our historical limits. As a result each time we move into a new subjectivity,
transcending our previous limits for thinking and acting, we are in the position of starting
again. This entails that we must remain always vigilant to new relations of power and the
effects they may have on us. This situation, however, does not mean that we cannot
make our ontological investigation with some order and systematicity. In "What is
Enlightenment?" he describes his methodology for this type of investigation. This
methodology consists in analyzing "practical systems," the interrelation of three axes we
find within these systems and the level of generality -as opposed to universality of
certain modes of being. I'll briefly explain each of these elements.
2.2 Practical Systems and their Axes of Knowledge. Power and Ethics
We start our historical studies with some form of subjectivity that has become
problematic. As I mentioned above, these could be categories such as 'woman', 'parent',
'patient' and so forth. We study such subjectivities by analyzing the "practical system"
in which they are immersed. The domain for these practical systems involves "not the
representations that men give of themselves, not the conditions that determine them
without their knowledge, but rather what they do and the way they do it" (WE, 48). We
analyze these practical systems from the perspective of their forms of rationality and the
freedom they allow people participating within them. "That is, the forms of rationality
that organize their ways of doing things (this might be called their technological aspect)
and the freedom with which they act within these practical systems, reacting to what
others do, modifying the rules of the game, up to a certain point (this might be called the
strategic side of these practices)." (WE, 48) As examples of practical systems that
Foucault studied we find madness, delinquency and sexuality.
Each of these practical systems involves relations that come from three different
areas: "relations of control over things, relations of actions upon others, and relations
with oneself." (WE, 48) Although these different areas interconnect, some practical
systems involve more one particular area than others. As a result, and for the purpose of
analysis, we can take such areas as three different axes, which Foucault calls, the axis of
knowledge, the axis of power and the axis of ethics. Each of the practical systems listed
above correlates more directly with one of these axes. Thus madness has been organized
recently as a field of knowledge, crime as a field of political intervention and sexuality as
an ethical area. (PPP, 387)^^
Foucault studied each of these axes to explain how we have become the particular
subjects we are, and to see if we could be otherwise. He had studied the axis of
knowledge in some of his first books, such as the Archeology of Knowledge and The
Order of things. In them he had used a methodological approach he called archeology,
which focused on the analysis of discourses, putting aside the relation of these discourses
to social practices. In his later writings he sees this approach as limited, and starts to
analyze the way we become subjects of knowledge through our creation and participation
in "truth games." He defines a truth game as a "set of premises that lead to a certain
result, which, on the basis of its principles and rules of procedures, may be considered
valid or invalid." (ECSPF, 297) The investigation of these truth games then, leads us to
find, not what we can see as absolute truths, but what a historical period, society or group
may accept as true.
Later on Foucault seems to add another axis,that ofcommunication. He does not reallydevelop this
topic. He rather seems to be answering some objections raised byHabermas. I will come back to this next
chapter. (Tully, 1999,95; SP,218; TS, 18,225).
In Chapter 41 already reviewed Foucault's studies on the axis of power and the
problems his conclusions raised for Taylor's account. In this chapter I will focus on
Foucault's investigations on the ethical axis. We will also see the role of games of truth
to define us as ethical subjects. Before that, however, I briefly describe another form in
which Foucault describes his own work and goals.
2.3 Problematizations
Foucault also studies how general particular forms of the subject have been
through history. As we have seen, the forms of the subject in which he is interested take
place within specific practical systems, each of them with their materials, practices and
discourses. He observes that, at least in the West, these different elements tend to recur.
As examples he mentions "the problem of the relationship between sanity and insanity, or
sickness and health, or crime and the law; the problem of the role of sexual relations; and
so on." (WE, 49) To study the generality of forms of the subject in these systems he
proposes to study the forms or modes of 'problematization' "(that is, of what is neither an
anthropological constant nor a chronological variation)." (WE, 49) These forms of
problematization determine what we see as problematic and salient about what we are,
what we do, and the world in which we live. (HS2,10) We can think of a form of
problematization as "a general manner in which a subject renders an aspect of their
experience as problematic, in response to difficulties and obstacles in practice." (Tully
1999, 97) The study of these forms of problematization allows us to determine the
degree to which what we know of a particular form of the subject, "the forms of power
that are exercised in it, and the experience that we have in it of ourselves constitute
nothing but determined historical figures." (WE, 49) Through genealogy, we can
determine the way in which these forms of problematization aroused through different
practices and their modifications. (HS2, 11-12)
Foucault introduces this concept of problematization only in his last writings, and
typically, he uses it to reinterpret the goal of all his previous research. He now describes
what he had done in Madness and Civilization and The Birth of the Clinic respectively as
studying the problematizing of insanity and sickness that started with social and medical
practices that defined a profile of the normal individual. He sees what he did in The
Archeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things, as studying the problematizing of
life, language and labor that arose fi"om discursive practices that followed certain
epistemic rules. (HS2, 12) He sees his work in Discipline and Punish as studying the
problematization of crime that arose fi-om punitive practices that follow a disciplinarian
model. Finally, he sees his work in volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality as
studying some of the forms of problematization of men's sexual lives that started with
certain ascetic practices that some free men used to achieve beautiful and respectable
Foucault finds forms of subjectivity by finding forms of problematizing, which he
discovered through studying specific forms of knowledge, relationships of power and
practices of self-formation. Each of these forms of problematization occurs on a different
axis. In The Archeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things, Foucault tells us, he had
centered on the knowledge axis. In Discipline and Punish and volume 1 of The History of
Sexuality he concentrated on the power axis. In volumes 2 and 3 of The History of
Sexuality Foucault concentrates on the ethics axis.
In the last chapter I covered some of the challenges that Foucault's theory in the
second axis raised for Taylor's account. In what follows I will concentrate on Foucault's
research on the third axis. These genealogical studies lead Foucault to his most optimistic
conclusions, since after all, it turns out we can have a say in our own formation. At this
stage, Foucault leaves behind the study of the passive ways through which individuals
where constituted as objects of external forces - relations of power - and focuses on what
people do to themselves to become ethical subjects.
3 Foucault's Conception of Ethics and its History
Foucault observes that we can find in the history of the West two types of moral systems.
One focuses on defining and setting up a moral code that tells us which actions are
acceptable, mandatory or forbidden. In this type of system, "the authority that enforces
the code, [takes] a quasi-juridical form, the subject refers his conduct to a law, or set of
laws." (HS2, 29) As examples of these systems we find those of the great monotheistic
religions. The other type of moral system focuses not in the code, but on what people
fi"eely choose to do to themselves to become ethical subjects. He found this type of moral
system in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Many male noble Greeks and Romans, at
least, were concerned with finding the methods and techniques that would enable them to
have a beautifiil, honorable life. They wanted such a life both as a source of joy for
themselves and as a way to gain power in their communities.
Moved by the dangers of normalization and domination he sees stemming fi-om
the first type of moral system, Foucault's investigation center on the second type of moral
system: "I don't think one can find any normalization in, for instance, the Stoics ethics...
this tj'pe of ethics was only a problem of personal choice..(OGE, 341) But Foucault is
not trying to substitute one type of morality for another one, nor is he denying the
importance of having a moral code. The word morality, he tells us, is ambiguous. We
use it to refer to a set of rules or prescriptions we are invited to follow - the moral code.
Such moral code, he acknowledges, has been quite stable through the centuries. (HS2,
32) Moral philosophers have generally concentrated on elaborating and justifying such
codes. We also use the word morality to refer to the actual behavior of people in
following or deviating from that code. (HS2, 25-26) Beyond these, however, we must
notice that one particular prescription of the moral code can be interpreted and pursued in
very different ways. It would seem that for Foucault, studying the second tj^e of moral
systems, those that concentrate on what people do to themselves to beconie moral
subjects, can give us insights on those different ways to apply the moral code. By
looking at the ways different people during different historical periods have followed the
code we can see the contingency of our own ways of understanding it, and potentially,
the possibility of applying it in a different way. This will allow us to be as free as we can
- Foucault's main concern - while still respecting the moral code.
The type of moral system on which Foucault concentrates involves paying
attention to something the first type of moral system often forgets and which Foucault
sees as "very important: the kind of relationship you ought to have to yourself, raport a
sof He calls this relationship of the self to itself ethics, and for him it "determines how
the individual is supposed to constitute himself as a moral subject of his own actions."
(OGE, 238) But what does Foucault mean by calling this relationship of the self to itself
ethics? To constitute itself not only as an agent, but as an ethical or moral subject, the
self has to control his or her behavior, pleasures or desires. To do this it has to know
itself and impose on itself certain discipline. All of these imply a relationship of the self
to itself. Thus, Foucault looks at ethics as a part of morality that deals with the
relationship the self has with itself and he sees the second type of moral systems as
concentrating in the study of ethics or this relationship of the self with itself.
An essential characteristic of ethics or the relationship of the self with itself,
which Foucault takes from the Ancient Greco-Roman world, is that it implies freedom.
In an interview, he tells us: "what is ethics, if not the practice of freedom, the considered
[reflechie] practice of freedom." (ECSPF, 284) and also, "Freedom is the ontological
condition of ethics. But ethics is the considered form that freedom takes." (ECSPF, 284)
The Greeks, he tells us, used the word ethos to refer to a way of being or behavior, "the
concrete form of freedom." (ECSPF, 286) They saw being free, in the sense of not being
slaves of others or of their own passions, as very important. Only free men had the
opportunity to create a beautifril ethos, although doing so implied extensive work. For
them, men can only be ethical when they freely choose the life they want to live.
Defined this way, ethics does not amount to a theoretical area of philosophy, but
to a specific way of living - a way, moreover, that implies freedom. The word
'considered', however, tells us that Foucault still sees reflection as important, and thus,
that not just any type of life they happened to choose would be ethical. In order to be
ethical, as we will see, a life needs to agree with the games of truth of some group or
another. I will come back to this when we look at dialogue as one of the conditions for
designing a beautifiil life.
3.1 Four Aspects of the Relation of the Self to Itself
Foucault studied the relationship of the self to itself, and followed the way it changed
through the centuries through four different aspects or forms that this relationship
involves: ethical substance {substance ethique), mode of subjection {mode
d'assujettissement), self-forming activity or ascesis, {askesis in Greek, practique de soi
or I'ascetisme, in French) and telos {teleology) (OGE, 352-355). To understand each of
these aspects it is important to observe that we can always find different manners to
satisfy the requirements of a given moral code. These different manners point at different
aspects of the relationship of the self to itself To illustrate these aspects I will follow
Foucault's example of the precept of being a faithful husband.
Ethical substance refers to that part of the self that we see as important to become
moral subjects. We see this as the part of ourselves on which we have to work. We could
think that to become moral we need to control, for example, our desires, our acts, our
pleasures, or perhaps a combination of either of them. In our example we find different
possibilities. Someone might think that, to become a loyal husband, he simply needs not
to have any affairs the ethical substance in this case would be acts. Someone else,
however, might think that to be loyal he should feel no desire for any other woman,
except for his wife - in this case the ethical substance would be desire. Yet another
person might think that as long as he really loves and respects his wife he will be loyal,
even if he has occasional affairs. In this case the ethical substance is feelings. More
generally, different groups, moral schools and even historical periods might have
different ethical substances. We might suspect that at the present what we see as most
important are our feelings, and so, that for us, these constitute our ethical substance. In
contrast, for a Kantian, the ethical substance would be intention. Although it changed
through the centuries, for Christianity, for a long time, the ethical substance was desire.
For the ancient Greeks what was important was to act in relation to both pleasure and
desire. They for instance, admired philosophers who where in love with boys, but who
did not touch them.
Mode of subjection refers to the "the way in which the individual establishes his
relation to the rule and recognizes himself as obligated to put it into practice." (HS2, 27)
In our example, as Foucault tells us, the husband may feel the force of the precept to be
loyal for different reasons. He might want to follow the rule because he sees himself as
belonging to the group that upholds it. Alternatively, he might do it because he sees
himself as the heir of a tradition he feels the responsibility to keep. Or he might do it
because he sees this way of being as noble and wants to serve as an example for others.
More generally, today we are invited to recognize the rules we must follow through
reason, but during other historical periods people were invited to find them in religious
texts, the natural law or a cosmic order. The ancient Greeks understood their need to
follow certain ethical rules through an aesthetics of existence, which compelled them to
choose a beautiful or honorable life.
Self-forming activity, ethical work or ascesis refers to the "work one performs to
attempt to transform oneself into the ethical subject of one's behavior" or to "the means
by which we can change ourselves in order to become ethical subjects." (HS2, 27)
Nowadays, for instance, many people engage in psychoanalysis as a means to modify
their behavior. We often believe that getting to the root of a behavior will help us modify
it. We can thus see psychoanalysis and its required practice of confession as forms of
ascesis. Some people simply avoid situations in which they might be tempted to break
the moral rule. If a husband's ethical substance is action, simply avoiding situations in
which he might be unfaithful could be a form of ethical work. The stoics learned
precepts and doctrines by heart that would inform them in different situations how to
conduct themselves. Plutarch also upheld this form of ascesis: "You must leam the
principles in such a constant way that whenever your desires, appetites, and fears awake
like barking dogs, the logos will speak like the voice of the master who silences his dogs
with a single cry." (ECSPF, 286)
Finally telos refers to "the kind of being to which we aspire when we behave in a
moral way." (OGE, 355) The husband might want to be loyal as part of a larger way of
being which he wants to fulfill. He might want, for example, to be master of himself and
his actions. Alternatively, he may want not to be disturbed by the passions and achieve
tranquility, or he may want to be pure and win salvation after death.
3.2 Four Problematizations of Sexual Behavior
In volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality Foucault follows the changes in
all of these elements of the relationship of the self to himself from Ancient Greece to the
dawn of Christianity, as they apply to three main areas of problematization; the
relationship of men's sexual behavior to their health, their sexual relation to women and
the privileged position of their wives, and their sexual relation to boys or other men.
Foucault also refers to the changes of these elements as they apply to the relation between
sexual behavior and the conditions for wisdom. (HS2, 23)
3.3 Aesthetics of Existence
Contrary to what could be thought of as Foucault's goal, he does not seek to
rescue any particular ancient philosophy or ethical system; he finds disgusting many of
their views and practices, such as their having slaves and the way they treated women.
(OGE, 344, 346) What he finds attractive and thinks we can use at the present time is the
idea that we can freely choose to work on our own selves following notions of what
constitutes a beautifial life. He found this concept among the ancient Greeks and Romans
and called it aesthetics of existence. This defined "a manner of living whose moral value
did not depend either on its conformity to a code of behavior or on an effort of
purification but on... certain general formal principles in the use of pleasures, in the way
one distributes them, in the limits one observed, in the hierarchy one respected." (HS2,
89) Although he was not proposing to revive any specific practice or philosophical
school of antiquity, he saw the general orientation to ethics as an aesthetics of existence
as a possibility for today's world. In an interview, two months before he died he declared
"[I]f I was interested in Antiquity, it was because, for a whole series of reasons, the idea
of morality as obedience to a code of rules is now disappearing, has already disappeared.
And to this absence of morality corresponds, most correspond, the search for an
aesthetics of existence." (PPC, 49)
Following an aesthetics of existence constitutes an altemative to the more rational
determinations of the first type of moral systems we discussed earlier. Such moral
systems focus on a theoretical elaboration and justification of the moral code. We can
use some of Niko Kolodny's suggestions about Foucault's views on moral theory to
justify this alternative. According to Kolodny, as we saw last chapter, Foucault does not
deny the value of norms and normativity. He does, however, distrust moral theory, and
believes in the importance of developing something essentially untheorizable in the
resolution of ethical problems, namely, what he calls character or ethos. A very tenuous
link between theory and actual application makes it possible to justify all sorts of
offenses. The right application of theory requires good judgment, which caimot be
developed theoretically. The thought that people can determine truths merely by using
reason and through evidence accessible to anyone who can think correctly is a modem
idea that, according to Foucault, starts with Descartes. OGE, 372) In Antiquity, in
particular, what people accepted as truth depended on the character of the speaker and the
consistency between theory and practice in the speaker's life - between his logos and his
praxis. The epitome for this type of authority was Socrates. For Foucault, however, we
can only have this type of authority by following an aesthetics of existence through which
we develop character and good judgment and transform ourselves into the type of persons
who can tell the truth and be trusted.
Since Charles Taylor's philosophy also mistrusts unifying theories it does not
fully represent the type of moral philosophy Foucault rejects and sees as dangerous. In
so far as Taylor's method asks for concrete and local arguments not divorced from our
experience to decide what is good, it shares a feature with Foucault's form of critique.
Yet, as we have seen, Taylor still places the emphasis on reasoning to determine the set
of hypergoods we should follow. His method largely includes evaluating our desires,
which is only one of the different possibilities for our ethical substance. Furthermore,
such methodology, as we argued in Chapter 4, can sometimes lead us to see as
universally good that which is not really so, and because of this to normalize us beyond
what is necessary. Foucault's paramount concern is freedom. He sees following an
aesthetics of existence as a way to achieve this. People would follow such aesthetics of
existence by making the adoption of a given subjectivity or style of life a matter of
personal choices guided by certain aesthetic values. Of course, an aesthetics of existence
could in a different way also lead to normalization. I will come back to this objection
after expanding on Foucault's suggestion.
3.4 Care of the Self
Foucault was particularly interested in a precept the Greeks called epimeleia
heauto, and the Romans cura sui, and which we can translate as 'care of the self. This
precept is an important part of their aesthetics of existence. In 'The Cultivation of the
Self within Volume 3 of the History of Sexuality (HS3, 39-68) Foucault describes the
aesthetics of existence and the role of the care of the self in the first two centuries A.D.
Here he argues that the increased emphasis on sexual austerity practiced by the Stoics in
these centuries took "the form not of a tightening of the code that defined prohibited acts,
but of an intensification of the relations to oneself by which one constituted oneself as
the subject of one's acts." (HS3,41) The reward for those who were able to transform
themselves was the pleasure they experienced for what they had become: "The individual
who has finally succeeded in gaining access to himself is, for himself, an object of
pleasure." (HS3, 66)
These aesthetics of existence and care of the self also required knowledge and
thus were not completely divorced from the realm of truth. The ancient Greeks and
Romans needed to know not only themselves, but also rules and prescriptions of
acceptable conduct. "To take care of the self is to equip oneself with these truths. This is
where ethics is linked to the game of truth." (ECSPF, 285) Yet, these games of truth
were also different for people following different styles of life or philosophical schools.
3.5 Styles of Life
Foucault, influenced by Pierre Hadot and his interpretation of ancient
philosophers, understands philosophy as a way of life through which we leam to think
and act differently. Foucault writes "The essay... is the living substance of philosophy,
at least if we assume that philosophy is still what it was in times past, i.e., an ascesis,
askesis, an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought." (HS2, 9) Arnold Davidson
makes a distinction between this concept of a way of life and that of style of life.
(Davidson 1994, 123) To explain the idea of philosophy as a way of life, Davidson
quotes Hadot:
to be a philosopher implies a rupture with what the skeptics called bios, that is,
daily life...
This very rupture between the philosopher and the conduct of everyday
life is strongly felt by nonphilosophers... philosophers are strange, a race apart.
Strange indeed are those Epicureans, who led a frugal life, practicing a total
equality between men and women inside their philosophical circle - and even
between married women and courtesans; strange too those Roman Stoics who
disinterestedly administer the provinces of the Empire entrusted to them and are
the only one to take seriously the laws promulgated against excess... (Hadot
Spring 1990,491-492)
Each of the philosophical schools then - Epicureans, Stoics, Platonists, Cynics, Skeptics
- embodied the philosophical way of life. At the same time, each of them represented a
particular style of life of this general way of life. According to Davidson each of these
styles of life was characterized by a particular form of ethical substance, mode of
subjection, self-forming activity, and telos. He writes, "To indicate what part of oneself
one judges, how one relates oneself to moral obligation, what one does to transform
oneself into an ethical subject, and what mode of being one aims to realize is to indicate
how one lives, is to characterize one's style of life." (Davidson 1994,125)
4 An Aesthetics of Existence to Avoid Normalization
With these concepts we can come back to Foucault's suggestion of rescuing this
morality centered on ethics or freely choosing and developing forms of subjectivity
through an aesthetics of existence. For Foucault, this form of ethics would allow us to
avoid normalization (OGE, 341) and to increase our concrete forms of freedom. (ECSPF,
286) We carmot find normalization, for instance, in the Stoics, who practiced an
aesthetics of existence. We see this from the facts that 1) within this form of ethics rules
or prescriptions are not imposed from the outside, but freely chosen, and that 2) this form
of ethics could only be pursued by a few free men and was not destined for the entire
population. (OGE, 341) As we saw last chapter the problem with normalization is the
degree it has reached in our society. To live in society, we all need to follow certain
norms, but after the rise of disciplinary power, the pressure of being normal has spread
too far in our lives. Being normal does not merely mean following the norm, but being a
specific type of person - the correct one. To be considered an adequate human being we
all need to have certain weight, psychology, education, type of desires, fmancial
ambitions, types of relations, and so on. Of course, a pressure to conform has always
existed, but now we believe that if we do not fall within these norms there is something
objectively wrong with us. We can avoid this form of normalization by working on our
lives ~ through a form of care of the self ~ to give them a beautiful form or ethos of our
own choice. To be meaningfiil, these would still have to be lives that others respect or
admire and of which we could feel proud, but they would not have to be the way a main
discourse tells me they should be and with which everybody would have to agree.
