Critical Reflection Prompt/Mini Lecture Ethics of Authenticity-Due 9/30

(As these are such complex pieces, I am including a bit of my own exploration of principles that are being presented here.)

These pieces both go in depth and cover a breadth of issues related to the myth of the individual. “Know Yourself” provides a vivid and energetic romp through some of the social, intellectual, philosophical, and political movements that have fed the dynamic tension that exists in the modern sense of self and the myth of individualism that Taylor delves into in The Ethics of Authenticity. This tension can be seen between the two ideals of self that Taylor describes:

1) The project of “self-fulfillment,” the idea (which he negates) that we have one fixed authentic, core self that can be reached through much inner exploration and stripping away of societal conditioning. Note that Taylor believes this is a flawed notion that puts undue pressure/focus on our own self-creation. He is not saying that we should all “conform” but that the notion that we must do everything on our own in order to not conform is problematic:

There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me. (27–28)

He adds that this is ideal puts the individual’s “inner nature” at the center of the moral project. The originality of one’s self-hood depends on listening only to the inner voice and not being influenced by external forces. (This view of a pure and authentic self is very much a Romantic notion and was a reaction against the Enlightenment thinkers/worldview).

2) In contrast, the other ideal that Taylor points to is one that does not “stand in opposition to the demands of society, or nature” (40). Taylor continues:

I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. . . Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands. (Taylor, 40–41)

Taylor depicts how we tend to associate authenticity with the first overly literal understanding of individualism. This extreme individualistic view degrades the ways in which we are all shaped, formed, conditioned by many different elements, events, and our relationship with other human beings:

It would take a great deal of effort, and probably many wrenching break ups, to prevent our identity being formed by the people we love. Consider what we mean by ‘identity.’ It is ‘who’ we are, ‘where we’re coming from.’ As such it is the background against which our tastes and desires and opinions and aspirations make sense. If some of the things I value most are accessible to me only in relation to the person I love, then she becomes internal to my identity. (Taylor, 34)

We are not “created” or “grown” in a clinical test tube, therefore we are impacted by all kinds of historical, economic, political, spiritual, and biological factors not of our own making and usually beyond our control. As Ray Porter notes in his essay, we have tended to see the self-project as an either-or proposition. Either we chose the modern road of self-fulfillment or we chose the more traditional, often religious path of self-denial in order to transcend the self and merge with the greater, cosmic reality. The point of both pieces is that neither and both are true–as human beings we have both drives–to be a unique, creative individual AND to be part of the greater reality which we inherently know we are already part of! It is the denial of our “partness” and the seeking of wholeness/authenticity as if we could ever be literally non-dependent that may create many of the existential and moral crises that we see today, including the culture of narcissism, alienation, and dangerous relativism that Taylor outlines.

These are big, complex concepts but crucial to understanding our own psychic make-up and some of the ways we have been conditioned to think of ourselves that may compromise our capacity for ethical being and actually cause us greater fragmentation and alienation. There are also, of course, huge moral implications related to how we understand our self-hood. If we see ourselves embedded in a larger, shared reality we will understand that our well-being hinges on the well-being of others (and the planet). If we see our path as one that must necessarily set us apart from others in order to claim self-hood this is a very different moral orientation.

Please use this reflection as a chance to synthesize the central argument in The Ethics of Authenticity. I encourage all of you to evidence that you have engaged and grappled with the argument before stating your opinion. It can actually be liberating to give yourself the space to not feel that you need to agree or disagree but to explore the ideas as they will continue to open up if you really work with the text. Perhaps, in the end, the concepts will not be valid or useful to you. But thankfully, scholarship is not about conversion it is a process, an exercise, a practice. Full credit for your post will hinge on a disciplined exploration that pulls in points/quotes from this reading and from Porter’s piece if you wish. You can focus on one central idea but please connect with the author’s key ideas/concepts –not just that one page and quote. Using the text in this way is a process that may help you to better understand the author’s points. It is good to grapple, even to feel that you have more questions when you finish than when you started. That is the nature of the philosophical process.

“I know one thing, that I know nothing.” –Socrates