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Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy

Will Kymlicka

Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies , 200 Rosemere Avenue, Ottawa, K1S
1A8, Canada
Published online: 29 Aug 2008.

To cite this article: Will Kymlicka (1991) The Ethics of Inarticulacy, Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, 34:2,
155-182, DOI: 10.1080/00201749108602250
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Inquiry, 34, 155-82

Symposium: Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self*

The Ethics of Inarticulacy

Will Kymlicka
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Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, Ottawa

In his impressive and wide-ranging new book, Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor
argues that modern moral philosophy, at least within the Anglo-American tradition, .
offers a 'cramped' view of morality. Taylor attributes this problem to three
distinctive features of contemporary moral theory - its commitment to procedural
rather than substantive rationality, its preference for basic reasons rather than
qualitative distinctions, and its belief in the priority of the right over the good.
According to Taylor, the result of these features is that contemporary moral
theories cannot explain the nature of a worthwhile life, or the grounds for moral
respect. Indeed, they render these questions unintelligible. I argue that Taylor has
misunderstood the basic structure of most modern moral theory, which seeks to
relocate, rather than suppress, these important questions. In particular, he fails to
note the difference between general and specific conceptions of the good, between
procedures for assessing the good and specific outcomes of that procedure, and
between society's enforcement of morality and an individual's voluntary compliance
with morality. Each of these distinctions plays an important role in contemporary
moral theory. Once they are made explicit, it is clear that many contemporary
theorists operate with a more sophisticated account of moral sources than Taylor
attributes to them.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the breadth and wisdom of Charles

Taylor's Sources of the Self. His account of the modern identity will be of
interest to people in many different fields of study. Myfieldis contemporary
Anglo-American moral philosophy, and Taylor has some trenchant things
to say about the state of this school of thought. In particular, he claims
that it has a 'cramped' view of the nature and sources of moral value. The
problem, he is quick to admit, is not that this school trivializes the importance of morality. On the contrary, Taylor complains that it uncritically
gives morality transcendence over all other human values and concerns,
expecting people to forgo their personal goals and relationships whenever
they conflict with the demands of impartial morality (pp. 63, 87-88). The
problem, rather, is that it has lost sight of the 'sources' which underlie
these moral demands, and which could empower people to live by them.
Certain basic questions about the human good have become unintelligible,
* Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, xii + 601 pp.,
$37.50, 30.00. Unprefixed page references are to this work.

156 Will Kymlicka

and as a result we have become inarticulate about the goods of a moral
life, ..

I. Classical Versus Modern Moral Theory

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I want to explore this claim in some depth. Taylor defends it by drawing

three contrasts between modern and earlier moral theories.
(1) According to Taylor, where earlier moral theorists worked with a
'substantive' conception of ethics, modern theorists work with a
'procedural' conception. He explains that these terms can be
applied to forms of ethical theory by derivation from their use to describe conceptions of reason. I call a notion of reason substantive where we judge the
rationality of agents or their thoughts and feelings in substantive terms. This means
that the criterion for rationality is that one get it right. . . .By contrast, a procedural
notion of reason breaks this connection. The rationality of an agent or his thought
is judged by how he thinks, not in the first instance by whether the outcome is
substantively correct. Good thinking is defined procedurally. (pp. 85-86)
(2) Secondly, whereas earlier theorists based their moral theories on a
series of 'qualitative distinctions', modern theorists reduce morality to a
limited set of 'basic reasons'. Taylor explains that in the case of basic
reasons, we
give a reason for a certain moral principle or injunction when we show that the act
enjoined has some crucial property which confers this force on it. I say: 'you ought
to do A', and when you ask why, I add: 'because A = B', where 'B' allegedly offers
a description of an act-form which we're morally committed to. So typical fillings
for 'B' would be: 'obeying the law', or 'conducing to the greatest happiness of the
greatest number', or 'saving your integrity'. We say that B gives a reason because
we hold that the act picked out by the A-description is only enjoined because it
also bears the B-description. (p. 76)
According to Taylor, utilitarianism and Kantianism organize everything
around one basic reason - i.e. the principle of utility-maximization, or the
categorical imperative ( p . 76). Earlier theorists, however, viewed morality
in terms of qualitative distinctions, and articulating them
is not offering a basic reason. It is one thing to say that I ought to refrain from
manipulating your emotions or threatening you, because that is what respecting
your rights as a human being requires. It is quite another to set out just what makes
human beings worthy of commanding our respect, and to describe the higher mode
of life and feeling which is involved in recognizing this. (p. 77)
Qualitative distinctions offer reasons, then, in the sense that 'articulating
them is articulating what underlies our ethical choices, leanings, intuitions.
. . . It is to articulate the moral point of our actions' (p. 77).

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy


(3) Thirdly, whereas earlier theorists were concerned to describe 'the

contours of a good life', modern theorists give priority to the right over the
good. That is to say, according to Taylor, modern theorists give rightful
obligations primacy over the pursuit of the good, both in the sense that
they take precedence, should the two conflict, and in the sense that they
are derived without appeal to any determinate theory of the good. For
example, Rawls tries to derive principles of justice based solely on a 'thin
theory of the good' which appeals only to 'weakly valued goods' - i.e.
instrumental, not intrinsic, goods (p. 89). Earlier theorists, however,
believed that we must start by 'spelling out a very "thick" theory of the
good' (p. 89). Whereas modern theorists give priority to the right over the
good, earlier theorists believe that
the reverse is the case, that in a sense, the good is always primary to the right. Not
in that it offers a more basic reason in the sense of our earlier discussion, but in
that the good is what, in its articulation, gives the point of the rules which define
the right, (p. 89)
According to Taylor, these three features are found in almost all contemporary Anglo-American moral philosophy. He focuses particularly on
utilitarian and Kantian moral theory, which he sees (rightly I think) as the
predominant contenders within the Anglo-American school. Both have a
procedural conception of reason, both are based on a single basic reason,
and both define morality in terms of rightful obligations, rather than, and
prior to, the quest for higher goods. As a result, Taylor claims, both offer
a cramped view of morality. A utilitarian or Kantian theory
doesn't have much place for qualitative distinctions. It is in the business of offering
what I called above basic reasons. Our qualitative distinctions are useless for
this; they give us reasons in a quite different sense. Articulating them would be
indispensable if our aim were to get clearer on the contours of the good life, but
that is not a task which this theory recognizes as relevant. All we need are actiondescriptions, plus a criterion for picking out the obligatory ones. (pp. 79-80)
Not only do contemporary theorists not appeal to qualitative distinctions
in explaining the point of their rules, they in fact deny that these distinctions
are coherent:
But it is not just that the distinctions are of no use for the particular goals that this
moral theory sets itself. There is a tendency among philosophers of this cast of
thought to deny them any relevance altogether, or even in some cases to deny them
intellectual coherence, or reality, to reduce them to the status of projections . . .
(p. 80)
And so, Taylor concludes, modern moral philosophy cramps our understanding of the good:
Much contemporary moral philosophy, particularly but not only in the Englishspeaking world, has given such a narrow focus to morality that some of the crucial



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connections I want to draw here are incomprehensible in its terms. This moral
philosophy has tended to focus on what it is right to do rather than on what it is
good to be, on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of the good
life; and it has no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object of
our love or allegiance or, as Iris Murdoch portrayed it in her work, as the privileged
focus of attention or will. This philosophy has accredited a cramped and truncated
view of morality in a narrow sense, as well as of the whole range of issues involved
in the attempt to live the best possible life, and this not only among professional
philosophers, but with a wider public, (p. 3)

There is clearly some truth in Taylor's description of contemporary moral

theory. It is certainly true that most modern moral philosophers are more
concerned with finding a procedure or formula for identifying obligatory'
acts than with describing the contours of the good life. For example, few
modern moral theorists feel it is their task to assess the relative merits of
a life of contemplation versus a life of action, or a life of religion versus a
life of unbelief, debates which classical moral philosophers addressed at
It is also true that some contemporary theorists defend their inattention
to questions of the good by denying that there is such a thing as 'the good'
to discuss. Taylor cites John Mackie's 'error theory' of value judgments as
an example, according to which our judgments of good and bad, or right
and wrong, are simply projections of our subjective preferences, lacking any
objective basis (p. 6). Taylor provides some telling, if familiar, objections to
Mackie's subjectivism. He argues that in deciding whether there are objective values, the best 'measure of reality' we have is whether the assumption
of objectivity allows us to 'understand and make sense of the actions and
feelings of ourselves and others' (p. 57). And on that criterion, it is clear
that the subjectivist model 'is false to the most salient features of our moral
phenomenology' (p. 74). According to Taylor, each of us recognizes, in
our everyday deliberations, that there are discriminations of 'better or
worse, higher or 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' (p. 4). We think that there are
genuinely higher, or more admirable, ways of living, which we aspire to
lead, as against the 'lower life of sloth, irrationality, slavery, or alienation'
which we hope to avoid, even though we are not always sure which ways
of life are worthy of our allegiance, and which are not (p. 23). Taylor
claims that the assumption that there is a distinction, independent of the
will, between the worthwhile and the trivial is central to our notion of
agency (p. 27). Without this assumption, we could not explain the way
people deliberate about, and sometimes anguish over, their most basic
decisions in life. Indeed, '[t]he condition of there being such a thing as an
identity crisis is precisely that our identities define the space of qualitative
distinctions within which we live and choose' (p. 30).

