Sep 19, 2010

Charles Taylor on Irreducibly Social Goods

Charles Taylor has a neat essay called "Irreducibly Social Goods." [1] He wants to know whether there are any irreducibly social goods, i.e. social goods (e.g. friendship) that cannot be decomposed into what's good for individuals. His argument that there are appeals to Wittgensteinian considerations about the 'background,' the implicit array of meanings that makes possible our language practices. For Taylor, I can think of myself as sophisticated, whereas that thought simply isn't available to medieval samurai, due to deep differences in our cultural backgrounds. Without a background of the relevant sort, certain thoughts are impossible. The same holds for values. On Taylor's view, being in a certain culture makes it possible for certain things to be values. Sophistication can be a value for us, though it can't be for the samurai, according to Taylor.

Taylor then wants to apply this Wittgensteinian point about values to the question of irreducible social goods. The argument goes like this. Suppose a culture makes possible certain individual goods. It will follow, all else equal, that the culture that makes those goods possible is a good. But what kind of good is it? It is closely linked to various individual goods, as we've seen. But this linkage isn't causal; the culture isn't one among many things that could have brought it about that the individual goods exist. Rather, those goods are unintelligible apart from the culture. Because of this intricate connection between the culture and the goods it makes intelligible, Taylor thinks that the culture is an intrinsic, rather than merely instrumental, good. Further, the culture is an irreducibly social good, because there is in principle no way to make a value intelligible just to some individuals in the culture and not to others. (Cf. Wittgenstein's rejection of private language.)

This is an intriguing argument, but I don't think it quite works. For one thing, why should it be that whatever makes it possible for something to be understood as a good is itself a good? As far as I can tell, Taylor doesn't answer this question, and it's certainly not obvious why we would want to answer in the affirmative. It's not clear that it's relevant, for example, whether the making possible is merely causal or not.

Another worry is that Taylor's argument equivocates about the concept of cultural background. We can agree, for the sake of argument, that the connection between there being a cultural background at all and there being values at all is essential, in a non-causal sense; but it doesn't follow that the connection between any particular cultural backgrounds and the particular values it makes possible is also a non-causal connection. For presumably any number of different cultures can provide a background against which the values that are intelligible in our culture would also be intelligible. We need a way to individuate cultural backgrounds to spell out this worry in detail, but it at least seems like there might be an equivocation here.

Taylor has a second argument later in the article, but it's geared toward a somewhat different set of social goods. So, it's pretty important for his overall purpose whether this argument in fact succeeds.

[1] Reprinted in Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments.

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