Taylor, Authenticity & Cultural Exegesis: scribbles from my talk . . .

In The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor writes, “It is easy to see how standard morality itself can come to be seen as inseparable 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.”

This shift is from defining moral freedom predominantly as the power to choose against my natural inclination to seeing it as a right to choose according to my inclinations. Clearly, the latter is a form of freedom and one should be free to choose what one wants. But when the culture more or less entirely shifts towards defining freedom in the latter sense, then, there is a slide.

What does this do to a culture where people see moral freedom fundamentally as a “right” to do what one wants?

~ It entails a culture of narcissism where I become the center of fulfillment.

~ One could expect a slide in the level intentionality in individuals to strive towards cultivating virtues held in honor within societies, gain mastery over natural appetites, overcome compulsions for immediate gratification.

What happens when you have a culture where everyone seeks immediate gratification? Follow the law of diminishing returns- quickly we’d then have a culture where there are souls more sick of pleasure than you are sick of pain, as G. K. Chesterton says: Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.

~The culture eliminates conventional virtues because traditional morality stifles who I am and comes in the way of my right!

Yet, no culture can exist without virtues. So authenticity replaces all other virtues. Of course, authenticity in the classical sense is great. But the redefining of moral freedom entails a redefinition of authenticity as well.

“Authenticity” now becomes the opposite of what it used to be: being true to who you are and how you feel in terms of your inclination or orientation– therefore, we embrace who we are, celebrate even, rather than change or fix us! After all, if authenticity is being true to one’s inclinations, it is one’s ethical duty to be true to oneself!

So it follows: if authenticity is the highest virtue, phoniness has to be the worst vice. So one can be an embezzler and an adulterer or whatever else one wishes . . . yet being honest about them makes him or her worthy of honor.

Btw: an interesting case is made that Trump won votes using this calculus! People could almost hear Trump retort these words to Hillary as one commentator said: “Maybe everything they say about me is true, but at least I’m authentic, at least I’m real: you, on the other hand, are a bloody, disgusting hypocrite.” But I guess people are free to advocate a particular logic and hate it when someone uses it really well.

This logic affects the church too: “by focusing on brokenness as proof of our ‘realness’ and ‘authenticity,’ we turn ‘being screwed up’ into a badge of honor, its own sort of works righteousness.” – Brett McCracken

Given that being authentic is to be oneself– an original, one would have to express oneself uniquely. One has to create something new and shun imitations.

“Artistic creation becomes the paradigm mode in which people can come to self-definition. The artist becomes in some way the paradigm case of the human being, as agent of original self-definition. Since about 1800, there has been a tendency to heroize the artist, to see in his or her life the essence of the human condition, and to venerate him or her as a seer, the creator of cultural values.” – Taylor

The artistic becomes both the means and the end. But what does this do to a culture?

~ We slide again– from those times when there were a few great poets to one where everybody is one, but none of them great. My guess is, if everyone is a poet, no one is!

and if there are no great artists, will there be a culture?

ps: of course, it isn’t all that hopeless as I make it sound! 🙂


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