Taylor vs Foucault: human agency and the possibility of moral choices

May 9, 2007

Reading of Anne Galloway’s embodied life in the fast world of international conferences on the leading innovative edge of technology, theory and culture, I catch myself teetering over into a vertiginous virtual space that seems to break all the natural laws of space and time. And did she really say she has a pet too?

She has just returned from presenting the opening keynote at the ENTER_Unknown Territories Conference in Cambridge. In her address entitled, “Where I come from, this is how we do things” and other ethics of collaboration” Galloway

prepares the ground for the conference panels by critically assessing the relations between people’s ethics, aesthetics, world-views and expectations – and the challenges and opportunities posed by cultural difference in collaborative practice. How do we make sense of our actions and the worlds in which we live? What happens when we encounter difference or opposition? What would collaboration without consensus involve? Where do we locate accountability, and to whom and what are we responsible? How can we evaluate the ethics of collaborative work and play?

Anne Galloway is cautious about the role of policing disguised as moral shepherds of virtual flocks. She is particularly intrigued by Dennis’ statement (2006) that, “economically incentivized political moralists assume the role of shepherds, busily ‘selling’ a redefinition of the boundaries between the tolerated and intolerable.”

because it explicitly ties shepherding to moralising, and I have a decided interest in challenging top-down morals with bottom-up ethics or ethos. More specifically, I’ve become increasingly concerned with actual strategies and tactics used to promote political action in this arena (Galloway 2007).

Dennis (2006) builds on Foucault’s notion of shepherd/police who spy on people’s private and public lives with the intent of shaping ethical behavior from the top-down. Foucault differentiated between the function of what is commonly known as policing with the function of 17th century German Polizeiwissenschaft which branched out into “all of the people’s conditions, everything that they do or undertake.” (Turquet cited in Dennis 2006). Dennis argues that the “Polizeiwissenschaft project has been re-animated, via digital technologies.” Dennis echoes Foucault’s concerns that there is a “widespread acceptance of some morally and politically significant beliefs that mislead, distort, and give us a false sense of what is happening around and to us (Kumar 2005).”

Charles Taylor distinguishes between ethics and morality by describing the latter as “that part of ethics which is concerned with our obligations to others, in justice and benevolence.” In the course that he is currently teaching (2007) Taylor examines how,

For some thinkers, this is the really important department of ethics, far more significant than questions about what constitutes a good or worth-while life. For others, this primacy is quite mistaken and unacceptable. This issue is often fought out under the description “the primacy of the right over the good”. If one accepts the primacy, certain questions open up: viz, utilitarianism versus a Kantian approach. If one refuses this primacy, then another set of questions become important, because there are a host of different ways of defining the good life (Taylor 2007).

I am intrigued by the tension between top-down morals and bottom-up ethics. Taylor’s notion of morality is that part of ethics which concerns issues such as social justice, hospitality, politics of friendship and other relationships where we have social responsibilities. With this notion of morality there is always space for agency at the individual level. There may be economic, political, legal or even physical and emotional consequences to making ethical choices that run counter to pervasive moral codes. In a police state, an ethical choice may be a dangerous choice. In a capitalist-dependent democracy, one’s personal code of ethics may conflict with a code of professional ethics. But are these pervasive moral codes imposed top-down by shepherds of consciousness on powerless individuals? Or are they accepted and obeyed by individuals for the sake of expediency? In other words, we have a choice but with it comes consequences. In risk society much of what is discussed under the name of ethics seems to be related to measuring costs and benefits. The encoding of these into measurable and accountable standards of practice within professions for example is not a guaranteer of ethical behaviour. Ethical standards can be morphed over time and become part of our inner topography simply through desensitization or sensitization. We may not even be aware of their source or legitimacy.