Resisting arbitrary norms does not mean we do not need to follow a moral code.
If Foucault sees an aesthetics of existence as an alternative it is because of the similarities
we can find between ours and societies that followed such ethics. He writes, "since we
can see very well that some of the main principles of our ethics have been related at a
certain moment to an aesthetics of existence... this kind of historical analysis can be
usefiil." (OGE, 350) As we saw above, the history of ethics shows us that we can find
many different ways of applying the code. Because of this, we have more fi* eedom than
we usually realize in the way we follow it. Along this lines Foucault writes; "My idea is
that it's not at all necessary to relate ethical problems to scientific knowledge. Among
the cultural inventions of mankind there is a treasury of devices, techniques, ideas,
procedures, and so on, that carmot exactly be reactivated, but at least constitute or help to
constitute, a certain point of view which can be very useful as a tool for analyzing what's
going on now - and to change it." (OGE, 349-350) After seeing that the different
elements of the relationship of the self to the self can take different forms, we can see that
the ones our age presents to us constitute only one set among different possibilities. Just
as it occurred for the ancient world, we would still be following a moral code, but the
focus would be on what we do to ourselves to become who we want to become. This
aesthetics of existence and care of the self is not an element of a particular philosophical
school, but the general attitude that characterized all of them and which peaked during
the first two centuries A.D. Foucault's suggestion for our time then is not choosing one
among a past number of styles of life or philosophical schools. I believe we can find in
today's society different groups that might allow us this aesthetic approach.
One specific subculture Foucault saw as following this type of morality was the
gay and lesbian commvmity of the last decades in cities such as San Francisco and New
York. I will expand on this modem example in a section below. For the moment I just
want to point out that other communities, such as religious groups and organizations for
self-improvement, also fit Foucault's description of a style of life. Religious
organizations, for instance, have very specific ideas of the ethical substance, the mode of
subjugation, the ascetical practices and the telos to be achieved by their adherents.
Foucault himself describes some of these elements for Christianity. We also find these
four elements characterizing the relationship of the self to itself in contemporary self
improvement groups^^. In mentioning these examples, however, I am not advocating all
of them. We know fiill well the dangers of blindly following some cults, which also
seem to offer the four different elements of the relationship of the self to itself. In joining
any of these groups we still need to be critical and exercise reason. As I have been
arguing, this is also Foucault's position.
I am thinking ofgroups such as AlcohoUcs Anonymous,and educational organizations such as Landmark
and the Kairos Foundation. The last two offer training seminars to help people become conscious ofwhat
theywant in life and to achieve it.
4.1 Dialogical Artistic Ethos and Communities of Action
How exactly are we to develop these new styles of life? As we have seen Foucault
proposed reviving an aesthetics or art of existence. The final goal of adopting this way of
living was creating our lives as 'works of art': "From the idea that the self is not given to
us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a
work of art." (QGE, 351) He criticized Sartre's idea that the art we develop must reflect
our authenticity or inauthenticity: "In his analyses of Baudelaire, Flaubert, etc., it is
interesting to see that Sartre refers the work of creation to a certain relation to oneself -
the author to himself - which has the form of authenticity or of inauthenticity. I would
like to say exactly the contrary, we should not have to refer the creative activity of
somebody to the kind of relation he has to himself, but should relate the kind of relation
one has to oneself to a creative activity." (OGE, 351) Foucault also acknowledges that
his position is much closer to Nietzsche than to Sartre in that stylizing one's life requires
"long practice and daily work". (OGE, 351)^"^
Contrary to what Charles Taylor suggests, Foucault does not propose to make this
aesthetic elaboration in isolation from others. Taylor objects that Foucault concentrates
on the creative side of expressive language and forgets about our dialogical nature and
frameworks or horizons of significance. For him, "the frendy doctrines of
'deconstruction'... sfress (A.l), the constructive, creative nature of our expressive
Sartre's thought is beyond the scope ofthis dissertation. I onlywant to comment that Foucault does not
seem fair to Sartre in this criticism. For Sartre,"existence precedes essence",which in part means that we
create ourselves with our choices and there is no true selfwe must discover. We are authentic when we
choose and take responsibilityfor our choices; otherwise we are inauthentic and have "bad faith". This,it
seems to me, could be reflected in an artist's work.
languages, while altogether forgetting (B.l) [openness to horizons of significance]. And
they capture the extremer forms of (A.iii), the amoralism of creativity, while forgetting
(B.ii), its dialogical setting, which binds us to others." (EA, 67) However, for Foucault
we do not find new ideas of the good in isolation, but in interaction with others. About
the relationship to others in his studies of ancient care of the self, for example, Foucault
tells us: "the care of the self also implies a relationship with the other insofar as proper
care of the self requires listening to the lessons of a master. One needs a guide, a
counselor, a fiiend, someone who will be truthful to you." (ECSPF, 286) This care of the
self, an essential component of an aesthetics of existence, then^ implies dialogue, or at
least interaction, with others. We also see this acknowledgment of the need for
frameworks and of a cormection to others in what he tells us about practices of freedom.
The practices of the self that subjects use as part of their liberation, Foucault tells us, are
not "something invented by the individual himself They are models that he finds in his
culture and are proposed, suggested and imposed on him by his culture, his society or his
social group." (ECSPF, 291) These practices, which the individual learns from or
together with others, presuppose certain frameworks, otherwise they would not make any
sense. Finally in an interview, he is explicit about his endorsement of dialogue. When
asked why he does not engage in polemics, he differentiates between dialogue and
polemics and answers,
I insist in this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at
stake, the morality that concerns the search for the truth and the relation to the
other. In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal
elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the
discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the
question is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain
unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to
emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, etc. As for the
person answering the question he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the
discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse he is tied to what he has said
earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of the
other. (PPP, 381)
This is Foucault's attitude towards dialogue in general. We can thus assume that this is
the type of interaction he would propose for a group or community of action.
Foucault's declarations about the role of intellectuals and regular citizens in the
task of creating new subjectivities also imply dialogue with others. He opposed what he
called the 'universal intellectual' as someone dictating from his high chair what was best
for everybody else. Yet, he saw an important function for what he called the 'particular
intellectual,' who from the domain of her particular area of expertise could question and
challenge accepted assumptions and norms. He tells us:
The work of an intellectual is... through the analyses he carries in his own field,
to question over and over again what is postulated as self-evident, to disturb
people's mental habits, the way they do and think things, to dissipate what is
familiar and accepted, to reexamine rules and institutions and on the basis of this
reproblematization (in which he carries out his specific task as an intellectual) to
participate in the formation of a political will (in which he has his role as citizen
to play) (PPC, 265).
These intellectuals, then, problematize certain acts, practices and thoughts in their
respective fields, making genealogies to show people the contingency of some of the
ways they think and act. But, for Foucault, they should also encourage citizens to form
"communities of action" to find solutions to these problems, that is, to develop new
practices, and ways of thinking and acting. These communities, however, do not have to
exist before the problematization. They may form in response to it. Foucault refers to
these communities in answering to a charge raised by Richard Rorty, which could as well
have been raised by Taylor. "R. Rorty points out that in these analyses I do not appeal to
any 'we' - to any of those 'we's' whose consensus, whose values, whose traditions
constitute the framework for a thought and define the conditions in which it can be
validated... it seems to me that the 'we' must not be previous to the question; it can only
be the result -and the necessary temporary result -of the question as it is posed in the
new terms in which one formulates it." (PPP, 385) As an example he tells us that when
he and others wrote about the history of madness, he was not addressing any preexisting
'we'. "But the problem posed itself to those who had read us, as it also posed itself to
some of us, of seeing if it was possible to form a 'we'... that would also be likely to form
a community of action." (PPP, 385) This reference to a new 'we' that can form a new
community of action makes sense. People can be blind to their own oppression, until
someone articulates it. Alternatively, they may realize such oppression exists, but not
know what to do about it. Dialogue with others sharing our concerns allows us to find
those new ways of thinking and acting constitutive of new subjectivities.
For Foucault, then, such communities of action are an essential part of a political
strategy to create new ways of thinking and acting, that is, new subjectivities. As Tully
puts it, for Foucault, the aim is "to see if there are citizens that can develop the reasons
and will to form a 'community of action' to experiment with the 'transgression' of this
specific limit [of our ways of thinking and acting] in practice, by challenging the perhaps
imiversal claims to truth or rightness which legitimize it, by contesting the relations of
power that guide us to act in accord with it or to change the ethical practices involved."
(Tully, 98) Some of the specific limits that Foucault studied and which opened new
political questions were those around the areas of sanity and insanity, crime and
punishment, and sexuality. These proposed commimities of action it seems to me, must
also be dialogical commimities. It would be unlikely that people could "develop the
reasons and the will" to form them if they were simply imposed from the top, wherever
that might be.
Our participation in such communities of action agrees with our dialogical nature
and, more specifically, with one of the conditions Taylor establishes for being a self. In
Sources of the Self, Taylor tells us that the self can only exist in "webs of interlocution".
That is, it can only exist among and for other selves with whom it shares a language in
which her notions of the good make sense (SS, 36). Our first web of interlocution is that
of the adults from whom we learned the language and our original notions of the good.
But as we grow up we often change webs, producing a concomitant change in our
identity. This identity is defined not only by what we acknowledge as good, but also by
the groups to which we take ourselves to belong. Taylor should agree then that entering
into new communities of action does not mean that we abandon all frameworks. It might
only mean that we are taking a more experimental attitude and sometimes challenging
The communities of action that first come to mind are those involved within the
feminist movement and those of racial and sexual minorities. But potentially, as
Foucault's own examples show, the less expected groups of people could form new
communities of action. The fewer constraints we find for the spontaneous formation of
groups with different views and perspectives, the more possibility exists for different
practices of freedom. Of course, there needs to be a non-arbitrary limit to the different
practices. Granted this need, we can see the democratic potential of Foucault's
4.2 An Aesthetics of Existence for Modern Times; The GayWayof Life
It is the people most affected by a type of subjectivity that for some reason is seen
as problematic, then, who can develop in conjvinction with others new subjectivities or
styles of life. Consistent with his own propositions, Foucault makes his clearest
suggestions, if still somewhat sketchy, on a type of subjectivity he assxmies, what we now
call gay subjectivity. Along these lines he speaks of a homosexual ascesis, as a practice
that would transform someone with this subjectivity into someone with a new style of
life. One goal of homosexuality is, he writes, "to advance into a homosexual askesis that
would make us work on ourselves and invent, I do not say discover, a manner of being
that is still improbable." (FWL, 137) We can in fact think on what gays and lesbians
have been doing in the last decades to create new forms of relationships, new forms of
love and new cultural expressions as a form of modem ascesis. Through different
practices, such as coming out of the closet, talking about their experiences, getting
together in public spaces, celebrating the body in different ways, and fighting for their
rights, gays and lesbians have struggled and continue to struggle to create a new way of
By a way of life Foucault means an extended form or style of life. He writes:
This notion of mode of life seems important to me. Will it require a
diversification different from the ones due to social class, differences and
profession and culture, a diversification that would also be a form of relationship
and would be a 'way of life'? A way of life can be shared among individuals of
different ages, status and social activity. It can yield intense relations not
resembling those that are institutionalized. It seems to me that a way of life can
yield a culture and an ethics. To be 'gay' is not to identify with the psychological
traits of the homosexual but to try to define and develop a way of life. (FWL, 138)
Of course homosexual relations have always existed. But we can argue that a gay
way of life is something historically new. Part of its newness resides in its being public
and publicly discussed. This publicity implies another new characteristic, namely the
socialization within larger and more organized groups such as bars, social and political
organizations, parades, sport clubs, commimity care centers and so on. Also, lesbian and
gay relationships, and roles within them, seem to have developed a multiplicity of forms
in recent decades. Many, but by no means all, gays and lesbians, set very different rules
for their relationships in terms of fidelity, communication or duration as compared to
those in heterosexual relationships. We find for example, many couples that have explicit
agreements on what they can do sexually outside the relationship; some are open to have
sexual encounters with others, but only if they do it together; although very rare, a few
have long term relationships that involve not two, but three partners. In general, at least
in the case of gays, these relationships point to a type of love less possessive than the one
we generally see in monogamous straight relationships . We also see diversity in the
way many lesbians and gays divide financial, household and family responsibilities and
tasks. This diversity is what Foucault seems to have in mind when he asks: "What
relationships, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, modulated?" (FWL,
Some characteristics support an essentialism about sexual differentiation that contrasts with Foucault's
constructivism. Thus,heterosexual and homosexual males tend to want more sexual partners than
heterosexual and homosexual females. That some gaycouples seem less possessive might onlybe because
often both partners,being and seeking other male sexual partners,have more opportunities than their
heterosexual counterparts.
Among the practices Foucault mentions as forms of homosexual ascesis we find
very specific sexual practices, such as bondage and sadomasochism. For Foucault,
practices like these do not reveal a pathological form of sexuality or the low self-esteem
of the practitioners. Rather, they represent an example of strategic use of play to create
or enhance pleasure. Most practitioners, he tells us, know full well that it is a game.
(Gallagher, 29-30; Halperin 1995, 86) In Chapter 4 I referred to a distinction Foucault
makes between desire and pleasure and to how we can use searching for the second one
as a form of resistance. These sexual practices represent an example of such use. They
have helped homosexuals escape psychological and moralizing discourses which seem to
say 'tell me your desire, and I will tell you who you are'.
But these extreme sexual practices are only one example of homosexual ascesis,
and perhaps not the most defensible^^. Holding hands, showing tenderness in public and
'coming out' constitute other forms of resistance and practices of the self. In fact,
everything and anything that helps gays shatter the psychological conditioning and social
impositions of heterosexual normativity and to feel better about themselves could count
as resistance and practices of the self
In what way, we might ask, does a gay way of life correspond to what used to be a
style of life that would constitute an ethical subject? Becoming gay counts as an ethical
matter because, at least as Foucault envisions it, constitutes an elaboration of our
freedom. A gay way of life, as Foucault describes it, would imply creating new forms of
In the "GayDaddy",within Homos, Leo Bersanipresents a powerfol challenge to Foucault's
interpretation ofS/M as a form ofaskesis.
relationship that allow some people to have more dignity and joy in their lives. Such a
life promises the self-respect and self-esteem that comes with not having to hide part of
our experience and also, according to Foucault, more friendship and camaraderie. Gays
and lesbians see this as a beautiful life. For Foucault, we cannot discover something like
this through psychology or scientia sexualis. We rather need an aesthetics of existence.
Some Greek and Roman men of antiquity pursued different forms of sexual austerity in
order to give their lives beauty and prestige. "In a way" Foucault writes "it's the same in
the twentieth century when people, in order to get a more beautiful life, tried to get rid of
all the sexual repression of their society." (OGE, 349)
Also, a style of life, according to Davidson, was characterized by a specific form
for each of the four elements of the relationship to oneself We can find these elements in
the gays circles of San Francisco in the 1970's in which Foucault moved. They are:
pleasure or joy as the ethical substance, an aesthetics of existence as the mode of
subjection, different sexual and social practices as ascesis, and the making of one's life a
work of art as the telos. Of course, I do not think most of the gay people Foucault saw as
doing this were conscious of exercising these relationships with themselves. But once we
look at their lives these are the elements we can detect or the ones we see with more
potential to resist normalization. Many of these gays resisted and continue to resist for
instance, not only the norm of only having sex with members of the opposite sex, but also
norms about how to do it, where and with how many. They also resist discriminating
laws and cultural norms about how to dress, talk and relate to each other. This resistance
showed in the dissatisfaction of many with an assimilationist gay movement that wanted
them to be discreet and downplay their differences.
5 Normalizing Tendencyin the Application of Taylor's Model
As I mentioned earlier, Taylor's moral philosophy also opposes finding a single
theory to define the moral. Instead, it asks us to stay close to and take seriously our
moral and spiritual reactions and intuitions. In this sense, it does not represent the type of
philosophy that according to Kolodny focuses on theory and which Foucault opposes.
On the other hand, its goal of finding goods and hypergoods to follow still provides a
way to develop a moral code. As I also argued this is not something that Foucault rejects.
He, at least in his last writings, is not a moral relativist and still believes we can find
moral principles worth preserving. In what follows, however, I argue that Taylor's model
makes us expect fewer distinctions of the good than Foucault's. Because of this, I argue,
it keeps the risk of leading us to more normalization than is needed or desirable.
One reason for still thinking that Taylor's model could lead us to normalization
comes fi-om the universality of his suggestions to determine distinctions of the good. If
we analyze his methodology through Foucault's grid of intelligibility, we see that he
takes four specific ethical elements as the ones we should all follow. These four elements
seem to be: desire and acts as ethical substance, hermeneutics as mode of subjection,
introspection and rational discussion with others as ascesis, and realizing an authentic or
higher form of the self as the telos. I do not want to argue here that these four elements
lead to more normalization than other combinations. I only notice that Taylor does not
take into account that, as Foucault would argue, these elements constitute only one set
among many different possibilities. As we saw before, realizing that in the past people
have had other combinations, let us see that we could design very different ethical lives.
On the other hand, as we also discussed when mentioning the dangers of cults, we always
need to keep some form of reason or critical thinking as part of our mode of subjection.
It might be that either combination of elements (Taylor's or Foucault's) leads us
to the same choice. The overeater of Taylor's example (Chapter 3, Section 3.2) could
decide to control his eating in both cases. In Foucault's case the person will do it out of a
personal aesthetic choice, not in the sense of physical beauty, but in the more general
sense of an admirable character and style of life. Her choice of a beautiful life could be
one in which she can control herself and be responsible for her health. But she might
reject this aesthetic ideal and embrace or develop with others a hedonist model that sees a
beautiftil life as one that offers many opportunities to enjoy sensuous pleasures, among
them the pleasure of eating. In Taylor's case the person will have to control her eating
because, if she is reasoning correctly, this is the only possible correct behavior. As we
saw in Chapter 3, Section 4.3, generally, a confrontation of frameworks should lead us to
find the one that is objectively superior. This would be the one disclosed by our best
accoimt. Finding this framework would allow us to see the goods and hypergoods we
need to be authentic. If these are indeed objective, everybody should feel their force and
be moved by them. The danger of normalization comes when one of the discourses or
games of truth, say that of science or a moral tradition, has become so entrenched that we
carmot see other options. This, as we said, would not be a fault in Taylor's method, but a
danger we could find in the application of his model.
Something else Taylor says, however, leaves open the possibility that his model
itself leads to fewer acceptable distinctions of the good as compared with Foucault's. For
Taylor, we should always be able to approach more adequate articulations of what is truly
important. His objectivist ontology entails that in the end these articulations should
disclose only one or at most very few correct answers of what our motivations should
be. We can see this through what he tells us about the way language helps constitute our
motivations and evaluations.
He acknowledges that, in contrast to what happens with the description of
physical objects, the language we use to describe our motivations and experiences
changes those motivations and experiences. At the same time, and working in the
opposite direction, the experiences we have restrict the type of language we can use to
describe those experiences. From the two influences, Taylor sees the second as stronger:
"That description and experience are bound together in this constitutive relation admits of
causal influences in both directions: it can sometimes allow us to alter experience by
coming to fresh insight; but more fundamentally it circumscribes insight through the
deeply embedded shape of experience for us." (HAL, 37) Coming back to our example,
the overeater's experience of disgust with himself, would demarcate the description of his
motivation and what he holds important. If he were to say, for instance, that he only
wants to lose some weight, and that his experience does not have anything to do with
seeing as more dignified a life of self-control, he would be deluding himself For Taylor,
then, we can find "more or less adequate, more or less truthfiil, more self-clairvoyant or
self-deluding interpretations" (HAL, 38) of our motivations and what we hold as
important. But he also thinks that we are responsible for our evaluations. New insight, in
the shape of more accurate articulations, can lead us to more illuminating evaluations:
"within the limits of my capacity to change myself by fresh insight, within the limits of
the first direction of causal influence I am responsible... for my evaluations." (HAL, 39.
Such re-evaluation is particularly important for all those motivations and ideas of the
good that are closest to us and give us our sense of identity.
For Taylor, then, we can have more or less adequate, more or less truthful
interpretations not only of our actual motivations, but also of what they should he.
Although re-evaluations are always possible, his objectivist ontology entails that in the
end we should find only one or, at best, very few correct answers of which those
motivations should be. Fresh insight should lead us to refine our evaluations and find
what is truly important. I argued in Chapter 3 that Taylor's account would allow us to
choose between competing personal and optional hypergoods. But we can only do this, if
we can indeed recognize through equally compelling articulations ~ both as
hypergoods. At least in oiu* example, Taylor seems to see only the option of a life of self-
control as the real hypergood.
