Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ethics of Authenticity

It's probably apparent from the authors I cite and my infrequent musings that I am anti-liberal. By liberal, I mean not the ideology or policies of the American left. Rather, I mean the whole gamut of English-speaking liberalism (as the Canadian philosopher George P. Grant defined it), which includes the American Right no less than the American Left. I don't have the sufficient time to work out here my own critique of liberalism: a critique that would almost certainly spark an erudite and eloquent response from my co-blogger. Instead, I have from time to time highlighted certain writers and philosophers whose criticisms of liberalism I've taken especially to heart. To recapitulate briefly, that list includes the likes of:
Doubtless there are others who might be added to the list on further reflection. The thinkers listed above are by no means entirely or wholly compatible, one with another. And I would suggest that catholicity is a hallmark, or a deliberate choice on my part: to work out among various thinkers a system that is a synthesis of my favored theologians, philosophers, poets, and indeed, my own personal experience. 

In that vein, I'd like to highlight an author I've only begun to read: Charles Taylor. I have, of course, been familiar with him for some time, but never had the opportunity to read him. I'm now working through his book, Ethics of Authenticity, a book prompted by the Canadian thinker's reflections on the culture wars of Canada's neighbor to the south. The book promises much. And while I can hardly give my assent to all Taylor proposes, I am sure that the book will be the cause of further reflection on the history and nature of American liberalism, both individually and as part of a larger historical continuum within the English-speaking tradition.

Consider this excerpt from the book (reproduced from a very interesting First Things review by Michael Novak):

What I am suggesting is a position distinct from both boosters and knockers of contemporary culture. Unlike the boosters, I do not believe that everything is as it should be in this culture. Here I tend to agree with the knockers. But unlike them, I think that authenticity should be taken seriously as a moral ideal. I differ also from the various middle positions, which hold that there are some good things in this culture (like greater freedom for the individual), but that these come at the expense of certain dangers (like a weakening of the sense of citizenship), so that one's best policy is to find the ideal point of trade-off between advantages and costs.

The picture I am offering is rather that of an ideal that has degraded but that is very worthwhile in itself, and indeed, I would like to say, unrepudiable by moderns. So what we need is neither root-and-branch condemnation nor uncritical praise; and not a carefully balanced trade-off. What we need is a work of retrieval, through which this ideal can help us restore our practice.

To go along with this, you have to believe three things, all controversial: (1) that authenticity is a valid idea; (2) that you can argue in reason about ideals and about the conformity of practices to these ideals; and (3) that these arguments can make a difference.
Novak's assessment is overwhelmingly positive. He writes:

While convincing us that he is authentically modern, and on the whole happy about that (although rightly worried), he never quite gives his whole heart, mind, and soul to modernity. That is the way it must be with ethics, even regarding authenticity. Let me put this another way. Taylor is actually trying to reach, as best he can, the truth about modernity, and to do so in a wholly modern way. He is subverting modernity from within. He sees both its dangers and its true possibilities. He recovers it for reason. His is, then, as promised, a work of retrieval.
Whatever problems I may have with Taylor's larger philosophy (and that remains, largely to be seen), his project is one with which I have complete sympathy.

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