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy


I accept Taylor's central arguments against Mackie's subjectivism. Similar anti-subjectivist arguments about our aspiration to lead genuinely valuable lives can be found in Rawls, Dworkin, Nozick, Raz, and many others.1
However, subjectivists are not Taylor's main target. After all, Taylor is
concerned to describe 'the modern identity', and subjectivism of this sort
is not a distinctively modern phenomenon. For as long as moral philosophy
has existed, there have been sceptics about the objectivity of our value
judgments. Moreover, as Taylor recognizes, many modern moral philosophers reject Mackie's claim. Most philosophers in the Anglo-American
school want to retain a notion of right and wrong which is binding on all
agents, whatever their subjective preferences or beliefs. Taylor's main
focus, therefore, is not the age-old heresy of subjectivism, but the three
distinctively modern ideas I listed above: procedural rationality, the appeal
to basic reasons, and the priority of the right over the good. According to
Taylor, these three features have made almost all modern moral philosophy
inarticulate about the good. Taylor mentions Rawls and Habermas as
people who fall into this trap. Even though they wish to retain some notion
of moral objectivity, Taylor claims that they are precluded by these three
features from saying anything coherent about what those values are, or
how they could have some claim on our allegiance.

II. An Alternative Interpretation of Modern Moral Theory

I think that Taylor has misunderstood the nature of, and motivation for,
the modern preoccupation with principles of right conduct. Part of my
difficulty with Taylor's argument is that his terminology is so idiosyncratic.
He says that utilitarians and Kantians are concerned with 'basic reasons'
rather than 'qualitative distinctions', and 'procedural rationality' rather
than 'substantive rationality'. These are not the terms that the theorists
themselves use, and I sometimes find it difficult to understand how these
terms relate to the more familiar terms used by the philosophers Taylor is
ostensibly discussing.
Before returning to Taylor's three contrasts, therefore, let me offer a
different interpretation of contemporary utilitarian and Kantian moral
theory. Both theories work from a basic moral commitment to the idea of
impartiality. Both theories accept that, from the moral point of view, each
person is equally worthy of moral consideration, each person is an end in
herself, whose interests must be given equal consideration. To act morally,
therefore, is to act in a way that is impartially justifiable, in a way that each
person can accept as showing them equal concern and respect. As Taylor
shows, this has deep roots in our culture, both secular and religious (we
are all God's children). It is manifested in the everyday view that the basic

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160 Will Kymlicka

test of a moral action is the 'Golden Rule' - i.e. an action is morally justified
only if you could still endorse it after putting yourself in the other person's
shoes. This idea of putting yourself in other people's shoes is invoked, in
various forms, by almost every major modern moral theorist, utilitarian or
Kantian, from Mill's invoking of the Golden Rule, to Rawls's original
position, Hare's impartial sympathizer, and Scanlon's 'contractualism'.2
Any theory that accepts this basic principle of impartiality must answer
two questions: what are people's interests, and what does it mean to show
equal concern for those interests? The differences between modern moral
theories can be traced, by and large, to different answers to these two
questions. For example, what divides Bentham from John Stuart Mill is
their answer to the first question. Bentham was a hedonist who believed
that people's good lies in the maximization of their pleasure. For Mill, on
the other hand, people's well-being resides in the expression of their
uniqueness, or in the development of their most essential capacities, rather
than in the maximization of pleasure. However, both agreed on the second
question - that is, both agreed that the best account of equal concern for
people's interests (however these interests are defined) requires that we
act so as to satisfy as many interests as possible, even if this requires
sacrificing some people for the greater benefit of others. It is this shared
answer to the second question which forms the essential continuity of
utilitarian thought, from Bentham through Mill and Sidgwick to Hare and
Griffin, despite their different answers to the first question. (Of course,
there are minor variations in this shared answer to the second question some apply the test of utility-maximization to acts, some to rules, some
apply it directly, some indirectly.)
Like the utilitarians, Kantians disagree on how best to characterize
people's interests. Some give priority to people's interest in autonomy,
others accord different levels of 'urgency' to different sorts of choices.
However, they share a similar view about the second question - namely,
they agree that the best account of impartial concern for people's interests
(however these interests are defined) will set some limits on the extent to
which one person's interests can be endlessly sacrificed for the benefit of
others. It is this shared concern for the inviolability of certain basic human
rights which defines the essential continuity of contemporary Kantian
thought, despite their different answers to the first question. Again, there
are variations on this shared answer to the second question. Some Kantians
are committed to a principle of equal rights and resources, others to
maximizing the well-being of the worst off; some use contractarian decisionprocedures in order to make impartial decisions, others don't.
This thumbnail sketch is, of course, full of lacunae that would have to
be filled in order to describe any particular theory. However, I hope the
basic outline will strike a familiar chord in most readers. It gives a fair

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy 161

indication, I think, of what most people see when they look at modern
moral theories - a general principle of moral impartiality, an account of
our interests, and a procedure or formula for assigning weight to those
interests in an impartial way in particular moral contexts.
A large proportion of contemporary moral philosophy has been concerned with refining one or other of these theories. Utilitarians have been
fighting internecine wars about how to characterize people's interests - e.g.
whether we should define people's interests in terms of an 'objective list'
of goods, or in terms of 'informed preferences' (and what if anything is the
difference between these two views), how do we evaluate preferences about
the future or past, how do we deal with the revisability or adaptability of
preferences, etc.? They have also been fighting internal battles over how
to apply the rule of utility-maximization - e.g. to acts or rules, directly
or indirectly.3 Kantians are undergoing similar debates about how to
characterize people's interests (e.g. how we should understand the significance of choice, or how we assess the urgency of different interests),
and about how to model the idea of impartial concern (e.g. veils of
ignorance o. impartial sympathizers v. social contracting).4

III. Finding Room for the Good

If this is a fair characterization of modern moral philosophy, I don't
understand how it can be said to have 'no conceptual place left for a notion
of the good as the object of our love or allegiance' (p. 3). Some of it, to
be sure, employs unsatisfactory accounts of the good - e.g. Bentham's
hedonism. But nothing in the structure of utilitarian or Kantian moral
theory precludes a richer theory of the good, and of course almost every
single utilitarian and Kantian since Bentham has rejected his hedonism.
The basic commitment of utilitarians and Kantians to showing impartial
concern for the interests of each member of society allows for, and indeed
invites, debates about how we should characterize people's interests. And
even a cursory glance at the history of contemporary moral theories would
reveal that these debates have taken place, and that a wide range of
different theories of the good have been advanced. Most major utilitarian
moral theorists for the last 150 years - from J. S. Mill and G. E. Moore to
Parfit and Griffin - have left 'conceptual room' for the idea that there are
goods independent of the will.
It is true, as I noted above, that few theorists have actually tried to list
the substantive goods which define a valuable life. There are a variety of
reasons for this. One reason, emphasized by Mill, is that the list will be
different for different people. While there is a right and wrong answer for
each person, it is not the same answer for each person, and little, then, can

