Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity (Chapters 1-5)

Contemporary civilization is often said to suffer from narcissistic individualism, enslavement to technology and institutions, and a loss of political freedom caused by apathy. Critics have condemned the contemporary discourse of self-fulfilment as a withdrawal from moral concerns; however we should instead understand it as a kind of moral calling, albeit one that calls us away from caring about that which transcends the self—we need to separate a “good” ideal of personal authenticity from a “bad” one. The ideal of authenticity is one with with sources at least three centuries old in (political and philosophical) Enlightenment theories of individualism, but it’s mainly an inheritance from the Romantic period. Authenticity only makes sense against an interpersonal background of values and significances, so any discourse on self-fulfilment based on shutting out society is self-defeating. There is a sense in modern culture that (impersonal) social relationships as well as intimate relationships are valuable insofar as they aid self-fulfilment, but this notion is self-defeating.

Taylor pictures

Three Malaises

There is a general sense that contemporary civilizations is sick, that it has lost something since maybe the mid-Twentieth Century or maybe since the 17th Century. Among the many complaints made, Taylor finds three dominant malaises:

  1. A loss of meaning—“the fading of moral horizons”—induced by increased individualism (10).

In modernity, laws and morals have sprung up to protect individuals against large collective forces, such as oppressive cultural traditions, overreaching government powers, etc; in fact, many would argue the project of individualism is not yet finished. However, the downside of breaking out of old hierarchies is a loss of meaning. By assigning a place to each thing and person, hierarchical societies made the world meaningful: “[T]he eagle was not just another bird, but the kin of a whole domain of animal life” (3). In breaking out of these hierarchical constraints, individualist society also loses a grand sense of meaning, “a heroic dimension to life.” The “dark side of individualism” is a withdrawal into our own narcissistic pleasures and pains with little regard for others or society.

  1. “[T]he eclipse of ends” caused by the rise to dominance of instrumental reason (10).

“Instrumental reasons” means “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical applications of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ration, is its measure of success” (5). Aside from making us more narcissistic, sweeping away old social orders disenchants the world and leaves everything as a resource to be appropriated for our projects. The fear is that we will use cost-output calculations to measure things that deserve a better standard of evaluation: “for instance, the ways the demands of economic growth are used to justify very unequal distributions of wealth and income, or the way these same demands make us insensitive to the needs of the environment, even to the point of disaster.” (5-6). The importance of instrumental reason also explains the prestige of technology and its increased proliferation into areas of life where it is not optimal, such as the emotional care of patients. While social structures push us toward increased use of instrumental reason, Taylor is careful to assert that we are not fully determined—we have a reserve of rational power that can be used to change the world.

  1. A loss of freedom.

An instrumental society “severely restricts our choices,” compelling us to make decisions we would normally never make (such as knowingly damaging the environment to the point of disaster to ourselves). In addition, we lose freedom by being too self-concerned. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that there is a new “soft” despotism that results from a government keeping us content individually without calling for our participation. Taylor doesn’t quote Juvenal, but the idea sounds like the Roman’s complaint: “Two things only the people anxiously desire — bread and circuses.”

Many commentators have deplored modern society for the malaises mentioned here. Taylor wants to share in their criticism to some extent, but he also faults such critics for failing to account for the appeal of this new culture. At any rate, he will spend the bulk of the book talking about the first malaise and then broach the other two near the end.

The Inarticulate Debate

One of the nefarious forms that contemporary individualism takes is “the individualism of self-fulfillment,” an ethic of universal respect for other individuals ways of life. Though this might sound ok in principle, in practice it manifests as a moral relativism in which all values and beliefs a person has are taken to be valid by the mere fact of being a person’s ideas. The other side of this coin is that nobody should criticize another person’s life choices; to do so, it is thought, is tantamount to an assault on the person’s dignity. “This individualism involves a centring on the self and a concomitant shutting out, or even unawareness, of the great issues or concerns that transcend the self, be they religious, political, historical” (14). The 1970s and ‘80s saw the publication of a number of books diagnosing and deriding this individualism, but Taylor’s aim is to take a more neutral—or at least ambivalent—stance.

