Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

The Ethics of Authenticity
     Cross posted discussion from EC

This is the first post in what’s intended to be a dialogue between Steve Shann and me and anyone else who cares to join in. We will discuss Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity, chapter by chapter, as we have the time and the inclination. It’s a brief book, but it treats a big topic: the disquiets of the modern age. Taylor is a professor of philosophy and political science, and his work has been quite influential. Cross posted from English Companion Ning.


With The Ethics of Authenticity Charles Taylor stepped into a rather noisy fray about whether modernity has been a good thing or a bad thing. Many pre-modern peoples lived in realities, or worlds, that had “given” moral orders that gave meaning and purpose to life. But those moral orders also limited their choices, sometimes in oppressive ways.

The main thrust of modernity has been to dissolve the authority of traditions, and so many view it as a welcome force of liberation.

But from the beginning others saw it as the cause of cultural decline, leading to a narrow narcissism where “liberated” individuals could see nothing larger or more important than their own desires. Allen Bloom, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah, Christopher Lasch and others have spoken eloquently about the disquiets of modernity. We have heard much about a “permissive society” and the “me generation.”

Taylor acknowledges the truth of what they have said, but he believes it’s important to remain optimistic, and he believes he sees reason for optimism. He seeks a middle path between those who see modernity as decline and those who see it as liberation. He believes that both the “boosters” and the “knockers” of modernity are right–that our present condition includes much that is admirable as well as much that is frightening. Our best course is to try to develop the former and avoid the latter.

He has a Roman Catholic background, and he is well-schooled in modernity, and it’s not clear to me what, finally, he makes of either tradition. He seems to want to be thought of as “one of us” by both camps. I have some sympathy with that attempt. I grew up in a Christian cosmos but through much of my college and grad school periods I was somewhat in thrall to the modernists. Certainly I learned things from modernity that seem true to me, and thus are now part of the Christian way of seeing things that I haven’t abandoned. So I would like to see Taylor’s project succeed, to help me bring together aspects of my own mind that I can’t always harmonize. I’ll say a little about how well I think Taylor succeeds later.

For now, a quick synopsis of Chapter 1 might be enough. Taylor argues that the when modernity dissolved belief in the old moral orders it left us with three malaises: a loss of meaning, a loss of purpose, and a loss of freedom.

The loss of meaning was brought about by the fading of moral horizons which gave meaning to our actions. In a reality where the old moral order has faded and the individual has become primary, there appears to be little beyond the self that has meaning. It then becomes difficult or impossible for anything the self does to matter very much. Nothing is worth dying for. There are no real occasions for passion. We may end wanting little more than what Nietzsche called “pitiable comfort.”

The loss of purpose comes about through an “eclipse of ends” by instrumental reason. With no sacred order to constrain them, economic calculation and technological power combine to treat everything, including we ourselves, as raw materials for our projects. What other goals or purposes–what worthy ends–can withstand the logic of “cost-benefit” analysis? We have seen the danger to our environment when the logic of economic growth seemingly outweighs ordinary good sense, and we see it looming ahead as a centralized health care bureaucracy cannot help but “put dollar assessments on human lives.”

The loss of freedom follows from the elevation of the individual and the rise of instrumental reason. One can see the pattern in a modern city. Though modern cities were designed to work for private vehicles–seemingly in homage to individual choice–once they are built the individual has great difficulty living in a way that goes against the grain. The individual becomes an atom in a vast and complex system built to favor the individual, but this deprives the individual of any feasible alternative.

Even worse, people who see themselves as individuals committed to their own satisfactions will not want to participate vigorously in public life. If the government provides enough satisfactions, most people will pay little attention to what it does, preferring to stay home, pursuing private pleasures. Taylor cites Tocqueville, who said we could end in “soft” despotism with such outward forms of democracy as regular elections when in reality we have no control over an “immense tutelary power” that runs everything. In this view, “each citizen is left alone in the face of a vast bureaucratic state and feels, correctly, powerless.” Feeling helpless, the citizen withdraws even more, and the cycle of growing despotism continues.

That’s the dark view. Taylor claims that it is not inevitably how things need to go. Explaining the way forward is the task he sets for the rest of the book.


To some degree, my concerns are different than Taylor’s. I’m a practitioner, a teacher who works with young people. While I’m interested in what philosophers have to teach, engaging in philosophical dialogue is only tangentially my work. I feel considerable urgency about what I can say, and how I should represent the world we face to young people who are buffeted by voices urging them in all sorts of directions. The dark side of modernity which Taylor deplores is often ascendant in public schools. In an earlier time, the school itself would have taken positions on the moral questions that are now in play. But as those questions have become controversial, schools have often simply retreated, leaving teachers without much in the way of guidance from the community or the school leadership. At critical moments, those whose assignment it is to lead are quiet.

Teachers are often on their own, with the understanding that there may be consequences for their own lack of silence. Teachers who believe that morality is simply a private matter may feel they are still too constrained by social pressure to conform to old teachings that are but fables. Teachers who believe in some traditional morality may feel they are no longer free to give young people the guidance they need.

I’ve been increasingly pessimistic the last couple of years that public education will be able to resolve the tension. My sense is that schools are trying to resolve the moral question by adopting workplace ethics as its model, which is to say that students will be taught that morality is mainly a matter of complying with the authorities on such questions as copyright infringement, nondiscrimination, or whatever the authorities decide is useful to support the project they are currently promoting. A good person will be one who pleasantly cooperates on the task as assigned.

Nonetheless, harder questions will continue dividing people until some groups decide to leave. Taylor believes that we can find in the modernist view grounds for greater agreement that might yet bring us together.

I’d love to hear what others think.

The full discussion:

Chapter 10
Chapter 9
Chapter 8
Chapter 7
Chapter 6
Chapter 5
Chapter 4
Chapter 3
Chapter 2
Chapter 1

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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