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162 Will Kymlicka

be said at a general level. But another important reason is that even the
most informed and insightful person may come to doubt the correctness of
their earlier judgments about the good, in the light of new information,
opportunities, or experiences. Hence the freedom to re-evaluate our
notions of the good is critically important. Precisely because these judgments concern distinctions that are independent of the will, no judgment
of the will is beyond question.
Given these difficulties, the strategy adopted by most modern moral
theorists is not to come up with lists of substantive goods, but rather to
think about what we might call 'discovery procedures' - i.e. about what
sorts of social conditions are best suited to enabling individuals to make
these judgments on an on-going basis. And this requires abstracting a bit
from particular ends, and thinking at a more general level about what is
involved in adopting and pursuing an informed conception of the good.
This, of course, is what Rawls aims to do with his much-maligned 'thin
theory of the good'. According to Rawls, whatever the differences between
people's ways of life, 'there is something like pursuing a conception of the
good life that all people, even those with the most diverse commitments,
can be said to be engaged i n . . . although people do not share one another's
ideals, they can at least abstract from their experience a sense of what it is
like to be committed to an ideal of the good life1.* On the basis of this more
general conceptualization of what is involved in evaluating and pursuing a
conception of the good, Rawls develops a theory about the rights, resources,
and social conditions which will enable individuals to make informed
choices on an on-going basis, and which will enable worthwhile ways of life
to be sustained. Although Rawls himself does not try to make judgments
regarding the relative worth of particular ways of life, he leaves conceptual
room for these qualitative distinctions about the good by describing the
conditions under which these judgments can be made in a free and informed
Given this characterization of modern moral theories, it should be clear
that Taylor's three contrasts between classical and modern moral theories
are either false or misleading. Consider the contrast between procedural
and substantive conceptions of ethics. It is true that Kantians and utilitarians
invoke various procedures to ascertain the right action. But this does not
compete with, or preclude, the idea that there are substantively correct
ends which define a valuable or worthwhile life. In order to apply a
procedural test of impartiality, we must have an account of people's
interests. And, as noted above, while some theorists accept a hedonistic
theory of the good, others use an 'informed preferences' theory of the
good, or an 'objective list' theory of the good. Both of these are compatible
with the view that a good life requires a substantively correct perception
of qualitative distinctions. For those who do accept this view, it will be

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The Ethics of lnarticulacy


important that the procedure, in deciding upon the requirements of impartial concern, operate with some account of the conditions under which
individuals can best identify and pursue those substantively correct ends.
And, indeed, this is just what Rawls does. His belief that people can
rationally evaluate and revise their ends affects how he describes the
motivations of the parties in his original position.7 Nothing in the idea of
a procedural modelling of impartiality precludes the idea of substantively
correct ends.
Taylor may be misled by the fact that some moral philosophers don't
define 'rationality' in terms of the correct apprehension of qualitative
distinctions, but rather define it in terms of (say) adjusting means to ends.
But that is often just a matter of terminology. It doesn't mean that these
philosophers don't think there is such a thing as qualitative distinctions, or
that correctly perceiving them is not a virtue. They would just employ other
terms to describe that virtue - e.g. sensitivity, or maturity, or wisdom,
or insight. It is true that on the definition of rationality used by some
contemporary moral theorists, a person who is 'rational' may not be very
insightful, and so may be leading a trivial life. But that just shows that
rationality (so defined) is not the only value, and few of these theorists say
it is. The failure to include the correct perception of qualitative distinctions
within the definition of 'rationality' would only be a problem if these
theorists said that rationality was the only criterion we should use to
evaluate ways of life, and they don't say this.

IV. Basic Reasons and Qualitative Distinctions

Consider, next, the distinction between basic reasons and qualitative distinctions. I find this contrast the most difficult to unpack. Taylor seems to
be using the contrast in a number of different ways. On one characterization, the difference is that qualitative distinctions underlie basic
reasons, in the sense that qualitative distinctions explain the point of the
basic reason. Qualitative distinctions offer reasons in the sense that
articulating them is articulating what underlies our ethical choices, leanings,
intuitions. . . . It is to articulate the moral point of our actions. . . . that is why it
cannot be assimilated to giving a basic reason. Relative to the most basic actiondescription, we can still strive to make clear just what is important, valuable, or
what commands our allegiance . . . (p. 77)
For example, Taylor says that 'We can get a sufficient grasp of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill", or can obey the order, "Don't talk like
that to Granddad!" before we can grasp articulations about the sanctity of
human life, or what it means to respect age' (p. 80).

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164 Will Kymlicka

On this characterization, the problem with modern moral theory is
that by focusing on the basic reason of impartiality, while neglecting the
underlying qualitative distinctions, it has failed to explain why humans are
worthy of impartial concern, why they are owed concern and respect. At
the end of the book, Taylor claims that without a clearer sense of this
underlying qualitative distinction we cannot expect people to be motivated
to comply with the commands of impartiality. (I will return to this issue
On this first characterization, there does not seem to be any inherent
conflict between basic reasons and qualitative distinctions. On the contrary,
as Taylor notes, for every basic reason, we can always ask for its underlying
moral point. A commitment to basic reasons invites, rather than precludes,
a debate about qualitative distinctions. Taylor apparently thinks that modern theorists deny that we can ask about the point of their basic reasons.
But of course many utilitarians and Kantians do discuss the question of
why humans are worthy of respect and concern. Even Bentham discusses
this, arguing that it is people's capacity for pain and pleasure that makes
them worthy of impartial consideration. Indeed, he pursued this issue in
some depth, noting that his answer implies that sentient animals also have
claims to moral status. In what has become the slogan for animal-rights
groups around the world, Bentham said, 'The question is not "Can they
reason?", nor "Can they talk?", but "Cera they suffer?"1. Other theorists
in the utilitarian and Kantian tradition have given different answers. Rawls,
for example, invokes rationality as one key basis for moral concern.8 While
they do not always agree on the answer, utilitarians and Kantians have
certainly not avoided the question.
However, Taylor offers a second characterization of the difference
between basic reasons and qualitative distinctions. He sometimes describes
it as a difference between the right and the good. Recall Taylor's claim
that a utilitarian or Kantian theory 'doesn't have much room for qualitative
distinctions' and is 'in the business of offering . . . basic reasons'.
Our qualitative distinctions are useless for this; they give us reasons in a quite
different sense. Articulating them would be indispensable if our aim were to get
clearer on the contours of the good life, but that is not a task which this theory
recognizes as relevant. All we need are action-descriptions, plus a criterion for
picking out the obligatory ones. (pp. 79-80)
On this characterization, the problem with modern moral theory is that it
focuses too much on what it is right to do, and fails to give a clear account
of 'the contours of the good life'. Or, as he elsewhere puts it, it neglects
'the goods of the spirit' in a 'single-minded' commitment to impartiality
(p. 496).
This is clearly different from the first characterization, since there is no
guarantee that the worthwhile activities which make up a good life will

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy 165

always be compatible with the requirements of morality. As Taylor himself
notes, 'the source which-gives heightened vibrancy to our lives can be
detached from benevolence and solidarity' (p. 373), and 'higher fulfilment
might take us outside the received morality' (p. 423). There are some
genuinely valuable things in life - not merely trivial things - that may lead
us away from impartiality, such as the needs of family and friends. Hence
qualitative distinctions in the first sense - that is, explaining the point of
impartiality, explaining why others are worthy of consideration - are not
identical to qualitative distinctions in this second sense - that is, explaining
the contours of a valuable life, a life worth living.
On both of these characterizations, employing basic reasons seems compatible with affirming the validity of qualitative distinctions. Indeed,
employing the basic reason of impartiality invites us to consider the intrinsic
worth of human life, and the contours of a truly valuable life. On yet
another characterization, however, the commitment to basic reasons seems
to preclude qualitative distinctions. Taylor says that:
Much of this [modern moral] philosophy strives to do away with these distinctions
altogether, to give no place in moral life to a sense of the incomparably higher
goods or hypergoods. Utilitarianism is the most striking case. A good, happiness,
is recognized. But this is characterized by a polemical refusal of any qualitative
discrimination. There is no more higher or lower; all that belongs to the old,
metaphysical views. There is just desire, and the only standard which remains is
the maximization of its fulfilment. The critic can't help remarking how little
utilitarians have escaped qualitative distinctions, how they in fact accord rationality
and its corollary benevolence the status of higher motives, commanding admiration.
But there is no doubt that the express theory aims to do without this distinction
altogether, (pp. 78-79)
On this characterization, the commitment to basic reasons is intended to
replace all qualitative distinctions, be it the contours of the good life or the
underlying basis of impartial concern. Utilitarians, Taylor claims, wish to
do without any notion of 'discriminations of right or wrong, better or
worse, higher or 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' (p. 4). They seek to avoid claiming
that there are any values - even impartiality (or benevolence) - that are
independent of the will.
I find this claim bizarre. It is one thing to say that utilitarians do not
explain why benevolence is a value (although I think even this is unfair).
But it is quite another to say that utilitarians do not expressly accord
benevolence a higher moral value than, say, egoism, or maliciousness.
Taylor admits that '[i]t seems that they are motivated by the strongest
moral ideals, such as freedom, altruism, and universalism' (p. 88). But he
says that utilitarians do not, and cannot, explicitly affirm these goods.