While critical of a number of features of the individualism of self-fulfillment, he argues that critics tend to miss something fundamental about this individualism as a moral position. That is, critics like Alan Bloom, Daniel Bell, and Christopher Lasch[1] interpret this individualism as a retreat from moral positions, but Taylor wants to understand it as a moral ideal with its own compelling force:

What we need to understand here is the moral force behind notions like self-fulfilment. Once we try to explain this simply as a kind of egoism, or a species of moral laxism, a self-indulgence with regard to a tougher, more exigent earlier age, we are already off the track [. . . .] It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it. (16-17)

Drawing on the thought of acclaimed mid-20th Century liberal literary critic Lionel Trilling, Taylor calls this contemporary ideal “authenticity.”[2]

The problem with the ideal of authenticity, however, is that it is resistant to explaining itself as an ideal. Part and parcel of the ideal of respecting others’ lives because they are others lives is an unwillingness to engage in arguments—either justifying or criticizing—a person’s beliefs, values, and so on. The result is a “soft relativism”; soft because it arrives at relativist conclusions without the trace of an argument. In fact, we cannot call this relativism a conclusion at all; rather, “[t]he ideal sinks to the level of an axiom, something one doesn’t challenge but also never expounds” (17). In the political sphere, the correlate political stance is “the liberalism of neutrality: [. . . ] The good life is what each individual seeks, in his or her own way, and government would be lacking in impartiality, and thus in equal respect for all citizens, if it took sides on this question” (17-18).

At any rate, the entire ethos of authenticity results “in an extraordinary inarticulacy about one of the constitutive ideals of modern culture. Its opponents slight it, and its friends can’t speak of it” (18). Other factors contribute to this inarticulacy:

  1. moral subjectivism: using reason to debate morality only up to a point, but then stopping after both sides have had their say; in other words, agreeing to disagree.
  2. the proliferation of social-scientific explanations for moral positions: electing to interpret subject positions as “by-products of social change” rather than engaging those positions in debate. The expansion of this line of thought in and beyond the social sciences is another example of the prestige of instrumental reason (contra communicative reason). This mode of thought entails translating moral positions into non-moral ones, and one of the characteristics of our time is the depreciation of morality as a means of evaluating choices.

Taylor’s goal is to use philosophy to challenge authenticity’s inarticulacy—to make it articulate. In order to perform this “work of retrieval” (23), readers have to hold three controversial beliefs:

  1. authenticity is a valid ideal (see chapter III)
  2. you can argue in reason about ideals and about the conformity of practices to these ideals (see chapter IV)
  3. these arguments can make a difference. (23).

The Sources of Authenticity

The ethic of authenticity has sources at least three centuries old, but it’s mainly an inheritance from the Romantic period. This history sketched out briefly here basically goes to show that authenticity is in fact a valid ideal with philosophical and literary precursors going back centuries. A far richer treatment is Taylor’s 1989 book, The Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity.

Inescapable Horizons

This chapter is an affirmation of claim 2 from the end of chapter II: despite the inarticulacy of the ethic of authenticity, we can engage it in reason. How do we do that? We engage people in their current situations rather than trying (à la the Rationalists) to build from the ground up.

But what about adherents to the culture of authenticity? How do we argue with someone who refuses to justify their preferences? For one, we see that they have not achieved their ideal so much as they strive toward it, and this opens the space to talk about how well they live up to.[3] We can ask both (a) what “general features of human life [. . .] condition the fulfilment of this or any other ideal,” and (b) how we are “to define better what the ideal consists in” (32).

