Posted by: gcarkner | May 9, 2021

Freedom, Identity and the Good continued

Conclusion 2. on Freedom, Identity and the Good from my PhD dissertation at University of Wales/OCMS in Oxford

 Redeemed freedom takes on a distinctively communal character. It is contextualized within a discussion and relationships between fellow interlocutors, and against the backdrop of a larger narrative which makes sense of the moral self. Individual freedom opens space for community, makes space for the Other, promotes mutuality. This helps the individual avoid some of the pitfalls of radical autonomy. It provides for a richer, more secure and resilient identity.

Caution: Too much choice can be harmful to one’s psychological and sociological wellbeing.

The transformation of Foucault’s thin, aesthetic self is called forth. To use Kierkegaard’s language, this is to transcend the aesthetic/hedonistic in order to participate in the ethical level of existence. We must move towards a deeper, more complex communal character of self, a layered identity, a thick self. Foucault unfortunately articulates freedom as flight from community and institutional responsibility. He is far too worried about domination by the Other. His aesthetic self is part fugitive, part manipulator, perhaps even sociopathic: the individual’s context is reduced to a life of contestation with the Other, negotiating wily power relations and truth games ad infinitum. This is a skewed and broken view of self and can easily lead to an identity crisis and much social pain and suffering, divorce, even death. The point of life is to grow up into maturity. To stall this process in adolescence is counterproductive not progressive or cool.

From the perspective of our brilliant Canadian interlocutor Charles Taylor, his comments on philosophical anthropology and the recovery of the moral good from ancient to modern times, the aesthetic self lacks vision for relationships that are other than manipulative and fraudulent. That further step we must travel is to pursue those relationships that are informed by love, compassion and cooperation. We must rethink Foucault’s ‘radical freedom as ontology’ via a reconciliation between self and the Other, self and society, to put it metaphorically, self and one’s neighbour. The reformulation involves the recovery of a social horizon, including a stronger concept of the social body and the powerful concept of the common good. One needs the courage and wisdom to face the neighbour as a good in themselves, rife with potential.

A radical pursuit of private self-interest, to the exclusion of the presence and needs of the Other, is a far less tenable option after this critical dialogue in my PhD work: “A Critical Examination of Michel Foucault’s constitution of the moral self in dialogue with Charles Taylor.” Foucault holds to a faulty assumption of chronic distrust: that the Other will always try to control and manipulate my behaviour for their own purposes, or try to impose their agenda on me, or outright oppress me. Although such manipulation occurs, we take this to be a jaded and cynical perspective on human society to suggest that it is always or even most likely the case. The ‘autonomy that modernity cannot do without’ in balance needs a dialectical relationship with community. Foucault weakens the self by rejecting this option.

One’s self-reflexive relationship, one’s care of self, is only part of the picture. The nature of autonomy cannot be confined to radical self-determination. Rather it must involve the possibility of recognition by and dependence upon other people within a larger horizon of significance. Healthy identity involves community. Flight and agonisme is the easier, the least complex default option. We wish to call it out as escapism. It is far more challenging to take other people seriously as having inherent worth, and to discover the value that they can offer. Building trust is a tentative but necessary exercise for one’s moral, spiritual and psychological health. Redeemed, robust freedom emerges through a discernment of the communal dimensions of subjectivity: freedom to cooperate with and serve one another.

This newly discovered type of freedom is destined to find its fulfilment, not in a self-protective control, alone in self-sufficiency, but in seeking out a communion of love, a healthy vulnerability (Brené Brown), inter-dependence. It is key that one listen to the Other and authenticate their voice.

The dislocated self is relocated within a new narrative (Paul Ricoeur), a new drama which involves us, within the relational order of creation. Human experience is in fact intensely relational from birth. One weakness in Foucault is that, by contrast, he assumes a denial of the social body when it comes to ethical relations. We protest that this far too narrow. Our conclusion suggests that there is a positive outlook for the future of the self that will involve a creative, imaginative communal experiment. The word discernment above speaks of exploring the potential of these relationships as they relate to a communal horizon of the good, the good that can be carried in community and within its narrative as Taylor articulates in Sources of the Self. Others do help us discern our character, purpose, calling and meaning. They help combine space for freedom of individuality with responsibility (Emmanuel Lévinas). They can offer us new language of moral horizons not yet experienced.

It is good that Foucault highly values individual creativity, but he lacks appreciation for how this relates to communal creativity of interdependence. Fulfilment in community prevents the self from extreme forms of self-interest, narcissism, loneliness and solipsism (R. Wolin, 1986). McFadyen (1995, 35) offers a helpful reflection on this point concerning the deceptions and distortions of radical freedom:

The free pursuit of private self-interest has a naturally conflicting form, since the otherness of the individual means their interests must be opposed. One needs freedom from what is other in order to be oneself. Personal centeredness is essential, for autonomy is a private place that has to be protected by fencing it off from the sphere of relation and therefore from the otherness of God and one’s neighbours … Autonomy is something one has in self-possession, apart from relation to God and others in an exclusive and private orientation on an asocial personal centre …. Freedom and autonomy are had apart from relationship: they inhere within oneself.

Foucault’s language of radical freedom has a mythological flavour to it, one that offers a mask for a disguised self-interest, the freedom to be and do whatever I want. It doesn’t matter how it affects others. Redeemed freedom reveals this outlook as a distorted reality-construction. Miraslov Volf in his exceptional book Exclusion and Embrace (1996) shows how redemption of sociality through forgiveness can occur even amidst the most abusive, tribal and oppressive situations of the former Yugoslavia.

In this anatomy of community, we conclude that the good can be mediated and carried more fruitfully and robustly. One’s individual relationship to the good and identity can be strongly enhanced by involvement with a group that allows the good to shape its identity and ethos. Ideals and virtues can be constructive, inspiring, motivating, freeing. In another blog post, we have suggested agape love as such a good. We mean that a noble community environment can offer the young and old alike a positive school of the good. Mirrored through others, the good can offer both accountability and personal empowerment and enrichment. Group covenant produces trust and commitment to one another’s flourishing, it also deepens the self in its agency. Younger people especially are released from the burden to invent their whole moral universe–an absurd ideal of the modern project. Moral self-constitution of this thicker, weightier, and more complex sort exceeds the capacity of the individual self. It requires a community for maximum fruitfulness.

German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in response to Foucault, argues that the preoccupation with the autonomy or self-mastery is simply a moment in the process of social interaction, which has been artificially isolated or privileged:

Both cognitive-instrumental mastery of an objective nature (and society) and a narcissistically overinflated autonomy (in the sense of purposively rational self-assertion) are derivative moments that have been rendered independent from the communicative structures of the lifeworld, that is, from the intersubjectivity of relationships of mutual understanding and relationships of reciprocal recognition. (Habermas, 1987, 315)

~Dr Gordon E. Carkner PhD Philosophical Theology, Meta-educator with postgraduate students at UBC.

Habermas, J. (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

McFadyen, A.I. (1995). Sins of Praise: the Assault on God’s Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.). God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 36-56). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion and Embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness and reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Wolin, R. (1986). Foucault’s Aesthetic Decisionism. Telos, 67, 71-86. [also In B. Smart (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Critical Assessments. Volume 3 (pp. 251-265). 1994].

See also 12 part series of posts on Qualities of the Will: an exposition of Charles Taylor’s Ethical Framework or Moral Ontology; my YouTube video on moral relativism.


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