166 Will Kymlicka

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Instead, Taylor claims, utilitarians present impartiality as a kind of default

In the now neutralized world of the psyche, there is only de facto desire; there is
no longer a place for a higher good, the object of a strong evaluation.... An ethic
can be constructed taking simply this de facto desire as its basis: the higher good
just is the maximization of de facto goals. This will be utilitarianism, (p. 249)

Having reduced all questions of the good to the satisfaction of de facto

desires, the only rational conclusion is to maximize the satisfaction of these
desires in society, and so utilitarians invoke utility-maximizing as a basic
reason, without having explicitly adopted impartiality as a qualitative
There is an obvious problem with this interpretation of utilitarianism. If
Bentham had denied that there are any goods higher than his de facto
desires, the ethic he would adopt is not utilitarianism, which may require
him to sacrifice his desires for the greater good of others, but egoism, or
some form of mutual advantage theory. If utilitarians took de facto desire
as their basis, and denied all higher goods, then their slogan would be 'the
greatest happiness for myself, not 'the greatest happiness of the greatest
number'. Only a belief in benevolence, as a qualitative distinction, could
generate utilitarianism.
Taylor is aware of this problem. He notes that '[j]ust embracing some
form of materialism is not sufficient to engender the full ethic of utilitarian
benevolence. One needs some background understanding about what is
worthy of strong evaluation: in this case, it concerns the moral significance
of ordinary happiness and the demand of universal beneficence' (p. 336).
And he recognizes that utilitarianism requires more sacrifice from individuals than their de facto desires may allow, even when those desires
include an element of sympathy. He admits that for utilitarians, '[sjympathy
is treated not just as a de facto motivation but as a strongly valued one:
something you ought to feel, an impulse whose unrestricted force in us is
part of a higher way of being' (p. 337). However, Taylor claims that while
utilitarians implicitly believe that benevolence and sympathy are strongly
valued goods, they explicitly deny that these, or any other values, have any
rational status. According to Taylor, utilitarians simply dismiss or ignore,
rather than frankly reject, the alternative of egoism.
The idea that utilitarians do not expressly endorse impartiality as a value
seems clearly false to me. Indeed, Taylor quotes Bentham's cry, 'Is there
one of these my pages in which the love of humankind has for a moment
been forgotten? Show it me, and this hand shall be the first to tear it out'
(p. 331). According to Taylor, this is a momentary lapse from Bentham's
official line, which is that the 'love of mankind' has no more claim on our
allegiance than any other possible standard. But Taylor does not provide
any quotes from Bentham, or any other utilitarian, in which the claim of

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy 167

benevolence to be a higher standard that we should respect, regardless
of our subjective desires, is rejected.9 Perhaps Taylor thinks that his
interpretation is so obviously correct that he need not provide any textual
support for it. Indeed, he says that 'there is no doubt' that the 'express
theory' of utilitarianism aims to do without the qualitative distinction which
accords benevolence a higher status (p. 79). To me, however, this seems
obviously false. Even Bernard Williams, one of utilitarianism's most vocal
critics, disagrees with Taylor. He talks about 'that picture of man which
early utilitarians frankly offered, in which he has, ideally, only private or
otherwise sacrificeable projects, together with the one moral disposition of
utilitarian benevolence'.10 According to Williams, utilitarians are, and have
always been, frank about the priority of benevolence over de facto desires.
Whether or not Taylor provides a plausible account of nineteenth-century
utilitarianism, the fact is that modern-day utilitarians are well aware of the
alternative of egoism, and recognize that their commitment to benevolence
requires a commitment to qualitative distinctions. This has been central to
utilitarian self-consciousness since at least J. S. Mill and Sidgwick, who
dealt at length with these issues. Conversely, advocates of naturalism in
ethics are well aware that some form of mutual advantage theory, rather
than utilitarianism, is the natural corollary of their rejection of qualitative
distinctions (e.g. Gauthier or Harman).11
For the sake of argument, however, let's accept Taylor's claim that
utilitarians have heretofore sought to deny benevolence the status of a
higher good. What prevents utilitarians today from explicitly recognizing
and affirming that it has that status? Why would having to accept the
existence of this qualitative distinction be embarrassing to the utilitarian
claim that impartiality requires the maximizing of utility? According to
Taylor, utilitarianism is 'shot through with contradiction. I mean pragmatic
contradiction. It does not necessarily bring together incompatible propositions; but it speaks from a moral position which it can't acknowledge'
(pp. 339-40). But why can't it expressly acknowledge its moral position?
Taylor says that a commitment to moral goods is 'built into [utilitarianism's]
background assumption that the general happiness, and above all the relief
of suffering, crucially matters. . . . But in the actual content of its tenets,
as officially defined, none of this can be said; and most of it makes no
sense' (p. 332). I simply don't see Taylor's point here. Why can't utilitarians
say (what they have in fact repeatedly said) that the relief of suffering
matters? How would it be embarrassing or contradictory for a utilitarian
to say that?
One answer seems to be that Taylor often equates utilitarianism with
'naturalism', a metaphysical position which seeks to reduce all human
behaviour to externally-describable events and so denies the existence of
qualitative distinctions. Thus he says that any utilitarian affirmation of

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168 Will Kymlicka

qualitative distinctions would 'put paid to its penchant for reductive
accounts' (p. 342). Now if Taylor is simply saying that naturalism is
incompatible with the affirmation of qualitative distinctions, then of course
that is true (by definition). But it is misleading to present this as a criticism
of utilitarianism, since most utilitarians are not naturalists, just as most
naturalists are not utilitarians. And it is even more misleading to present
this as a criticism of 'the whole class of modern positions which descends
from the radical Enlightenment' (p. 339), since, as Taylor recognizes,
Kantians have been especially critical of naturalism.
Taylor's equation of naturalism with utilitarianism is not only misleading,
it removes much of the interest of his argument. It is fair enough if Taylor
wishes to defend the objectivity of moral sources against naturalist attacks.
But, as I noted above, this is an age-old debate. What was new about
Taylor's argument was his claim that even those modern theories which do
not reject moral objectivity are none the less inarticulate about their moral
sources. And his argument for this claim, I thought, was that certain
distinctively new features of moral thought - e.g. procedural rationality,
basic reasons, and the priority of the right over the good - generate a
tendency towards reductionism, by obscuring the source of morality in
qualitative distinctions. Yet the only argument he gives to explain why
these features of utilitarianism preclude the affirmation of qualitative distinctions is simply to equate utilitarianism with reductionism. His argument
presupposes, rather than establishes, that utilitarianism is inherently
I cannot find a conflict between basic reasons and qualitative distinctions
in any of the three senses that Taylor invokes - i.e. the moral point
underlying the affirmation of benevolence, the contours of the good life,
or the affirmation of benevolence itself. On the contrary, the utilitarian
and Kantian appeal to basic reasons leaves conceptual room for, and invites
debate on, all of these qualitative distinctions.

V. The Tasks of Moral Philosophy

That leaves the third contrast Taylor draws between classical and modern
moral theories, concerning the priority of the right over the good. As we
have seen, it is true that modern theorists have been more concerned with
rightful obligations than with the contours of the good life. But it is wrong
to say, as Taylor does, that modern moral theories seek to give their basic
reasons 'a special status by segregating them from any considerations
about the good' (p. 496). Utilitarians and Kantians do not eliminate 'all
considerations about the good'. Rather, they draw on a more abstract

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy


account of the good, in order to assess the sort of social conditions required
for people to judge and pursue more particular conceptions of the good.
Is it a problem that contemporary moral philosophers have not tried to
determine the particular content of a worthwhile conception of the good?
This depends on one's conception of the task of moral philosophy. Taylor
clearly believes that moral philosophers have abandoned their true calling
to distinguish the truly valuable from the merely trivial. This is reminiscent
of the preface to E. J. Bond's Reason and Value, where Bond speaks of
the disappointment he felt with what he was taught in a moral philosophy
I Temember being puzzled, as an undergraduate, when my professor and my fellow
students all seemed to accept without question that only moral considerations stood
in the way of doing what one pleased, and that otherwise there was nothing
problematic about the pursuit of ends. One simply had desires for certain things,
and if one could, and if there were no moral reasons against it, then one just went
ahead and set out to do or get or keep them. . . . Here, then, were a couple of
dozen or so people equipped with a set of ready-made wants, which it was the
business of their lives to set about satisfying, only taking care not to violate the
principles of morality. I was certainly the odd-man-out, for I did not have any such
set of wants (except the obvious appetites of course) and did not know what to do
with my life. I wanted to find out what was of value, what goals were genuinely
worth pursuing, before I could formulate a 'rational life plan', and that required
something more than the consultation of my already existing desires or 'concerns'
or speculations about my future ones. My fundamental practical questions were not
'When can I not do what I want?' or 'How can I best accomplish what I want the
most with the least frustration of my desires along the way?' but 'What ends would
be worth my while?' or 'What, of the things open to me, would be most profitable
or rewarding?' and 'How can I realize the most worth or value in my life?'.12
Like Bond, Taylor looks to moral philosophy to find out what ends are
most worth while, and is disappointed to find out that the philosophers are
only discussing what is morally impermissible.
Moral philosophers today, however, do not view themselves as having
that task. This is not because they think that qualitative questions of the
good are unimportant. On the contrary, as Rawls emphasizes, enforcing
principles of right 'would serve no purpose - would have no point - unless
[they] not only permitted but also sustained ways of life that citizens can
affirm as worthy of their full allegiance. . . . In a phrase: justice draws the
limits, the good shows the point'. 13 Their belief is simply that the ways of
life which are worthy of our allegiance are suitably protected by principles of
right which provide people with the resources, rights, and social conditions
under which they can make their own informed judgments about the good
on an on-going basis. Indeed, as Rawls says, this ability to pursue goods
that are worthy of our allegiance is the whole point of having principles of

