Arguing Together: Charles Taylor’s “Code Fixation” and Michael Walzer’s “Moral Minimalism”

As I was reading and writing about Charles Taylor’s recent essay denouncing “code fixation” I thought about Michael Walzer’s notion of “moral minimalism.”

In many ways it seems these two articles sum up the communitarian side of the communitarian – liberal debate.

n.b. While the “communitarian” label legitimately groups together voices of a common critique – MacIntyre, Sandel, Taylor, Walzer – I’m not sure it’s all that helpful. While all their critiques share a significant amount in common, MacIntyre’s trajectory is quite different from that of the other three mentioned. In fact, some of them (i.e. Walzer) quite explicitly embrace the term “liberal,” which MacIntyre would never do. I think it’s more helpful, when referring to Taylor, Walzer, and Sandel, to frame their debate with Rawls and company as Aristotelian/teleological liberalism vs deontological/procedural liberalism. Insofar as liberalism means, at least, maintaining a central place for liberty within an ethical and political system, it’s use in this way seems justified.

Walzer’s argument in the first chapter of his book Thick and Thin is essentially that the minimal (or “thin”) account of morality required for procedural liberalism is necessarily rooted in some (often unstated) maximal (“thick”) account. For example, Walzer claims the minimal rules/rights Rawls acknowledges are necessary for procedural liberalism are actually rooted in some more robust moral tradition and are only possible because of it. The promotion of the thin/minimalist tradition alone is therefore insufficient because it does not include the robust background necessary to think through difficult moral questions. [1]

Taylor mentions this very same thing, albeit quite briefly. He claims, in the essay mentioned above, that a result of code fixation is the tendency “to forget the background which makes sense of any [moral] code – the variety of goods which rules and norms are meant to realize.” [2]

Taken together the points Walzer and Taylor are trying to make complement and strengthen one another. Working toward the same general critique, in these essays Walzer establishes the groundwork and Taylor builds on it. Their conclusions (by somewhat artificially, though I think legitimately putting them together) are that an attempt to devise a single moral principle from which a moral/political theory can be grounded is doomed for two interrelated reasons:
1.) it fails to recognize, and thus be enriched by, the thick/maximal tradition that makes it possible and the cultural history/knowledge/assumptions that come with it (Walzer)
2.) it remains trapped within the horizontal dimension of moral thinking, largely because of reason #1, which is costly to human flourishing and the common good (Taylor)

[1] Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 1994) 1-19.

[2] Charles Taylor, “Perils of Moralism,” Dilemmas and Connections (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) 351.


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