Is authenticity merely a veiled form of narcissism? Can we truly be authentic individuals when our focus is solely on self-fulfillment?

Authenticity serves as a moral ideal, representing a vision of a better and more elevated way of living. Originally published in 1991, Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity asks:

What are the conditions in human life of realizing an ideal of this kind? And what does the ideal properly understood call for?

Put another way, what are the essential conditions for realizing authenticity today? And how might we come to understand the demands of this ideal?

In an age where authenticity seems like one of the most accepted notions, Taylor takes a short yet critical appraisal of authenticity. He examines this ethical ideal through the lense of larger historical changes and certain contemporary worries or “malaises.”

He also argues (quite convincingly to me) that atomic or absolute individualism doesn’t make sense. Language and self-expression require shared horizons to be intelligible. Others matter, especially our significant others, because they frame, define and provide a framework for our identities. Others recognize us. We are who and what we are with and for others.

As he puts it:

“When we come to understand what it is to define ourselves, to determine in what our originality consists, we see that we have to take as background some sense of what is significant. Defining myself means finding what is significant in my difference from others.”

I’m currently writing and reading about authenticity. I hope to become better able to define it for myself, why it matters individually and socially, and establish a critical grounding for this ethical ideal. Additionally, I aim to articulate the challenges and opportunities facing authenticity at the intersection of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and self-awareness human practices.

Here are my book notes and a few of my takeaways and lessons.

Book Notes, Quotes and Key Takeaways on The Ethics of Authenticity by Charles Taylor

[Note: Emphasis is mine.]

  • Three malaises about modernity…The first fear is about what we might call a loss of meaning, the fading of moral horizons. The second concerns the eclipse of ends, in face of rampant instrumental reason. And the third is about a loss of freedom.”
  • “The first source of worry is individualism”
  • Various identified losses:
    • Loss of Older Moral Horizons: “Modern freedom was won by our breaking loose from older moral horizons. People used to see themselves as part of a larger order. In some cases, this was a cosmic order, a “great chain of Being,” in which humans figured in their proper place along with angels, heavenly bodies, and our fellow earthly creatures. This hierarchical order in the universe was reflected in the hierarchies of human society. People were often locked into a given place, a role and station that was properly theirs and from which it was almost unthinkable to deviate. Modern freedom came about through the discrediting of such orders.”
    • “The discrediting of these orders has been called the “disenchantment” of the world.”
    • Loss of orders of meaning: “these orders gave meaning to the world and to the activities of social life”
    • “Loss of a heroic dimension to life”
    • Loss of purpose
  • Chief Concern: “the dark side of individualism is a centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society”
  • Instrumental Reason has replaced older orders of meaning:
    • What is it? “By “instrumental reason” I mean the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best costoutput ratio, is its measure of success.”
    • “The fear is that things that ought to be determined by other criteria will be decided in terms of efficiency or “cost-benefit” analysis, that the independent ends that ought to be guiding our lives wil be eclipsed by the demand to maximize output.”
    • Weber called this “the iron cage”
    • “It is that the institutions and structures of industrial-technological society severely restrict our choices, that they **force societies as well as individuals to give a weight to instrumental reason **that in serious moral deliberation we would never do, and which may even be highly destructive.”
  • Individualism of self-fulfilment - we are only authentic and an individual to the extent to fulfill just and only our self.
    • “This individualism involves a centring on the self and a concomitant shutting out, or even unawareness, of the greater issues or concerns that transcend the self, be they religious, political, historical. As a consequence, life is narrowed or flattened.”
    • “The moral ideal behind self-fulfilment is that of being true to oneself, in a specifically modern understanding of that term.”
  • “What do I mean by a moral ideal? I mean a picture of what a better or higher mode of life would be, where “better” and “higher” are defined not in terms of what we happen to desire or need, but offer a standard of what we ought to desire.”
  • Moral subjectivism - “By this I mean the view that moral positions are not in any way grounded in reason or the nature of things but are ultimately just adopted by each of us because we find ourselves drawn to them. On this view, reason can’t adjudicate moral disputes.”
  • Central Argument/Thesis: “you have to believe three things , all controversial: (1 ) that authenticity is a valid ideal; (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. The first belief flies in the face of the major thrust of criticism of the culture of authenticity, the second involves rejecting subjectivism, and the third is incompatible with those accounts of modernity that see us as imprisoned in modem culture by the “system,” whether this is defined as capitalism, industrial society, or bureaucracy.”
  • Historical Origins: “Ethic of authenticity is something relatively new and peculiar to modern culture. Born at the end of the eighteenth century, it builds on earlier forms of individualism, such as the individualism of disengaged rationality, pioneered by Descartes, where the demand is that each person think self-responsibly for him- or herself, or the political individualism of Locke, which sought to make the person and his or her will prior to social obligation. But authenticity also has been in some respects in conflict with these earlier forms. It is a child of the Romantic period, which was critical of disengaged rationality and of an atomism that didn’t recognize the ties of community.”
  • Older vs Modern view: “the analogy to earlier moral views, where being in touch with some source God, say, or the Idea of the Good - was considered essential to full being. Only now the source we have to connect with is deep in us. This is part of the massive subjective turn of modern culture, a new form of inwardness, in which we come to think of ourselves as beings with inner depths. At first, this idea that the source is within doesn’t exclude our being related to God or the Ideas; it can be considered our proper way to them.”
  • Self determining freedom limits decisions and meaning to me alone: “Self determining freedom demands that I break the hold of all such external impositions, and decide for myself alone.”
  • But we don’t reason, let alone speak alone, because “Reasoning in moral matters is always reasoning with somebody.”
  • That’s because we possess as humans a “fundamentally dialogical character” meant that “We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining an identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression.”
  • Significant Other Matter too in recognizing us: “We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us.”
  • “however one feels about it, the making and sustaining of our identity, in the absence of a heroic effort to break out of ordinary existence, remains dialogical throughout our lives.
  • “When we come to understand what it is to define ourselves, to determine in what our originality consists, we see that we have to take as background some sense of what is significant. Defining myself means finding what is significant in my difference from others.”
  • A Horizon of Intelligibility includes language and others: “Things take on importance against a background of intelligibility. Let us call this a horizon.” “The ideal couldn’t stand alone, because it requires a horizon of issues of importance, which help define the respects in which self-making is significant.”
  • “unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence. Self-choice as an ideal makes sense only because some issues are more significant than others.”
  • “The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define him- or herself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions.”
  • “To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization.”
  • “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.”
  • “the acknowledgement that our identity requires recognition by others.”
  • “My discovering my identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internalized, with others.”
  • Culture of narcissism “makes self-fulfilment the major value in life and that seems to recognize few external moral demands or serious commitments to others.”
  • “Authenticity is itself an idea of freedom; it involves my finding the design of my life myself, against the demands of external conformity.”
  • “Like other facets of modern individualism - for instance, that which calls on us to work out our own opinions and beliefs for ourselves - authenticity points us towards a more self-responsible form of life”
  • Authenticity is clearly self referential: this has to be my orientation. But this doesn’t mean that on another level the content must be self-referential: that my goals must express or fulfil my desires or aspirations, as against something that stands beyond these.”
  • “Human beings and their societies are much more complex than any simple theory can account for.”
  • Two orders of considerations: 1. “the conditions of human life that must condition the realization of the ideals in question, we can determine” and 2. “what the effective realization of the ideals would amount to.”
  • “We are embodied agents, living in dialogical conditions, inhabiting time in a specifically human way, that is, making sense of our lives as a story that connects the past from which we have come to our future projects.”
  • “respect this embodied, dialogical, temporal nature”
  • “The danger is not actual despotic control but fragmentation - that is, a people increasingly less capable of forming a common purpose and carrying it out. Fragmentation arises when people come to see themselves more and more atomistically, otherwise put, as less and less bound to their fellow citizens in common projects and allegiances.”

My Quick Take Review of The Ethics of Authenticity by Charles Taylor

This short book is probably better read in the context of his much larger study on self and history of individual, Sources of Self.

  • I rated this book a 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.
  • Would I recommend it? Yes, I would recommend it, though I would also say there are sections that still go over my head. There are some interesting side comments I would love a fuller account on.
  • Would I read it again? This is my second reading so I suspect I will re-read this book again.

Besides feeling more like a work-in-progress than a completed book, my main critique of the book is that it seems to end without much of a conclusion. The final chapter on fragmentation makes an important political science point and reminds me of Taylor’s defense of communitarianism. Personally I wish Taylor offered a final concluding chapter synthesizing his main personal take on an authentic life and it pursuit. The book felt like it was building up to a final chapter or essay offers us a more practical model to live authentically based on his critique and grounding.

What I got out of this book?

Authenticity as an ideal has history and its history can be redefined by and through us.

Similar to Taylor’s major tome Sources of Self, this book dove into the history behind a concept we commonly use to define our lives, namely authenticity. The book made me appreciate that certain historical, intellectual and cultural changes have modified the frames in which we think and make choices. Some of these revolutions and changes have left us devoid of assumed apparatus for thinking about our lives meaningfully and ethically.

Specifically Taylor looks at aspects of modernity and identifies three malaies or worries we face:

  1. Loss of meaning - We can no longer assume and find meaning with and through others. Pre-modern societies framed an extended self that with a cosmic order and much of human history meant you were defined by your social role and by your religion.
  2. Rampent instrumental reason - Loss of meaning horizons along with the scientific revolution have resulted in seeking answers in instrumental terms. What matters is what is most economical as a means to an end. Calculations are determined by maximum efficiency and the most cost-benefit.
  3. Loss of freedom - Modernity places us as individuals who are bounded to self-defining freedom without external intelligibility and without others to recongize us.

Weary of Modernism’s way of framing and defining our lives, Taylor’s critique of authenticity isn’t to toss it away nor revert to pre-modern conceptualization like Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virue. Instead he argues that we should “respect [our] embodied, dialogical, temporal nature” and defends a view of the self that a.) has agency, b.) is embodied, c.) is dialogical, and d.) capable of making sense of time through stories.

For the question of authenticity he positions two orders of consideration, one practical and the other more philosophical or even “idealistic.”

First, we need to be able to define an authentic life in our own way. For Taylor, any ideal, including authenticity, we must consider ourself and others. We cannot define authenticity purely through some inward turn or inner self. External and internal conditions affect our capacity to embody ideals or more specifically define our authentic self. The conditions for finding and defining an authentic self encompasses a “moral space” that includes social, cultural, economic, and personal factors.

Second, Taylor belives we face a certain challenage as to “what the effective realization of the ideals would amount to.” It is not quite as simple as just finding yourself, since he doesn’t believe narcissism or individual self-fulfillment are what authenticity is. He believes we have a responsibilities as a authentic self that pull at us to bring our ideals into the world with and for others. In other words, it’s about understanding the core values and principles that underpin authenticity and what it means to live a genuinely authentic life.

To put this more directly, Taylor believes that having an identity means having some orientation in a “moral space” such that it gives meaning and direction to life. He rejects liberalism of neutrality. As he puts it, we possess a “horizon within which I try to determine…what is good or valuable or what ought to be done or what I endore or oppose.”

In short, a grounded understanding of authenticity and self means that I am “capable of taking a stand.” To stand for a self I care about, a self that has responsibilities, moral outrage at times and seeks to change.

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  • Taylor, C. (1991). The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press.