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The reason why contemporary moral philosophers do not view it as their

task to articulate the good, despite the importance of this task, is that the
specific features of morality, as a social institution, are not required to
convince people to look for worthwhile ways of life. People, they assume,
will naturally be interested in attending to questions of the good. This is
the natural object of our everyday practical reasoning. There is no need to
add the weight of morality to issues which people already have sufficient
non-moral motivation to attend to. What we need morality for is to impress
on people the importance of respecting other people's good. Hence modern
theorists work according to a division of labour. They often distinguish
questions about the contours of the good life, which are the natural object
of each person's practical reasoning, from 'morality', which deals with our
obligations to others, and which requires specifically moral reasoning.
Theorists concentrate on morality, not because they think questions about
the good life are not worth attending to, but because they think they are
already being attended to in our non-moral modes of thinking and acting.
This view of the scope of moral philosophy is reflected in our everyday
moral vocabulary. In our everyday language, an immoral person is someone
who doesn't consider other people's good, even if they are leading quite
interesting and fulfilling lives. Conversely, we do not call someone immoral
who is content with leading a trivial life, so long as they respect the
legitimate claims of others. The former person needs moral education, the
latter person needs inspiration.
On this view of the task of moral philosophy, it is enough for moral
philosophers to leave room for others to engage in the process of clarifying
the good. Moral philosophers like Rawls and Habermas discuss the need
for forums in which individuals can share their insights about the good, but
it is other people (e.g. artists, ministers) who are expected to initiate public
debates in these forums over the worth of the ways of life we are heading
towards, or leaving behind.
Of course, if artists and others lack the initiative or imagination to share
their insights about the good with friends, family, or the broader public,
despite the opportunity to do so, then we all may be condemned to lead
less worthwhile lives.14 That is a failing. But it is not a moral failing. An
unimaginative society is not an immoral society. And, on this view, it is
not the responsibility of moral philosophers to ensure a more imaginative
use of our collective experiences of the good. What such a society needs is
inspiration, not moral education.
This, then, is one popular conception of the role of moral philosophy. It
is a restricted role, compared to earlier theories which sought to come up
with the detailed contours of the good life. But, contra Taylor, it does not
deny the validity or importance of qualitative judgments about the good.
It allows for, and indeed insists on, both the conceptual and the social
space required for others to make these judgments in an informed way.

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy 171

I suspect that even if Taylor had recognized the extent to which this
account of the task of moral philosophy allows conceptual space for qualitative judgments about the good, he still would have rejected it. I think he
objects to the way that moral philosophers have abandoned the task of
evaluating the good to artists, theologians, and pop psychologists. He
worries about the fact that questions of what makes life meaningful or
fulfilling 'are too concerned with the self-regarding . . . to be classed as
moral issues in most people's lexicon' (p. 4). Unfortunately, while Taylor
almost certainly opposes this restricted view of the task of moral philosophy,
he never gets it sufficiently in focus to describe what exactly he dislikes
about it. Rather than explain why moral philosophers cannot leave the
job of evaluating the good to others, Taylor mistakenly says that moral
philosophers do not leave any room for others to discuss the good. Hence
his arguments focus on the relatively uncontroversial claim that it is important to make qualitative judgments about the good, while neglecting the
real question - namely, is it moral philosophers who must make those

VI. Empowering Morality

There are a variety of possible objections he might make to this restricted
account of the role of moral philosophy.16 However, rather than speculate
about what Taylor might have said, or about what might be said in response
to it, let me return to the issue of the qualitative distinction underlying the
appeal to impartiality. As we have seen, Taylor claims that utilitarians and
Kantians do not address the question of why people are owed equal
concern. While this is unfair as a blanket statement, it is true that many
contemporary moral theorists do not give a lot of attention to this question.
Many theorists simply take it for granted that each of us, in our everyday
moral understanding, has some notion of why others are worthy of concern.
The commitment to impartiality is taken to be relatively uncontroversial,
and so theorists spend most or all of their time on the more controversial
question of how best to interpret impartiality.
Taylor suggests that while impartiality may be an uncontroversial standard, the failure to explain why impartiality is a value decreases the likelihood
that people will in fact live up to its demands. People need to be 'empowered' to act morally, and 'the issue is what sources can support our
far-reaching moral commitments to benevolence and justice' (p. 515). We
have to be able to see the good of moral behaviour, and the question is,
do we have 'ways of seeing-good which are still credible to us, which are
powerful enough to sustain these standards?' (p. 517).

172 Will Kymlicka

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Taylor considers two sorts of answers to this question. One answer is the
Christian view that grace makes benevolence possible. Being dedicated to
the cause of God includes the affirming of life, and
What differentiates God from humans in this respect is the fulness, the force of the
affirmation - something humans can't match on their own, but which they can
participate in by following God. . . . In the Christian case, the key notion is that
of agape, or charity, God's affirming love for the world (John 3:16), which humans
through receiving can then give in turn. (p. 270)
The second answer is secular, emphasizing either our natural sympathy
which is troubled at the site of human suffering, or our respect for the
dignity of human reason (p. 411).
Deciding between these two sorts of answers is important, Taylor says,
because '[h]igh standards need strong sources' (p. 516). The issue of
empowerment is particularly acute for contemporary theorists because they
demand greater sacrifices than earlier theorists did, and 'any belief that we
can and ought to lay stronger demands on ourselves than prevailed in the
past, must contain at least implicitly some answer to this question' of moral
sources (pp. 398-9). We aspire to universal justice, but 'What can enable
us to transcend in this way the limits we normally observe to human
moral action?' - i.e. the limits created by 'our restricted sympathies, our
understandable self-preoccupation, and the common human tendency to
define one's identity in opposition to some adversary or out group' (p.
According to Taylor, the only answer which can provide these 'strong
sources' is the Christian one: 'It all depends on what the most illusion-free
moral sources are, and they seem to me to involve a God' (p. 342). Without
the belief that creation is good, it is likely that critics of morality, like
Schopenhauer, will undermine 'the grounds on which universal benevolence was seen as a good, the value of human life and happiness' (p.
I will not pursue Taylor's answer to this question of moral sources - i.e.
his views of the relative merits of secular and theistic sources, and of where
the burden of proof lies.17 Instead, I want to step back and consider the
way he poses the question. According to Taylor, high standards require
strong sources, and so '[t]he question which arises from all this is whether
we are not living beyond our moral means in continuing allegiance to our
standards of justice and benevolence' (p. 517). If we do not have strong
sources, we must moderate our claims, because it is important that we not
'live beyond our moral means'. It is 'morally corrupting, even dangerous' to
make moral demands where it will simply create 'the feeling of undischarged
obligation, [or] guilt, or its obverse, self-satisfaction' (p. 516).
I think that Taylor is raising an important point, although, here as
elsewhere, it is obscured by his insistence that modern theorists seek to

