The Ethics of Authenticity (Taylor)

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Puritan Board Freshman
Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Knowing ourselves is a worthy goal. This book is an exercise in doing just that, framed around diagnosing the mindset of modern culture. Taylor outlines three concerns about modernity, and then tackles the first throughout the course of the book. The main idea: there are "boosters" of modernity, and there are "knockers" of modernity. Both assume that the concerns Taylor raises are normative (boosters saying "great!" and knockers saying "terrible!"), and thus both groups miss the moral ideal which underlies modern culture. This ideal is the concept of authenticity. As a moral ideal, it is subject to better or worse forms. Thus, Taylor criticizes some present forms as deviant, but maintains that the ideal itself is a true and good ideal (when rightly understood), and outlines what the higher picture of authentic life looks like. In sum: Taylor's goal is to articulate the value of modernity as all it can (and should) be.

Chapter headlines
1: Three malaises - individualism, instrumental reason, and loss of freedom.
2: Inarticulate debate - both boosters and knockers tend to neglect articulating authenticity as a moral ideal
3: Sources - authenticity derives from individualism and romanticism; Rousseau and Herder
4: Horizons - significance cannot be from will, but requires a background horizon of meaning independent of will
5: Recognition - authenticity amplifies the importance of recognition, but this requires a shared horizon; the condition of shared horizons means reasoning about authenticity as a moral ideal is possible
6: Subjectivism - authenticity slides into subjectivity due to the influence of "self-determining freedom" which is self-destructive and self-defeating (it removes the conditions for authenticity's realization)
7: Struggle - the English translation of the chapter title: "the struggle continues;" struggle over better/worse forms is the proper model to understand our society, not optimism (progress) or pessimism (decline)
8: Language - subjectivity can be in manner or matter; manner is appropriate, matter is not; authenticity can be articulated subjectively while not being self-referential in its content
9: Iron cage - 2nd malaise is instrumental reason (read "technology"); as with individualism there is a moral ideal of benevolence which must shape it, rather than deviant forms of utilitarianism
10: Fragmentation - 3rd malaise is fragmentation (read "powerlessness"); combating this requires the other two, and especially communal will formation through successful communal undertakings
Conclusion: we must acknowledge both what is great and what is miserable in modernity to live modernity at the highest levels

Some thoughts:
Everyone should read this book. It's short (around 115 pages of text) and relatively easy to read. I think chapter 8 was probably the hardest to read / most obscure, and it stands in stark contrast with the rest of the book. But there are several benefits to reading this book.
- Understanding modern culture. Taylor excellently explains the value system in our culture. "Be true to yourself" + existentialism (you create yourself) => arbitrary and aimless wandering in an attempt to be unique. This also explains how the urge to be "countercultural" is really just cultural, and why appeals based on it ("if you really want to be countercultural, be a Christian") don't hold much water in our society.
- Moderation. Taylor describes two groups: the "boosters" and the "knockers" of modernity. Most of us tend to align ourselves as knockers. Yet Taylor helpfully gives an example of critiquing modernity, while also being able to point out where modernity's instincts point us in the right direction. So doing, even where we disagree with him, he provides an example of charity.
- Communication. Taylor helpfully frames (in the most difficult chapter) the issue with communicating objective values in our culture. We need, he says, a different way of communicating values so that they are actually heard. In older ages, there was a common frame of reference and the common belief that objective reality was accessible. Today, those things are no longer present. So, to communicate objective values, we must articulate them in different manners (conscience seems to be what is hinted at here). I'm not sure I agree with his actual diagnosis or solution (that objective values need to be communicated through subjective language). But he raises the question, and I think helpfully articulates the problem. I tell people all of the time: my main job is making sure accurate communication happens between people and clearing up misunderstandings.
- Horizons of meaning. This is a really helpful term. Basically, nothing is "free-floating" with its own self-created / self-derived meaning or significance. It can only have meaning and significance when placed against a background of meaning. So to really be "authentic" to what something is, involves attention to its proper context, and its connections with such a background of meaning. This also points out the grounds of true authenticity (which we could note, is similar to some articulations of Christian obedience: we are being true to what we are, not achieving something or earning something). The ultimate horizon of meaning is God. What Taylor is reminding us of is teleology, but I think he's giving us more persuasive language to talk about it.

Reviews of this book are sometimes pretty hilarious. There's a review that accuses Taylor of being a crypto-Marxist, and another which accuses him of wanting to enslave us all with national religion and pre-modern ethics. Neither is the case. Taylor, as I said, provides an example of charity and moderation. Yes, we disagree with him in places. Yet he gets much right, and I think ends up providing a stronger critique of modernity (or what he would call "deviant" modernity) than some of the "knockers." One can't help but wonder if his view of ideal modernity is not in fact strikingly un-modern in substance, though modern in articulation. Regardless, the book is extremely informative and beneficial to read.
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