We can defend Taylor by arguing that he is simply not going on with an
illustration of re-evaluation in this particular case and that this is not necessarily his final
answer. His model, anyway, tells us that the process could always go on. Furthermore,
even if this model only allows that in the end we find only one or very few hypergoods,
these could still be well justified, and thus would not constitute an arbitrary form of
As I argued in chapter 3, however, we still find one element that seems to lead to
normalization, namely, the requirement that for each distinction of the good, potentially
we all agree on what we see as good. I argued there that this expectation of agreement
makes us likely to overlook alternative visions of what is good and thus leads to a
reduction of the possible ways of being authentic. For Taylor we seem to be discovering
something good in itself. Because of this, the process of articulation should lead
everybody to agree on such goodness. For Foucault, in contrast, many distinctions of the
good do not require universal acceptance. As we will see in Chapter 6, Section 4.2, we
can see a genealogy as successful when it counts on the support of a community and
remains in the field of free and open discussion. In a similar way, to accept new practices
of freedom and new forms of subjectivity as distinctions of the good we only need the
support of some communities of action (and of course, that they do not contradict more
established moral norms). Foucault promotes accepting distinctions of the good with less
then universal agreement, not out of realizing the pragmatic difficulty for achieving
agreement. Rather, informed by his historical studies, he believes that different
rationalities and games of truth can lead us to different compelling distinctions of what is
The difference comes from their divergent positions with regard to rationality.
For Taylor, a rational, hermeneutical process can lead us, in the limit, to an objective,
realistic ontology of the good. For Foucault, there is not one privileged form of
rationality that can determine the whole of our ontology of the good. He acknowledges
that we can find some more stable limits (moral norms) which, we can add, different
rationalities or truth regimes have supported through time. His genealogies intend to
show, however, that much of what we think could be otherwise. To the extent that we
see these genealogies as successful and we accept other forms of thinking as valid, we
can accept that not everybody has to agree on our ontology of the good. This view is
particularly adequate to determine optional distinctions of the good.
We can cast this difference between Taylor and Foucault in terms of what we can
see as their views of ethics as a form of aesthetics. We note that Taylor's methodology
also includes an aesthetic element. A strong evaluation is characterized not as a cold
calculation, but as something that moves us. (SS, 73) For Taylor, we see the goods or
hypergoods resulting from our strong evaluations as higher, more noble, admirable or
praiseworthy - which we can see as aesthetic terms. For him we would all need to agree,
if we are rational, on our evaluation. For Foucault, on the other hand, our different
ethical elements can lead us to see as beautiful different ways of life, or in Taylor's terms,
distinctions of the good.
A different example comes from the area we discussed above of a gay way of life.
Part of the lesbian and gay community is currently advocating the right of same-sex
marriage. We can approve of this political struggle as a move toward equality of all
citizens. At the same time, many within the lesbian and gay community are not
particularly inspired by this fight. They fear that same sex marriage would be a move
toward normalization. This struggle supports, using Foucault's language, the regime of
truth and power that sees the 'good' and 'healthy' gays and lesbians as all those that stay
together in stable, committed and monogamous relationships, modeled after the ideal of
heterosexual couples. This model leaves out or plainly discredits as promiscuous,
unstable, dangerous, and so forth, other types of relationships that we see within the gay
and lesbian community.
My own position is similar to Foucault's. For him, gays and lesbians should fight
for some basic rights, including the right to marry: "It is important... to have the
possibility ~ and the right - to choose your own sexuality. Human rights regarding
sexuality are important." (Gallagher, 27) But this should only be the beginning or part of
liberation. He complained about the paucity of types of relationships that we have as
options: "We live in a relational world that institutions have considerably impoverished"
(Le Bitoux, 39; FWL, 139). Gay and lesbians, thanks to their marginal position, can
experiment and design new practices and forms of relationship. For him, being a
homosexual, is not something one discovers, but something one creates - a historic
opportunity^^. "Homosexuality is a historic opportunity to open up new relational and
affective potentialities {virtualites\, not in terms of qualities intrinsic to the homosexual,
but because the position of the homosexual 'off center,' somehow, together with the
diagonal lines which the homosexual can draw through the social fabric, makes it
possible to bring to light these potentialities." (Le Bitoux, 39; FWL, 138)
I hold the liberal position that, as long as people are not infringing on the rights of
others or indulging in their own frivolous concerns while disregarding the needs of
others, they have a right to live their lives in the way they want. Many oppressed
minorities live miserably because they caimot conform to society's sanctioned ways of
life. We could think of some actions we could justifiably disallow - many would think,
for instance, of child sex abuse. Yet we could think of many other actions that we
arbitrarily exclude because of the prejudice that comes with oiir established discourses
and practices.
Foucault used the word 'homosexual' as we now use the term 'gay'. Arguably"homosexual" denotes
the individual that feels sexuallyattracted to other persons ofthe same gender. Being gaydenotes a
particular wayofassuming that psychological condition.
A person within the gay and lesbian community, wanting to decide what type of
life he wants to live, could follow Taylor's model of practical reason. In doing this,
however, he hardly has a balanced playing field. It seems to me that for all practical
purposes, a balanced argument between defenders of a monogamous lifestyle and say,
one of multiple partners would not be possible. The monogamous position has behind it
the support of a whole regime of truth constituted by psychologists, sociologists, and
moral and religious discourses. These may come to tolerate the alternative position, but
not to see it as representing what is best for the person. I contend that Taylor's account
of practical reason would lead us to think that one practice or type of relationship, say,
monogamy, represents an objectively superior good over, say, polygamy or having
multiple sexual partners. Ovir present scientific, moral and religious discowses help
create the games of truth that let us know what counts as true and what does not. In order
to have their rights validated, marginalized minorities need to confi-ont the dominant
regime through the games of truth bom out of their own discourses and experiences.
What could a multiple-partner homosexual say to convince even their monogamous gay
fiiends that theirs too is a worthy lifestyle? They have to deal with all sorts of arguments
fi-om accusations of low self-esteem to the dangers of contracting AIDS, all stemming
from the scientific and moral discourses of the established truth regime.
In Chapter 5, Section 6 I pointed out how in the Ethics of Authenticity Taylor
writes about how developing an iimer sense of identity requires long-lasting, corrmiitted
relationships and not only uncommitted, self-serving, fleeting ones. In that chapter I
developed one way of justifying, through strong evaluations, the superiority of the first
type of relationships over the second ones. I argued there that we can articulate our
intuitions in favor of the first type of relationships through distinctions of the good, such
as romance, love, intimacy, stability and loyalty. We can articulate our intuitions in favor
of the second type of relationships through distinctions such as diversity, adventure, and
non-possessive love. From the perspective of the first option, when we evaluate strongly,
the second looks superficial and fiivolous. From the perspective of non-committed
relationships, however, committed relationships might look rigid, boring, and possessive.
To choose between these two options we must continue our articulations until we find an
interpretation with the distinctions that move us and let us see more clearly what we
want. Moreover, for Taylor, since these distinctions must have phenomenological
objectivity, they must also move others. Also according to him, achieving authenticity
requires us opting for long lasting committed relationships. (EA, 49-53) He would then
seem to believe that after strong evaluation, we should all potentially agree on seeing
committed, long-lasting relationships as the higher option.
Perhaps Taylor's method could allow us to see the two different forms of
relationships as optional and worthy possibilities. Because of this optional nature, people
choosing either of them could still be their best selves and still count as authentic. But
even if I am wrong, and Taylor's hermeneutical method could lead us to see more
radically deviant sexualities as commendable, I believe that this would be very difficult to
accomplish in practice. With this I come back to what I was talking before about not
having a balanced playing field. I believe that most people would agree with Taylor in
seeing real, romantic, committed love as a hxrnian achievement and as superior to a life of
promiscuity with multiple partners. We are and have been invited for a long time now by
family, religion, and the media to see the first option as natural and normal. Yet, there
are many people - and not just many gays and lesbians ~ who caimot adapt to this model.
We live in a culture that, in spite of its talk about great advance in this area, sees sex as
shameful. This culture, as Michael Warner describes in The Trouble with Normal, uses a
politics of shame to suppress any expression of sexual variance. Even in liberal Western
urban settings, in order to be accepted, sexual minorities must downplay their sexual
differences and stress their similarities with members of mainstream society. The mass
media, invites gays and lesbians to recognize themselves as normal, while presenting an
assortment of stereotypes to be rejected. But if gays and lesbians have to suppress what
makes them different and form a community in the first place, how are they supposed to
negotiate respect for that very difference? Under these circumstances it results extremely
difficult to carry out a dialogue as the one Taylor (or Habermas) describes.
To have real dialogue, I believe, gays and lesbians as well as all other shamed
sexual minorities must start by doing some work on themselves. They must work on
getting rid of their shame and developing an aesthetics of existence. This, I believe, can
only be done in direct association with other people in the same situation. Through these
associations we can leam that normality is a myth and we can appreciate real diversity.
This is where Foucault work of ascesis is fundamental. We cannot even start the
conversation with those who hold an opposite view when we are ashamed. Also, as I
discussed last chapter, our coming to be moved by some articulation rather than another
depends on oxir having been acculturated into the tastes or aesthetics of a particular
regime or culture. Many gays and lesbians, like most children, grow up seeing as
beautifiil the life of an heterosexual married couple with children. This is the model that
family, school, church, media and a good deal of literature instill in us. Any deviation
from it is often ridiculed. To develop an alternative view of a beautiful life, gays and
lesbians usually need the support of other gays and lesbians who help them get rid of
their shame. It is within these communities that we start to learn to accept ourselves and
find models beyond those proposed by the dominant society.
Gays and lesbians in the last decades have created what Foucault would call
'styles of life' in which they have the opportunity to experience different practices that
allow them to start to think differently and escape the limits of what we normally think
and do. The experience of these practices, however, must not be something sporadic. In
his later writings about care of the self, as we have seen, Foucault insists on the
importance of practice or an ascesis to really transform who we are. For him, stylizing
one's life requires "long practice and daily work". (OGE, 351) Thus, the resisting that
we are describing does not consist in sporadic moments of being out of the closet, but in
really 'practicing being gay'. Also, to truly create a new style of life the practices must
not be separate from the rest of a person's life. In an interview, Foucault declares
"[These] sexual choices ought to be at the same time creators of ways of life. To be gay
signifies that these choices diffiise themselves across the entire life; it is also a certain
manner of refiising the modes of life offered." (Halperin, 77, 78; Joecker, 24)
It is only after participation in a given lifestyle then, that people find themselves
in a better position to defend it. Of course, someone might always imaginatively try
participating in a specific lifestyle and see whether they would want to do it in actuality.
But for this to happen, the lifestyle must be available in the culture as a live option. To
return to our example, the gay proponent of a multiple-partner lifestyle would still have
to acknowledge the validity of arguments about the dangers of contracting STD's. He
might have to modify the Ufestyle by, for example, practicing safe sex. But now he is in
a better place to argue and trust that his style of life does not come from low self-esteem,
but from the legitimate reason that he has other ways to enjoy his sexuality. In this
argument he would be confronting the dominant regime through the games of truth bom
out of his own experience.
Someone could object that an aesthetics of existence could just as likely lead to
normalization as Taylor's model of practical reason. After all, many people today suffer
the tyranny of an ideal of beauty which they both cannot reach and nevertheless find very
difficult to let go. I will address this sensible objection in Section 7.
6 An Aesthetics of Existence to Increase Authenticity
I contend that we can always follow this aesthetics of existence - particularly in areas
where we experience some deficit or loss ~ to become more authentic. Proposing to
become authentic might sound like rejecting Foucault's suggestion that we become a
work of art as our telos. However, I see these two forms of telos as the same. I had taken
as being authentic Herders' definition of being truthful to oneself and to one's original
way of being human. To become "a work of art", I believe, we need to follow Herder's
conditions for authenticity. As we discussed in chapter I, being authentic does not consist
of one original way of being that we have to discover and follow. We can develop many
forms of being authentic, and yet, something internal must guide our choices. Foucault
seems to have opposed this proposal. As we saw above, he criticized Sartre's idea that
the art we develop reflects our authenticity. One can argue however, that an artist, in
order to create, needs to be inspired or moved by something. Her aesthetic and thematic
choices cannot be the product of an arbitrary selection. Even if the artist is going to
develop an entirely original style, and this development calls for creativity and hard
work, she still needs to pay attention to something internal. For this reason I believe, we
can still see the emerging work of art as a reflection of authenticity.
Foucault's description of subjectivity as the product of external forces, however,
seems to deny the existence of anything internal. Last chapter I made a distinction
between subject and self, which can help resolve this difficulty. We can make sense of
Foucault's account if we see the self, with a capacity for agency, as an entity activated by
the extemal forces that form us as embodied subjects. As we saw last chapter, in
becoming such subjects, we often participate in our own subjugation. Furthermore,
Foucault's conceptualization of power requires that we have the possibility of resisting or
acting in a way different from what is desired or expected. These features imply that,
even for Foucault, we have a capacity for agency and self-criticism, that is, something
like an internal voice that can direct our choices. From where, however, can such an
internal voice come in Foucault's account?
A model that can help us make sense of Foucault's propositions is that of a
Moebius strip. This is the curious figure that we get when we twist a band by 180 and
join the two ends. By doing this, we create a single continuously curved surface on
which the exterior discreetly becomes the interior and the other way around. Lacan uses
this model as a metaphor for the self and as a way to resolve some of its dichotomies.
This model is helpfial if ~ as I claim Foucault would agree ~ the self is not merely the
product of "extemal" forces. In contrast to the model of a ring or a sphere, we do not
have either a clear opposition between an interior and an exterior. What we find, rather.
is a dialectical relationship between inner and outer experiences. What we want
(something internal) depends in part on power relationships that we face (something
external). My career choice, for example, depends on the different options I have been
exposed to and the sort of training I have had. These experiences help shape what I want.
Yet, these are not the only factors. The choice also depends on natural inclinations. The
interaction of the two types of forces will determine my choice. To take a different
example, the desire of a gay person for instance to establish a long term relationship with
someone of the same sex, may only have been possible after inventing or identifying the
gay identity as such. Before this, the desire may have not existed. In this sense the inner
voice was formed by an external force. Yet, when the imposition comes, "no, you cannot
live that life style", the person can choose to resist, genuinely choosing to follow his
"inner voice". This observation is consistent with Foucault's understanding of power as
productive. It is also consistent with the agonistic relationship he describes between
power and freedom. "At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly
provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of fi-eedom. Rather
than speaking of an essential freedom, it would be better to speak of an 'agonism' - of a
relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle; less a face to
face confrontation which paralyzes both sides than a permanent provocation." (SP, 222)
We then do not find the sources of the 'internal' voices we hear only in our
hidden depths, but also in our social practices, culture and relationships, and we cannot
separate one side from the other. Such lack of purity, however, does not mean that we
don't have an inner voice, which if we follow will allow us to achieve authenticity. In
the past, when a philosopher chose a philosophical school, and with it, a style of life, such
choice depended on this type of inner voice. And today, if we are going to follow
Foucault's suggestions, we would need to participate, however indirectly, in some social
group or another. To choose, one would have to pay attention to this 'inner voice' that
must come from a combination of some innate nature, culture and personal
circumstances. It would not be until I join a particular group that I fully develop the new
subjectivity or style of life. Yet, the final subject I become would not be the same if it
were not for my initial choice.
Oiu: inner voice is likely to talk about those things that affect us the most or about
those areas of life in which we find a loss of power (although, we could also associate
with people with whom we find a positive affinity, as would be the case of practicing a
hobby). In this way such inner voice will impact to which groups we feel attracted.
Once we cormect with people affected in the same way, we can work on developing, if
suitable, new ways of thinking and acting that would empower us. These new ways of
being would constitute the lives Foucault sees as works of art, that is, lives that require
work and creativity. These are lives that give us pleasure, and of which we can feel
proud. The pleasure to which Foucault is referring, however, is not sensual or egotistical
pleasure, but something more akin to Aristotelian pleasure - the pleasure of virtuous
This image gets complicated when we remember that according to our dialogical account we
are internallydivided. It could thus be that while part ofus resonates with what comes from the exterior
another part does not. Thus,when we speak ofan inner choice, we must assume that it is onlyone part of
us choosing,and that we unavoidable have to dismiss other parts. In such case we need to assume tiiat we
are at least following the wiiming voice.
activity. For him, for example, care of the self for the Greeks and Romans implied care
for the others; "[T]he risk of dominating others and exercising a tyrannical power over
them arises precisely only when one has not taken care of the self and has become the
slave of one's desires. But if you take proper care of yourself... you cannot abuse your
power over others." (ECSPF, 288)
The inner voice of sexual minorities, as we have seen, who experience a loss of
power in many areas as a consequence of their sexual inclination, leads them to engage
with others with the same experiences. In doing this, they can change current ways of
thinking and acting and achieve more joyful and authentic lives. Others, in the areas that
affect them, could do the same. In this way Foucault's suggestions promote a more
diverse society. Within such society it would be easier to find or achieve new ways of
being that resonate more deeply with our particular individual sensibilities. Because of
that, such suggestions and such society would be more conducive to authenticity.
This possibility for political and cultural changes explains in part why many see
the gay way of life as threatening. As Davidson points out, "for Foucault, one link
between the ancient practices of self-mastery and contemporary homosexuality is that
both require an ethics or ascetics of the self tied to a particular, and a particularly
threatening, way of life." (Davidson 1994, 126) What is so threatening about the gay
way of life? One possibility is that it may show other people that they too can have other
unconventional ways of life. Part of the threat, thus, may come fi-om realizing that there
is not a necessary link between being ethical and larger social and political structures. In
an interview Foucault declares: "For centuries we have been convinced that between our
ethics, our personal ethics, our everyday life and the great political and social and
economic structures there were analytical relations, and that we could not change
anything, for instance in our sex life or our family life, without ruining our economy, our
democracy, and so on. I think we have to get rid of this idea of an analytical link between
ethics and other social and economic or political structures." (OGE, 350)
The new and as yet unimagined ways of life may include lifestyles that someone
might be inclined to follow, but which are stigmatized and others which are classified as
criminal. In the first case, the members of the group could "simply" fight a cultural war.
In the second case the fight would also be legal. But in both cases it would be political.
In this regard, the situation seems to have been different at least for some noble Greek
and Roman men of antiquity than for people in today's judicial societies. These groups
seem to have had more freedom for ethical pursuits. Unlike some modem groups, most
ancient free men could legally pursue the type of life they considered worthy or
beautiful.^^ This, however, only means that modem groups cannot focus only on the
third ethical axis. They also need to work on the second axis and look for strategies of
resistance to tilt power relations in their favor to achieve the goals they want. But even
here, they can only carry this type of resistance by participating in commvmities of action
in which they can start identifying or designing what they want.
Although Foucault limited his suggestions for creating new subjectivities to some
of his own main identities, such as being gay, intellectual and political activist, other
oppressed or problematic subjects could benefit from following his methodological
We can find important exceptions to this generalization such as the sentencing ofSocrates charged with
corrupting youth. Socrates was in fact onlyinviting people to live the philosophical wayoflife.
suggestions.^'' Thus, some women, racial and ethnic minorities, older people, and people
with some type of disability, for example, could benefit from developing new styles of
life of their own choosing and design. In actual fact, some feminists have been doing this
for a long time. Potentially even those who we do not normally think of as oppressed,
could benefit from following an aesthetics of existence. Thus, straight, middle class,
white men could profit from developing ways of being that would allow them to escape
the expectations of being tough, strong, the providers and so on.
7 Objection; An Aesthetics of Existence Could Also Lead to
I have argued that Foucault's aesthetics of existence would lead to a
diversification of ways of life, and thus help us avoid the normalization that we might get
through Taylor's model of practical reason. We can wonder, however, why aesthetics
would have more chances of avoiding normalization than reason. After all, as I
mentioned above, we often find difficult to escape popular standards of beauty. Even in
the gay world, where I have argued we have seen applied some of Foucault's suggestions,
we often see a form of normalization. To fit within this lifestyle many gays believe that
they must be stylish, that they need to show their natural and essential 'good taste' both
in dressing and decoration and so on. Often many gay people end up looking and acting
in exactly the same way - what some call "the gay clone"; in other words, they end up
As Jana Sawickiremarks in "Foucault,feminism and questions ofidentity" Foucault's effort to make a
historical and critical analysis ofthese roles reveal a remarkable degree ofself-consciousness (Sawicki,
In answering to this objection I first need to clarify that when Foucault talks about
following an aesthetics or a stylization of existence he is not referring to a piurely visual
aesthetics nor to any particular "lifestyle" ~ a term often used by opponents of gay rights
who seek to promote the idea that homosexuality is a choice and thus avoidable. He is
not referring either to the subculture encouraged by our modem consumerist societies.
We must distinguish between any particular lifestyle within the gay community and a gay
way or style of life as Foucault conceived it. As we have seen, for Foucault, a gay way of
life consists in a modulated, flexible way of living that transcends age and social classes.
