The Ethics of Authenticity

Self-fulfillment has become the modern watchword at the cost of traditional moral commitment, according to Taylor; the triumphs of technology have produced superficial lives full of gadgets, and the responsibilities of citizenship have been abandoned in favor of private pursuits. Taylor believes that the way out of the malaises of modernity lies in the forging of new common social commitments through the political process. The development of effective political majorities is hindered by the increasing centralization and bureaucratization of liberal democratic states (especially in the United States) and by a resulting atomization of the individual. Those who feel they have no voice in their government fall back on themselves and are encouraged by modern liberalism to explore personal “authenticity” unconnected to the wider community.

Authenticity does involve a personal aspect, an individual’s own created or discovered — not imposed — orientation toward life. But, says Taylor, true authenticity also involves a recognition of and an openness to what he calls “horizons of significance” — certain larger contexts within which humans move. These contexts might include respect for and benevolence toward others and toward the natural world. They provide a sense of personal connection with a larger political, social, or religious source of meaning.

Modernity has overemphasized the significance of individuality until such individualism has become an end in itself; yet without ties to a larger community of meaning, without the efforts to develop and shape common projects, the triumph of the atomist individual is also the occasion for his or her greatest malaise.