Posted by: gcarkner | May 8, 2021

Freedom, Identity and the Good

Freedom, Identity and the Good: some conclusions from my doctoral research

Proposition One: Redeemed freedom means that one refuses freedom as an ontological ground of ethics, and embraces a new definition of freedom within an ontology/frame of the moral good. Charles Taylor’s moral horizon of the good is offered as a lively and robust alternative to Foucault’s horizon of aesthetic-freedom.

Foucault’s idea of autonomous freedom as self-invention, self-interpretation, self- expression, self-legislation and self-justification is radical indeed. Schwöbel sums it up:

In deciding for policies of action which incorporate choices concerning the interpretation of our possibilities of action, of our goals of action and of the norms of action we attempt to observe, we decide the fundamental orientation of our lives. Such decisions are examples of self-determination. Self-determination is contrasted to determination by external authorities. (C. Schwöbel, 1995, pp. 62-3)

Aesthetic-freedom certainly has its appeal; it comes with a creative, youthful energy, to launch human subjectivity, overcoming the inertia and restrictions of governmentality and power relations. This is often attractive to young people with an edge of rebellion against authority. Foucault does not apologize for its élitist outlook. But this view of freedom has revealed a failure to offer sufficient direction for subjectivity, for a sophisticated use of the will. It lacks a platform for critical appraisal of our actions or choices. Thus, it shows a major deficit in equipping the individual for serious moral reflection, debate and action. It short circuits moral discourse by moving too quickly to praxis or action, without sufficient reflection on the reasons for such action, or the virtues or moral goods endemic to ethics. It can lead to moral autism (Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, 183-93) with the loss of moral language needed to distinguish oneself, or worse nihilism.

During the conversation with Foucault in previous posts, cracks and contradictions in his ideology of the aesthetic (Terry Eagleton) have emerged along with its potential dangers of overindulgence–of Dionysian proportions. The great philosopher Charles Taylor illuminates the darker side of Foucault’s artful freedom. The absolute sovereignty that Foucault gives to the individual for self-expression raises concerns: it may indulge in a fantasy of the human will. Foucault propounds a very optimistic philosophical anthropology of the aesthetic self (artistic work is worthy in and of itself) with great faith in the creativity and imagination of the individual. At the same time, there is great cynicism about society and its institutions. He understands that domination can occur in corporate regimes of knowledge (making evil and oppression visible), but he is less open to acknowledge the potential evil in individual self-shaping and self-expression, self-control. This is a major oversight which is not acceptable for such a notable scholar.

For the future of the self, according to this conclusion, what is needed is a re-orientation of energies, not an élitist ethics of the privileged aristocrat of style, but one that applies to all people, one that protects the weak and the most vulnerable, and builds the social fabric towards a just society. Foucault realizes at some level (even as defender of the marginalized), that the élitism of his ethics cannot benefit the minority and the marginalized, or the Greek slave, or women who employ him to deconstruct a male-dominated regime. Redeemed freedom reconfigures Foucault’s moral self, exploring a definition of freedom that is more inclusive of the Other, one that releases the repressed goods for self-empowerment, moral reflection and resilience. This entails the beginning of a recovery of the normative and a move out of subjectivistic solipsism, narcissism and sociopathy to which Foucault’s view leads. Our view involves a quest for reconciliation between freedom and the good, a scenario in which freedom no longer dominates ethics: it is not a proper ontology or grounding for ethics. It encourages an “anything goes” approach to morality. See my YouTube video on Relativism.

The relationship between the good and freedom needs more than a reconciliation. Freedom needs to be qualified by the good. It is the qualities of the will that concern us. It is good as a source of energy, and a guide to freedom. It directs action to an appropriate goal, and questions actions that have an inappropriate or destructive goal. Redeemed freedom articulates life as a conscious praxial engagement and commitment to the good as Taylor suggests in his ontology of ethics. The recovery of the moral good informs the self, roots the self, contextualizes the self, and strengthens the agency of the self in a profound way. It adds energizing infrastructure that preserves us from moral autism or inarticulacy. With ancient historical roots and a deep personal resonance, there is something highly valuable in the conversation of the good as Taylor (1989), Murdoch (1997) and others have drawn it into the discourse of moral philosophy. As a result of this debate, we propose that an individual’s freedom must be harnessed by, or integrated with the good, as a basic orientation for the self’s being in the world and for its development. This framework of the good is necessary for one’s psychological and social health.

Good replaces freedom as the prime moral category. Freedom is defined by the good rather than the good being defined by freedom. All societies require a balance between what is to be encouraged in self-expression and what is to be repressed as unhealthy for the individual or the community (child pornography for example). Hierarchy of the goods is not always popular in philosophical circles, and many do not grasp the powerful nature of Taylor’s qualitative discriminations and hypergoods. We are convinced that, even with its limitations, Taylor is headed in the right direction on this point, convinced that this bodes well, and holds great promise for the future of a currently fragmented and vulnerable moral philosophy. It addresses the current existential identity crisis in the West. It also bodes well for the mentoring of new leadership, and begins to answer features of the crisis of morality in late modernity. There is also food for fruitful dialogue among divergent views of ethics–applies the wisdom of worldview language and assumptions. In terms of the future direction of the self, there is a key opportunity to champion the good, to mature in one’s awareness and the benefits of the language of the good as a goal of culture and individual calling. Under this plausibility structure, one can grow morally. It is even possible to become an entrepreneur of the good, a self with depth of meaning, rather than an entrepreneur of one’s own self-interest, or a net consumer of moral capital.

With a positive relationship to the good, the self is both empowered and called to account–this builds trust. This kind of self will have the courage to face itself and its darker motives, the courage and the equipping to self-discern and grow in wisdom. But it is also to be expected that Foucault’s position of radical autonomy, a far more fragile positioning of the moral self, will continue to be defended by several Westerners. The danger is that it will lead us back into nihilism from which it has emerged.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, meta-educator UBC graduate students, PhD University of Wales.

Schwöbel, C. (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Murdoch, I. (1997). On ‘God’ and the ‘Good’. In P. Conradi (Ed.) Iris Murdoch on Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on philosophy and literature. London: Chatto & Windus.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C (2016). The Language Animal: the full shape of human linguistic capacity. Harvard University Press.


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