This clarification does not suffice to prove that his suggestions do not lead to
normalization. It only intends to show that his aesthetics of existence goes beyond what
we normally understand as fashion or style. As we saw above, the aesthetics of existence
he promotes primarily refers to creating a virtuous life that gives us pleasure as a work of
art does. The very fact that we choose it and create it beyond the rules and models
society asks us to follow already shuns normalization. But also, as we have seen (Section
4.1), Foucault wants a proliferation of commimities and the rescuing of subjugated
knowledges (Chapter 4, Section 3.3) to develop different styles of life. Ideally, all of
these forms of life would be available to people, at least to the extent that they look for
them. This proliferation of communities and knowledges fiirther increases the potential
to avoid normalization.
An important reason for the normalization we see in the gay world, it seems to
me, has to do with a consumerist society that co-opts forms and terms of gay resistance
and with a mass media that supports this project. Both of these contribute to shape a
lifestyle that then many gays see as the model they must follow to be 'truly gay'. This
lifestyle is not what Foucault is promoting to adopt through an aesthetics of existence.
The beauty of the ethos or forms of life that he describes in his studies of antiquity came
from deeper characteristics than those visual or material traits typifying this modem
"stylish" lifestyle. The joy that such forms of life could give us was something closer to
the Aristotelian pleasure of living a virtuous life. Perhaps a gay person may still
consciously choose such consumerist stylish lifestyle, but often many gays choose this
lifestyle without realizing they are being manipulated into following it. Thinking that
they are being liberated, they are only falling into new forms of control. The new
situation is the result of changing relations of power. At least in Western urban centers,
gays now can be out with relative safety and acceptance. They can choose to live the
way they want, and yet, a consumerist society reduces these choices to stylish clothing to
wear, objects to have, places to visit and so on.
We can see that "being liberated" in this way makes us fall into a different form
of domination. For this reason we must remain vigilant to the ways new relations of
power can affect us. Foucault writes, "My point is not that everything is bad, but that
everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is
dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but
to a hyper- and pessimistic activism." (OGE, 343). With this we can see again that
Foucault is not advocating choosing a given style of life uncritically. We just need to see
that in transgressing our limits we are not creating fiirther conditions for domination.
Adopting an aesthetics of existence then, does not mean pursuing prevalent
standards of beauty in ourselves or the things we do. We could argue that doing this
would only be the result of giving up to external pressures or of being conditioned and
thus the antithesis of being authentic. Following an aesthetics of existence implies
conscious choosing. Our access to genealogy and new practices of freedom starts with
the diagnosis that something does not fit well with us. An overweight person feeling the
pressure of being slim could suffer to conform. For him, following an aesthetics of
existence does not mean losing weight and conforming to this standard. I believe the
aesthetics of existence would look more like resisting with other overweight persons and
developing different standards of beauty, not only physical, but also spiritual. The group
could cultivate, for example, the sense that a beautifiil person would be one who does not
let herself be ruled by arbitrary standards and so on.
I want to insist that following an aesthetics of existence does not imply
completely rejecting reason. The fact that members of the different communities might
have their own discourses and knowledges does not imply that they reject all forms of
rational talk. As Foucault writes with regard to his studies on how historical forms of
rationality have operated "to see in this analysis a critique of reason in general is to
postulate that reason can only produce the Good and that Evil can only flow from a
refusal of reason. This would have little sense. The rationality of the abominable is a
fact of contemporary history. But this does not give to irrationality any special rights".
(Foucault 1980, 31) Foucault's own genealogies are alternative stories based on our
regular relations of cause and effect, a basic form of rational thinking. Members of the
different communities of action would still have to be rational to make sense to each
other. What might be different for different communities would be particular initial
premises, outlooks or questions. I also believe that the lives developed following an
aesthetics of existence would not really go against oiar most stable moral principles -
those elements Foucault could be acknowledging as "something eternal" and "heroic" we
also find in the present. This would be consistent with seeing the different philosophical
schools of antiquity as different styles of life.
Before closing this chapter I want to reflect on how gays and lesbians have
benefited from adopting an aesthetics of existence, and in what way this type of ethics
can be useful in a political movement of liberation.
8 GayPolitics Based On An Aesthetics of Existence
Foucault was critical of the gay liberation movement. But this is not, as some have
argued, because he did not believe that liberation was possible, nor, as Taylor thinks,
because he denied fi^eedom is a real good. (FFT, 83) Foucault simply did not believe in a
liberation that we could achieve after defeating the old judicial form of power. This
would be the liberation we would achieve merely by getting rid of impositions and
fiilfilling our true sexual nature. As we have seen, for him, in modernity, we are mainly
subject to widespread disciplinary and subjectifying forms of power. This however, does
not mean that we cannot develop new subjectivities in which we have less domination
and more flexible and balanced relations of power.
This is in fact what Foucault observed in the gay communities in the United States
in which he lived in the 70's. We can only speculate to what degree Foucault's
philosophy was influenced by what he observed and experienced then. According to
Halperin this experienced influenced his reading of the ancient texts. (Halperin, 68) In
what follows, I want to make a brief history of the lesbian and gay political movement.
This will help us identify one way in which Foucault's suggestions for an aesthetics of
existence can be helpful.
From the outset the gay and lesbian movement has been characterized by a
struggle between what we can describe as a more radical and a more conservative faction.
The founders of the Mattachine society in the 1950's believed that gays and lesbians
should be recognized in their difference and were not apologetic. They wanted to
cultivate a sense of minority culture. An internal revolt in 1953, however, led to a change
towards a conservative leadership and vision. The new leaders sought "integration" or
assimilation with mainstream society, and in the words of one of them, insisted on being
"men and women whose homosexuality is irrelevant to our ideals, our principles, our
hopes and aspirations." (Warner, 46)
Ever since, this tension has continued. In the late seventies and during the
eighties much of the gay and lesbian community followed identity politics ~ which uses
an ethnic model of liberation ~ as the main form of political action. (Seidman, 116,117)
This model, which has helped sexual and racial minorities gain important rights, seeks
some common essential features that distinguish all those who belong to a particular
identity. In doing this, however, it became a source of internal oppression or
discrimination for subgroups within the gay and lesbian community. This occvirred when
the interest or characteristics of one of the subgroups was put forward as the essential
interests or characteristics representing those of all the others. In the eighties, the more
radical side represented by groups such as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power -
commonly known as ACT UP ~ and Queer Nation followed what some have called a
'politics of difference'. (Seidman, 117) This form of politics emphasized the causes of
particular subgroups. ACT UP, for instance, insisted in centrally recognizing and
affirming gay sex in its campaigns for HIV prevention.
After progress was made toward controlling the AIDS epidemic in the "developed
world" in the 90's, the political movement turned even more conservative. The
influential message put forward by much of the leadership was that in order to be
respected, gay people need to abandon sexual expression and look normal. In an issue of
The New Republic in 1993, Andrew Sullivan called on gays to abandon "the notion of
sexuality as cultural subversion" and to avoid a queer identity. (Warner, 52) The
message made sense to many. If the alternative to being normal is being despised, who
would not want to be normal? The problem, however, is that, unavoidably, for some to
be classified as normal, some others need to fall outside this "ennobling" category. The
loss for these others does not only come in the form of lack of recognition, but also in a
failure to address their most pressing problems.
To get a sense of the different problems that do not get addressed and the different
identities that get diminished or stigmatized when we adopt a politics of normalization
we should get an idea of different subgroups within the lesbian and gay community. We
can divide this commimity through factors such as gender, race, age, social economic
class and different social and sexual practices. The members of each of these subgroups
often share particular needs and interests, which distinguish them from other subgroups.
Some gays and lesbians, for example, want to follow a style of life similar to that of
traditional heterosexual couples, forming stable monogamous relationships with the
possibility of adopting children. Others (particularly gay men) want to have multiple
partners, serial monogamy, or less committed sexual encoimters. Members of one group
often stigmatize members of the other. This opposition does not stay at the level of verbal
criticism, but it might create political confrontation. Gay groups with non-conventional
sexual practices or relationships for example, have criticized leaders who get the
recognition of political figures in exchange for closing bath houses or sex clubs in their
cities. Similarly, African American gay activists' priority is not equal marriage rights,
but AIDS education and prevention programs for Black gays and larger and more
respectfiil representation within the community. Transvestites and transpeople want to
feel safe in the sfreet. Some of these subgroups have felt discriminated against not only
by the larger society, but often also by what they perceive as the dominant young, middle
class, white gay subgroup, whose goals and interests appear at the top of the political and
cultural agenda.
The picture gets complicated by the fact that, for political purposes, some other
groups such as transsexuals, fransvestites, bisexuals, transgendered and intersexuals,
often get attached to the gay and lesbian identity. A current term for this expanded group
is LGBT, which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. Proponents of a
more radical politics prefer the term 'queer' which conveys some form of defiance and
emphasizes the idea of being different. Members of this extended community have their
own needs and wants and also often feel discriminated by a dominant portion of the gay
and lesbian community. Bisexuals, for example, feel discriminated by both gays and
lesbians on one side and by straights on the other. Transgendered people and intersexuals
long to feel safe and respected and not to feel forced to choose between one of two
By this point, it must be evident that my sympathies lie with the so-called radical
movement. This label is neither helpful nor meaningful. 'Radical' has the connotation of
'extreme', while 'conservative' can be justified as "protecting the wisdom of the past".
We can recognize the strategy and many of the consequences of the conservative side,
however, as a sell-out of real diversity. The call to hide "queemess" in order to gain
respectability is self-defeating. I agree that fighting for some basic rights - rights that
affect everybody within the queer community as identity politics does, and being
united for their sake is important. But it is also important to be conscious of, respectful
toward and even thrilled by the community's internal differences. In so far as a way of
life does not accommodate the needs and expectations of people in the different
subgroups, we would not be creating the conditions for authenticity. We want to create a
world that would meet the legitimate needs of people and allow for everybody's
reasonable practices and relations.
After this historical and sociological digression we can come back to the question
of how Foucault's aesthetics of existence can influence the queer movement. This
aesthetics, of course, supports the more radical form of politics. Its application requires
gays and lesbians to get out and interact with other queer people. We should start by
encouraging a proliferation of groups whose members become conscious of what they
want. Political resistance based on an aesthetics of existence would encourage members
of the particular subgroups to talk to each other. But Foucault is not telling us that people
will discover what they want simply by talking to each other. In his genealogical studies
he shows how certain forms of thinking are only possible after certain practices have
been developed. In a similar way, we can expect that subgroups in the queer corrmiimity
would have to develop new practices before they can identify new thoughts and goals
and thus new forms of subjectivity more suitable to their circumstances- before they can
develop "a manner of being that is still improbable." (FWL, 137) And the subgroups
may not all already exist. For him, experts on their own experiences should speak out
and encourage the formation of perhaps, previously non-existent commimities of action.
If these experts really touch a chord, a new group would be formed, and the possibility of
dialogue would start. We find this experience, for example, with some intersexuals and
transgendered people who refuse being forced to choose between one of two genders.
Members of marginalized groups such as this often report growing up confused and not
really knowing what they wanted imtil they met other people like them. It was only
through dialogue with those others that they started to define what they wanted and to
accept themselves. This experience illustrates the working of the Moebius strip model of
the self described above. In this case an internal voice is inseparable from the external
experience of interaction with similar others. To follow this voice, however, we also
need to work in ourselves and thus certain form of training or ascesis ~ especially
when what we need to challenges mainstream culture. It might seem na'ive, but I believe
that if more people realized what they really want, and they had the self-discipline or
ascesis accessible in one of these groups, they would be less likely to go along with the
normalizing subjectivity that is imposed from the outside.
Ideally, this direct interaction with real people will reveal a diverse world that
mass media can only distort. But to really encounter this diverse world, gays and
lesbians would need to push their limits, go beyond their comfort zones, and participate
and get to know members of other subgroups. This would be the beginning of a
transformation, not only of the particular subgroup, but of the whole community.
Some of the practices of the new subjectivity may themselves form part of forms
of resistance. Sex workers, bath club gays and S/M practitioners, for example, could be
open about their practices and not try to gain a false sense of respectability by hiding
them. This would help mainstream culture accept reality and avoid the distortions of
mass media. I am not proposing that people masturbate in the marketplace, like the
parrhesist Diogenes used to do to criticize people's hypocritical attitude about sexuality
(or what Greeks called aphrodisia). But 1 believe that a politics like the one Michael
Warner advocates, "a frank embrace of queer sex in all its apparent indignity, together
with a frank challenge to the damaging hierarchies of respectability" (Warner, 74) is the
only way to produce real gain for stigmatized groups.
Incidentally, Taylor, with his politics of recognition would agree that all these
subgroups to really value their identity need the recognition of others. In order to build
positive identities we need others to recognize not only our basic universal humanity but
also our particular identities. He writes "misrecognition shows not just a lack of due
respect. It can inflict a grievous woimd, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred.
Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need. (Taylor
1994, 26) But Taylor also gives us a method to find which identities merit recognition.
We need first to subject the proposed practices and identities through a process of strong
evaluations. I agree with the importance of rationally evaluating these practices and
identities. Taylor's method, however, represents only one among different possibilities
for doing this. His method consists in the evaluation of desires - only one of the different
candidates for ethical substance. As we saw in the last chapter (section 3.3), the multiple
connotations with which desires are charged make it very difficult to be fair in their
evaluation. As I speculated, perhaps for this reason Foucault proposed instead paying
attention to pleasure. In any case, Foucault's suggestions, would help the different
communities develop the discourses and ways of thinking that members of these
commimities can use in arguments with others. In the absence of these developments,
mainstream discourses would go unchallenged.
Someone could object that encouraging different groups to develop their own
aesthetics of existenceor pursue their own goals would lead to too much division to
obtain significant political gains. To this we can only answer that Foucault's suggestions
do not imply the elimination of a unified fi-ont for gaining basic rights. The two
strategies - developing new subjectivities and forming a imified fi-ont ~ could work side
by side. We would need to encourage dialogue and firatemity across the different
subgroups. But this fi-atemity would only be possible through the direct interaction also
encouraged by the aesthetics of existence. Thus, the dialogue must take place not only
within the subgroups but also between the larger groups. In this regard, people in the
subgroups also need to appeal to values that we all share. This appeal to more imiversal
values would be at odds with a thoroughly subjectivist ethics. But as we have argued
before, within the present interpretation we are not seeing Foucault, at least in his later
stage, as a complete moral subjectivist. To see this, we only need to remember how the
modem ethos he endorses suggests 'heroizing' part of the present and keeping that which
has eternal value (Section 2.1). We also see that for him, transgression "does not mean a
total revolution or another view of the world but the cautious experimental modification
of our specific forms of subjectivity" (Tully 1999, 98). Keeping in mind the 'heroizing'
part of the modem ethos Foucault wants, we can think that if our modifications must be
cautious, it must be partially because we can find something valuable in what we already
have. Finally we must remember he defines ethics as the '"''considered practice of
freedom" (ECSPF, 284, italics mine). This means that he still see reflection as important.
Again, this could be so, not only for prudential reasons, but because there is something
valuable that we want to keep.
9 Conclusions
I start this chapter by noting some aspects of Foucault's methodology that support
my view that he accepts some form of objectivity in morality. I observe that in 'What is
Enlightenment?' he describes the type of studies he does as part of philosophical attitude
or ethos that distinguishes modernity. For him, such ethos allows us to keep "something
eternal" and also "to grasp the 'heroic' aspect of the present moment". I take this
declaration as recognizing the existence of more lasting values that for all practical
purposes we can take as objective. Afl;er this, I go on to describe different elements of
Foucault's methodology and his conceptualization of ethics and its history. It is only at
this point that I defend an aesthetics of existence as a viable way for reducing
unnecessary normalization. I interpret such aesthetics not as an element of a particular
philosophical school of antiquity, but as the general approach that characterized many of
them. Foucault's suggestion for our time then is not that we should choose one among a
past number of styles of life or philosophical schools but a new approach to being ethical.
To support the use of an aesthetics of existence as a practice to help us develop
authentic selves I defend Foucault against Taylor's objection that he concentrates on the
creative side of language and forgets about frameworks and dialogue. I notice how the
care of the self ~ an essential component of an aesthetics of existence implies dialogue
and interaction with others, and discuss passages in which Foucault explicitly endorses
the value of dialogue. I also argue that his suggestions for the role of the particular
intellectual and of coirmiunities of action show the importance he attached to community
in our ethical elaboration.
I go on to illustrate some of Foucault's concepts in today's world through the
example of the gay experience. We can see what gays and lesbians have done in the last
several decades as the elaboration of a form of life that escapes the normalization that
early psychologists and others had tried to impose on them. In a similar way, I argue, by
developing new subjectivities or styles of life, other oppressed people can escape old
ways of thinking and acting and enjoy freer lives.
Having seen Foucault's suggestions, I argue that Taylor's accoimt would lead us
to find fewer options of the good. He believes that through the expressive power of
language and a hermeneutical process we can achieve more accurate articulations of what
is truly important. This belief in the power of reason entails that potentially we all agree
on what we see as good. As a result we must tend to converge on an articulation that
should disclose, at any given time, only one or at most very few correct answers of what
our motivations should be. Since Foucault does not believe we can find one neutral and
privileged form of reason, for him, many distinctions of the good do not require tmiversal
acceptance. To the extent that we see genealogy as successfiil and we accept other forms
of thinking as valid, we can accept that not everybody has to agree on our ontology of the
good. This view is particularly adequate to determine optional distinctions of the good.
We can note that, as we saw last chapter, Taylor recognizes the expressive and
creative side of language and with it also accepts an aesthetic component in morality. His
ontological model, however, leads to the conclusion that once we find a more adequate
interpretation, we all should feel moved and, however indirectly, see the beauty of the
newly articulated distinction of the good. It is this feature, I argued, what can lead to
normalization beyond what is needed or wanted. But even if I am wrong, and Taylor's
hermeneutical method could lead us to see a higher diversity of goods than I
acknowledge, this would be very difficult to accomplish in practice. In the real world we
would find it extremely difficult to carry out a balanced dialogue as the one Taylor's
model requires. It is in this aspect in which Foucault's suggestions can be most helpful.
To illustrate this, I expand again on the gay experience. In this case, however, we see
Foucault's suggestions, not necessarily as contradicting Taylor's model, but only as
supporting its implementation.
Beyond seeing an aesthetics of existence as enabling us to avoid normalization, I
also argue that it can help us become more authentic. For this, we need to understand
authenticity not as living a unique way of life to which we were predestined, but as living
a life that requires elaboration and originality, and which, for a given person could take
many forms. Such life, however, would still have to be developed out of a person's own
irmer voice. To counter the objection that Foucault's account does not allow for such
inner voice, I propose the model of the self as a Moebius strip. This model allows us to
understand such inner voice as a partial product of external forces, which however, do not
determine it completely. To join a community of action for instance, we would need to
follow this type of inner voice. Because of this I believe that, despite Foucault's refusal
of the term, we still need to think of the forms of subjectivity developed through his
suggestions as expressions of authenticity.
In the end of the chapter I address the criticism that an aesthetics of existence also could
lead to normalization. I do this mainly by clarifying my interpretation of what Foucault
had in mind when he suggested this type of ethics for our modem societies. I also
describe some of the main characteristics of a queer liberation politics influenced by an
aesthetics of existence and advocate for this type of political movement.
1 Introduction
In Chapter 4 I suggested that we should keep a separation between an area of
morality in which we find more objectivity and an area in which we have more fi-eedom
of choice. I have been calling the first area 'moral' and the second 'ethical'. My use of
these terms coincides with that of Jiirgen Habermas. As we have seen, Taylor opposes a
strict separation, and sees the moral as a special form of the ethical. Of course, he is
using 'moral' and 'ethical' in a different way. For him, 'ethical' refers, not exclusively to
optional distinctions of the good, but to all those strong evaluations we make about what
is higher in life. Moral, on the other hand, refers to those hypergoods whose force we all
should acknowledge. In particular, Taylor opposes the view that we can set a rule for
determining the limit between the two areas of morality.
In this chapter I consider the separation proposed by Habermas, a philosopher
who, although in many ways different fi-om Taylor and Foucault, also shares with them
many similarities. I discuss the degree to which these authors are compatible and see
what form of critical reflection would be more usefiil to develop our authentic selves. I
argue that Habermas' discourse ethics intends to be more democratic than schemes such
as Taylor's model of practical reason. By requiring that we decide what is right only
after considering what everyone affected has to say, Habermas is asking much more than
Taylor from the notion that we are essentially dialogical beings. At the same time, this
requirement makes Habermas' form of critique much harder to achieve in practice.
Although Taylor also defends that we reason through dialogue, for him, each individual
has the last word in deciding what coimts as moral. Because of this characteristic I
accept his hermeneutical method as a way to find the moral notions of the good that we
need to be authentic. In the end, I accept Habermas' form of critique only as one more
form of reflection to determine candidates for just social norms.
