Freedom, Identity and the Good

Articles on Freedom, Identity and the Good

The quest for freedom is central to some major expressions of modern self-consciousness. This blog series will explore a fresh paradigm for freedom in late modernity, a re-thinking of the context of the self and the rich contours of the self. Michel Foucault in particular brings the issue of freedom to the centre of the discussion of moral self-constitution. Now it is time to draw the discussion into some overall conclusions, with a hopeful trajectory of the future. It will include some reflection on a way forward for the moral self, following from the three-way engagement between Foucault, Taylor and three theologians. Three propositions will try to capture the new insights garnered, and offer projections towards future directions, under the overall theme of a quest for redeemed freedom. They cannot be fully defended here, but it is very useful for final reflection and future thought, exploration and debate within this particular moral discourse of the constitution of the moral self. C. Schwöbel (1995) articulates the trajectory of this conclusion.

The redemption of freedom is liberation from freedom for freedom, from the destructive consequences of absolute self-constituted freedom and for the exercise of redeemed and created human freedom which is called to find fulfilment in communion with God … Redeemed freedom is … essentially finite, relative freedom, freedom which is dependent on finding its orientation in the disclosure of the truth of the gospel … freedom as created, as the freedom of creatures whose freedom is not constituted by them but for them. (p. 78)

Redeemed freedom is defined by this writer as a recovery of the language and horizon of the moral good, the social horizon of the neighbour, and the theological horizon of trinitarian goodness-freedom. It requires that the self turn from flight to courageously face the moral good, the Other and God, in order to rescue freedom from some of its most negative possibilities. Here are the three important propositions.

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 of the moral good. Taylor’s horizon of the good, seen in previous posts, is offered as an alternative to Foucault’s horizon of aesthetic-freedom.

Proposition Two: Redeemed freedom by definition takes on a distinctively communal character; it is contextualized within a discussion and relationships between fellow interlocutors, against the backdrop of larger narrative which makes sense of self. Individual freedomt gives up ground to community and makes space for the Other in order to avoid some of the pitfalls of radical autonomy and provide for a richer moral, social and ultimately political experience.

Proposition Three: Redeemed freedom flourishes within a transcendent trinitarian horizon. Trinitarian divine goodness proves to be a fruitful plausibility structure within which to think differently about freedom and the moral self. Trinitarian goodness-freedom answers some of the concerns in the Foucauldian self and reveals new opportunities for identity, discovery, transformation and exploration. It also adds sophistication and meaning to some of Taylor’s categories without offering the final answer on the discussion. It is in the life of Jesus as a member of the Trinity that one can visualize this goodness-freedom dynamic most dramatically.

~Gordon E. Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology


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 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. (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. Foucault does not apologize for its élitist outlook. But this view of freedom has revealed a failure to offer sufficient direction for subjectivity, for the use of the will; it lacks a position of critical appraisal of actions or choices. Thus, it has a major deficit in equipping the self for serious moral reflection and action; it short circuits moral discourse by moving too quickly to praxis or action, without sufficient reflection on reasons for action, or on the virtues, or the goods involved in ethics.

During the conversation with Foucault in previous posts and in my book, The Great Escape from Nihilism, cracks and contradictions in his ideology of the aesthetic have emerged along with its potential dangers of Dionysian proportions. Taylor illuminates the darker side of Foucault’s artful freedom. The absolute sovereignty that Foucault has given to the individual for self-expression raises concerns: it may indeed indulge in a fantasy of the human will as we see in some contemporary politicians. Foucault propounds a very optimistic anthropology of the aesthetic self (artistic work is worthy in and of itself) with great faith in the creativity of the individual, and at the same time, great cynicism about society and its institutions. He understands that domination can occur in corporate regimes of knowledge (making evil visible), but he is less open to acknowledge the potential evil in individual self-shaping and self-expression. This is a major oversight or blind side which is not acceptable for such a reputable scholar.

For the future of the self, according to this proposition, what is needed is a re-orientation of energies, not an elitist ethics of the privileged aristocrat of style (dandy), but one that applies to all selves, 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 elitism of his ethics cannot benefit the minority and the marginalized, or the Greek slave, or women who employ him to deconstruct any 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 and moral reflection. This entails the beginning of a recovery of the normative and a move away from solipsism and narcissism to which Foucault’s view unfortunately leads the discussion. This is a quest for reconciliation between freedom and the good, a scenario in which freedom no longer dominates ethics; mere freedom is not a proper ontological grounding for ethics.

The relationship between the good and freedom needs more than a reconciliation; freedom needs to be qualified by the good. 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 goal–a low value or ignoble. Redeemed freedom articulates life as a conscious praxial engagement and commitment to the good as Taylor suggests in his ontology of ethics. The good informs the self, roots the self, contextualizes the self, strengthens the agency of the self in a profound way; it adds energizing infrastructure. 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), David Brooks and others have drawn it into moral philosophical discourse. As a result of this debate, we propose that 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.

The good thereby replaces freedom as the prime moral category. 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 or underage prostitution for example). Hierarchy of the goods is not always popular in moral philosophy circles, and many do not grasp the powerful nature of Taylor’s qualitative discriminations and hypergoods. We, however, 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 our current fragmented and weakened, relativistic moral philosophy, the crisis of the self, and the lively moral debates in the West. It also bodes well for the mentoring of new leadership, and begins to answer the crisis of morality in late modernity. There is much to offer to fruitful dialogue and critique among divergent views of ethics. 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. It is possible to become an entrepreneur of the good, a self with depth of meaning, rather than an entrepreneur of one’s own “enlightened self-interest”.

With a positive relationship to the good, the self is both empowered and called to account at the same time. Thereby, this kind of self will have the courage to face itself and its darker motives, the courage and the equipping to self-discern. 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

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.

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