The Ethics of Authenticity, by Charles Taylor (1991)

The first half was a bit more approachable than the second, but most of this book went over my head.

He argues against the extremes at either end of the spectrum of authenticity as a moral ideal, instead looking for balance between the newfound freedoms afforded to us by our ability to define ourselves and our need for a shared horizon of significance on which to give our identities meaning. He is keen to iterate that identity requires grounding in a social context through meaningful relationships and values that extend beyond the self, and that purely narcissistic forms of the ideal are self-defeating because they shun the very things required to form any meaningful definition of an identity.

It was at its most interesting when talking about equality and how it is derived from properties which hold shared value. We can see two different things as equal when we are able to extract some qualities of value from both that override the material differences between them. In the more egregious branches of authenticity, those that reduce all value down to a matter of personal choice and try to separate it from any external background of significance, equality of identity becomes impossible, since we cannot derive equality from difference alone.

“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.”

— Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity. Page 51.

He says that we should try to explain why we find it easier than ever to neglect our moral obligations to family, or to other causes larger than the self, in favour of personal development. He presumes that this moral conflict must have existed for our ancestors too, which made me wonder whether it was even possible to contemplate neglecting such obligations previously.



In one way this change [towards instrumental reasoning] has been liberating. But there is also a widespread unease that instrumental reason not only has englarged its scope but also threatens to take over our lives. The fear is that things that ought to be determined by other criteria will be decided in terms of efficiency or “cost-benefit” analysis, that the independent ends that ought to be guiding our lives will be eclipsed by the demand to maximize output.


People have spoken of a loss of resonance, depth, or richness in our human surroundings.


The society structured around instrumental reason can be seen as imposing a great loss of freedom, on both individuals and the group — because it is not just our social decisions that are shaped by these forces. An individual lifestyle is also hard to sustain against the grain. For instance, the whole design of some modern cities makes it hard to function without a car, particularly where public transport has been eroded in favour of the private automobile.


It seems true that the culture of self-fulfilment has led many people to lose sight of concerns that transcend them. And it seems obvious that it has taken trivialized and self-indulgent forms. This can even result in a sort of absurdity, as new modes of conformity arise among people who are striving to be themselves, and beyond this, new forms of dependence, as people insecure in their identities turn to all sorts of self-appointed experts and guides, shrouded with the prestige of science or some exotic spirituality.


What we need to explain is what is peculiar to our time. It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue 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.


No one acquires the languages needed for self-definition on their own. We are introduced to them through exchanges with others who matter to us — what George Herbert Mead called “significant others”. The genesis of the human mind is in this sense not “monological”, not something each accomplishes on his or her own, but dialogical.


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.


Consider what we mean by “identity”. It is “who” we are, “where we’re coming from”. As such it is the background against which our tastes and desires and opinions and aspirations make sense. If some of the things I value most are accessible to me only in relation to the person I love, then she becomes internal to my identity.


Your feeling a certain way can never be sufficient grounds for respecting your position, because your feeling can’t determine what is significant.


Which issues are significant, I do not determine. If I did, no issue would be significant. But then the very ideal of self-choosing as a moral ideal would be impossible.


The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define him- or herself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions. That is what is self-defeateing in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfilment in opposition to the demands of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centred “narcissistic” forms are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are “flattened and narrowed”, as Bloom says. But this is not because they fly in the face of its requirements. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization. To the extent that people are seeking a moral ideal here, this self-immuring is self-stultifying; it destroys the condition in which the ideal can be realized.


Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.


Another one of the common axes of criticism of the contemporary culture of authenticity is that it encourages a purely personal understanding of self-fulfilment, thus making the various associations and communities in which the person enters purely instrumental in their significance.


On the more intimate level, it fosters a view of relationships in which these ought to subserve personal fulfilment. The relationship is secondary to self-realization of the partners. On this view, unconditional ties, meant to last for life, make little sense.


This inclines those imbued with this culture towards conceptions of procedural justice; the limit on anyone’s self-fulfilment must be the safeguarding of an equal chance at this fulfilment for others.


My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others.
The point is not that this dependence on others arose with the age of authenticity. A form of dependence was always there. The socially derived identity was by its very nature dependent on society. But in the earlier age recognition never arose as a problem. Social recognition was built in to the socially derived identity from the very fact that it was based on social categories everyone took for granted. The thing about inwardly derived, personal, original identity is that it doesn’t enjoy this recognition a priori. It has to win it through exchange, and it can fail. What has come about with the modern age is not the need for recognition but the conditions in which that can fail. And that is why the need is now acknowledged for the first time.


Can a mode of life that is centred on the self, in the sense that involves treating our associations as merely instrumental, be justified in the light of the ideal of authenticity? We can now perhaps rephrase it by asking whether these favoured modes of living together will allow this kind of disaffiliated way of being.


It is this acknowledgement of equal value that a politics of identity-recognition requires. But what grounds the equality of value? We saw earlier that just the fact that people choose different ways of being doesn’t make them equal; nor does the fact that they happen to find themselves in these different sexes, races, cultures. 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. We can pay lip-service to equal recognition, but we won’t really share an understanding of equality unless we share something more. Recognizing difference, like self-choosing, requires a horizon of significance, in this case a shared one.


In the light of the ideal of authenticity, it would seem that having merely instrumental relationships is to act in a self-stultifying way. The notion that one can pursue one’s fulfilment in this way seems illusory, in somewhat the same way as the idea that one can choose oneself without recongizing a horizon of significance beyond choice.


Of course, on one level, the motivation for adopting more self-centred forms can be clear enough. Our ties to others, as well as external moral demands, can easily be in conflict with our personal development. The demands of a career may be incompatible with obligations to our family, or with allegiance to some broader cause or principle. Life can seem easier if one can neglect these external constraints.


But moral conflicts of this kind have presumably always existed. What needs to be explained is the relatively greater ease with which these external constraints can now be dismissed or delegitimated. Where our ancestors on a similar path of self-assertion will have self-confessedly suffered from an unshakeable sense of wrongdoing, or at least of defiance of a legitimate order, many contemporaries come across as untroubled in their single-minded pursuit of self-development.


It is not hard to see how both of these stances come to be entrenched in modern industrial societies. From its very inception, this kind of society has involved mobility, at first of peasants off the land and to cities, and then across oceans and continents to new countries, and finally, today, from city to city following employment opportunities. Mobility is in a sense forced on us. Old ties are broken down. At the same time, city dwelling is transformed by the immense concentrations of population of the modern metropolis. By its very nature, this involves much more impersonal and casual contact, in place of the more intense, face-to-face relations in earlier times. All this cannot but generate a culture in which the outlook of social atomism becomes more and more entrenched.


The notion that each one of us has an original way of being human entails that each of us has to discover what it is to be ourselves. But the discovery can’t be made by consulting pre-existing models, by hypothesis. So it can be made only by articulating it afresh. We discover what we have it in us to be by becoming that mode of life, by giving expression in our speech and action to what is original in us.


Authenticity involves originality, it demands a revolt against convention. It is easy to see how standard morality itself can come to be seen as inseperable from stifling convention. Morality as normally understood obviously involves crushing much that is elemental and instinctive in us, many of our deepest and most powerful desires. So there develops a branch of the search for authenticity that pits it against the moral.


Modern freedom and autonomy centres us on ourselves, and the ideal of authenticity requires that we discover and articulate our own identity.


What should have died along with communism is the belief that modern societies can be run on a single principle, whether that of planning under general will or that of free-market allocations.


We can’t abolish the market, but nor can we organize ourselves exclusively through markets. To restrict them may be costly; not to restrict them at all would be fatal.