Behind Habermas' redefinition of rationality we find a desire to make sure that all
voices get heard. He shares this concern with Foucault who also wants to give voice to
marginalized voices. However, while Habermas focuses on our commonalities, Foucault
focuses on what makes us different. I argue that, while Habermas' main goal is to find
what is moral and universal, Foucault wants to find what we have mistakenly placed in
the moral sphere, but should go into what Habermas calls the ethical sphere. His method,
then, does not act as substitute for what Foucault proposes.
In the second part of this chapter I defend Foucault against some charges fi-om
Habermas, before looking into other problems with Habermas' own accoimt. In
responding to these objections we find that Foucault's suggestions are more realistic than
those of Habermas. Genealogy not only finds other forms of rationality beyond the three
that Habermas describes as characterizing the decentered self, but itself represents an
acceptable form of rationality. If my reading is correct, the latter Foucault at least,
acknowledges that some moral limits need to stay. He proposes doing the genealogy of
different practices, ideas or ways of being. These might reveal that some limits that we
see as moral and permanent are not really so. In such cases, communities of action can
invent new ways of thinking and acting that really belong to the optional, ethical goods.
What Foucault is giving us then, is a way to check the Umits of the moral, as we find
them through Taylor's and Habermas' methodologies.
Finally, I suggest a way to check - based on their impact on the possibility of
dialogue - whether some distinctions of the good fall within the moral or within the
ethical but optional. A distinction of the good, we must remember, is Taylor's term for a
discrimination of an action, project, feeling, goal, way of life etc. that we find right,
higher, nobler and so on, which we find through strong evaluations.
I start by presenting Habermas' account. Next, I look at Taylor's objections and
see whether we can understand Habermas' discourse ethics as compatible with Taylor's
hermeneutical methodology.
2 Habermas' Discourse Ethics
According to Foucault, the main goal of Habermas' philosophy has been exactly
the opposite of his. Although they both investigate the apparent Umits of thoughts and
action that constitute the subjects that we are in the present - projects they derive firom
Kant in What is Enlightenment - they focus on different sides of the spectrum of these
limits. As we saw last chapter, Foucault wants to investigate what in our limits is
arbitrary and uimecessary and thus, could be otherwise. Habermas, by contrast, wants to
determine those limits (those ways of thinking and acting) that we all should respect.
The main goal of Habermas' project since what has been called "the linguistic
turn" has been to redeem the possibility of universally valid knowledge through a
imiversal pragmatics that attempts to make plausible his theory of commimicative action
and rationality. (Owen, 3) This universal pragmatics seeks to reconstruct the imiversal
communicative conditions that make it possible to reach agreement and mutual
understanding (Verstandigung). He notices that we can coordinate communicative
interaction in two different ways: by communicative action based on trying to reach
consensus, and by strategic action based on exercising influence. He argues that the
communicative fimction is more basic than the strategic, since even our capacity to
manipulate or coerce others depends on understanding what is said. (Wamke, 120-1)
Ultimately, Habermas wants to ground his conception of reason and morality in the
"original" communicative function of language.
To defend the primacy of the communicative over the strategic use of language,
Habermas uses and further develops Austin's distinction between illocutionary and
perlocutionary effects. This reformulation allows Habermas to show how some
perlocutionary effects (such as deceiving) obtained through the strategic use of language,
depend on the illocutionary effects (such as imderstanding and accepting a claim or a
request) in which language is used communicatively. Habermas observes that the
illocutionary effect, i.e. accepting a claim or request, depends on a guarantee that the
speaker tacitly offers to redeem the validity of his claim or the legitimacy of his request.
As he writes, "A speaker owes the binding... force of his illocutionary act not to the
validity of what is said but to the coordinating effect of the warranty that he offers:
namely to redeem, if necessary, the validity claim raised with speech act." (Habermas
1984, 302, cited in Wamke, 122) This potential redeemability of the speech act present
To see an excellent description ofthese concepts see Wamke's "Communicative rationalityand cultural
in all communicative action through the exchange of reasons shows a connection between
the communicative use of language and rationality.
According to Habermas, in modernity people have learned to differentiate
between three different uses of reason corresponding to three different types of validity
claims, namely claims to: propositional truth, normative rightness or justice and
truthfulness or sincerity of the speaker. "The three validity claims are universal and
correspond to three attitudes (objectivating, norm-conformative and expressive), three
worlds (objective, social and subjective) and three areas of modem societies (sciences,
law and morality, and aesthetics and ethics)." (Tully, 101) Following Piaget, Habermas
calls this process of separation 'decentring' and people who exchange reason in a way
appropriate to each type of validity claim show what he calls a 'decentred' consciousness
or imderstanding of the world. (Tully, 101)
The type of argiunentation or form of commimicative rationality needed to secure
the validity of the two first types of claims (those to propositional truth and to normative
rightness) call for universal agreement on the validity of the claims. By contrast, the
rational argumentation required for the third type of claims, including ethical and
aesthetic as well as all other expressive and evaluative statements, does not necessitate
imiversal agreement. In either case, rationality is intersubjective. Reasons do not spring
firom the consciousness of isolated subjects, but from their interaction.
2.1 Rational Argumentation for Moral Validity
When we do the first and second type of argumentation, those which seek
acceptance of claims to truth or normative rightness, we need to meet a series of
conditions or rules of discvirsive commimication. These transcendental conditions are
"idealizing presuppositions" that every competent speaker of a language makes when he
attempts to communicate with others and are supposed to hold for all languages at all
periods. In the case of argumentation about claims to rightness, Habermas tentatively
distinguishes the following rules:
1 Logical-semantic Rules (MCCA, 87)
(1.1) No speaker may contradict himself
(1.2) Every speaker who applies predicate F to object A must be prepared to
apply F to all other objects resembling A in all relevant respects.
(1.3) Different speakers may not use the same expression with different
2 Procedural Rules (MCCA, 88)
(2.1) Every speaker must accept what he really believes.
(2.2) A person who disputes a proposition or norm not under discussion must
provide a reason for wanting to do so.
3 Processual Rules (MCCA, 89)
(3.1) Every speaker with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part
in the discourse.
(3.2) a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.
b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the
c. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires and needs.
(3.3) No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, fi-om
exercising his rights as laid down in (3.1) and (3.2).
The rules have been classified as conventional and post-conventional. The first, which
includes the logical-semantic and the procedural rules, are much less demanding and are
fairly general across cultures. The second, essentially the processual rules, are much
more demanding, and as we will see, the ones which Foucault questions.
Out of these processual rules Habermas derives his universalization principle (U),
which states that a moral norm cannot be valid imless "all affected can freely accept the
consequences and the side effects that the general observance of a controversial norm can
be expected to have for the interest of each individual." (MCCA, 93, italics his) Out of
(U) Habermas deduces the fundamental formula of Discourse Ethics (D), which states:
"Only those norms that can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval
of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.'''' (MCCA, 66,
italics his) These principles connect normative validity with the consensus reached by all
those affected by the contested norm. The participants arrive at this consensus, not
through simple unreflective agreement, but by consideration of each others reasons:
"Participants... relieved of the pressure of action and experience, in a hypothetical
attitude, test with reasons, and only with reasons, whether the claim defended by the
proponents rightfully stands or not." (Habermas 1984, 25) The end result of the process
of argumentation then must present a conclusion supported by a rule, such as the rule of
inference, and by evidence acceptable to all. (Wamke, 127)
As we can imagine, arriving at this type of agreement in practice must be very
difficult. We can accept it only as an ideal to guide our efforts or assess where we stand.
I will come back to this point later when I address Foucault's criticism of Habermas'
2.2 Rational Argumentation for Ethical and Aesthetic Validity
Arguing for the vaUdity of self expressive and evaluative claims does not require
universal agreement, nor does it require observing the post-conventional rules of
communication. To rationally support our evaluations, in particular, we only need to offer
good reasons for the values and desires we hold. People do not actually have to value
what we do; they only need to find our reasons, attitudes and desires intelligible. For
Habermas, when we do this, we are being rational. He finds rational anyone "who
interprets the nature of his desires and feelings [Bediirfnisnatur] in the light of culturally
established standards of value" and especially those who "can adopt a reflective attitude"
to these standards. (Habermas 1984, 20) Habermas calls this reflective attitude aesthetic
criticism. The goal of such criticism is not to give reasons for the universal validity of
the desire, value, or good we are defending but to show some other people why
something is valuable to us. For Habermas, "in aesthetic criticism, grounds or reasons
serve to guide perception and to make the authenticity of a work [of art] so evident that
this aesthetic experience can itself become a rational motive for accepting the
corresponding standards of value." (Habermas 1984, 20) Thus, when we evaluate a work
of art, we might point out the originality of an idea, the harmony of the colors, or the way
it evokes a certain mood. These reasons may help some people value the work of art,
while they may make others only imderstand why I value it, even if they don't share my
judgment or taste.
3 Taylor contra Habermas
Habermas' process of argumentation for truth and moral claims resembles in
several respects Taylor's process of practical reason, at least as the latter applies to
hypergoods and constitutive goods. They both: attempt to find what should be universally
valuable, see reason as intersubjective, and claim to find only fallible answers. At the
same time, they differ in significant ways. While Taylor attempts to articulate our ideas
of the good, Habermas, like other neo-Kantians, wants to determine what is right. We
also see a basic difference in their methodologies, which leads us to call Taylor a
substantivist about the good and Habermas a proceduralist about what is right. Taylor
suggests a hermeneutical method in which every participant of an argument arrives with
her frameworks and best accounts and defends them against others who are equally
armed with their own frameworks and ideas of the good. If these ideas of the good
reflect a real, substantive good, they should be able to prevail in the new best account,
which will be the interpretation which makes more sense to all participants or at least to
the more rational ones. Habermas, on the other hand, wanting to arrive at universal moral
norms through reasons that everyone can accept, proposes to abstract from the
participants' particular cultural values and ideas of the good.
This abstraction from ideas of the good, according to Taylor, leaves Habermas, as
well as all other modem moral philosophers who give priority to the right, unable to
explain what distinguishes moral injunctions and gives them priority over all others. For
Taylor, we can only distinguish what is moral by finding our hypergoods through
articulation and argumentation with others. At some point we should feel moved by a
good if it indeed is objective. We could even feel this force only indirectly, as when
someone we admire or respect feels moved by it. (SS, 73) In this process we find out that
some goods - the moral - seem much higher, demanding and imposing than others which
we experience as optional. But we can only find the difference between these goods case
by case in our interaction with others. For Taylor, focusing on determining the right
action, without previously paying attention to the good, leaves us without anything "to
say which can impart insight' to someone "asking us to make plain the point of our moral
code". (SS, 87) For him "it is not clear how [this form of isolated] moral considerations
can fimction with others in a single deliberative activity; we cannot see why these higher
considerations should usually be given priority and also why they might be denied this in
certain circumstances. For this kind of deliberation would presuppose that we see them
all as goods, with different levels of importance." (SS, 88) For Taylor, moral philosophy
should concern itself with determining the hypergoods that guide our lives. (SS, 84) The
problem with the different modem moral philosophers, fi* om Kant and Neo-Kantians,
such as Habermas and Rawls to Utilitarians, is that they forget to acknowledge the
hypergoods that move them.
Taylor sees Habermas' discourse ethics as well as Utilitarianism and Contract
Theory as part of a procedural liberalism of neutrality. This neutral liberalism advocates
that the state should not take sides on what is the good life. Taylor surmises that the wide
acceptance of this form of liberalism in the politics of the USA is linked to the rise of an
atomistic (EA, 117) and instrumental (EA, 95-99) outlook, which in turn comes firom our
modem loss of horizons. We see ourselves as separate fi-om nature and a larger order and
we only see as important the subject and its goals. We should respect each other only so
that we do not interfere with the rights of others and so that each can do his/her thing.
3.1 Discourse Ethics and its Partial Consideration of the Good
We can try to defend Habermas by pointing out that his discourse ethics, as
Taylor, also takes as its point of departure everyday moral intuitions ~ "what we 'always
already' presuppose in making moral judgments." (Rehg, 23) We presuppose, for
instance, that the judgments are valid and that we can find good reasons to support this
validity. We also presuppose the idealizing conditions for argumentation that can lead us
to find such reasons. Furthermore, for Habermas, the process of determining moral and
ethical claims starts with the intuition that such claims fall within one or the other
category. Thus Habermas, like Taylor, starts by acknowledging our moral reactions and
intuitions. However, while Taylor proposes to get clear about the good behind those
intuitions and only then divide them into moral and ethical or optional life goods and
hypergoods, for Habermas we can trust our initial intuition that a norm is either moral or
ethical. He proposes that we accept or reject the claim as moral or ethical by following
his proposed methods of argumentation. If all those affected by a norm can reach a
rational consensus and accept the norm, we can see it as just and thus as moral. If we
succeed in our aesthetic criticism being able to offer good reasons for our values that
some others accept we can see these as ethical. But for Taylor, this only shows how
Habermas presupposes a hypergood that defines the moral, namely, something like the
goodness of mutual rational understanding: "I nevertheless also have other aims, other
interests. Why then should I prefer mutual rational understanding? Why should precisely
this aim occupy a special position?" and also, "why it is I attach a value to rational
imderstanding so great that it should be preferred to all other purposes." (Taylor 1991a,
31; Rehg, 117) Although, many people might see this as naturally defining what is
moral, rational understanding is only one among many other possible hypergoods.
I agree with Taylor that we need to pay attention to our conceptions of the good
before we can determine what is moral. Yet, Habermas does not completely abstract
from all notions of the good. The universalization principle (U) implies that the
participants in the practical discourse bring to the discussion reasons about the
consequences and the side effects the norm can be expected to have for their interests.
These reasons would not be available if the participants completely leave aside their
conceptions of the good life. It is true that the participants of moral discourse carmot tell
others what values and identities they should adopt and to that extent their views on what
is a good life should be left aside. Yet, Habermas' critique requires that for a norm to be
valid everyone involved must accept the consequences and the side effects that the
observance of the norm can be expected to have for the interest of each individual. Is this
consideration of the good enough to establish what is moral?
The answer to this question depends on how narrowly or how broadly Habermas
means his notion of interests. On the one hand, these must be thin enough that people
from different traditions and cultural backgrounds can uncontrovertibly agree that they
represent real interest they all want to respect. For these, they would have to be very
basic interests, such as the interest for the preservations of our bodily integrity, for having
access to basic need resources, or for fundamental human rights. His separation of
morality and ethics into different realms entails that more specific conceptions of good
life would not enter into determination of what is moral or just: "Moral questions can in
principle be decided rationally, i.e., in terms of justice... Evaluative questions present
themselves at the most general level as issues of the good life." (MCCA, 108) But a
clear-cut separation is not possible, and Habermas recognizes that conceptions of the
good life enter moral discourse in an indirect way. (Habermas 1982,255) In pursuing
moral discourse we do not seek to convince other people that they should accept our
conception of the good. Yet, such discourse requires that people at least understand how
something represents an interest for other people. To achieve this intelligibility, people
need to cast their interests in evaluative terms that others can understand and accept. For
Habermas, in moral discourse we accept some common interests that everyone expects
everyone to respect. We accept these interests, needs or wants, in turn, by being able to
articulate them in terms of values that everyone can accept. Each of this Rehg calls a
'moral' or '"interest regulating value,' i.e., a value in connection with which each one's
pursuit of his or her happiness or good can be endorsed by others". (Rehg, 104, 105)
Habermas calls these "generalized values" or "abstract basic values". (Habermas 1987,
344, 345) Among these generalized values we find "the values connected with the
satisfaction of basic needs, the exercise of basic freedoms, the development of one's
basic capacities, and so on." (Rehg, 105) We could relate these values to certain notions
of the good, but they would not necessarily have to correspond to any particular
conception of the good life. Because of this, we can still understand Habermas'
conception of interests as rather narrow or thin, and as leaving out of moral discourse
broader conceptions of the good life.
For Taylor, as we have seen, we start the process of moral argumentation with
thicker conceptions of the good. We should start the critique of a disputed norm, not
from an abstract and detached position, with only a thin notion of the good but with our
culturally bounded ideas of what we value and see as a good life. In "The Politics of
Recognition" Taylor uses the example of Quebec and its defense of certain norms to
illustrate how starting the process of argumentation with thicker ideas of the good
improves the result of the process. To arrive at these norms, Quebecers could not put
aside their sense of the good of preserving their language and culture. This sense leads
them to propose norms that go against some sensible, but less basic civic rights, such as
the right of French speaking Quebecers to send their children to English-only schools or
of all Quebecers to advertise their business in whatever language they choose. For
Taylor then, contrary to what Habermas suggests, to determine what is moral we must
start with a thicker conception of what we see as good. It is indeed unlikely that we
could achieve the results Taylor sees as more desirable through Habermas' process of
moral discourse and its indirect consideration of interests and conceptions of the good
life. Defenders of French culture might be able to cast their interests or conception of the
good life in such a way that French speaking Quebecers who want to send their children
to English-only schools give up their right to do it. To do this, however, they would have
to convince others that they should adopt their conception of the good life. This would
amount to changing their interests and not merely considering the consequences of the
given norm for their original wants. In moral discourse we could try finding some
generalized values, such as the value of preserving one's culture. But this value would
have to compete with the value of having the freedom to choose how to educate one's
children. A process of argumentation to see which value is more basic would start to look
more and more like the articulation of goods Taylor requires.
We can also describe Taylor's position about moral discourse as challenging the
"priority of the right" and asserting instead the "priority of the good". The consequences
could be that if Taylor is right, more could be considered within the moral domain. In a
personal case, I can determine through my best account that being benevolent or
forgiving, for instance, are higher goods than being just. When we are talking about
social rules or norms, however, determining that some other good would be higher than
what is just would require that everyone affected also accepts this best account. As an
example we can think of what people would choose in a process of national reconciliation
after some tyrant has been overthrown, as in the case of either Chile after Pinochet or
South Africa after the end of the apartheid system. What is the moral thing to do or the
hypergood here? Would people choose forgiveness over some form of just pimishment?
For Taylor, in the case of a personal best account, what a person chooses would depend
on how the different options are articulated. Given individual and cultural differences I
believe that in reality, it would be practically impossible to universally agree on a best
account. But in theory, at least, this is a problem that could be addressed through
Taylor's type of practical reason. Discourse ethics, in contrast, does not seem to give us
a way to arrive to any alternative course of action. If people can indeed only argue by
showing how their narrow interests would be affected, it would be difficult for them to
show that the moral action, would be, not some just form of pvinishment, but some other
course of action, such as forgiveness. They only could do this if they could argue
through thicker notions of the good. We can acknowledge that according to the
principles of discourse ethics people should be free to propose alternative norms or
courses of action. But other people would evaluate these other norms in accordance with
how they affect their own interests. In order to accept the alternative, they would have to
change their interests, wants and needs, or their conception of the good. In a case like
this, just as in the Quebec example, it does not seem possible to determine generalized
values that would allow an alternative course of action.
For Taylor, an epistemological and metaphysical predilection for naturalism and
"strong moral motives" have led to the suppression of an articulation of qualitative
distinctions of the good or "visions of the qualitatively higher" from moral discussion
(SS, 84, 85). "But the desire for a frilly universal ethics" can also contribute to this
exclusion. (SS, 85) As an example of this desire, he mentions the avoidance in
Habermas' position of "parochial ethical principles". (SS, 85) Different combinations of
these motives also lead us to what he calls procedural ~ as opposed to substantive ~
forms of ethical theory (SS, 84). It is the suppression of thicker and more substantive
ideas of the good what drives moral philosophy to be procedural. If practical reason
cannot use ideas of the good to determine the principles of right action, all that is left is to
follow the correct procedure. For Taylor, however, saying that a norm is not valid
because it has consequences that affect my interests cannot be the end of the justification.
My interests should be backed by a good we can defend though a best accoimt. (SS, 75-
77) We arrive at this best account through an argumentation that both shows an
epistemic gain in adopting my good and causes others to be moved by it. For him, we
know that the claims about hypergoods and constitutive goods which we find in our best
accounts are valid, not because we use a valid procedure, but because in the end, we find
some resonance with these claims. Different distinctions of what is good help us live our
lives, move us and make us feel we are better selves for having them. For him, in
entering the discussion with our existing frameworks we are taking advantage of the
wisdom of tradition -something substantial ~ to advance in our search for truth.
Taylor would accept that we need to follow certain rules of commxmication for
determining our distinctions of the good, but he denies that procedure alone determines
such distinctions and what is right. For him, as we saw in Chapter 2, our ideas of the
good are as much discovered as created. (SS, 18-22) Habermas agrees with this. (Rehg,
114; Habermas 1973, 177) But for Taylor, this means that our procedure must include
the articulation of higher distinctions of the good through the expressive power of
language. We find our distinctions of the good by articulating what is behind our moral
intuitions and reactions. Such articulation, a Taylorian could argue, is not something that
takes place dxiring the argumentation of discourse ethics. Is this correct?