Taylor insists that a feature of human life “is its fundamentally dialogical character. We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining and identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression” (33). “Language” is characterized very broadly to include not just our words, but all expressive systems, and these are never a product of private contemplation. Instead, we are introduced to them by others: “[T]he genesis of the human mind is in this sense not ‘monological,’ not something each accomplishes on his or her own, but dialogical” (33). Moreover, this dialogic character continues past genesis throughout our lives:

We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity. We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us. (33)

Someone might reply, “yes, there is an irreducible dialogic character to human life, but shouldn’t we at least try to take hold of our own lives as much as possible?” While the sentiment is common,“[i]t forgets how our understanding of the good things in life can be transformed by our enjoying them in common with people we love, how some goods become accessible to us only through such common enjoyment.” (34). In fact, this aspect of life entails that “it would take a great deal of effort, and probably many wrenching break ups, to prevent our identity being formed by the people we love.” Those we are close to are internal to our identities.

The narcissistic aspect of the ideal of authenticity denies this dialogism, but Taylor wants to argue that in so doing, it in fact contradicts the ideal of authenticity: “I want to show that modes that opt for self-fulfilment without regard (a) to the demands of our ties with others or (b) to demands of any kind emanating from something more or other than human desires or aspirations are self-defeating.” (35). He deals with (b) first and leaves (a) to the next chapter.

The problem with denying demands emanating from something more or other than human desires or aspirations:

Self-definition means figuring out what significantly differentiates me from others. There may be many differences—I have exactly 3,732 hairs on my head, or I’m the same height as a particular tree in Siberia—but are they significant? In fact, significance is dialogic—it’s bestowed or denied in conversation with others. Maybe it is significant that I have 3,732 hairs because that’s a sacred number, but then its the sanctity that has been worked out dialogically.

The soft relativism of authenticity would officially deny this social character of significance, but it tends to sneak in through the back door. People cannot just up and decide what is important without explanation—choice does not in and of itself bestow value. All things have their importance against a horizon of significance, but it is just this horizon that the contemporary ethos veils. In trumpeting the supreme value of choice as a formal capacity, all content of what is actually chosen goes unexamined.

Taylor cites the example of certain discourses defending non-traditional sexual practices that defend homosexuality (to take one example) as worthwhile precisely because of their difference or (though Taylor doesn’t use this word) “alternative” status. The problem he sees is in the “affirmation of choice itself. All options are equally worthy, because they are freely chosen, and it is choice that confers worth” (37). This discourse denies the horizon of significance, and in so doing it makes homosexuality as frivolous as, say, a sexual orientation in which one only takes blonde sexual partners, or only tall partners.

Once sexual orientation comes to be assimilated to these, which is what happens when one makes choice the crucial justifying reason, the original goal, which was to assert the equal value of this orientation, is subtly frustrated. Difference so asserted becomes insignificant.

Asserting the value of a homosexual orientation has to be done differently, more empirically, one might say, taking into account the actual nature of homo- and heterosexual experience and life. It can’t just be assumed a priori, on the grounds that anything we choose is all right (38).

Authenticity cannot be defended in a way that does away with the horizon of significance. That’s not to say choice is unworthy of celebration entirely, however, because clearly there is a sense in which choosing well bestows value on one’s life. In such cases what is chosen “depends on the understanding that independent of my will there is something noble, courageous, and hence significant in giving shape to my own life” (39).

Within this horizon, some options are more significant than others; if not, then we’d be back to the value of choice for the sake of choice. This unequal distribution of significance is not of my choosing: “I couldn’t claim to be a self-chooser, and deploy a whole Nietzschean vocabulary of self-making, just because I choose steak and fries over poutine for lunch” (39). I might well be a Nietzschean philosopher capable of rewriting the tables of morality, but that means rewriting questions of significance, “not redesigning the menu at McDonald’s” (40). In other words, the self-defeating aspect of the culture of authenticity is its insistence on “self-fulfillment in opposition to the demands of society, or nature [. . . .] Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands” (40-41).