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy 173

eliminate qualitative distinctions altogether (p. 399), and by his running
together of different kinds of 'moral sources'.18 It is certainly true that if
we want people to live up to high moral standards, it helps if we can
empower them to do so. And this raises important questions about the
nature and preconditions of an effective sense of justice, and the answer
to these questions may affect some of our moral principles.19
But I do not think the ability to empower people should be seen as a
precondition for accepting a moral principle. Moral principles may be
legitimate even if some of those affected by them are incapable of being
empowered to abide voluntarily by them. There are some circumstances
where it is legitimate to be 'living beyond our moral means'.
The problem, I think, is that Taylor works with too individualistic a
model of morality, a model which focuses too much on the individual agent.
This may sound ironic, given Taylor's repeated criticism of contemporary
moral philosophy for its focus on the individual qua agent, its 'focus on
what it is right to do rather than on what it is good to be' (p. 3). But
Taylor's preferred focus - what it is good to be - is still too agent-focused.
Morality is, in the first instance, a social institution, and cannot be reduced
to questions about what particular individuals should be or do.
Consider the issue of human rights. The idea of human rights has been
used as the basis for movements by disadvantaged groups in many societies,
like the blacks in the United States and South Africa. They had (and have)
legitimate moral claims for a greater share of economic resources. Our
commitment to providing equal opportunities to people of other races is one
of Taylor's examples of the higher standards we set ourselves. According to
Taylor, since it is important that we not live beyond our moral means, if
we cannot give whites a way of 'seeing-good' which will empower them to
hand over their resources to blacks, then we should moderate our standards
of human rights.
This is not, I think, the right way to consider the issue. The claim that
blacks have a moral claim to more resources is not, in the first instance, a
claim about what individual whites can be empowered to voluntarily give
up. It is a claim about what we as a society can rightfully take from the
whites. Of course, societies cannot enforce certain standards unless there
are individuals who are willing and able to enforce them. But the individuals
who are able and willing to enforce the standards need not be the same
individuals who are asked to make the sacrifices. In many cases, moral
progress is achieved by disadvantaged groups simply taking whatever it is
they are entitled to, sometimes at the point of a gun. It would be nice if
we could persuade whites to voluntarily relinquish their resources, if we
could show them a way of 'seeing-good' which motivates them to meet high
standards. But that may not always be possible, given the kind of personal
expectations and identities they may have built up around their existing

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174 Witt Kymlicka

Taylor says that high standards require strong sources that can motivate
people to make great sacrifices. In some cases, that may well be true. In
other cases, however, high standards require coercion that forces people
to do what they cannot freely accept. This coercion may take the form of
passive disobedience, in the case of Martin Luther King, or it may take the
form of armed insurrection, in the case of Nelson Mandela. What high
standards have historically required in order to be implemented is that
some people are motivated by strong sources, some are subject to brute
force, and some people are too lazy or indifferent to put up a struggle one
way or the other.
This may mean that, as a society, we are living beyond our moral means.
But why is this a problem? Whenever our moral means run out we use
other means, including the coercive power of the state. And even where
other means are not available, so that there is no social possibility of
meeting a high moral standard, it does not follow that we should lower our
standards. Consider the issue of Third World poverty. It is quite possibly
true that secular accounts of our moral sources are proving inadequate to
motivate people in the First World to engage in the massive transfer of
resources that many people believe is morally required of us. And there is
no one else who is capable of forcing us to do so. Hence we are living with
a sense of undischarged obligation. That is unfortunate. But it would be
much worse if we started thinking that we are entitled to our massive
wealth, as if we are somehow more deserving of a decent existence than
people in Ethiopia. It is unfortunate if we cannot motivate ourselves to
meet the legitimate claims of people in the Third World. It may even be
'morally corrupting' or 'dangerous' to affirm these claims when we know
we will not meet them (p. 516). But it is obscene to deny that Ethiopians
have legitimate claims. To limit the scope of human rights to what privileged
people can be motivated to be or do is to offer a cramped, and extremely
conservative, view of morality.
Of course, if we make moral demands that we know some individuals
will be unable to comply with, then there will be cases where people cannot
be blamed for failing to do the right thing. But that just shows again that
morality cannot be reduced to questions of individual agency. There are
going to be cases of blameless immorality on any moral theory, since
there will always be some people who, from fear, ignorance, mental
incompetence, or weakness of will, are unable to comply with moral norms,
and so cannot be blamed for failing to do the right thing. Where individuals
are unable to comply with moral norms, we do not change the norms, we
simply try to ensure that someone else will compel their compliance. In
these cases, morality is not about empowering individuals to act morally,
but about constraining individuals from acting immorally. A functioning
moral society must not only empower those who are able to act morally,

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy 175

it must also disempower those who are unable to act morally. Taylor focuses
solely on the first.but modern moral philosophers accept the necessity of
the second.
Hence, even if North Americans cannot be blamed for not relinquishing
all our unjust advantages (although clearly we can be blamed for not
relinquishing some of them), this is no reason to lower moral standards.
The fact that someone's behaviour is blameless is no reason to tolerate it,
let alone endorse it, if it violates the legitimate claims of others. In deciding
on the justice of international distributions, the basic question is not
whether we can be blamed for holding on to our advantages. A more
relevant question would be whether other people can be blamed for trying
to talce them away from us. And, put that way, the answer is obvious. If
we possess resources which other people have a legitimate claim to, then
they are entitled to take them from us, even if our desire to retain (some
of) those advantages is entirely blameless. There is no reason in the
world why the disadvantaged should have to respect our desire for unjust
advantages, just because it is a blameless desire. Even if we cannot be
morally empowered to give resources away, they are morally justified in
taking them from us.
It is not clear whether Taylor is in fact proposing that the ability to
empower people is a precondition for the acceptability of moral principles.
He may simply want us to reconsider this issue. He says that one of the
'revisionist' aspects of modern moral theory is its insistence that morality
'in some unexplained way has in principle priority' over the non-moral (p.
88). According to Taylor, this revisionist claim for the priority of the moral
neglects 'our sense of the value of what must apparently be sacrificed' in the
process, e.g. the 'ordinary goods' of community, friendship, or traditional
identity (p. 101). And while this belief in the priority of impartiality
over ordinary goods may ultimately be defensible, 'the philosophies I am
criticizing here prejudge [the issue] irrevocably' (p. 103).
This conflict between impartiality and ordinary goods is an important
one, and perhaps should be revisited. Unfortunately Taylor obscures the
issue by insisting that it is the 'rigid boundary between the "moral" and the
"non-moral"' which has led to a neglect of the value of ordinary goods,
and which 'prevents us from asking one of the crucial questions of modern
moral thought: to what extent the "revisionist" claims made on behalf of
[impartiality] ought to be accepted at all' (p. 98). According to Taylor, the
effect of this rigid boundary is that mainstream moral theory 'can't deal
with the clash between [impartiality] and "ordinary" goods. . . . it can't
even properly conceive of the kind of diversity of goods which underlies
this conflict' (p. 102).
This is misplaced. The reason why modern moral theorists give priority
to the moral is not that they neglect the value of ordinary goods like

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176 Will Kymlicka

community, friendship, and traditional identity. Quite the opposite. It is
precisely because ordinary goods are so valuable that modern theorists
accept the possibility that moral sources may be unable to motivate the
rich and powerful to relinquish voluntarily the ordinary goods that their
advantages bring. In a world full of injustices, people's community, friendship, and traditional identity will often be bound up with their unjust
advantages. Under these circumstances, relinquishing one's unjust advantages may involve a great sacrifice, a sacrifice that some people may be
unable to make voluntarily. Modern theorists are perfectly aware of this.
That is why they believe that the claims of the disadvantaged may go
beyond what others can be empowered to accept. It is precisely because
ordinary goods are so strong that the moral claims of the disadvantaged
cannot be restricted to what the fortunate can voluntarily accept. As I said
above, to impose such a restriction would be to offer a cramped and
conservative view of morality.20
It is important not to overstate the problem here. For some people, even
some people who currently possess unjust advantages, living morally will
be a great good. There is no inherent conflict between the requirements of
morality and the desire for the most valuable and fulfilling life. But for
others, given their traditional attachments and identities, living morally
will be a great sacrifice. As Taylor recognizes, 'the source which gives
heightened vibrancy to our lives can be detached from benevolence and
solidarity' (p. 373). We must accept the 'worrisome possibility' that 'this
higher fulfilment might take us outside the received morality' (p. 423).
While many; and perhaps most, people can find 'higher fulfilment' and
'heightened vibrancy' in a moral life, modern theorists do not think that
we can take this for granted.21 Hence we cannot equate morality with the
pursuit of a truly worthwhile life. The decision to draw a sharp boundary
between moral and non-moral does not deny or obscure the conflict between
ordinary goods and impartial morality, but rather stems from that conflict,
and draws attention to it.