Habermas acknowledges certain articulation of the good both before and during
the discourse ethics process. For him we need to arrive at the table of argumentation with
our ideas of the good. He writes, "If the actors do not bring with them, and into their
discourse, their individual life-histories, their identities, their needs and wants, their
traditions, memberships and so forth, practical discourse would at once be robbed of all
content." (Rehg, 101; Habermas 1982,255, Habermas' italics) Yet, as Reghputs it, the
acknowledgement of goods Habermas allows "is not yet a specification of the substantive
common good communitarians would like." (Rehg, 102) For Taylor everyone should see
or be moved to adopt the good the best account defends. This is not the case with a
particular conception of the good life that enters the process of discourse ethics. But, as
we saw before, Habermas also recognizes the existence of "generalized" or "abstract
basic values" which are values that we confirm during the process of discourse ethics.
(Habermas 1987, 344, 345) These are values that allow us to sanction the more particular
ideas of the good life or interests of others. Perhaps we can see these as the moral
hypergoods that allow us to understand and allow others to live according to their own
ethical goods. This would suggest that through discourse ethics we can find more
hypergoods than Taylor acknowledges.
Are these generalized values really the hypergoods that define the domain of
morality? They support mutual rational understanding. But for Taylor, Habermas'
discourse ethics prematurely embraces such understanding as its hypergood to the
exclusion of other possible worthy contenders. (Taylor 1991 a, 31) Is he justified in this
3.2 Discourse Ethics and Hypergoods
Taylor objects that in discourse ethics we start with an objective already in mind,
namely, finding rational understanding (or, we could add, intersubjective justice). His
hermeneutical method, by contrast, lets us find - without presupposing any one in
particular - the different hypergoods that make better sense of our moral experience. For
him, we can only acknowledge this plurality of goods through a type of reasoning that
uses a rich, engaged language of qualitative distinctions. According to Rehg, for Taylor
"contemporary society is beset by conflicts at the level of such goods [hypergoods],
conflicts in which impartial moral approaches are themselves caught - such that they
cannot stand above them as they allege." (Rehg, 120) Taylor must be thinking in
conflicts, such as those between pro-choice and pro-birth people, small government and
welfare state, and environment and technologists. We can characterize the first of these
debates, for example, as one between autonomy or the right for self-control and the idea
that life is sacred and we cannot take it away. But discourse ethics disallows religious
and pre-modem discourses as acceptable reasons for determining moral norms. As a
result, discourse ethics already favors the first side of the debate. In this case at least,
then, Taylor seems to be right in saying that discourse ethics starts with a presupposition
of what is right.
The problem as Regh puts it, is that "[i]f, as Taylor suggests, discourse ethics
tacitly selects just one hypergood among several influential hypergoods in Western
culture, then it cannot groimd rational consensus in cases where precisely such a conflict
is at issue." (Rehg, 119) Taylor mentions several hypergoods that could enter into social
conflicts. These include: utility, just distribution, individual rights, and social autonomy
achieved through common deliberation. (DG, 245) The sense of community needed to
maintain the autonomy of a citizen republic, for instance, might conflict with the
demands of maximizing utility or with the rights of minorities. We can also conceive of
cases in which different conceptions of justice, such as, Habermas' and Rawls,' could
lead to conflicting results. Rawls' hypergood or constitutive good is something like
social cooperation or the goodness of "a society as a fair system of cooperation between
free and equal persons." (Rehg, 130; Rawls 1985, 231) The rational understanding that
people would achieve through discoiirse ethics would not necessarily have to be the
social cooperation Rawls wants. Perhaps this would be the case with an example Taylor
offers. He writes, "[d]emocratic electorates in these [Western] societies will probably
never agree to the amount of redistribution consistent with redressing the past wrongs of
imperialism, or meeting in full the present requirements of universal human solidarity."
(DG, 245) Rawls' thought experiment would most likely lead us to fair redistribution
and full solidarity. It is unlikely that we could achieve this result through Habermas'
Although my sympathies would be with Rawls' conclusion, for Taylor, he is also
prematurely embracing a hypergood he has not completely articulated. In Rawls' defense
we can say that his goal is not to give us a hypergood that defines what is moral, but
simply to defend a conception of justice for modem liberal societies. In any case, very
likely a full articulation would lead us to choose his hypergood along with others. This
only would represent the recognition that, as Taylor would put it, we sometimes find
tragic dilemmas and are unable to see the superiority of any single good. (SS, 61; DG,
3.3 Disengaged Reason Versus Expressive Language
For Taylor, we can only discover this variety of objective and imiversal
distinctions of the good - our moral sources ~ by a form of personal resonance that we
experience through engaged, expressive language. He writes, "The only way we can
explore the order in which we are set with an aim to defining moral sources is through
this part of personal resonance." (SS, 512) Through authors such as Rilke, Proust, Eliot,
Laurence, Kafka, and Mann we can experience these languages of personal resonance
and what Taylor calls 'artistic epiphany'. Although this personal resonance is eminently
subjective, the goods it discloses make reference to constitutive goods that go beyond the
self. Because of this, we can't classify this type of reasoning within either of Habermas'
moral or ethical spheres. (SS, 510) As Taylor sees it, Habermas' discourse ethics is
purely proceduralist, and as such, it cannot use the engaged language needed to articulate
the diversity of goods. Through the use of rich, expressive language we end up affirming
and being moved by a plurality of goods, which we must strive to harmonize. Of course,
nothing guarantees that we will, and we often encoimter some tragic dilenmias. (DG,
236) Yet this is preferable to following the demands of a proceduralist, detached
morality which would not be enough to inspire us and support our moral commitments.
But the language of personal resonance needed to find our moral sources is not
limited to epiphanic art. For Taylor, we also need this language in forming the best
accounts of our moral experience. Habermas' discourse ethics, however, limits the use of
such expressive language. In discourse ethics, to decide whether we accept a norm or
not, we need to understand the way it affects the interests of everyone involved. In this
process we accept as convincing reasons expressed in an abstract and detached language
about, for instance, how a norm affects our narrow interests, such as utility, income or
resources. By contrast, we do not necessarily accept reasons about, for instance, how
something affected my enjoyment of unspoiled nature, or my belief in the sanctity of life
and so on. We must grant that in discourse ethics we still need to understand others'
interests and conceptions of the good life, at least in the sense of finding them intelligible.
Habermas 1982, 255) We could not do this without an engaged, rich language. Let's
say we are convinced that we need to respect nature, or the sanctity of life. To convince
others of the negative consequences of a specific norm, we need to use a language that
moves others to see our point.^^ This, at least, Habermas seems to allow. Yet, his
exclusion of certain discourses, such as religious and pre-modem contradicts or, at best,
limits his sanction of this rich language. For Habermas, this type of language goes better
within the ethical sphere.
We can grant that Habermas' goal is not changing our identifications and making
us the best selves we can be. Unlike Taylor, he is not trying to get to the moral source
which will give us the strength to keep our moral commitments. (SS, 516) For
Habermas, motivating people to act morally is not a goal of morality. He is simply
proposing a method to determine the right norms to adopt. In this process, however, we
have to talk and agree with others ~ we have to imderstand their reasons - and in doing
this, we unavoidably transform ourselves. Still, Taylor's objections show us that
Habermas is prematurely restricting what falls within the moral. His accoimt appeals to
us because his separation of the moral and the ethical promises to give us the fi-eedom we
need to be authentic. In the end, however, this separation does not seem well justified. It
also has the appeal of striving to ensure that we are considering every affected person -
although they must leave out their particular conceptions of the good life ~ and thus of
making the process more democratic. As we will see ahead, in Section 4.2, however, this
feature also makes the goal of discourse ethics much harder to achieve.
This is something we see happening all the time in our cultural wars. This language often comes in the
form ofmusic, films and other forms ofart and popular culture, but eventuallythese ideas enter political
discourse and might become legislation.
4 Habermas and Foucault
4.1 Habermas contra Foucault
Before looking at Foucault's charges against Habermas, we need to see what
Habermas has to say against Foucault.
Habermas dismisses the validity of Foucault's genealogies as forms of critical
reflection, and with them his suggestions for an artistic dialogical ethos. He accuses
Foucault of committing a performative contradiction. (Owen 28; PDM 98, 336-7) For
Habermas, one commits a performative contradiction when one denies that
argumentation has the pragmatic structure he describes since, in raising that claim, we are
assuming that this claim can be justified through such structure. As Wamke puts it, if we
were to rise that claim "we would have to suppose that the claim that argumentation does
not have this pragmatic structure is true in the sense that it would be reached by a
universal communication community of free and equal participants in a hypothetical
attitude, engaged in a cooperative search for truth and motivated only by the force of the
better argument." (Wamke, 127; MCCA, 79-82) For Habermas, Foucault's genealogies
do this, since they start by denoimcing something as objectionable while at the same time
denying that we can have standards for justifying seeing it this way. He sees Foucault as
offering us a theory of reason that identifies reason with power (Owen, 28) and as making
a lawless use, or radical critique, of reason. (PDM, 336) As a result, he sees Foucault as
unable to account for the normativity of his own suggestion and to explain "why fight?"
(PDM, 284) Genealogy requires an assessment of what is problematic in the present, yet,
because of Foucault's radical critique of reason, it cannot explain its own positive
commitments. In Habermas words, genealogy is "guided by normative intuitions that go
beyond what [it] can accommodate in terms of the indirectly affirmed 'other of reason'."
(PDM, 337)
We can defend Foucault by noticing that he neither offers a theory of reason but
an analytic of power ~ nor does he identify power with reason but only indicates their
strong interconnection. (Owen 38; Dreyfus, 184-85) This analytic of power seeks to
determine the ways and sites where power historically operates, the conditions that make
certain relations of power arise, and the effects of these relations. He wants "to move less
towards a theory of power than toward an analytic of power: that is, toward a definition
of a specific domain formed by power relations and toward a determination of the
instruments that will make possible its analysis." (HSl, 82) For Foucault we can't find
relations of reason without relations of power and vice versa. As he puts it: "there is no
power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any
knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations."
(DP, 27) By noticing that correlated to different fields of knowledge we often have
specific forms of reasoning we can get to the connection between relations of power and
relations of reason that Foucault remarks.
As we saw in Chapter 4, Section 2, David Hoy suggests one way to defend
Foucault from the charge that he can't tell us why to resist. He suggests seeing
"genealogy as a plausible method of immanent social criticism, one that can work
without presupposing an independent, Utopian standpoint." (Hoy, 13) The genealogist
assesses a situation, practice or set of ideas as undesirable and shows how the particular
practice or way of thinking contingently aroused and could be otherwise. Other people
agree with her only because they live in the same world and are not completely
normalized. They do not need an external standpoint to justify emancipation from their
Many of Foucault's critics charge that his account does not make room for the
agent that this defense presupposes. This is true for the Foucault of Discipline and Punish
and The History of Sexuality I, but not for the later Foucault. As Paul Patton observes,
Foucault's genealogies presuppose a minimal account of the human subject: "...whatever
else it might be, the human subject is a being endowed with certain capacities..." (Patton
1994, 61; Ashenden, 8) He explains; "In order to account for the experience of
.. .systems of power as forms of domination, Foucault must presuppose the existence of
particular forms of self-interpretation and the existence of something like the feeling of
powerlessness. In other words, he must suppose a fuller conception of hiraian
subjectivity which takes into account both the interpretive and self-reflective dimensions
of human agency." (Patton, 71) According to Patton, for Foucault, we experience
domination as problematic because it obstructs oiir experience of ourselves as agents or
as self-conscious. (Patton, 68-70) This presupposition is also necessary by Foucault's
understanding of Enlightenment as an ethos of permanent self criticism. In order for this
self criticism to take place we need to see humans as disliking being dominated and
naturally wanting to experience themselves as agents. This naturalistic, Nietzschean and
even Aristotelian explanation sees us as beings who want to be free, or as free as we can
be. That is what makes us experience domination as problematic and makes us want to
This defense of Foucault appears as rather un-Foucauldian. It shows the
contradiction of the Foucault of Discipline and Punish, who saw the subject mainly as a
docile body produced by external forces. It also contrasts with Foucault's reluctance to
accept the existence of a human nature. It does, however, agree with the new definition
of relations of power as conducting the conduct of others that Foucault presents in "The
Subject and Power." This way of exercising power presupposes that subjects are free. It
also agrees with the emphasis on the active role of the self on the last to volumes of the
History of Sexuality.
We thus find normativity in Foucault. The question is whether, as Habermas
asserts, he cannot justify it. I believe he could. Foucault, as Paul Rabinow asserts, does
not really deny that there is a human nature: "In the last analysis he does not take a stand
on whether or not there is a human nature. Rather, he changes the subject and examines
the social fimctions that such concepts [grand abstractions] have played in the context of
practices." (FR, 4) Foucault did not believe that trying to discover such nature was the
best path to take because of the potential normalizing consequences of this type of
approach. In any case, we can say that our love for freedom and desire to experience
ourselves as agents are part of who we are now. It might be part of an original nature or a
historical product, but that does not mean we caimot embrace it as something desirable.
In line with Hoy's immanent line of defense, this would be enough to justify wanting to
avoid arbitrary domination. Given who we are now, from our point of view, we want to
be free. This, however, does not have to be seen as a relativistic stand. What we are
today also includes our respect for other moral norms. Unless the genealogist could also
show their arbitrary nature, these norms should endure.
James Tully has yet another way of defending Foucault from the charge that his
genealogies commit a performative contradiction. According to Tully Foucault's form of
skepticism is not as broad as Habermas portrays it. Foucault does not reject all of the
idealizing presuppositions of communicative rationality together with principles D and U.
As quoted by Tully, Foucault writes, "Singular forms of experience [such as practices of
communication] may perfectly well harbor universal structures; they may well not be
independent from the concrete determinations of social existence." (FR, 335; Tully, 120)
Foucault can thus accept most of the conventional rules of communication while at the
same time question the necessity and universality of the post conventional rules (Section
2.1) to determine the validity of norms . This form of specific skepticism allows
Foucault to do what Habermas himself carmot do, namely, test his own assumption of the
superiority of the decentered subject and the necessity of the post conventional rules.
(Tully, 118-121)
Several passages in Foucault support the proposition that he would accept most of
the conventional rules. As quoted before in Chapter 5, Section 3.6, he wrote:
In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation,
the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They
depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the question is merely
exercising the right that has been given him: to remain imconvinced, to perceive a
contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to
point out faulty reasoning, etc. As for the person answering the question he too
exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his
own discourse he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of
dialogue he is tied to the questioning of the other. (PPP, 381)
Tullymentions as a possible exception rule 1.3,the rule about never using one term to refer to different
meanings,since, as he argues, genealogyand other forms ofcritique often move us to see the change in
meaning ofterms such as 'discipline'
Here, Foucault is acknowledging basic rights and obligation within a dialogue,
and we can wonder whether in writing this passage he had Habermas in mind. As we
will see in the next section however, Foucault questions the fact that all of Habermas'
rules must be applied at the same time and that they define what is universally rational.
After defending Foucault from some of the most common refutations, let's move
to his own criticisms against Habermas.
4.2 Foucault contra Habermas
Although Foucault was less hostile to Habermas' philosophy than Habermas was
toward his, he also raised some objections. He wrote:
I am quite interested in [Habermas] work, although I know he completely
disagrees with my views. While I, for my part, tend to be a little more in
agreement with what he says, I have always had a problem insofar as he gives
communicative relations this place which is so important and, above all, a
function I would call 'utopian'. (ECSPF, 298)
According to Owen, we can accoimt for the fact that Foucault is more in
agreement with what Habermas says than the other way around because of what each of
their practices of critical reflection presupposes. (Owen, 22-39) While Habermas
presents critique as the only legitimate form of critical reflection, Foucault advocates
genealogy as only one more of many possible ways in which critical reflection can take
place. Habermas' critique requires a legislative type of reason consisting in following the
idealizing rules of communication. We test this type of critique by seeing whether we
arrived at one norm by following these idealizing rules. Genealogies, on the other hand,
require an agonistic type of reasoning through which those genealogies challenge limits
which some people experience as problematic but are normally assumed as necessary.
For Owen, genealogy exemplifies the Enlightenment, that is, the ethos of criticizing the
present in order to transform it. The genealogist aims to take those limits experienced as
problematic and uncover their contingency. For this reason we can see genealogy as a
practice of freedom, which Foucault describes as ".. .work carried out by ourselves on
ourselves as free beings..." (WE, 47) But genealogy does not seek to legislate itself as
the only correct way of thinking. That would go against the idea of seeing us as free
beings. Owen recalls Foucault's conceptualization of power to support his point that
genealogy represents only one of many ways of orienting thinking. Defining power as
'conducting the conduct of others' presupposes the existence of many possible ways of
being conducted or guided including guiding the way we critically reflect. So, for
Owen, Foucault must see genealogy as one of many possible ways of conducting
thinking. The same, however, should be true for discourse ethics. Foucault can agree
that it represents one more form of guiding thinking but denies that it is the only possible
one. In this way Owen makes sense of the fact that Foucault is "a little more in
agreement" with Habermas than the other way around. Habermas would agree that we
can conduct our thinking in many ways, but would insist that not all of these ways are
legitimate ~ only the one that follows certain commimicative rules is. But this test itself
- the test of using certain rules to determine the rationality of our thinking - is not subject
to the test of free and open discussion. If we challenge these rules, we are accused by
Habermas of committing a performative contradiction. Yet, as we argued in the last
section, Foucault's specific skepticism allows a way to test the procedure of following
rules without committing such contradiction.
4.2.1 The Test of Free and Open Discussion
In the preface of the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason Kant describes
the test for anything that can gain the respect of reason. For him, any thought that seeks
to exempt itself from criticism "cannot claim the sincere respect that reason accords only
to that which has been able to sustain the test of free and open discussion." (Kant, 1983,
A, xii)
For Foucault this is the test of genealogy or any other critique, including
Habermas,' must pass. We see this in part in his explicit endorsement of dialogue with
all its right and obligations and his rejection of polemics: "I insist on this difference as
something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the morality that concerns the search for
the truth and the relation to the other. In the serious play of questions and answers.. .the
rights of the person are in some sense immanent in the discussion." (FR, 381) Beyond
his declarations, we see the test at work in the way genealogy fimctions. A successfiil
genealogy will result in the formation of communities that agree upon seeing the
investigated limits as problematic and contingent. Its validation comes from people who
have in some way suffered the limits. These commimities might become commimities of
action willing to change those limits. (FR, 385) Beyond the endorsement by these
communities, however, the real test for these genealogies will be whether people accept
them in open and free discussions.
This test is consistent with Foucault's ethos of Enlightenment of encouraging
people to use their own reason to test what could be arbitrary limits. It is also consistent
with the goal of letting people resist domination and exercise their maximum amount of
freedom. In making this the test for the success of a particular genealogy or any other
form of critique we are not dictating one particular way of orienting thinking. If some
people decide after open and free discussion that a particular genealogy makes sense for
them, it will be a matter of a continual agonist struggle to show others how it is so. But
we cannot dismiss them beforehand as wrong. Doing this would constitute one of the
forms of domination he is fighting. The test is also consistent with the view that
throughout history and society, we have found many different games of truth, without
being able to prove that there is only one which is correct. (FF, 17)
Habermas himself uses the test of open and free discussion as a test for accepting
norms. His idealizing rules of communication attempt to ensure precisely that the
discussion remains free and open. But, as we have seen, when it comes to the last
foundations for his procedure, critique does not remain open to the test of free and open
discussion. The support for his procedure comes from the assertion that all
communicative action presupposes all of his idealizing rules. These rules, we must
recognize, are not arbitrary. We have the intuition that they are fimdamental for fair
communication across cultures and time. Yet, as he acknowledges, he has not proven his
assertion. (Tully, 106) We can acknowledge that the fact that some people accept some
genealogy does not makes that genealogy true. But then, what we find is an impasse and
not a rebuttal of Foucault as Habermas claims.
A main practical advantage of genealogies over Habermas' discourse ethics or
critique is that we can use them to test the limits of the moral in a way Habermas' method
cannot. Habermas' discourse ethics helps us find just social norms, but does not tend to
question what we already see as moral. His ethical sphere accommodates all those goods
and values that do not require universal agreement. But investigations in this sphere do
not challenge the certainty of what we see as moral, since they only attempt to clarify the
merits of what we already classify within this ethical sphere by orienting perception.
Genealogies, on the other hand, question notions that we see as universal and necessary,
among which we can find moral ideas. They also clear the way to find new ways of
thinking or acting that some people can find valuable and which most likely we can
classify within the ethical.
Many worry that these genealogies will lead to total relativism. After all, we
could always find a community of action formed by fascists who find oppressive their
not being allowed to oppress others. For this reason, however, genealogies still have
to convince or at least seem plausible to more than a small group of action. This is
what we find with Foucault's own genealogies. Their public acceptance in free and
open discussion represents a measure of their success. To convince, they still need to
follow to a large degree the games of truth acceptable at the time they appear. They
cannot challenge everything we know at once. Otherwise, no one would be able to
understand them. The genealogists, then, must be like sailors in Neurath's boat, they
"must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to
reconstruct it there out of the best materials." (Neurath, 201) Thus, they cannot
dismiss every moral principle we have.