The Need for Recognition

The contemporary culture of authenticity frequently sees intimate relationships primarily as tools for self-development, and as a result such relationships are deemed worthy only insofar as they serve that end; once they stop, the relationship is void and can be terminated.

At the same time, despite it’s asocial proclamations, the culture of authenticity proposes at least a minimal model of society: “individualism as a moral principle or idea must offer some view on how the individual should live with others” (45). One such notion is the idea of universal right: all individuals are free to determine themselves, which leads to soft relativism (as discussed in Chapter IV). But also, the culture of authenticity “puts a great emphasis on relationships in the intimate sphere, especially love relationships” (45). One the one hand, this emphasis is made at the cost of finding one’s role in more widespread institutions—the ordinary and domestic becomes the loci of “the good life.” On the other hand, this emphasis on love indicates how much “our identity requires recognition by others” (45).

In strongly hierarchical societies, recognition takes the form of honour—the bestowing of distinctions on people. These distinctions only make sense if they are rare and elevate one above the others; if everyone got a Nobel Prize, it wouldn’t mean anything. Modern society is more interested in dignity, a universal, innate, and egalitarian form of recognition. This is why we’ve gone from calling each other “lord” and “lady” to “Mister,” “Miss,” etc. and even just to first names. In hierarchical societies, the relationship of honor to identity is relatively straightforward—I am defined largely by the social position I am in with little pressure or opportunity to modify that identity. In the case of a dignity-based society, I am compelled to grapple with my identity and to create it through my action. Of course, “[m]y discovering my identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internalized, with others” (47). Taylor is careful to point out that recognition and identity are features of any society and person, but until now these were largely extensions of one’s social position. Only in a culture of authenticity in which one must work for recognition to craft one’s identity can that recognition fail, and that is why recognition has become a topic of such importance in modern society.

On the social plane, recognition shows up in politics of equal recognition[4]—so much so that being denied recognition is understood to inflict damage. Contemporary feminism, race relations, and multiculturalism all operate at least in part on the “premiss that denied recognition can be a form of oppression” (50). On the intimate level, love relationships take on increased importance inasmuch as “they are the crucibles of inwardly generated identity” (49).

To come full circle: can relationships be merely instrumental to self-fulfilment? On the social level, it might seem like the answer is “yes,” that all cultures keep their distance from each other. However, we already established that merely recognizing “choice” results in banality, and so it makes no sense for cultures simply to keep their distance from each other:

Mere difference can’t itself be the ground of equal value.

If men and women are equal, it is not because they are different, but because overriding the difference are some properties, common or complementary, which are of value. They are beings capable of reason, or love, or memory, or dialogical recognition. To come together on a mutual recognition of difference—that is, of the equal value of different identities—requires that we share more than a belief in this principle; we have to share also some standards of value on which the identities concerned check out as equal. There must be some substantive agreement on value, or else the formal principle of equality will be empty and a sham. (51-2)

On the intimate level, it is also clear that relationships cannot be merely instrumental to self-fulfilment. It is just these relationships that in fact form identity, so it is not possible for them to be merely instrumental to a pre-given identity. Again, that’s not to say that we have no say in determining our identities; we do, and we breakup with intimate people. However denying the self-forming role of relationships flies in the face of actual authenticity: “My identity-defining relations can’t be seen, in principle and in advance, as dispensable and destined for supersession. If my self-exploration takes the form of such serial and in principle temporary relationships, then it is not my identity that I am exploring, but some modality of enjoyment” (53).

In the next chapter, Taylor will look at both social forces and ideas inherent in the ideal of authenticity that contribute to contemporary culture’s “slide to subjectivism.”

[1]Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind [1987]; Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism [1976]; Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism [1979]  and The Minimal Self [1984].

[2] Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity [1971]

[3] Taylor returns to the theme of a discrepancy between theory and practice in the culture of authenticity in chapter 6.

[4] A later, highly debated essay by Taylor is called Multiculturalism: The Politics of Recognition [1994]


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