Monday, July 03, 2006

Authenticity Overlooked

In chapter two of The Malaise of Modernity--The Inarticulate Debate--Charles Taylor paints a picture of an ideal under assault from forces within and without. The ideal is the ideal of authenticity, which Taylor says has a moral force behind it. Authenticity suggests there is a higher and even better mode of living; there is a life we ought to desire. But this ideal is lost amid the fog of war.

Coming from the outside are naysayers like Allan Bloom. Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind calls attention to an individualism of self fulfillment, a relativism described as:

"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).

Bloom and the naysayers smell sloth. They point the finger at the pretentious intellectualism of the young and call it self-indulgence, egoistic, and morally lax. After all, in an age of uncertainty, it is better to remain as uncertain as possible lest we be required to act selflessly on behalf of others. They decry self fulfillment for admiring pragmatic survivalism rather than heroism, and hint at the third worry, the worry of a populace so self-focused that it wanders blithe into soft despotism. Bloom especially talks about a narrowing and flattening of the human being.

"Narrower because they [those who hold to an individualism of self fulfillment ] lack what is most necessary, a real basis for discontent with the present and awareness that there are alternatives to it. They are both more contented with what is and despairing of ever escaping from it. . . . Flatter, because without interpretations of things, without the poetry or the imagination's activity, their souls are like mirrors, not of nature, but of what is around" (Bloom, 61).

Taylor largely agrees. And yet he believes the critics miss something. They miss the moral force underneath its narcissistic popularization: the moral ideal of authenticity--an ideal he believes (and that is the program of the book, to demonstrate and defend this belief) is valuable and should not only be retained but developed, clarified, and observed with care. Unfortunately, Taylor receives no help from those who might agree with him.

Those on the inside get the moral ideal of authenticity mixed up with caricatures. Most, for example, espouse authenticity along with a soft relativism--Taylor also calls it a liberalism of neutrality or simply tolerance. Soft relativists are skittish about the implications of saying that some forms of life are higher or better than others. They say, "a liberal society must be neutral on questions of what constitutes a good life. 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." The result: public and political reflection shirks any reflection on the good. These "friends of authenticity" clamp their hands over their mouths, leaving the field to its detractors.

Taylor goes on to identify two other factors that conspire in the silence of its friends: a culture enthralled in moral subjectivism and the usual methods of social science explanation. Taylor's discussion of moral subjectivism begins lumping the adjectives all together: individualism of self fulfillment; toleration; the liberalism of neutrality; moral subjectivism. What is he talking about? Are they all the same or different? Still, one can agree that these positions "are not in any way grounded in reason or the nature of things" but find their source in the popularity game of subjective fashion. Real political debate is rendered innocuous, as is any Aristotelian language of human nature. But what about social science? How does it conspire to silence all naysayers on behalf of authenticity? Well, by ignoring it altogether. The "hard" explanations of the social sciences--industrialization or the rise of class mobility--completely ignore the possibility that "soft" moral ideas effect social change. Marxism, notes Taylor, is guilty as charged: ideas are the product of economic changes. But much non-Marxist social science agrees. "And this in spite of the orientation of some of the great founders of social science, like Weber, who recognized the crucial role of moral and religious ideas in history." "What are often invoked [to describe social change] are applications that are non-moral . . . motivations that can actuate people quite without connection to any moral ideal . . . a desire for greater wealth, or power, or the means of survival or control over others."

"Even where individual freedom and the enlargement of instrumental reason are seen as ideas whose intrinsic attractions can help explain their rise, this attraction is frequently understood in non-moral terms. That is, the power of these ideas is often understood not in terms of their moral force but just because of the advantages they seem to bestow on people regardless of their moral outlook, or even whether they have a moral outlook. Freedom allows you to do what you want, and the greater application of instrumental reason gets you more of what you want, whatever that is." (20-21)

Therefore, in the face of withering social criticism from without and crippled by forces from within, little real reflection on the moral force of authenticity is accomplished.

The rub is that everyone, those within and without, are mostly arguing over caricatures. Most of the external attacks, argue Taylor, target caricatures of authenticity, not the real thing. And expressions like soft relativism, he continues, are simply "debased and deviant forms of [the] ideal" which "don't represent an authentic(!) fulfillment of it." According to Taylor, each of its caricatures is in reality a betrayal of its fundamental ideal. "So far from being a reason to reject the moral ideal of authenticity, [each] should itself be rejected in its name. Or so I would like to argue" (22). And here, finally, Taylor begins to suggest a platform for dialogue with naysayers and with so-called friends whose soft relativism has so far made them immune.

"Articulacy here has a moral point, not just in correcting what may be wrong views but also in making the force of an ideal that people are already living by more palpable, more vivid for them; and by making it more vivid, empowering them to live up to it in a fuller and more integral fashion. . . . I think that authenticity should be taken seriously as a moral ideal . . . worthwhile in itself and unrepudiable by moderns. What we need is a work of retrieval, through which this ideal can help us restore our practice" (22-23).

It will be interesting to see where Taylor goes from here.

Previous entries in this series are:
Taylor on Modernity's Malaise; Baudelaire is Melting.

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