Thames is seeking to address an area I’ve always found to be a huge gap in MacIntyre’s work: the question of what role the individual plays in living virtuously. There are many aspects to this, but the one Thames specifically seeks to address is: even if we can come to some sort of agreement on what are the good virtues, then where do individuals fit in in following those? Isn’t the virtuous individual reduced to being a product of his society’s dominant modes and norms, however good? (Though Thames does not quite say it, the other option here seems to be choosing to live badly.)
This is where Thames finds value in the work of Charles Taylor, who, like MacIntyre, describes the fractured state of modern philosophy and moral discourse, but unlike MacIntyre finds much in Enlightenment philosophy worth defending and preserving. (Taylor has done this work most notably in his books Sources of the Self and The Ethics of Authenticity, both of which I highly recommend; the former I’ve used before here to point out some severe myopia on the part of James Hughes about the history of the Enlightenment.)
For Taylor, authenticity is a modern ideal that has to do with being true to oneself. It is a dedication to recognizing and uncovering one’s potential for originality. The identity of the authentic person must be in some ways self-generated, in contrast to an identity that is determined solely by society or by natural functions.
There are some tensions with this notion of authenticity: for one, it is already a standard that is not the individual’s own. Moreover, whatever our identity is, if we are to be intelligible to others, what must be drawn from the social and natural world from which we are given. Fundamentally, we are so drawn: we are inevitably finite in belonging to, and arising from, a particular social and historical context. So we can in part reject what we are given, but we can’t simply create ourselves out of nothing.
When we speak of “authenticity,” Thames says, we can also mean something that is not a fake or simulacrum. Consider the usage of the word in talking about works of art, or in security verification. It means that something is the thing it purports to be. To be an authentic human, we can then say, is to fulfill the conditions of what it means to be human. This does not mean that if you are inauthentic you are not a human; rather, authenticity is the fulfillment of the potential inherent in an individual as already a certain kind of being. If you fail to be authentic, it means you fail to live up to the potential of what it means to be you.
Thames’s solution to how we should regard authenticity draws on the work of Heidegger, who gives an account of human agency that denies the dichotomies of subject-object. He argues instead that our embodied nature situates us as already a part of our world, prior to any reflection on it. This is the account of the structural features of human life that is required for individuals to be intelligible, either to themselves or to others. It is thus that I cannot consider the significance of my life without understanding how I am constituted out of what I am given: my social context, and my natural being.
Understanding this relationship between an individual and a social context leads naturally to an articulation of individual authenticity within the MacIntyrean picture of the progress of societies and traditions. On MacIntyre’s account, individuals must hold together inherited horizons of intelligibility, with the need to continually challenge and reconceive them, working out their problems and maintaining their ability to answer the questions of how we should live.
Although I’m not entirely clear on the last step in Thames’s argument, he seems to be saying that the virtues are (among other things) what allow the individual to participate in the flourishing of the society of which he is a part. Authenticity is what allows the individual to find his own unique ability to contribute to his society’s flourishing. The potential originality of the individual can become the source of innovation and renewal that every society needs to flourish.
There is quite a lot going on in this talk, but Thames’s work seems to me a crucial step towards reconciling the rather unitary nature of human goods that is MacIntyre’s concern* with the fantastic strangeness and variation of the individual that motivates much of Enlightenment philosophy. How can we give a consistent account of the notion of the human good or goods while recognizing that each individual will necessarily have goods and ends that are uniquely his or hers?
*I’m simplifying MacIntyre’s position here almost to the point of misrepresenting it. He actually holds that the nature of moral decision-making is that of the tragic dilemma, as in ancient Greek drama: a recognition of multiple goods — not necessarily rival, but conflicting in that each makes a claim upon us, but the finite nature of life and of choice means we cannot attain them all. (See After Virtue, 2nd ed., p. 224.)
It was of course not addressed in Thames’s talk, and didn’t need to be, but I wonder what satisfactory understanding of authenticity, and of the life well lived, can be had when both the naturally and socially given are wholly rejected. Doesn’t self-realization imply realization of something already given? The alternative seems to be the will to power, in which the choices of the self are unlimited, but also wholly arbitrary — lacking any end, and so any meaning.
(By the way, Thames’s account of authenticity is strikingly similar to the brilliant naturalistic account of free will given by Raymond Tallis in the New Atlantis essay “How Can I Possibly Be Free?” He argues that free will progressively emerges and secures more of itself, both for the individual and society, especially through the progress of technology.)
[UPDATE: See the comment section for Thames’s clarifying comments on my account of his talk.]