Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

105: Charles Taylor Part I:
The Malaise of Modernity; The Ethics of Authenticity

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In his book “The Malaise of Modernity” (which focuses on the bad) or as it is known in the US, “The Ethics of Authenticity,” (which focuses on the good) Charles Taylor seeks to discern, identify and distinguish the good and the bad of our culture’s drive to self-fulfillment.

The feeling people experience today as a generalized sense of loss or decline, even in the midst of great leaps of development and progress, has many sources. The author brings up 3 such malaises: 1) the path individualism is taking seems to be leading to a loss of meaning and moral horizon; 2) the primacy of instrumental reason seems to be leading to a loss of ends or purpose beyond a narrow few; and 3) the loss of personal and political freedom that comes from the first two.

These are not new. We are all quite familiar with them. Proponents and detractors have praised and warned about them since the birth of modernity. The author believes “this great familiarity hides bewilderment, that we don’t really understand these changes that worry us, that the usual run of debate about them in fact misrepresents them – and thus makes us misconceive what we can do about them.”

1) Individualism has given us a right to exercise and choose patterns of life, conscience, and convictions in ways our ancestors never could and most people do not want to go back. However we won this right by giving up the meaning of the older moral horizons; our psychologically pleasing place in the great chain of being; and a more communal social life. (Q1) This loss of purpose has been compensated with the “dark side of individualism…a centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society.”

2) Instrumental reason is “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is its [instrumental reason’s] measure of success.” On the positive side instrumental reason has made all the wonders of technological progress possible and nearly no one wants to go back. However, without a sacred (sacred as in set apart and valued differently) structure everything becomes open to be treated as a tool or the material for our projects. “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 will be eclipsed by the demand to maximize output.” (Q2)

3) The loss of freedom from a society that combines the dark sides of individualism and instrumental reason imposes a ‘soft despotism’ that creates great difficulties in facing underprivileged concerns and sustaining underprivileged freedoms. (Q3) The author defines ‘soft despotism’ in a similar way to how Alexis de Tocqueville defined it: “It will not be a tyranny of terror and oppression as in the old days. The government will be mild and paternalistic. It may even keep democratic forms, with periodic elections. But in fact, everything will be run by an ‘immense tutelary power,’ over which people will have little control.”

The author’s thesis and project in this book are: “both boosters and knockers [of the three malaises] are right, but in a way that can’t be done justice to by a simple trade-off between advantages and costs….the issue is not how much of a price in bad consequences you have to pay for the positive fruits, but rather how to steer these developments towards their greatest promise and avoid the slide into the debased forms.”

One of the debased forms of individualism is a type of soft relativism that creates an inarticulate debate. The individualism of self-fulfillment (which says that everyone has a right to choose their own form of life with their own sense of values and no one should try to impose the content) has a moral ideal at its core: to be authentic; to be true to oneself. By “moral ideal” the author means: “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.” What gets lost in the modern debates is this moral force of the ideal: some forms of life, some choices are higher and better than others.

However, the modern culture of toleration avoids this debate by taking on a liberalism of neutrality on questions of what constitutes the good life. Some would say this is a good thing because socially, governments must be impartial with questions of “what constitutes the good life” in order to give equal respect to all citizens’ choices of authenticity. But since we still need rules and laws we still impose values of toleration and equality to certain arbitrary but necessary limits.

“The result is an extraordinary inarticulacy about one of the constitutive ideals of modern culture. Its opponents slight it, and its friends can’t speak of it. The whole debate conspires to put it in the shade, to render it invisible.” When freedom forgets its moral ideal and becomes mere freedom of choice we have lost the greatest freedoms: our freedom to choose ideals.

The author’s answer is neither support, nor condemnation, nor a balance. “The picture I am offering is rather that of an ideal that has degraded but that is very worthwhile in itself….What we need is a work of retrieval, through which this ideal can help us restore our practice.” (Q4)

Q1 Some have called this loss the “the permissive society” or the “me-generation” or “a cultural of narcissism.” It can be described as a general move from the concern for the heroic to a concern with mere survival; from a pursuit of a higher purpose worth dying for to a pursuit of mere experience; from passion to comfort. These are examples of the dark direction that individualism seems more and more to be taking in our society. Do you see this? Do you see this as a negative turn or direction?

Q2 Have you ever felt that the demands for economic growth unjustly take a higher priority than other non-market demands? Economic incentives to help with economic growth justify inequality; technological solutions are preferred to simpler human-centric solutions; the unspoken sense of inevitability in the face of instrumental reason; these are some of the dark side sentiments associated with instrumental reason. Have you ever felt these? What happened?

Q3 It is very easy to find “consensus” to go to war (a privileged solution to privileged problems); but it is very difficult to find consensus to fight climate change (underprivileged problem). An example from the City is the ease with which it is for a developer to get an Official Plan amendment to allow development contrasted by the difficulty for Council to remove an unneeded road from the Official Plan. This shows the privileging of car culture over parks and walkability. Do you sense this loss?

Q4 “We need to restore our practice.” Concerning the malaise of modernity the author suggests there are four possible positions to take: supporter, detractors, balancers or restorers. The author believes we have never really considered the restorer position. Which position do you take with regards to modernity?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren