Review: The Ethics of Authenticity

Review: The Ethics of Authenticity

The Ethics of Authenticity
Published: 2018-08-06
Page Count: 155
Everywhere we hear talk of decline, of a world that was better once, maybe fifty years ago, maybe centuries ago, but certainly before modernity drew us along its dubious path. While some lament the slide of Western culture into relativism and nihilism and others celebrate the trend as a liberating sort of progress, Charles Taylor calls on us to face the moral and political crises of our time, and to make the most of modernity's…

Charles Taylor’s magisterial work, A Secular Age, is something of a generational work that every man and his dog seems to reference. Or, at least, that tells you the kind of books I tend to read.

Though I haven’t read that work, I’m familiar with it (and have recently re-read James K. A. Smith’s excellent summary of the book in How (not) to be secular).

I stumbled upon this title which immediately intrigued me. There is an ethic to authenticity? What on earth could that mean? Isn’t being authentic simply a way of being honest with yourself? In what way(s) are there ethical dimensions to this?

As it turns out, a great deal. This book is simply masterful in how Taylor unpacks his argument. I found myself regularly rechecking that it was indeed originally published in 1991. So pointed was it’s critique of modern society that I could believe it had been written only yesterday.

Consider this incisive gem:

It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.

The premise of the book is, naturally, that authenticity (and it’s surrounding motifs and truisms) has an inbuilt ethical dimension to it. The choices we make toward an ‘authentic’ life inevitably drive us toward individualistic ways of living. It breaks any sense of shared moral responsibility. After all, to submit oneself to the laws of society is to deny ourselves. And is there a worse future than self-denial in our age?

It feels difficult to capture the complex argument of the book, so I will let Taylor do it in his own words:

Briefly, we can say that authenticity (A) involves (i) creation and construction as well as discovery, (ii) originality, and frequently (iii) opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what we recognize as morality. But it is also true, as we saw, that it (B) requires (i) openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses the background that can save it from insignificance) and (ii) a self-definition in dialogue. That these demands may be in tension has to be allowed. But what must be wrong is a simple privileging of one over the other, of (A), say, at the expense of (B), or vice versa.

If you had to read that three or four times (or more!), fear not! That’s the nature of the book. I cannot recall the last book I read as slowly as this one. There are some large and complex arguments to follow. It is not an easy road, nor a well-travelled one. But it certainly is a (kind of) narrow road that leads to life.

Taylor is not all doom. For instance, he points out that one benefit of authenticity as a driving force in our society is that it can move people toward more self-responsible ways of living. It increases the value for you to make decisions of your future.

Where I think the book really shines is how Taylor unpacks the two typical ways that people think about the meaning behind authenticity as a life goal, and then offers his counter view to both. For Taylor, authenticity is neither a blatantly selfish narcissism, nor an idyllic dream to aspire to. Instead, Taylor seeks to ‘retrieve’ the good of the higher ideal, and help others to see the logical ethic that one is (or ought) to be subscribing to. In other words: how does this play out in reality? And does it matter?

To that end, Taylor believes that the tension (noted in the quote above) needs to be maintained in order for a truly flourishing expression of authenticity. There is a worthy goal in self-expression and creativity (which are hallmarks of pursuing an authentic life) but these must be kept in the tension of pursuing them within the context of a community (and not rabid individualism) with the give/take nature of doing so.

Who wrote it

Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher.

Why I read it

The title. What an intriguing concept. I believe this book was quoted in something else I read. And as someone who reads virtually all the footnotes in a book, it often leads me to another 2 or 3 books that I’m keen to read.

What I liked

It was fascinating. The argument that Taylor unpacks is sound, and explains much of modern (post modern?) thinking around the value of authenticity. I loved that this book stretched my thinking, challenged me afresh to consider both the good and the ill that is caught up in this philosophy/idea/concept.

I loved that I walk away feeling I have a much better understanding of humanity (in it’s current form) and how this will lead to greater effectiveness in ministry.

It has definitely made me keen to pick another (relatively short) Taylor book for future consumption.

What I didn’t

That it took me so long to read it. I loved it, but it was very hard work. There were plenty of rereading of sections to try and make sense of them.

Also, early on, Taylor identifies 3 key areas that are worth unpacking. He mentions that he only has space to fully unpack the first, and gives a broad sweep of how you might approach answering his other two areas. I really wish he had fleshed these out as well (though his sweeps are very good). It’s not an overly long book, so I’m curious as to why he couldn’t write more. (Though I admit I’m glad it meant I could finish it much sooner).

Major Takeaway

There was much food for thought here (and a few pages of quotes I’ve saved). Here’s a helpful place where Taylor lands his thinking:

we ought to be trying to persuade people that self-fulfilment, so far from excluding unconditional relationships and moral demands beyond the self, actually requires these in some form

Who should read it

If anything I’ve said or quoted has piqued your interest. I think there’s probably enough here that is worth recommending to anyone in ministry to people of some kind. Though, admittedly, you’d need to be someone with a fair degree of patience for reading complex arguments, and have some interest in the topic. If that is you, this should be a must read, in my opinion.

4.8Overall Score

The Ethics of Authenticity

Charles Taylor's magisterial work, A Secular Age, is something of a generational work that every man and his dog seems to reference. Or, at least, that tells you the kind of books I tend to ...

  • Difficulty to read
    The only thing keeping it from a 5 is that it isn't 500 pages long. Heavy, very conceptual, and lots of words you might have to look up.
  • Overall Rating
    Absolutely brilliant.

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