VII. Conclusion
According to Taylor, modern moral philosophy offers us a cramped view
of morality. His evidence for this claim is that philosophers have focused
exclusively on a narrow set of questions about our rightful obligations to
other people, while neglecting a wide range of other moral questions, like
what it is good to be, or why we should show concern and respect for other
people's lives. Taylor's explanation for this narrow focus is that modern
moral philosophy denies the existence of 'qualitative distinctions' which
are independent of the will. This denial renders moral theory 'inarticulate'

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The Ethics of Inarticulacy


about the 'moral sources' which underlie our beliefs about the good life,
or about the worth of human life.
I have tried to offer an alternative account of the modern focus on
principles of right conduct. Taylor is right to note that contemporary moral
philosophers do not attempt to describe the precise contours of the good
life. But his explanation is wrong. The explanation is not that they deny
the existence of qualitative distinctions. Most theorists affirm that there is
a real difference, independent of the will, between trivial and worthwhile
ways of life. They just do not view it as the task of moral philosophy to
make that distinction. This is because each person has a natural pre-moral
interest in sorting out the contours of a worthwhile life, and the institution
of morality is not required to get people to take that question seriously.
All moral philosophy must do on this question is ensure that people have
the social space required to let this aspect of their practical reasoning work
itself out.
For modern theorists, the institution of morality has a different function.
It is required to focus attention not on the worth of one's own activities
but on the needs of other people, since other people's good is as important,
from a moral point of view, as one's own. Our everyday practical reasoning
cannot be relied on here, because the pursuit of a fulfilling or worthwhile
life, as opposed to a trivial or alienating one, will not necessarily lead us
towards morality. The line between fulfilling and trivial lives cuts across
the line between moral and immoral lives. The problem, from the point of
view of modern theorists, is not that there are no such things as truly
worthwhile goods, but rather that there are too many of them, and some
of them can conflict with the demands of morality. Hence, modern theorists
believe, a different kind of reasoning is required to ensure that attention
is focused on the legitimate claims of others.
Taylor is aware of this view of the function of morality. He responds that
contemporary moral philosophers fail to provide any guidance even with
respect to this more limited function, because they refuse to make explicit
that impartiality is a value commanding our allegiance, and fail to explain
why other people are worthy of our concern. Here, I think, Taylor is simply
wrong. Many modern theorists do make clear that impartiality has a higher
claim on our allegiance than egoism or maliciousness, and they do tie this
to some theory of why humans are worthy of moral consideration. Most
appeal to either sentience or rationality as grounds for saying that humans
are worthy of consideration.
Once again, Taylor is aware that some moral philosophers have advanced
such views. He responds that these philosophers have failed to prove that
these secular accounts of moral sources are sufficient to empower people
to live up to standards of universal justice. In particular, theorists have
failed to show that these moral sources are strong enough to outweigh our

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attachment to the ordinary goods of friendship and community, and so

have failed to defend the priority of the moral over the non-moral.
This is certainly true. But, once again, Taylor's explanation is wrong.
His explanation is that, by drawing a sharp boundary between the moral
and the non-moral, theorists ignore or deny the value of the ordinary goods
that might conflict with a moral life. This is wrong - modern theorists are
very aware of these conflicts. The problem, however, is that morality would
be rendered powerless in an unjust world if we had to prove that moral
sources outweighed all conflicting ordinary goods for each person subject
to them. Hence the priority of the moral over the non-moral is as much a
claim about what society can tolerate as a claim about what individuals can
voluntarily accept. Morality, in the first instance, is a social institution, a
social code which is applied by society to its members. Of course, this code
is intended to provide reasons for individual behaviour. But the way in
which social morality provides each individual with reasons for action is
complex. In some cases it provides a motivation and justification for a
person to make a great sacrifice. But in other cases it provides a motivation
and justification for someone else to impose that sacrifice by force. And,
in some cases, it simply provides a social sanction for actions that the
person would have performed for non-moral reasons.
In the best of all worlds, the extent of voluntary compliance would dwarf
the need for coerced compliance. But contemporary moral theorists believe
that the latter can never be entirely eliminated, and in an unjust world,
morality may be as much about what individuals can rightfully take by
force as it is about what individuals can voluntarily sacrifice.
If this is a fair description of contemporary moral theory, then it can be
said to rely on three assumptions:
(1) People have a natural, pre-moral interest in discovering what is truly
fulfilling and worthwhile in life.
(2) Impartiality, or universal benevolence, is a fundamental moral value.
Each person, from the moral point of view, matters and matters equally.
(3) Given the genuine value of the goods of ordinary life, and the extent
to which these goods may lead away from respect for universal justice,
morality may sometimes require more of people than they can voluntarily accept. In these circumstances, it is legitimate for other people,
using other means, to compel compliance.
Given these three premises, we can see why contemporary moral philosophers do what they do. Given (1), there is no need for moral philosophers to describe the precise contours of the good life. Given (2), there
is a need for moral philosophers to describe principles of right conduct.
Given (3), there is no need to prove that moral sources are always capable
of empowering the people subject to them, and it would unduly cramp

The Ethics of Inarticulacy


morality to try to prove this. Each one of these three assumptions is

compatible with, and indeed presupposes, the affirmation of qualitativedistinctions. Each one is based, not on the denial of qualitative distinctions,
but on an interpretation of them.

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1 I discuss the centrality of this argument to recent liberal political theory in my Liberalism,
Community, and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), ch. 2.
2 'In the Golden Rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of
utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute
the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.' J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative
Government (London: Dent & Sons, 1968), p. 16. I discuss the various ways that putting
yourself in other people's shoes is used by utilitarians and Kantians as a model of
impartiality in my Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1990), chs 2-3. See also the discussion in Ronald Dworkin, 'In Defense of Equality', Social
Philosophy and Policy 1 (1983).
3 On utilitarian definitions of people's interests, see Richard Brandt, A Theory of the Right
and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979); James Griffin, Well-Being: Its Meaning,
Measurement, and Moral Importance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986); Derek Parfit,
Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). On the application of the principle
of utility-maximization to rules and acts, see David Lyons, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), and Richard Hare, Freedom and
Reason (London: Clarendon Press, 1963).
4 On Kantian debates about the good, see David Richards, A Theory of Reasons for Action
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971); Thomas Scanlon, 'Preference and Urgency', Journal of
Philosophy 72 (1975); Scanlon, 'The Significance of Choice', in The Tanner Lectures on
Human Values, vol. 8, S. McMurrin (ed.) (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988);
John Rawls, 'The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good', Philosophy and Public Affairs
17(1988). On different models of impartial concern, compare Rawls's defence of the
original position (A Theory of Justice [London: Oxford University Press, 1971]) with the
critiques in Thomas Scanlon, 'Contractualism and Utilitarianism', in Utilitarianism and
Beyond, A. Sen and B. Williams (eds) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982),
Brian Barry, Theories of Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), and B.
J. Diggs, 'A Contractarian View of Respect for Persons', American Philosophical Quarterly
18 (1981).
5 Jeremy Waldron, 'Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism', Philosophical Quarterly 37
(1987), p. 145; cf. Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. 92-95, 407-16.
6 Taylor says that for people like Rawls, 'The idea that moral thought should concern itself
with our different visions of the qualitatively higher, with strong goods, is never even
mooted' (p. 84). This is entirely unfair. Rawls discusses perfectionism at length, and gives
a number of arguments against it. I discuss Rawls's arguments on this issue in 'Liberal
Individualism and Liberal Neutrality', Ethics 99 (1989). See also D. A. Lloyd Thomas, In
Defence of Liberalism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988).
7 I discuss Rawls's argument on this issue in 'Liberalism and Communitarianism', Canadian
Journal of Philosophy 18 (1988).
8 Rawls, Theory of Justice, op. cit., pp. 505-10. However, I agree with Taylor that many
people who 'remain quite unattracted by the naturalist attempt to deny ontology altogether,
and while on the contrary they recognize that their moral reactions show them to be
committed to some adequate basis, are perplexed and uncertain when it comes to saying
what this basis is' (p. 10).
9 While utilitarians are in explicit agreement that benevolence is a higher value than people's
de facto desires, there is considerable debate about how exactly this standard should be
reflected in our day-to-day motivations. It is widely held by many utilitarians that people

