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Contemporary Thinkers: Charles Taylor on Authenticity

April 25, 2014

It is hard to think of a more common or prevalent moral ideal in modern society than that of authenticity. Yes, we also have the standard negative and reactionary morality in terms of avoiding doing bad things. But as far as a positive moral ideal for action goes in everyday life, authenticity is what many of us cling to, or aspire to.

It is almost an obsession for many of us to be true to ourselves at all times. To not let our actions be performed in bad faith, or solely out of convention or a sense of duty. To find a personally enriching fulfillment in life.

For many, of course, this becomes an excuse to set the bar low. To indulge in self-gratifying activities, and to refuse to take responsibilities for other people. And to refuse to engage in the society and community as a good citizen. In this situation the permissive society is born. We permit anything of others provided they don’t encroach on our own little area of self-fulfillment.

We also become a society of very anxious people, constantly worried about our actions being done from an inauthentic place.

This era of authenticity is one that Charles Taylor has done much study into in his various works: The Ethics of Authenticity, Sources of the Self, A Secular Age.

It has come about, he shows, first from the ideas of thinkers such as Locke and Descartes, who promoted the self as the primary source of understanding about the world. And from a transfusion, you could say, of religious ideas that looked for inspiration in an external, God figure, to looking for inspiration internally within the self, as the source of our ideals. This kind of pursuit can be seen most extremely in a romantic era figure such as Nietzsche. It was then continued with the existentialists. I already mentioned the concept of bad faith, which comes from Sartre in Being and Nothingness. And with other cult-figures such as Martin Heidegger.

Taylor sees the dangers of its abuse in a permissive society, and there is this more recent issue of anxiety I mentioned that can paralyse people from acting things out. Both these dangers are there, but he still affirms the importance of this moral ideal of authenticity to our modern culture. We cannot all be successful in pursuing our ideals, and so we see the emergence of a new elite of people who, successful in their authenticity, become representatives of society.

I think with our ideal of authenticity we always have to keep in mind to aim for something higher, and to accept sometimes we will fall, fail along the way, but don’t use this as an excuse to settle for something lower. Nothing in a moral domain can be guaranteed to us. It is not like nature where we can just relax and let nature take its course. And so we should not confuse being authentic with just being natural. It requires effort, it requires courage and an acceptance of the possibility of failure.

The retrieval of authenticity is the project Charles Taylor has embarked on throughout his career. Just because there is a propensity for it to be used by some as an excuse for self indulgence, and by others as an argument for moral relativism (i.e. that I can follow whatever values I want and nothing else matters), is not a reason to reject authenticity as an ideal. Morality is not just judged by its failures, but by its successes. It provides an orientation and a meaning to life that can be empowering if handled correctly. We just need to keep working on it.

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8 Comments
  1. I presume this must be a qualified “authenticity”. The devil, in theory, is authentically evil. And if a liar is “true to himself”, then he will actually be false to every other man. And the pedophile…etc.

    So I don’t see “authenticity” in itself as a moral guide. First, we must be of a good heart and a good mind. And it is being true to our good heart and good mind that authenticity acquires and returns value. In this context, authenticity implies fulfilling our innate moral intent. And if we lack that innate moral intent, then we should seek that first.

    • The devil in theory is one thing, but evil in practice relies on various forms of inauthenticity, such as self-delusions of grandeur, etc.. And how can a liar be true to themselves if they can’t be true to anyone else? So I do see authenticity as a moral guide. What you think could be authentic about a pedophile I am not sure. It is a sign of moral weakness and inability to be authentic amongst other adult human beings that leads to such behavior. Such as a priest who has to be inauthentically kind and nice to adults all the time, repressing his authentic nature that then comes out in dubious pedophilial tendencies and desires.

      • Another example is the story of the scorpion and the frog. Both are on one side of the pond and wish to get to the other. The scorpion asks the frog for a ride. The frog says, “but you may sting me!”. The scorpion promises not to sting him. But halfway across, the scorpion stings him. The frog says, “what about your promise?” and the scorpion says, “I tried, but, after all, I am a scorpion”.

        But getting back to the real world, if someone comes to you with a moral question, like, “why don’t we hijack this guy, steal his car, and sell it for profit?” Which would be the clearest advice, “Do the most good and least harm for everyone” or “be authentic”?

        Somehow, “be authentic” must map clearly to the same answer as “do the most good and least harm for everyone”. (Every ethical system and every religion must also map to that same result, as it is the criteria by which all ethical systems must be judged).

      • I disagree, “do the most good and least harm for everyone”, is not a principle I apply. This would be utilitarianism, which is precisely the kind of the thing the authenticity approach to ethics disputes. It disputes the very ability to formulate that calculation in most real circumstances, where we have to act now informed by intuition, not after the fact based on consequences of harm/benefit for all parties concerned, and this is where a sense of being authentic guides our decisions.

      • I don’t agree with utilitarians who claim the object of morality is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Many things that are bad for us are nonetheless pleasurable. And childbirth, though painful, is essential for the continuation of our species.

        We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. And, through medical science, we have objective evidence of what is beneficial to us versus what is harmful. The same can be said for most social rules. Laws are argued on the basis of their benefits and harms within society. Slavery had a long history of acceptance before it was ultimately rejected because of the injury to the slave and his rights as a human being. Even the highway speed limit are argued in terms of its benefits and harms.

        It’s important to establish the “why” of rules. That gives guidance to judging a rule to be good or bad. What do you consider to be the point or reason for an ethical rule?

      • Objective evidence from medical science is tenuous to say the least. There is all sorts of controversy regarding the pills people are given in our society, and in what sense they can be said to be beneficial. Beneficial by making people placid, is an example of what for many makes this kind of harm and benefits criterion off the mark. You then get the dangers of people becoming dependent on medications, that in the long-term may harm the benefit of the species. It is only later on after the fact that we could make this judgement, by then it may be too late, but right now we can act against things such as this by affirming an ethic of authenticity. Another issue is also the placebo effect that complicates things greatly regarding supposed causal-chain benefits of types of medicine. Regarding the question, why would there be one point or reason? I am not claiming a generic truth for morality here, just exploring a specific aspect of it in contemporary society.

      • Prior to medical science, there were also a great number of subjective views regarding the causes and cures of disease. The fact that one scientist can be proven wrong (or right) by another scientist is what makes it “objective”.

        When you say you are “exploring a specific aspect of it in contemporary society”, I presume you refer to “ethics”. What is your definition of the term? Are you actually exploring “ethics” or are you actually exploring “authenticity”?

      • the placebo effect actually undermines the very prospect of objectivity in certain areas. I am not looking to get into a debate about definitions of terms, my post is a free-standing thing, that exhibits my views, I have presented many other views of a like kind in previous posts, going back some way, and I will continue to develop these views further in the future.

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