Taylor begins by stating how the basic concept of moral order is to teach us how we ought to live together in society. [i] That is, “[t]he underlying idea of moral order stresses the rights and obligations we have as individuals in regard to each other”. [ii] With that understanding of moral order in hand, Taylor, like a good, philosophical doctor, performs his investigation into the current problems of modernity. He writes, “the number one problem of modern social science has been modernity itself: that historically unprecedented amalgam of new practices and institutional forms (science, technology, industrial production, urbanization), of new ways of living (individualism, secularization, instrumental rationality); and of new forms of malaise (alienation, meaninglessness, a sense of impending social dissolution).” [iii]
Taylor encourages the reader to search for a grander social imaginary, and does so by taking you by the hand through the history of centuries past, to appreciate the contrasting moral order of premodernity and just how Western civilization ended up with its secular framework. In other words, Taylor puts modern Western society on the examination table and encourages his student to take a good, hard look at what’s causing the bleeding.
The author emphasises how our basic understanding of meaning has changed, and does so, in part, by comparing the moral orders of modernity with premodernity. The moral order of Modernity, explains Taylor, centres on the assertion that society is made for the individual and not vice versa. Moreover, he expands by showing how a cultural shift has taken place in Western society, from a society and history that is embedded in transcendence and a ‘higher’ importance, into one that has moved outside of this. He writes, “What makes modern humanism unprecedented… is the idea that this flourishing involves no relation to anything higher.” [iv] Modernity, according to Taylor, has its feet firmly planted in secularism.
However, in premodern times, Taylor shows how individuals and society lived under this sense of the transcendent, where there was a ‘higher purpose’ to one’s existence. He also describes how societies were transformed by new forms of discipline that arose from military and religious influence: “Indeed, these two programs were often interwoven: reforming governments saw religion as a very good source of discipline and churches as handy instruments, and many religious reformers saw ordered social life as the essential expression of conversion.” [v]
Although modernity brought with it the great gifts of progress and learning in its arms, it left the promises of happiness and fulfilment empty and unfulfilled in its wake. We may have benefited from technological advance, better equality, greater distribution of wealth and so on (in the West), yet the new forms of malaise that Taylor highlights surely indicate that we have not yet ‘arrived’.
So what about the influence of modernity in other parts of the world? Do multiple modernities exist, as Taylor asks? To answer these questions, one needs to do precisely what Taylor did and take the given society under question on a historical examination. Take, for instance, China. What modernity looks like in the East will likely be different to what we understand as modernity in the West. After all, the histories of each are grounded on very different ideals: the values of Enlightenment in the West (freedom, happiness, reason) verses Confucian values in the East (Collectivism and duty). Although modernity is indeed increasing its grip upon the Chinese, it will indisputably be reconfigured through this strong, Confucian filter.
In addition, though Taylor describes modernity in the West as characterised by a horizontal kind of society, one that doesn’t recognise any privileged persons or agencies, such as kings or priests [vi], this looks very different in China where the same principles of equality and society existing for the benefit of the individual have not been part of their great thinking. Quite the opposite, in fact. It almost seems as if China may be heading where the West has come from: from a secular society to one where individuals see their existence and purpose within the scope of the transcendent.
In closing, if the moral order of modernity still leaves many with a sense of meaninglessness and alienation, what can be done to remedy that? As helpful as many of the benefits of modernity are, as wonderful as it is that major civilizations are growing closer to each other and learning from each other, it still does not answer these deeper questions. A bold re-examination of living with an understanding of one’s place in the Great Chain of Being could provide answers we may not expect.
The meaning of life is more than what modernity, as we currently know it in the West, has to offer. Then again, perhaps modernity is still evolving as many ask the questions that reach far beyond the pocket and into the heart. Maybe it would be wise to pursue a transcendent form of modernity, one that still embraces progress among humanity, but doesn’t leave the divine on the roadside.