In a flattened world
- The Ethics of Authenticity by Charles Taylor
Harvard, 142 pp, £13.95, November 1992, ISBN 0 674 26863 6
If you dislike the ways of discussing moral choices prevalent among the chattering classes of northern California, you will probably agree with Christopher Lasch that theirs is a culture of narcissism. If you rather admire these people’s attitudes and way of life, you may describe it as a culture of tolerance. If you have mixed feelings, you might settle for the description Charles Taylor suggests: it is a culture of authenticity.
Vol. 15 No. 10 · 27 May 1993
Richard Rorty’s review of Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity (LRB, 8 April) is a heartening example of the virtues of his own ethic – of dialogue, of being open to persuasion by the argumentation of others with whom one only partially agrees. But it still leaves some anomalies in the ‘anti-metaphysical’ position which should worry those who have no wish to rejoin the metaphysicians. First, what is to be the content of the dialogue? Are we not to use so-called ‘universalising’ terms such as ‘better’, ‘fairer’? Rorty uses them: he uses ‘vicious’, ‘stupid’, ‘no damn good’. But all that his system should really allow, if no appeal is to be made to human nature, only to history, is the equivalent of ‘try it this way because it seems to me this is where we are at, historically speaking.’ The reason Rorty condemns some cultures and people is that they cause too much pain. Surely this is to ground ethics in reason and human nature, or, at least, to ground certain minimal standards (no torture and so on). Admittedly it will not take one much further: for differentiating good and bad societies beyond that, something like the retrospective validation he advocates in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity will be needed.
Secondly, only if ‘too much pain’ is not something relative to the particular culture of the sufferers, but derives from a common human biology, and, perhaps, from functionally bad ways of organising these humans in groups (so that many are powerless and oppressed), is it a workable ethical concept. Otherwise, why could it not be alleviated by manipulating the dialogue rather than by altering the brute facts? It has happened before: miserable people can believe that their condition is justified.
Third, the dialogue, even if not grounded in reason, must surely use reason along the way. ‘Lots of conversation’ is not enough. Imagination and sympathy are probably more important, and we could possibly use the poetic mode alone – ‘see it this way’ (without argumentation). But clearly it is important to us not only that we get inter-subjective agreement on what is better for people in general, but also that there is some consensus on why we are getting it. Otherwise this debate would not be going on with quite the intensity it is. To say that one is trying to move the arena of debate away from metaphysical projects has – historically – usually meant that one is appealing to a different and entirely unacknowledged metaphysic. Why is ‘grounded in reason and human nature’ a more metaphysical formulation than ‘grounded in history and dialogue’?
We can agree that there don’t have to be absolutes for us to be able to use comparatives (‘better’, ‘fairer’) but still suspect some fudging when philosophers too easily use evaluative terms (‘vicious’ etc) to construct a philosophy which implicitly denies the authenticity of such terms. One doesn’t have to be a believer in a static ‘given’ human nature in order to entertain such suspicions.