The Ethics of Authenticity by Charles Taylor (Review)

Who Should Read This Book – Anyone who wants to better understand why our contemporary culture has come to so highly value authenticity (be true to yourself).

The Big Takeaway – The modern age of authenticity is not merely to be unequivocally celebrated (“boosters”) nor unflinchingly opposed (“knockers”) but instead to be critically examined so as to recognize what is good while clearly explaining blindspots.

A quote – “What our situation seems to call for is a complex, many-leveled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete form; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and its relation to the cosmos.
But to engage effectively in this many-faceted debate, one has to see what is great in the culture of modernity, as well as what is shallow or dangerous
” (120)

Charles Taylor is one of the most influential living philosophers, and his book A Secular Age is one of my all-time favorites. Surprisingly (to me), I’ve never read any of his other works. I desire to reread A Secular Age, but before I do I picked up this short book just to get a feel for some of his other work.

He begins by identifying what he calls the three malaises of modernity: individualism, the primacy of instrumental reason (reason that calculates the most economical means to a given end), and the political consequences of the first two which is a society where individuals will not actively participate in self-government. The rest of the book mostly focuses on the first one and ends with implications for the last two.

The rise of individualism led to relativism in which everyone has their own values:

“Relativism was itself an offshoot of a form of individualism, whose principle is something like this: everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment. What this consists of, each must in the last instance, determine for him-or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content” (14).

This is why I love reading Taylor – he puts words to the perceptions of the world I have. Quote s like that one, and other parts of the book, describe the culture we live in. Taylor argues this pursuit of authenticity and your own values is a moral idea. He says that something like this has always existed but what makes the modern age unique is the feeling that people are called to do this and waste their life if they do not (17).

There is a lot I could say about this little book. Seriously, I underlined like half of it. I will focus on two things for the rest of my review.

First, Taylor seeks a balanced approach. He describes two positions in regard to this modern age of authenticity. There are the “knockers” who mostly see the entire project as a loss and seemingly want to go back to some sort of good-old days. Then there are the “boosters” who gladly and uncritically welcome all changes the modern world has brought. In contrast to these, Taylor seeks a more balanced view which recognizes the benefits of modernity while also nothing its shortcomings.

This sympathetic yet critical view seems both true and helpful. There is a lot of good about the modern world (vaccines) and the emphasis on the individual. Yet there are places it has gone wrong. Further, only in being sympathetic is it possible to enter in and engage with people.

Second, Taylor’s critique of authenticity is helpful as it should have been obvious. The call of authenticity is for individuals to develop their own opinions, to be true to themselves and form their own values. Yet Taylor points out we always develop our opinions and ideas in dialogue with others – “things take on importance against a background of intelligibility” (37). Our culture values choice – be authentic – but for choices to matter, some must be favored over others. He writes:

“Unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence. . . Which issues are significant, I do not determine. If I did, no issue would be significant. But then the very idea of self-choosing as a moral ideal would be impossible. So the ideal of self-choice supposes that there are other issues of significance beyond self-choice” (39).

Take the issue of wearing masks during a pandemic. There was (is) a clash between those who elevate their choice (its my right not to wear a mask) and those who argue in response the individual’s responsibility to others (if it keeps others safe, you ought to wear a mask). Or take same-sex relationships, a topic that has certainly changed since this book was published in 1991. The general feeling is that you ought to be true to yourself, developing your own values. You should not be constrained by traditions or authorities outside yourself. Yet, this very idea is still formed in dialogue with others. There is an expectation (and I’d say, rightly so) that other people ought to respect who you are. As we cannot help but exist in community, in the world, together we cannot help but place demands upon one another. Whether it is wearing a mask or loving whomever you choose, these choices only matter in relationship to other people.

If all options are equally worthy solely because they are chosen, with personal choice of value being the highest value, then choice loses its significance. I could choose to find my self-worth in the specific number of hairs on my head which just might make me unique, but is that a significant choice because I choose to find value in it? Or, I could choose to find my self-worth in opposing same-sex relationships. In a world where being authentic and creating value is primary, is that choice equally as significant as the choice to support same-sex relationships?

I think it is important to note that Taylor does allude to same-sex relationships which is partly why I used that example. I am always nervous mentioning such topics, as what is left unsaid could lead to unwarranted assumptions. Obviously who a person is attracted to goes beyond mere choice. But I suppose that might fit Taylor’s point. If we argue any way of life is valid because all personal choices are valid, this collapses on itself because choice, as choice, is insignificant. If we argue a way of life is valid because of nature [people are naturally attracted to certain people] or society [we ought to respect other’s ways of life] we are appealing to a horizon beyond our individual selves.

Taylor writes:

“Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands” (40-41).

There’s a tension here. We are asked to create our authentic selves yet to do so requires some openness to horizon of significance.

Finally, in the last chapter, after a chapter on instrumental reason, he returns to politics. Again he seeks balance, noting that market mechanisms are indispensable (sorry communists) but a free society ordered only through markets is also impossible (sorry capitalists). What really struck me was how prescient, even prophetic, his words were, written in 1991:

“The danger is not actual despotic control but fragmentation – that is, a people increasingly less capable of forming a common purpose and carrying it out. Fragmentation arises when people come to see themselves more and more atomistically, otherwise put, as less and less bound to their fellow citizens in common projects and allegiances” (112-113)

“The debate between the major candidates becomes ever more disjointed, their statements ever more blatantly self-serving, their communications consisting more and more of the now famous ‘sound bytes,’ their promises risibly unbelievable (‘read my lips’) and cynically unkempt, while their attacks on their opponents sink to ever more dishonorable levels, seemingly with impunity” (115).

Sounds familiar?

Overall, this book is a brilliant entry into Taylor’s thought. I’d highly recommend pastors, or anyone interested in understanding our culture, to pick it up. Its not a behemoth like A Secular Age, and even though it is kind of dated in some of the examples, this only reveals how clearly Taylor saw what was coming.

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