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Individualism, Secularized Society, and the Meaning of Life: Pt. 5
June 9, 2014 richardstevenpark

Individualism, Secularized Society, and the Meaning of Life: Pt. 5

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In my last post, I looked at some of the causes of the rise of ‘the affirmation of ordinary life’; in this post I discuss what implications this rise has for social ethics (public morality) as well as in what this ‘ordinary life’ consist.

As Taylor suggests, ‘Expressive individuation has become one of the cornerstones of modern culture [wherein the] fully significant life is the one which is self-chosen’. This modern ‘inward turn [yields] a fragmentation of experience which calls our ordinary notion of identity into question’ (this quotation and the ones which follow are from Taylor, Sources of the Self, pp. 375-76 and p. 462, unless stated otherwise). That is, where there is no objective identity of the self (i.e., no human telos), there can be no identification of the good for the self (i.e., no objective public morality). On this secularized modern view, human persons and societies are considered means, not ends; and such an outlook lends itself to a disintegrated view of morality antithetical to integrated social existence.

The affirmation of ordinary life is deepened by and largely reduced to ‘self-realization’ over which no other ‘good’ could trump. Under the priority of self-realization, ‘community affiliations, the solidarities of birth, of marriage, of the family, of the polis, all take second place’. Such is the way of an instrumental, secularized society.

It must be pointed out, however, that ‘self-realization presupposes that some things are important beyond the self, that there are some goods or purposes the furthering of which has significance for us’. That is, even the secularized outlook of individualism seems to corroborate the fact that there is some higher, objective good toward which human persons and society inevitably strive. Total self-realization is self-referentially incoherent: there is always some ‘hypergood’ around which all lesser goods are oriented, even if the hypergood is the good of individualized self-pursuits, i.e., self-realization. Thus, either on account of some self-referential incoherence or in virtue of smuggling in some objective status of ‘the good’, the instrumental view of society only points to the objective existence of a good above individual goods.

So the ‘ordinary life’ consists in disparate pursuits of individualistic ends, and thereby fails to provide a public morality for a just society. What this ‘life’ implicitly demonstrates is that there is some further ‘good’ of society that frames its existence. And a public morality which acknowledges and articulates this objective framework and meaning of life is a public morality worth its name.

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