4.2.2. Discourse Ethics as Utopian
Let's move on to the main objection that Foucault raises against Habermas,
namely, that he assigns to communicative relations a function Foucault sees as Utopian.
According to Tully, for Foucault it is Utopian because there exists no place where we can
communicate and dispute norms outside relations of power. (Tully, 131) Habermas
acknowledges that "a dispute about norms is still rooted in the struggle for recognition"
(MCCA, 106) and thus he does not deny that disputes about norms occur inside relations
of power. Yet, for him, we can always ideally separate practical discourses from
strategic relations. "Practical discourses resemble islands threatened with inundation in a
sea of practice where the pattern of consensual conflict resolution is by no means the
dominant one." (MCCA, 106) We could think of processes of argumentation that take
place in these islands as an ideal against which we can measure our actual processes. But
according to Tully, for Foucault, this "regulative idea is yet another instance of the
juridical presupposition that there is some place or procedure in which subjects are
'sovereign'... and in which they agree on the conditions of their subjection." (Tully, 131)
I believe Tully is right, and yet, in accepting Habermas' form of critique as one more
possible form of critique, Foucault is accepting that, at least ideally, Habermas' critique
might be a valid way to determine what is fair or just. Foucault then, does not dismiss
completely juridical forms of power and knowledge. These existed and continue to exist.
He acknowledges the importance of rights. In the above quote, Foucault recognizes the
rights immanent within a dialogical situation. He also grants them in the area of
sexuality, for example, when he writes "it is important to have the possibility - and the
right - to choose your own sexuality. Human rights regarding sexuality are important..."
(Gallagher, 27) He contends, however, that an emphasis on juridical power does not help
in letting us see the way disciplinary power within practical systems works to control us.
The abstract language and form of reasoning of the universal intellectual - a descendant
in the juridical tradition make us lose sight of practical, everyday ways in which we are
oppressed and of corresponding practices of freedom. It "tends to misrepresent other,
non-juristic forms of knowledge, relations of power, and practices of ethics in which we
are constituted and governed as subjects." (Tully, 117)
Sam Fleischacker has raised a related and more general criticism. He points out
how Habermas' idealizing rules for argumentation are open to a wide variety of
interpretations in such a way that they soon cease to tell us anything concrete.
(Fleischacker, 205) For example, we can follow rule (3.1) - that every speaker with the
competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in the discourse - and rule (3.2) c -
that everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires and needs - in very different
ways depending on how we imderstand 'everyone' with the capacity to speak and act or
to take part in argumentation. More directly applying to the criticism of utopianism,
Fleischacker suggests that what (3.2) asks for that everyone is allowed to question any
assertion whatever, to introduce any assertion into the discourse or to express his
attitudes, desires and needs is very difficult to achieve in practice, when we are subject
to constraints of time and space. (Fleischacker, 207, 208) As he notices, Habermas
acknowledges these limitations, but he goes on to dismiss them through the use of a
passive voice that tells us that "topics and contributions have to be organized' openings,
adjournments, resumptions, etc., 'must be arranged". (Fleischacker, 208) Such passive
voice avoids focusing on the fact that someone does the organizing and thus, does not
acknowledge power differentials that allow some to marginalize others.
Foucault also criticized Habermas for not being critical of his own standard of
critique, the decentered subject. This is what he seems to have in mind when he writes
"In what does it [philosophy today] consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to
what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is
already known?" (HS2, 9, italics mine) Part of what we already "know" in our modem
society, is the superiority of having three different types of claims - namely, claims to:
propositional truth, normative rightness or justice and truthfulness or sincerity of the
speaker ~ which call for different ways of justification (Section 2). According to
Habermas, a decentered self who makes this type of distinction represents the most
developed stage of consciousness and societies with this type of individuals represent the
most developed societies. (Tully, 106) He supports this account through Lawrence
Kohlberg's and Piaget's theories of moral and cognitive development, and with
arguments about the development of societies from primitive to modem. (MCCA, 116-
94) Although Habermas acknowledges that his arguments are not conclusive, he accuses
anybody who questions his view on the decentered self of being an irrational relativist.
(Tully 111; Habermas 1994,157-158) Foucault, however, is not criticizing the search for
universal moral claims, but only the fact that Habermas does not allow any test of his
own standard. As Tully argues, "Habermas does not distance himself from his own
hypothesis, provisionally holding it as one among other forms of rationality and testing it
by means of, say, Foucault's reciprocal elucidation, Taylor's perspicuous contrast,
Rawls' reflective equilibriimi, and Putnam's internal realism." (Tully, 114) Others,
following Wittgenstein, have objected that arranging data so that it follows a
developmental framework is only one among different possible arrangements. For
Wittgenstein, "The historical explanation, the explanation as a hypothesis of
development, is only one way of assembling the data." (Wittgenstein, 1993, 131) Carol
Gilligan has also argued that Kohlberg's and Habermas' models and the post-
conventional rules of the latter exhibit a male partiality, and she suggests a different
model of moral development based on stages of caring. (Gilligan, 1982)
4.2.3 Decentering the Decentered Self
Another objection against Habermas' decentered self is the possibility of finding
other forms of rationality beyond the three he describes as characterizing such a self.
Taylor objects, for instance, that his way of discovering moral sources through expressive
languages that have a personal resonance does not fall within any of the three different
forms of rationality. Habermas describes (SS, 510) We can similarly see Foucault's
genealogies as another form of investigating distinctions of the good that does not neatly
fall within Habermas' forms of rationality. These genealogies do not fall within
Habermas' spheres of rationality because they challenge some, and do not themselves
follow all of the idealizing rules that for Habermas characterize all forms of valid
rationality. They, for instance, often show how the meanings of terms have changed
through time. Foucault does this in Discipline and Punish with terms such as
'discipline', 'individual' and 'subject'. It is difBcult to see, Tully argues, how these
genealogies can be compatible with the conventional rule 1.3, which establishes that
different speakers may not use the same expression with different meanings. (Tully, 120)
Tully seems to suggest that genealogy itself represents a form of reasoning in which rule
1.3 does not always apply, and as such it does not fall within the three forms of
rationality characterizing the decentered self In Habermas' defense, we can argue that in
doing this type of genealogy we are only clarifying the meaning of some terms. These
genealogies show how a term's meaning changes in going from one power and truth
regime to another. If people enter a discourse ethical process of argumentation coming
from different truth or power regimes, they will be using the terms with different
meanings. Also in this case we can see the use of the same term with different meanings
only as a way some have to convince others of their point of view. Yet, we must
recognize that at least during part of the process the same terms are used with different
meanings and this contradicts Rule 1.3. Genealogies also contest post-conventional rules,
denying that all forms of valid rationality require that everybody needs to be allowed to
question or introduce assertions and express their views.
Someone could argue that even if Taylor's and Foucault's procedures are not
those that Habermas suggests, the type of claims they make would be either moral or
ethical since they still assign either imiversal or partial validity to their claims. Because
of this, they are still upholding a decentered self For Habermas, however, what is
rational is defined by his method. If what Taylor and Foucault propose does not follow
that method, they are not being rational. Habermas sees Taylor's suggestion of finding
moral sources through expressive languages not as a way of rationally determining what
is moral, but as a way to get motivated or inspired to be moral through an aesthetic
experience. He acknowledges that Taylor wants to redefine moral philosophy so that
such a goal has a place within it. But for him, moral philosophy should not be in the
business of motivating us, only in the business of rationally clarifying what is right. If
someone does not feel the force of the moral 'ought', we should not charge moral
philosophy with making her feel this force. (Rehg, 138; Habermas 1991, 184-189) If it is
true, however, that our values and ideas of what is good are as much discovered as
created, we cannot reject Taylor's suggestion about personal resonance simply because it
does not fit within what have been traditionally defined as the domain of moral theory.
Philosophy has often included an aesthetic element and has had the goal of inspiring or
motivating. Whether it should or should not do this is an imsettled metaphilosophical
question. Moreover, everybody and not just moral philosophers can find moral sources
through personal resonance with expressive languages. Habermas himself accepts that
determining the validity of moral claims is not the exclusive task of moral philosophers,
but of everybody potentially affected by a norm.
Habermas is even more dismissive of Foucault. As we know, he sees him as a
relativist who can't provide bases for his own positive suggestions and denies that his
genealogies discover anything rational. Yet, as we discussed before (section 4.1)
Foucault's skepticism about the rules of communication is not as broad as Habermas
portrays. Several of Foucault's genealogies aim only to show the contingency of the
post-conventional rules of communication and the centrality of the decentered games of
truth. (Tully, 121) Thus, genealogies, still respecting conventional rules, do not commit a
performative contradiction. Iris Young offers the sketch of a genealogy for Habermas'
discourse ethics:
The deliberative model of communication derives fi-om specific institutional
contexts of the modem West -scientific debate, modem parliaments, and courts
(each with progenitors in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and politics and in
the medieval academy). These were some of the aspiring institutions of the
bourgeois revolution that succeeded in becoming ruling institutions. Their
institutional forms, rules, and rhetorical and cultural styles have defined the
meaning of reason itself in the modem world. As ruling institutions they have
been elitist and exclusive, and these exclusions mark their very conceptions of
reason and deliberation, both in the institutions and in the rhetorical styles they
represent. Since their Enlighteimient begirmings, they have been male-dominated
institutions, and in class- and race-differentiated societies they have been white-
and upper class dominated. Despite their claim of deliberative forms of orderly
meetings to express pure universal reason, the norms of deliberation are culturally
specific and often operate as forms of power that silence and devalue the speech
of some people. (Young 1996, 123)
In spite of all these objections to Habermas' account, we can still take his discourse
ethics as one more possibility for determining just social norms. We should only keep in
mind that, as Foucault, Gilligan and Iris Young have suggested, we find other
possibilities. Both Taylor's and Habermas' methods represent different games of truth
that we find helpful at different times and for different piirposes. Taylor's methodology
lends itself to personal decisions about which moral goods should take priority in our
lives. Habermas' discourse ethics offers a way to decide just social and legal norms. Yet
neither of these methodologies, as both authors readily admit, is infallible. Foucault's
genealogies serve as a way to test the results of both schemes. The test for determining
whether these genealogies are successful is free and open discussion. If communities of
discourse and action support these genealogies, it will be a matter of further discussion
whether new ways of thinking and acting gain acceptance and are allowed by the larger
society. The advantage of promoting these investigations and commimities is pushing the
limits of what we know and allowing for new subjectivities to develop. This in turn
supports the goal of advancing authenticity.
5 Potential Agreement as a Requirement for Moral Truths
The confrontation with Habermas makes us see Taylor's and Foucault's forms of
reflection as more realistic. Although I said earlier that Habermas is moved by a
democratic intention, I agreed with Foucault's and Fleischacker's assessment of
Habermas' discourse ethics as Utopian. In Chapter 3, Sections 4.2,1 criticized
Taylor's method, for requiring that we agree on what is moral. Taylor, however, only
required a potential agreement. His ontological approach presupposes a potential
consensus, since for him, if our best account is correct, ideally at least, everyone should
be able to see it. If someone could not see the force of a better argument, however, we
could still take our best account as disclosing the hypergoods a rational person could
recognize. As compared to Habermas then, Taylor's requirement of potential - as
opposed to actual ~ agreement on what is moral seems much more plausible. This
plausibility supports the proposal of keeping Taylor's hermeneutical method to determine
what is moral.
Even Foucault accepts the idea of looking for potential agreement in determining
what is moral. As we saw, in spite of his objections to Habermas' project, he accepts it
as one more possible form of critique and acknowledges the importance of rights. He
also accepts some limits which we should keep. Furthermore, as I discussed earlier, I
agree with Patton's view that Foucault tacitly presupposes a minimal account of the
human subject as having a capacity for agency and self-reflection. (Patton, 71) This, I
argued, gives us enough bases to defend Foucault's normativity in condemning anything
that represses these capacities. If he really accepts that every subject has a capacity for
agency, for evaluations and self-interpretation, he would have to accept that everyone
should in principle agree on moral norms or principles that affect everybody. This is
consistent with saying that, for him, the test of free and open discussion should strive for
universal consensus. We must notice, however, that for Foucault, consensus is an
indication but not the test for validity. He sees consensus as a critical, but not as a
regulative principle. (PR, 379) In this way, he is just keeping the fallibilistic attitude also
acknowledged by Taylor and Habermas. Yet, this only means that even if we are able to
arrive at what we see as a universal moral principle, we want to stay vigilant and see
whether such a principle does not in practice unnecessarily oppress or marginalize
deviant others. Through genealogy and the formation of communities of discourse and
action, those in the margins can enter the dialogue and question what we see as universal.
In doing this questioning and fashioning of new practices of freedom, however, they still
have to play games of truth and make sense to others. In this way they enter the process
of reciprocal elucidation through which people can determine riot only those limits that
we can change, but also those elements that we see as more constant and as essential for
being human.
6 Complementing Methodologies II
We can thus describe Taylor and Foucault as working in opposite directions.
Where Taylor constructs, through articulation, Foucault deconstructs, through
genealogies. If Taylor aims mainly to determine what is moral and universal, Foucault
aims to challenge what we normally view as such. In looking for the frill range of goods
that make a claim on everybody - the hypergoods - Taylor wants to add to the moral.
This is exactly the opposite of what Foucault wants. His genealogies aim to show how.
what we take as natural and universal are historical products and could be otherwise; they
fight the belief that certain notions of the good apply universally and without
qualification. Taylor wants to investigate all the possible hypergoods behind our moral
and spiritual intuitions to make sure we don't leave out anything that is moral. Among
these we might find goods that previously we only saw as optional. Foucault, on the
other hand, wants to check our certainty on the morality of particular beliefs, principles,
or ways of being and suggests that communities of action find new practices of fi-eedom
that we might more properly classify as ethical but optional.
From this description we can see Taylor and Foucault as complementing each
other in the process of developing authentic selves. Being authentic in the way we have
described it, requires us to not only follow certain xmiversal, moral principles but also to
follow more personal, ethical notions of what is good for us. If Taylor is right, and
something really belongs within the moral, it represents, in Foucault's terms, one of those
limits we should not change. On the other hand, if we find that a genealogy is right, it
destabilizes one of those limits and we might not need to follow it to be authentic. In that
area, at least, we would be fi-ee to invent new practices of fi-eedom that in turn could
contribute to making us more authentic.
Taylor and Foucault would also agree that the two forms of self-reflection - that
which attempts to determine universal moral notions and that which attempts to
determine optional ethical goods ~ should not occur independently of each other. Moral
philosophers must defend and clarify their hypergoods in the face of the novel
evaluations and practices of freedom of new social and political movements. At the same
time, proponents of these new goods need to acknowledge and see how these fit with
certain ideas of the good that we can't help but see as constant and universal. Both have
to do this through a process of 'reciprocal elucidation' (PPP, 381) in a dialogue with each
7 The Distinction of Moralityand Ethics
This description of what Foucault and Taylor are doing relies on a distinction
between the moral and the ethical. Thus, although I have rejected Habermas' discourse
ethics as Utopian, I have been keeping his terminology for distinguishing between the two
areas of morality. Both Taylor and Foucault, I contend, would accept the existence of
these two types of notions. For neither of them, however, should we make a premature,
grand separation.
But where exactly does Habermas make the separation? At different points, he
distinguishes moral and ethical claims in slightly different ways. In the first place
"ethical claims have a teleological orientation to the realization of goods and values,
while moral claims refer first of all to obligatory or prohibited actions." (Rehg 94;
Habermas 1991, 143f, 168-169) In this line of thinking, while norms are either valid or
invalid and apply imiversally, values admit degrees of acceptability. (Habermas 1992,
310, 312) Habermas also sees the ethical claims as dealing with the following questions:
Who am I? (or Who are we?), and Who do I/we want to be? These questions tie ethical
discourse to the language of identity, and this fact explains why he sees all of Taylor's
account within the ethical. Moral claims, on the other hand, deal with questions about the
obligations or norms that we have to apply in our relations with others. Finally, while we
attempt to answer ethical questions from within the perspective of our life histories or
traditions, we deal with moral claims from a trans-cultural perspective .(Habermas 1991,
We can add that for Habermas the moral gets determined by the procedure of
rational agreement. However, if we take seriously the objection of utopianism, and
Taylor's objection that he prematurely decides where the separation goes, we can't accept
his limit for the moral. But if we can not make the separation in practice we wonder if
Habermas' distinction of the moral and the ethical still makes sense. Taylor and Bernard
Williams, among others, do not believe in a real separation. Although their ethical
accounts differ, they use the terms 'moral' and 'ethical' in a similar way, seeing the
moral as a special part of the ethical. For them, what Habermas describes as belonging
within the moral comes from a segregation produced by our modem moral theories.
Some of the reasons they offer for how this separation developed almost certainly would
form part of a genealogy of morality as we know it today.
The model I endorse follows that of Taylor or Williams, where the moral falls
within the ethical and we don't have a clear demarcation between the two. So far,
however, I have been relating the ethical to the optional in a way that follows Habermas'
use of the term. I have said that we find within morality two areas, the strictly moral, and
the ethical. Within the first in the narrow sense I included rights and our obligations
toward others and within the second I included some of our distinctions of the good that
are more personal and optional. I must, thus, clarify my use of the terminology.
While I still want to emphasize the link of the ethical and the optional, I don't
deny that the ethical also includes the moral in the narrower sense. Because of this I want
to accept Taylor's view that we see moral philosophy, morality or ethics as synonyms
and encompassing the study of the same distinctions of the good. When I refer to the
optional and personal as ethical, I don't imply that moral obligations and universally
applicable distinctions of the good do not belong within ethics. To avoid this, in what
follows I will refer to the "ethical but optional" as a disjunction that do not intend to
exhaust what goes within the ethical.
My reason for emphasizing the optional came in part from not seeing in Taylor's
account a clear way to distinguish it from the obligatory. I worried that if everything is
obligatory we end up normalized and without freedom. Although he accepts that part of
ethics finds distinctions of the good that are only optional, his ontological model makes it
difficult to see what differentiates commanding and imiversal from optional distinctions
of the good. In Chapter 3 we saw that for him our best accoimts allow us to discriminate
in different situations between what is obligatory and imiversally required (universal
hypergoods) and what is permissible or optional (personal hypergoods and life goods).
While we experience the claims of some distinctions of the good as commanding and
universal, we experience others as worthwhile, but optional. What he tells us about
goods in general, however, does not make it very clear how we would make the
separation. As we saw in Chapter 2, for him the standards for determining both types of
goods were the same. (SS, 77-78) In both cases, we have to articulate our qualitative
distinctions of the good in such a way that others get moved or inspired by them. In both
cases, too, we should be able to see the epistemological advantage of adopting them. In
other words, in both cases others should see the phenomenological objectivity of our
distinctions of the good. Because he ties so closely our acceptance of a good with its
objective value and the reasons we can give for it, if we don't adopt it, we would seem to
be making a mistake. In other words, we would seem to be obliged to do what is best.
Thus, other then asserting that we have a different phenomenological experience of the
different goods, Taylor does not tell us what makes some distinctions optional and others
obligatory and universal.
In Ethics and the Limits of Morality, Chapter 10, Williams gives us an account of
why we have a problem differentiating between the obligatory and the optional, which
can help Taylor. Williams calls "the morality system" that part of ethics that deals with
what I have been calling moral in a narrow sense. A special notion of "moral obligation"
distinguishes this system. But, for Williams, moral obligation is only one ethical
consideration among others. The problem with most modem moral philosophy -
including Kantianism and Utilitarianism ~ is that it tries to make everything into a moral
obligation. Once we start thinking in terms of obligation, it is hard to stop. Thus, much
of modem moral philosophy encourages the thoughts that "only an obligation can beat
an obligation" (Williams, 180) and that particular obligations come from more general
obligations ~ what he calls the "obligation-out, obligation-in principle". (Williams, 181)
We can justify thinking in terms of moral obligations as one way to ensure the reliability
of something of fundamental importance, such as not being killed or lied to. By making
something into an obligation we give it the highest deliberative priority, which only
means that such consideration must override other considerations in our deliberative
process. We find other cases, however, in which a particular obligation does not come
from a more general obligation. This occurs, for instance, when we are near an
emergency. In such case we are obliged to help, not because of a more general
obligation, but precisely because of our immediacy. In this way he refutes the principle
that "only an obligation can beat an obligation." He also discusses the example of
breaking the promise of visiting a friend because of a sudden opportunity to do something
important. This illustrates the case in which a different type of ethical considerations
override an obligation and thus deny the principle that only an obligation can beat an
obligation. Finally, Williams also convincingly argues that conclusions of practical
necessity i.e., those with an unconditional "must," are not peculiar to morality. By
showing how thinking in terms of moral obligation is not the only way to think in
morality, the problems of thinking that way, and the fact that there are other disciplines
that require practical necessity, Williams shows a way for an ethical space of the
For Taylor our best account discloses our commanding and optional distinctions
of the good. Obligations are not the main way of reasoning but a result of articulating
what is important. Thus, Taylor is not subject to Williams' criticism. The question
remains, however, of how could Taylor explain the phenomenological difference we
experience between the obligatory and the optional in particular situations. One answer
open to him would be accepting Williams' considerations for deciding when it works best
to think of something important as our obligations. If his best accoimts, for instance, tell
us what is of fiindamental importance for everybody, we could justify seeing that, and
only that, as commanding and universal.
