Charles Taylor and the ideal of authenticity

This is an excerpt from a manuscript on moral individualism.

Charles Taylor develops his theory of authenticity in light of individualism as a “source of worry” (Taylor 1991, p. 2). The rise of individualism has given people a right to “choose for themselves their own pattern of life, to decide in conscience what convictions to espouse, to determine the shape of their lives in a whole host of ways that their ancestors couldn’t control” (ibid). Before individualism, 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” (p. 3).

This is not an undividedly desirable development. Because, while individualism “came about through the discrediting of such orders” that restricted human beings, “these orders gave meaning to the world and to the activities of social life” (ibid). There is a “dark side” to individualism, namely a “centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society” (p. 4).

Under liberal individualism, Taylor argues, an ideal of authenticity has been established. According to this ideal, self-fulfillment, in the sense of being true to oneself, offers “a standard of what we ought to desire” (p. 16). Many people sacrifice relationships, even the care of their children, to pursue their careers; they “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” (p. 17).

The ideal of authenticity is allowed by, and gives support to, liberal individualism, which is neutral about the good life; “[t]he good life is what each individual seeks, in his or her own way, and government would be lacking in impartiality, and thus in equal respect for all citizens, if it took sides on this question” (p. 18).

Taylor wants to show that opting for socially and morally neutral self-fulfillment is self-defeating, as it “destroy[s] the conditions for realizing authenticity itself” (p. 35). Trying to find and cultivate what is meaningful about oneself requires a meaning-giving social context. Goals and agendas gain their importance “against a background of intelligibility” that Taylor calls an “inescapable horizon” (p. 37). It is self-defeating to seek significance in life “in opposition to the demands of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity” (p. 40; emphasis in original):

I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters.

Individualism, therefore, “must offer some view on how the individual should live with others” (p. 45).


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