On Charles Taylor’s Multi-Dimensional Moral Thinking

In his recent essay, “The Perils of Moralism,” [1] Charles Taylor writes about the Western tradition of “code fixation” in moral thinking. “Much contemporary moral theory assumes that morality can be defined in terms of a code of obligatory and forbidden actions, a code moreover which can be generated from a single source or principle. Hence the major importance in our philosophy departments of the battle between Utilitarians and (post-)Kantians; they agree that there must be a single principle from which one can generate all and only obligatory actions, but they wage a vigorous polemic over the nature of this principle… The constant here is the identification of morality with a unified code, generated from a single source.” [2]

Taylor critiques this tradition by explicating two dimensions of morality, one horizontal (immanent/immediate) and one vertical (transcendent/eschatological). The problem with “code fixation,” then, is that it thinks along only the purely horizontal or immanent dimension alone, which “tends to forget the background which makes sense of any [moral] code – the variety of goods which rules and norms are meant to realize.” [3]

Taylor explains that the horizontal dimension of morality entails moving toward a “point of resolution, the fair ‘award,’ between two parties.” [4] Here the analysis of harm and injury takes place along with the negotiation for amends or redemption: what has been done and what needs to be done to appropriately address the wrong. The resources for moral thinking here are purely immanent, involving merely those immediate to the situation itself.

The vertical dimension renders the reduction of moral thinking to a single moral principle (what Taylor also calls “nomolatry”) impossible. This verticality “opens the possibility that by rising higher, you’ll accede to a new horizontal space where the resolution will be less painful or damaging for both parties.” Taylor’s example of this is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Desmond Tutu and other leaders helped South Africa to “move up” to a higher vertical dimension where new horizontal possibilities emerge. Instead of punitive, retributive justice, which would be fair and understandable given the circumstances, Tutu and others were able to help the people move higher possibility, moving toward greater healing. [5]

Taylor’s thinking here is theological: “The vertical dimension I’ve been talking about here is one of reconciliation and trust. And this whole discussion shows how Christian faith can never be decanted into a fixed code. Because it always places our actions in two dimensions, one of right action, and also an eschatological dimension. This is also a dimension of reconciliation and trust, but it points beyond any merely intrahistorical perspective of possible reconciliation.” And later, “God operates in that vertical dimension, as well as being with us horizontally in the person of Christ.” [6]

Practically, then, Taylor says, “The question always arises: could one, by transcending/amending/re-interpreting the [moral] code, move us all vertically? Christ is constantly doing that in the Gospel.” [7] The theological grounding of this is significant for Taylor, who sees that within “modern enclosed humanism, the vertical dimension is largely eclipsed, or else disappears altogether.” [8] For him, “True freedom requires that we go beyond morality to the harmonious realization of our whole nature.” [9]

Implicit in this argument is that ground-level horizontal moral thinking, while appropriate, is less ideal because it doesn’t enlarge (enough) our “whole nature.” While Taylor doesn’t go as far to claim we have a duty to move up the vertical dimension, he is clear there are consequences for not doing so. He claims purely immanent moral thinking “deprives…victims and their successors of the goods of comity and collaboration.” [10]


I think Taylor might even be able to state this last point more strongly. At stake is more than merely the comity and collaboration of the victims but also, and I suppose he means this, their own humanity. While there is a completely rational and defensible case to be made for horizontal moral thinking alone, most of that rationality is thoroughly procedural. Insofar as it considers the humanity of involved and affected parties it does so at the outset, at the establishment of the “code” or principle alone. Taylor’s claim seems to be that what we cannot lose sight of amid our moral decision making is that the humanity of those involved – including the victim(s) – is always implicated. Moral dilemmas don’t call solely for our procedural processes but for our regular consideration of the humanity of all parties involved and affected.

Our moral reasoning, then, should be in constant touch with the question of the humanity of those involved and affected by our decisions. This seems to point toward an Aristotelian/teleological ethical approach, which Taylor certainly acknowledges. Some conception of the good life/common good is necessary. Such a conception is transcendent in that it doesn’t exist among the procedural horizontal/immanent resources for moral thinking. It comes from without, and is in that sense deserving of the term Taylor gives to it: eschatological.

As Taylor says, we live in “an economy of human transformation, where we all have to move higher.” [11] According to him, our resources for doing so must be more expansive than those within the horizontal dimension alone.



[1] In his recent collection of essays called Dilemmas and Connections (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) 347-366.

[2] p. 347.

[3] p. 351.

[4] p. 350.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] p. 351.

[8] p. 352.

[9] p. 355.

[10] p. 349.

[11] p. 364.


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