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180 Will Kymlicka

do a better job living up to the standard of impartiality when they act on personal or partial
motives than when they try to act on the basis of purely impartial motives. See, e.g., David
Brink, 'Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View', Journal of Philosophy 83
(1986), Peter Railton, 'Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality',
Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (1984). I think that Taylor may sometimes mistake these
doubts about the status of benevolence as a motive for expressions of doubt about the
status of benevolence as a standard.
10 Bernard Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 53.
11 Gilbert Harman, The Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977);
David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). Many of the
criticisms Taylor wrongly makes of contemporary utilitarians and Kantians could be quite
appropriately levelled at Gauthier.
12 E. J. Bond, Reason and Value (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. vii
13 Rawls, 'The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good', Philosophy and Public Affairs 17
(1988), pp. 251-2. Rawls elsewhere says that the reason his principles of right are not tied
to a particular ranking of the value of different religious or other visions of the good is
'not because these questions are unimportant or regarded with indifference, but because
we think them too important' to have the on-going process of individual evaluation and
re-evaluation pre-empted or obstructed by a dogmatic commitment to any one particular
answer at any one particular point in time ('Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical',
Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 [1985], p. 230).
14 Taylor cites a recent sociological study showing that many Americans have trouble articulating what it is that they most care about (Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart:
Individualism and Commitment In American Life [Berkeley: University of California Press,
1985]). However, there is some dispute over the accuracy of this study. Stout claims that
the authors of Habits of the Heart were partly responsible for making Americans look
inarticulate, by asking the wrong questions (Jeffrey Stout, 'Liberal Society and the
Languages of Morals', Soundings 69 [1986]).
15 Taylor criticizes those who distinguish moral and ethical judgments because 'while it may
not be judged a moral lapse that I am living a life that is not really worthwhile or fulfilling,
to describe me in these terms is nevertheless to condemn me in the name of a standard,
independent of my own tastes and desires, which I ought to acknowledge' (p. 4). But, as
we have seen, modern moral philosophers do not deny this. The question is who is
responsible for articulating that standard.
While Taylor complains about the tendency to distinguish practical from moral reasoning,
he constantly ignores the distinction in interpreting contemporary moral theories. For
example, he notes that most utilitarians believe that each person is the best judge of her
own happiness, and for this reason, they seek 'to establish a model of moral thinking which
tries to do without [qualitative judgments about the good] altogether' (p. 83). This is true
in the sense that most utilitarians seek to move qualitative judgments about the good out
of the realm of moral reasoning and into the realm of practical reasoning, where these
judgments can be left for individuals to decide for themselves, since they are the best
judges of their own interests. However, Taylor goes on to say that utilitarians sought to
remove qualitative distinctions from practical reasoning as well:
Practical reason was understood by the ancients substantively. To be rational was to
have the correct vision, or in the case of Aristotle's phronsis, an accurate power of
moral discrimination. But once we sideline a sense or vision of the good and consider it
irrelevant to moral thinking, then our notion of practical reasoning has to be procedural,
(p. 86)
This is false for all but the crudest Benthamite. Most utilitarians do not want to 'sideline
a sense or vision of the good' from practical reasoning. When they say that individuals are
the best judges of their own interests, they recognize that people are judging their own
good. They recognize that individuals are making strong evaluations when engaged in
practical reasoning. Nothing in utilitarianism denies that. Most utilitarians just deny that
it is the task of moral philosophy to make those evaluations.

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The Ethics of lnarticulacy


16 E.g., some people reject Rawls's claim that it is possible to abstract from our particular
conceptions of the good a more general theory of what it means to hold a conception of
the good, and hence of the conditions under which qualitative judgments about the good
can be made in an informed manner. On this view, the social conditions which contemporary
moral philosophers say are adequate for worthwhile ways of life to sustain themselves are
in fact based on only one or two specific ways of life, and unfairly preclude others. There
is no one set of social conditions which people can accept as providing a fair basis for
different ways of life to prove their worth, and so moral philosophers cannot avoid implicitly
evaluating specific ways of life in choosing a discovery procedure. This is an important
criticism of the modern view of the restricted role of moral philosophy, and I suspect that
Taylor is sympathetic to it. However, he does not discuss this criticism, or the various
responses that have been made to it. (Actually, this criticism presupposes what Taylor
denies - i.e. that modem moral theories do, after all, have an account of the sort of space
required for judgments about the good.) Moreover, if this were a real problem with moral
philosophy, it would seem to undermine Taylor's claim that 'we agree surprisingly well,
across great differences of theological and metaphysical belief, about the demands of
justice and benevolence, and their importance' (p. 515), or that we are 'united around the
norms' (p. 515). This is in any event a surprising admission, given Taylor's repeated ctaim
that contemporary moral philosophy has no sense at all of what people care about. How
could moral philosophers have got the norms right unless they had an understanding of
the sort of space people require to pursue the things they most care about?
17 According to Taylor, secular appeals to sentience or reason are 'inherently contestable in
a way that the theistic outlook is not. Theism is, of course, contested as to its truth. . . .
But no one doubts that those who embrace it will find a fully adequate moral source in it'.
For secular theorists, however, '[t]he question is whether, even granted we fully recognize
the dignity of disengaged reason, or the goodness of nature, this is in fact enough to justify
the importance we put on it, the moral store we set by i t . . . . [w]hereas faith is questioned
as to its truth, dignity and nature are also called into question in respect of their adequacy
if true. The nagging question for modern theism is simply: Is there really a God? The
threat at the margin of modern non-theistic humanism is: So what?' (p. 317).
I do not think that most secular people will share Taylor's assessment of the burden of
proof. It is certainly true that the existence of God would affect the schedule of rewards
and punishments that would accompany particular actions. But many of us who are children
of the 'unbelieving Enlightenment' are not at all clear in what other (non-prudential) sense
God provides an adequate moral source, and unfortunately Taylor provides no examples
of what he has in mind. One common theistic argument that arises in my new line of work
is that we should not perform medical experiments on human embryos because they bear
the image of God, or at least that we should only do so if we cannot acquire the needed
information through experiments on other species who do not bear His image. Now one
secular response is to deny that God exists. But another response is to say, So what? The
fact that an embryo bears the image of God has no obvious moral relevance. And if we
look at what are obviously morally relevant qualities, like the capacit to feel pain, then
it seems perverse to say that it is better to conduct experiments on sentient animals than
on non-sentient embryos. Human embryos may bear the image of God, or may have a
favoured place in His creation, but these are not obviously moral considerations (except
that He may punish us for ignoring them). They do not really explain why human embryos
deserve greater moral consideration than sentient animals. Theists might respond that I
have failed to understand the full moral significance of the fact that God loves human
embryos. But of course secular theorists can say the same about someone who fails to
understand the full moral significance of rationality or sentience. There is no sense in which
the theist position is less 'inherently contestable'.
18 It is often unclear whether Taylor, in demanding a clearer account of moral sources, is
asking for a clearer account of the moral point of impartiality, or whether he is asking for
a clearer account of how respecting impartiality fits within the contours of the truly good
19 On the preconditions for the development of an effective sense of justice, and their
implications for principles of justice, see Susan Okin, 'Reason and Feeling in Thinking
About Justice', Ethics 99 (1989).

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182 Will Kymlicka

20 Taylor seems to recognize this in an intriguing footnote where he distinguishes two senses
of the 'priority of the right over the good'. On one version, the claim is that 'morality is
concerned only with what actions are obligatory and not with qualitative distinctions'. This
is the version which he ascribes to contemporary moral philosophy, and which he says is
'based on a deep misapprehension'. On the second version, the claim is that 'what is
important in ethical life is the obligation we have to others, e.g., to fair dealing and
benevolence, and that these are incomparably more weighty than the requirements of a
good, or fulfilled, or valuable, or worthwhile life' (pp. 532-3n66). Taylor does not object
as much to this view, since it affirms qualitative distinctions, but he adds: 'I think there
would be something hubristic and self-destructive in the attempt to carry this exclusive
choice consistently through, a forgetfulness of self which aspires beyond human powers'
(p. 533n66).
It is unfortunate that Taylor takes the first version as his main target, since it is clearly
the second which underlies contemporary moral philosophy. As a result, Taylor provides
no elaboration for the claim that the second version is 'self-destructive', other than a
reference to Bernard Williams, whom he says has offered 'strong arguments' against this
'hubristic' view of the priority of the moral over the non-moral. It is difficult to know what
to make of this reference to Williams, since Taylor does not describe which arguments he
has in mind, and nor does he consider the many responses that have been made to them.
From my point of view, Williams's arguments suffer from the same flaw as Taylor's - i.e.
he reduces questions of morality to questions of individual empowerment, and so ends up
with a cramped and conservative view of morality. Williams's arguments sound plausible
when directed at those versions of utilitarianism which allow some people to be endlessly
sacrificed for the greater good of people who may already be well off. But they have no
attraction when directed against Kantian moral theories, and only serve to provide specious
justifications for the fortunate to maintain their privileges. Or so I argue in Contemporary
Political Philosophy, op. cit., chs 2-3.
21 A lot of ink has been spilt recently trying to determine when it is 'reasonable' to behave
morally, when it is 'rational' to do so, and what is the relationship between reasonable and
rational. See, e.g., Stephen Darwall, Impartial Reason (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1982), and Rawls, 'Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory', Journal of Philosophy 71
(1980). I think it is safe to say that contemporary moral philosophers are not at all agreed
on this question. Most would probably agree that the extent to which a moral requirement
is capable of outweighing any conflicting ordinary goods - the extent to which immoral
behaviour is unreasonable or irrational - is contingent on the individual and her circumstances. However, in those circumstances where moral sources are unable to empower
moral behaviour, morality still has priority. The lack of moral empowerment just has to
be overcome by other people, with other means.

Received 12 October 1990

Will Kymlicka, 200 Rosemere Avenue, Ottawa, Canada K1S 1A8