Moral Agency in the Modern Age: Reading Charles Taylor through George Grant

By Millard, Gregory; Forsey, Jane | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Moral Agency in the Modern Age: Reading Charles Taylor through George Grant


Millard, Gregory, Forsey, Jane, Journal of Canadian Studies


A shared concern with the nature of moral agency in modernity makes George Grant a useful interlocutor for Charles Taylor. Taylor sees human agency as constituted by moral affirmations, as given in the process he calls "strong evaluation." He examines the "moral sources," including reason, nature, and God, that inform the modern identity, explaining "technological society" in light of these affirmations. Grant's analysis of technology shares much with Taylor's, but underlines the irreducibility of technological civilization's "will to mastery" to any of Taylor's moral goods. This "will" is a distinctive and constitutive affirmation of modern agents (akin to a Taylorian "source"); but it is fundamentally amoral and, indeed, corrosive of morality. Reading Grant thus offers an important corrective to Taylor's historical account of affirmation in modernity, while challenging his theory of identity as necessarily constituted by moral goods.

Une préoccupation commune au sujet de la nature du mandat moral dans la modernité fait de George Grant un interlocuteur pratique pour Charles Taylor. M. Taylor croit que le mandat humain est constitué d'affirmations morales, telles que données lors du processus qu'il appelle « une forte évaluation ». Il examine les « sources morales », y compris la raison, la nature et Dieu, qui informent l'identité moderne, expliquant la « société technologique » d'après ces affirmations. L'analyse de la technologie de M. Grant a beaucoup en commun avec celle de M. Taylor mais met l'accent sur l'incompressibilité de la volonté de maîtriser de la civilisation technologique comparativement aux produits moraux de M. Taylor. Cette « volonté » est une affirmation distincte et constitutive des agents modernes (similaire à une source taylorienne) mais elle est fondamentalement immorale et même un agent corrosif de la moralité. En lisant les écrits de M. Grant, on peut donc corriger le compte rendu historique de l'affirmation de la modernité de M. Taylor tout en questionnant sa théorie sur l'identité qui est nécessairement constituée de produits moraux.

Charles Taylor and George Grant, two of Canada's most influential thinkers, share enough to make some of their most important differences edifying.1 Both offer ambitious accounts of the moral significance of modernity; both respond to the challenges of the modern age by proposing exercises in retrieval (of muddled "moral sources" for Taylor, of more ancient accounts of the good for Grant); and both finally are tasked with the question of why, and whether, human agents must be moral at all.2 Our contention is that reading Grant can shed new light upon Taylor, drawing attention to a significant problem with Taylor's theory of identity. This happens once we consider their respective analyses of modernity, technology, and, especially, the role of affirmation in modern life. Where Taylor thinks that morality cannot but be constitutive of human experience, and that many of our dilemmas as moderns could be eased by clarifying our distinctive moral constitution, Grant offers an analysis of the affirmations that drive modern technological civilization, which, if taken seriously, goes to the heart of Taylor's work. It challenges his thesis that to seek the moral good is constitutive of agency, and thereby casts doubts on Taylor's strongest premise: his conception of the self.

Such are the themes pursued here. Our intention is not to offer a comprehensive comparison of the thought of Taylor and Grant, but rather to explore what we believe to be the most provocative outcome of such comparison. This study thus targets what must be the most important question animating the work of both authors, namely the human capacity for morality in the modern age.

Three sections follow. The first offers a schematic overview of Taylor's theory, establishing the nature of his diachronic account of modernity and his moral realism. The second contrasts Taylor's and Grant's respective analyses of the affirmations that drive the technological project. …

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