Charles Taylor described how any form of domination, “even if it is partly self-imposed, is possible only if there is “a background of desires, interests, purposes” that people have and if “it makes a dent in these, if it frustrates them, prevents them from fulfilment, or perhaps even from formulation,” diminishing freedom in these ways (Taylor 1986: 91 cited in Kumar).”

In the early 1970s Foucault called for intellectuals, particularly in the social and human sciences, to immediately undertake the urgent task of revealing hidden relationships of political power which controlled, oppressed and/or repressed the social body (Foucault 1974:171). Foucault was impatient with the project of modernity seeing it as regressive not progressive. He challenged modern techniques of discipline for their growing systems of control (Taylor 1986:80). While he defended certain disadvantaged groups and adopted his own causes, Foucault rejected the possibility of imagining a future social order in which human nature could be fully realized. He rejected grounding his own ethics in God’s will, human nature or even Habermas’ universal presuppositions (Kumar 2005). Is this what Taylor would describe as moral subjectivism, the view that morality is grounded not in reason or the way things are but in the preferences of individual subjects (Taylor EA)?

Foucault’s seventies project was an attempt to heighten awareness of ways in which ruling classes deceive people and undermine their freedom in many ways including exercising power in a repressive, hidden, top-down manner. Now that he has succeeded beyond his wildest imagination so that we are all somewhat street-smart and cynical about truth claims from Big Science, Big Government, Mass Media and now Big Technology, where does that leave us? Wistfully nihilistic?

Taylor argues that Foucault’s portrait of social change in the late 20th century leaves us with a disempowering nihilism. See Kumar (2005) on Fraser, Habermas, Walzer and Taylor. Taylor feels that we should reject our desire to discern irreversible optimistic or pessimistic (Bell, Daniel Bloom, Allan)  societal trends and cultural trends. In between is the space of moral philosophy where conscious ethical choice is not only possible but the only responsible action.

So where does the ethical turn in the social sciences lead us?


Taylor, Charles. 1986. “Foucault on Freedom and Truth,” in Hoy, David Couzens. Ed. Foucault: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell: 69–102.

Taylor, Charles. 1992. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

“Everywhere we hear talk of decline, of a world that was better once, maybe fifty years ago, maybe centuries ago, but certainly before modernity drew us along its dubious path. While some lament the slide of Western culture into relativism and nihilism and others celebrate the trend as a liberating sort of progress, Charles Taylor calls on us to face the moral and political crises of our time, and to make the most of modernity’s challenges. At the heart of the modern malaise, according to most accounts, is the notion of authenticity, of self-fulfillment, which seems to render ineffective the whole tradition of common values and social commitment. Though Taylor recognizes the dangers associated with modernity’s drive toward self realization, he is not as quick as others to dismiss it. He calls for a freeze on cultural pessimism. In a discussion of ideas and ideologies from Friedrich Nietzsche to Gail Sheehy, from Allan Bloom to Michel Foucault, Taylor sorts out the good from the harmful in the modern cultivation of an authentic self. He sets forth the entire network of thought and morals that link our quest for self-creation with our impulse toward self-fashioning, and shows how such efforts must be conducted against an existing set of rules, or a gridwork of moral measurement. Seen against this network, our modern preoccupations with expression, rights, and the subjectivity of human thought reveal themselves as assets, not liabilities. By looking past simplistic, one-sided judgments of modern culture, by distinguishing the good and valuable from the socially and politically perilous, Taylor articulates the promise of our age. His bracing and provocative book gives voice to the challenge of modernity, and calls on all of us to answer it (summary).”

Kumar, Chandra. 2005. “Foucault and Rorty on Truth and Ideology: A Pragmatist View from the Left.Contemporary Pragmatism. 2:1:35-93

Foucault, Michel.

Galloway, Anne. 2007. “Shepherding the politics of pervasive computing.” >> http://www.purselipsquarejaw.org May3.

Dennis, Dion. 2006. “Policing the Convergence of Virtual and Material Worlds: “The True Object of Police is Man.” CTheory.net. 12/5/2006


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