Williams shows how we mistakenly try to segregate the two areas and thinks that
we would do better without the distinction. (Williams, 174) He, however, does not deny
that we can find a proper place for obligations among other ethical considerations.
(Williams, 182) I regard this as accepting that we can find a rightfiil place for moral
obligations within ethics. Thus, we can justifiably consider within the moral those
negative obligations that ensure giving deliberative priority to that which is of
fundamental importance and on which we need to rely. Taylor and even Foucault, as I
have argued, also keep a sense of a distinction between the moral and the ethically
optional. (Let's review: We have seen how, for Taylor our best accoxmt can disclose
both universal, commanding hypergoods and more personal hypergoods and life goods.
In Foucault's case, we can also find a tacit acknowledgment of the two types of notions.
As we saw last chapter, he agrees that we experience some values and behaviors as more
permanent limits. He also acknowledges that the ethos of Enlightenment includes finding
something "heroic" in the present. (WE, 40) In my interpretation this includes valorizing
some limits that we need to keep which, I contended, include notions of the good that we
normally see as moral. (Chapter 5, Section 2.1) His main purpose, however, was to find
all those limits we should be free to change. These are the practices that we can see as
ethical but optional.)
Even when I agree that we carmot have a strict separation, for the purpose of
thinking about authenticity I also want to keep the distinction between the two areas of
morality or ethics that I have been discussing. To be authentic, we have advocated, we
have to determine all the more universal notions of the good that I am calling moral. We
can consider within it, then, all those actions that we see as obligatory and all those
whose force apply imiversally ~ such as arguably, some virtues. But being authentic also
implies being faithful to our individual originality. This involves endorsing and living
according to notions of the good that may only apply to us and some others. These are
the ones I include within the ethical but optional. In this view, then, the difference
between the moral and the optional-ethical depends on to whom they apply; while we see
moral notions as applying to everybody we don't see this for ethical but optional
distinctions of the goods.
Much of my concern with Taylor was what I saw as a normalizing tendency. I
have discussed how Williams can help. By following his suggestions we can determine
which notions of the good are optional. In the rest of this chapter I take what Williams
says and illustrate its agreement with what we can see as our obligation for maintaining
the possibility of dialogue. I do this by justifying seeing as our moral obligation that
which has fundamental importance. My motivation to do it, however, is to make sure we
have a space left for the ethical but optional.
8 Conditions for the Possibilityof Dialogue in Two Areas of Morality
In this section I suggest a way to classify some actions, practices, principles and
other distinctions of the good, based on their impact on the possibility of dialogue, as
either moral or ethical-optional. I must clarify that I do not intend to determine a strict
and all-comprehensive way to divide the two areas of morality since, like Taylor and
Williams, I don't believe that such a goal is possible or desirable.
I propose that we consider many actions or distinctions of the good that enable or
preserve the possibility of dialogue as belonging within the moral. Alternatively we can
also see many actions that obstruct this possibility as immoral. Furthermore, if this is the
case, we can consider many actions that do not affect the possibility of dialogue, as
ethical but optional. The best test for this allocation of distinctions of the good will be the
way our conclusions fit our moral intuitions. Thus, after sketching a justification for this
proposal, I will check such correspondence through some examples.
My proposals come in part fi-om the observation I have taken as central for my
account, namely, the idea that we are essentially dialogical beings and fi-om the
definitions I have proposed for the moral and the ethical-optional. According to the
dialogical account we are selves only because of our participation in dialogues and
dialogical actions^'^ with others. If we did not have dialogues we would not be selves at
all. We thus see preserving the possibility of dialogue as important. We could, however,
only preserve the possibility of dialogue with a few others. I accept, however, that to be
selves we need to be concerned with finding what is good and with how we are
positioned in relation to it. (Chapter 2, Section2) Also, to determine what is good - at
least in the case of commanding hypergoods - we need potential universal agreement. To
be selves, then, we need to preserve the possibility of dialogue with everybody. We can
find cases in which preserving such possibility is not possible or desirable. Thus,
potentially everybody would agree that, in so far as it is possible or desirable, preserving
the possibility of dialogue applies to everybody. But I saw as our moral obligation
following those practices and distinctions of the good which potentially everybody agrees
apply to everybody. Therefore, in so far as it is possible or desirable, it is our moral
obligation to preserve the possibility of dialogue.
Charles Taylor describes action as dialogical "when it is effected byan integrated nonindividual agent...
These actions are constituted as such bya shared understanding among those that make up the common
agent" (DS,311). Examples ofdialogical acts would include public demonstration,rhythmic dancing, and
a well-paced conversation.
The proviso "in so far as it is possible or desirable" in the preceding argument,
attempts to take care of some real cases. In reality not everybody would agree that we
always have to preserve the possibility of dialogue with everybody. We would not have
to do it, for instance, if the other person wants to kill us (this would be a case in which
preserving the possibility of dialogue is not desirable).
My argument agrees with Williams' guidelines for what we can see as a correct
use of moral obligations among other ethical considerations. We can see preserving the
possibility of dialogue as something of fundamental importance. That is why we give it
high deliberative priority by making it our moral obligation. This does not mean,
however, that under special circumstances other ethical considerations could not take
priority, such as killing in self defense.
Alternatively, we can say that something that being able to do otherwise and
without a good reason obstructs the possibility of dialogue is immoral. This form of
putting it forward follows from the positive version of stating our moral obligation. We
can see not doing our moral obligation as something immoral. Obstructing is an instance
of not preserving; being able to have done otherwise means that we could have chosen to
preserve the possibiHty; and doing it without a good reason means that it would be
desirable to preserve the possibility. Thus, if we don't preserve (if we obstruct) the
possibility of dialogue and it is possible (we are able) and desirable (we have a good
reason) to do it, we are being immoral. The wording "the possibility of dialogue" is also
important. It does not mean necessarily, having the dialogue. Thus, "preserving the
possibility of dialogue" means that we won't entirely close the prospect that it will
happen in the future, or, more generally, that we enable other dialogues. The victim of a
crime, then, does not have to actually have a dialogue with its perpetrator in order to be
moral, but should, at least, not kill that person. But a possibility could also be obstructed
by something less radical than death. We will see some of these cases ahead.
On the other hand, we had included within the ethical those goods which
potentially everybody agrees do not apply to everybody. If something does not affect the
possibility of dialogue (and it does not have other negative effects) it is something that
does not apply to everybody and as such should be optional. Thus, doing something that
does not affect the possibility of dialogue (and it does not have other negative effects) is
itself something ethical. My parenthetical provisos intend to take care of situations in
which I could be affecting others or actions that we could see as un-aesthetic or otherwise
not very commendable. Kicking an innocent dog does not affect the possibility of
dialogue, but it does not seem to be very ethical. Lying about someone or something in a
way in which no one is affected does not interfere with dialogue, but again, it does not
seem to be very ethical or moral.
The question of whether a distinction does or does not obstruct our dialogue will
be contested and a difficult one to answer. I am not suggesting answering it
monologically and from a privileged position, which would run against Taylor's and
Foucault's methods. To answer whether an action or distinction promotes or obstructs
dialogue we would have to enter into dialogues, always including the affected individuals
and communities. We cannot presuppose from the outset that any method or discourse ~
be those of science, religion, tradition or any other institution have more authority in
giving us the answer than any other. Evaluating the validity of the different distinctions
and arguments within each discourse will be only one more of the questions to consider
through the dialogue or what Foucault refers to as the process of "reciprocal elucidation".
At the same time, as we will illustrate in the next section, we cannot presume total
neutrality. Contrary to what Habermas post-conventional rules implies, in a given
controversy we might find some people with more say than others.
This proposal, as I discussed above, comes fi-om realizing that having the status of
moral selves requires the possibility of having dialogue with every person. When we are
speaking of moral matters, as Taylor and Habermas argue, we should potentially be able
to reach consensus. Even Foucault concedes, as we have seen, that reaching consensus is
at least a good indicator of truth. We thus presuppose that, at least potentially, we should
be able to reach it. This is why we cannot just respect a few others, but need to be sure
that everybody could enter the dialogue. Furthermore, the decision that we reach, should
itself allow the possibility of dialogue.
Being authentic as we have defined it, however, requires not only being virtuous
and moral selves, but also being fi-ee in more personal areas of our lives. This
requirement serves as the basis for a condition that distinguishes ethical matters. If many
actions, practices and principles that allow the possibility of having dialogues with others
are moral, many of those that do not directly affect this possibility will be ethical but
optional. Thus, doing everything we can to preserve someone's life normally would be a
moral principle that represents a good that applies universally. Practicing some
alternative styles of life, on the other hand, may not necessarily hinder the possibility of
dialogue. On the contrary, such practices could enrich our dialogues since they
incorporate ways of being that some people can see as options or as basis for creating
other practices and ways of being. Thus, even if the optional-ethical includes practices
that do not interfere with the possibility of having dialogues, they enhance dialogue
indirectly by helping to create a more plural world.
8.1 Illustrations
In some cases we can find it relatively easy to agree whether a given action or
behavior impedes dialogue and thus is immoral and should be universally condemned. In
such cases we would have a universal principle that imder ordinary circumstances we
must not do that action. Killing someone who does not represent a threat to us, for
example, would not be conducive to dialogue. I am not arguing that this feature is what
makes the act immoral. I am only saying that in many cases finding that something
obstructs the possibility of dialogue helps us identify it as immoral. We could also
criticize, for example, attitudes such as sexism and racism for not leading to the
possibility of dialogues between groups and individuals. Even in the cases in which these
attitudes allow some type of communication, we carmot see this take the form of
balanced dialogues. With the word 'balanced' I do not intend to introduce a new
constraint. I am only emphasizing a condition that I believe must be present in all real
dialogue. This includes by and large Habermas' rules of discursive communication and
the rights and duties Foucault describes as immanent in the dialogical situation. (PPP,
381 )
On the other hand we find practices which, although some people might see as
immoral, do not directly obstruct dialogue. Thus, someone might criticize as
promiscuous and immoral someone else who has multiple sexual partners without
committing to a single, stable relationship. Yet, we can argue that this way of being does
not directly obstruct his or her dialogue with other people. Some might disapprove of the
person's behavior to the point of not wanting a dialogue with that person. This
disposition, however, does not constitute a real obstruction of dialogue and we could
attribute it to their prejudice more than to the other person's way of life. After all, many
other minor behaviors of a person might bother other people and cause them not to want
to talk to the person and yet this does not mean that the persons' behavior is immoral. In
this case, what we can see as immoral is not talking to someone merely because they are
In other cases, however, we find it difficult to say whether the given action or
practice obstructs or furthers dialogue. It might hinder it in one way and advance it in
another. Polygamy and abortion represent examples of such practices. In cases like these
people often debate the morality or immorality of the practices as wholes. Someone
might argue, for example, that polygamy, at least as we know it, is a sexist practice and
as such does not promote dialogue since it does not give equal value to men and women.
We sometimes hear, however, that women in societies with this practice often defend it,
citing cultural, religious or circumstantial reasons. They can say, for instance, that they
prefer sharing the household chores and that polygamy gives them a way to do this. How
does this translate into promoting dialogue? We don't know, for instance, whether
having this practice allows women in these societies to have more dialogue. In cases like
this, we want to follow Foucault's or Habermas' advice and let the members of the
affected group offer their reasons, without imposing our views of what constitutes
oppression. The question here, however, would be determining whether the given
practice promotes, obstructs or does not directly affect further dialogue.
In the case of abortion, a pro-life person might argue that abortion does not lead to
dialogue, since the action will prevent the existence of a child that could otherwise
communicate in the fiature. A pro-choice person on the other hand could argue that not
allowing a woman to have an abortion does not promote dialogue either. Forcing a
woman to give birth is equivalent to not respecting her right to rule over her own body,
and not respecting someone's rights is not conductive to dialogue. We can find
arguments against each of these positions and as we know, the debate continues. In a
case like this, it also seems important to consider circumstances and context. Is the child
being bom to an overpopulated world with scarce resources? Is it probable that the
imdesired child would be severely handicapped? Was it the product of rape or incest? Is
there any way to give the child up for adoption to someone who wants it? Is there any
way to ensure the support of the father? Asking whether abortion as a whole promotes or
obstructs dialogue within a society represents a very difficult question to answer. I
personally believe that the opinion with more weight in this discussion is that of the
woman, who has more at stake than any other person, in each particular case. This
observation constitutes an objection to the spirit of Habermas' processual rules. As
Fleischacker points out, not all people involved in arguing about a norm have the same
right to enter the discussion. (Fleischacker, 208) In this case, then, while we can't have a
definite way of determining whether the fetus is a person or not, we have an impasse, and
we can't determine whether the action goes in the ethical or in the moral area.
Other examples seem to challenge my assessment of the distinction between the
moral and the ethical-optional. Someone could say, for instance, that respect for religious
authorities puts a damper on fi-ee discussion, and yet, we don't want to call such respect
immoral. I agree that such respect would not be immoral, and we can rather see it as a
virtue. But we would have to wonder in this case, whether it is really respect that stops
us from frankly arguing something with such authority. More often, it seems to me, what
stops us in such cases is something like fear of rejection, lack of self-confidence, or a
sense that we won't be able to resolve the issue in the way we want. Of course, we could
then ask whether any of these feelings or reasons are immoral. The answer once again
would have to be no. Having a dialogue in this case does not seem to be in the agent's
power. In so far as 'ought implies can,' he is not under a moral obligation to have the
dialogue, and thus he would not be immoral if he does not have the dialogue.^' We can
on the other hand see as immoral the religious authority that intentionally uses its power
to intimidate and close the possibility of dialogue.
Someone could argue that the person, who, because of fear, refiised to start the
dialogue, was also being immoral, since he or she also closed the possibility of dialogue.
We could argue, however, that in this case what the person closed was not the possibility,
but the actuality of dialogue. He or she could have started the dialogue if the religious
authority were not raising obstacles to it.
I want to insist that my proposals do not pretend to exhaustively cover what goes
into the moral and what within the ethical but optional. It simply seeks to classify some
actions or practices either as moral or as ethical but optional depending on their impact
This does not mean that we cannot judge the situation in what WiUiams calls thick terms. To do that,we
would need to look closer to the specific circumstances. Let's say,for instance,that the religious authority
negativelyaffects others with his interpretation ofsome text and I have the knowledge and abilityto
challenge that interpretation,but because offear,I don't do it. In this case we can appropriatelydescribe
myomission as 'cowardly.'
on the possibility of dialogue. We see in each of the above examples that to really
determine the consequences on the possibility of dialogue we need to be specific.
Looking at the consequences for the practices in general without more considerations of
particularities and context does not let us grasp the consequences of the action for the
likelihood of dialogue. In each case the arguments for and against this effect on dialogue
can continue.
The motivation behind making these proposals was to see how it was possible to
have two different moral spaces in which we do what we need to become authentic. If
something we thought was a moral requirement turns out not to be so, we can decide not
to do it and still be authentic. On the other hand, if something we thought was optional
turns out to be moral, the only way of being authentic would be to adopt it.
9 Conclusions
Habermas' account appeals to us because his separation of the moral and the
ethical but optional promises to give us the freedom we need to be authentic. In the end,
however, I don't find this separation well justified. In this chapter I agreed with Taylor's
objection to discourse ethics that it prematurely restricts what goes within the moral. I
fiirther argued that even in the case of social policies discourse ethics leaves out of
consideration other worthy courses of action.
I also defend Foucault from Habermas' challenge that he cannot account for the
normativity of his suggestions. To do this I used Hoy's defense based on immanence and
Patton's idea that Foucault presupposes a minimal account of human subjectivity. I
argued that our love for freedom and desire to experience ourselves as agents is part of
who we are now. Whether these features are part of an original nature or a historical
product, we can embrace them as something desirable. Furthermore, what we have
become also includes our respect for moral norms. Unless the genealogist can show their
arbitrary nature and undesirability, such norms should endure. That we defend something
immanently, from our experience and point of view, then, does not mean that we are
being relativistic; in this defense we still need to offer reasons that others can accept in
free and open discussions. As I discussed, public acceptance after such discussion
represents a measure of the truth of genealogy and we can add, of our normative
judgments. I also used James Tully's notion of Foucault's specific skepticism to defend
Foucault from the charge that his genealogies commit a performative contradiction.
Beyond defending Foucault I underscored as an advantage of genealogies over
Habermas' discourse ethics their use to test the limits of the moral in a way Habermas'
method cannot. I thus defended genealogy as a way to check whether the moral goods
and norms we find through Taylor's and Habermas' methods are indeed universal. I also
argued against Habermas' notion of a decentered self by defending the possibility of
other forms of rationality beyond the three he describes as characterizing such a self.
Among these I listed Taylor's method of articvilating moral sources through expressive
languages and elaborated on Foucault's genealogies.
In earlier chapters I had criticized Taylor's hermeneutical method for looking for
an agreement which I saw as difficult to reach. In the end, however, I accepted it as a
way to ensure that we do not leave out any possible distinction of the good that we need
to adopt if we want to be authentic. In this chapter I also accepted Habermas' discourse
ethics, but only as a form of critique to determine just social norms. I also argued that
while his method aims to be more democratic than Taylor's, striving to take into account
the views ofeveryone affected bya norm, it is even more Utopian.
Because Taylor and Foucault only require potential universal agreement for
determining what is moral, I argued, we can see their methods as more plausible than
Habermas' discoiirse ethics. This advantage of Taylor's and Foucault's methods, along
with, 1 hope, their stronger standing after my different forms of defense, led me to
propose using them for determining distinctions of the good that enable us to become
more authentic. Fijrthermore, because of their different aims, we can see these methods
as complementing each other.
My motivation for a distinction between two areas in morality comes from my
original intuitions about authenticity. We need to have the two areas if we want to fulfill
the two conditions for our ideal of authenticity: being oxu" better selves and being as free
as we can. More specifically, to be authentic, we need to determine both moral
hypergoods that are valid for everybody and more personal hypergoods and life goods.
In the final part of this chapter I apply Williams' suggestions for moral thinking to the
specific case of keeping the possibility of dialogue. I do this to illustrate how this type of
moral thinking can indeed lead us to having a space open for the ethical but optional.
In this dissertation I contended that our dialogical nature supports a dialogical
ethics, i.e., one that values and seeks to promote dialogue with others, and that such
ethics in turn leads us to the ideal of authenticity I endorse. I also proposed that we can
achieve this type of authenticity through an investigation of both, moral and universal and
also ethical but optional distinctions of the good. I argued that, we can investigate moral
distinctions of the good and just social norms through Taylor's and Habermas' forms of
reflection respectably. I also argued that we can investigate ethical distinctions through
Foucault's genealogies and his suggestions for communities of action. Throughout, I
have defended and, I hope, cleared up some of the misimderstandings surrounding
Foucault, whom both Taylor and Habermas accuse of incoherence. In spite of the
criticisms and challenges each author's theory raises for the other, I argued that,
especially in the case of Taylor and Foucault, their forms of critical reflection
complement each other. Each of them has something useful to say about the shape our
dialogues must take in the process of achieving authenticity.
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Carlos M. Briones
Universityof Illinois at Chicago (Chicago, IL)
PhD in Philosophy 1998-Present
Universityof Houston (Houston, TX)
MA in Philosophy
(Worked as a Research Chemist while completing MA)
Universityof Connecticut (Stores, CT)
MS in Chemistry (Specialized in Quantum Chemistry) 1982-1984
Tecnologico de Monterrey(Monterrey, Mexico)
BS in Chemistry 1976-1980
Oakton CommunityCollege (Des Plaines, IL)
Associate Professor August 2006-Present
Northeastern Illinois University(Chicago, IL)
Instructor August 2004-May 2006
Universityof Illinois at Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Teaching Assistant and Summer Teacher 1998-2004
Tecnologico de Monterrey(Queretaro and Monterrey, Mexico)
Full time Professor and Researcher 1980-1990
American Philosophical Association
"Being Authentic by Being Like Everyone Else?: Charles Taylor and the Threat of
Normalization," at the "Exploration in Humanities" UIC Graduate Student Conference,
April, 2004.
Diversity Fellowship, University of Illinois at Chicago
Diversity Fellowship, University of Illinois at Chicago
Abraham Lincoln Fellowship, University of Illinois at Chicago
Abraham Lincoln Fellowship, University of Illinois at Chicago
Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship, University of Illinois at Chicago
CONTACYT Scholarship from Mexico (for MS in Chemistry)
Latin-American Scholarship Program for American Universities
Tecnologico de Monterrey Scholarship (for BS in Chemistry)