Contemporary Westerners are committed to what Charles Taylor calls the ethic of authenticity. We tend to value things in light of how they fulfill us as individuals. We want careers that correspond to who we are and resonate with some unique and fundamental characteristic in us; we choose a church and a school that are tailored to our peculiar needs; we obsess from puberty over whether the ones we are attracted to are the one for us; etc. All this seems obvious to us, and we can easily wonder how it could ever be otherwise, but authenticity is unintelligible and even repugnant to persons who see these sorts of decisions as belonging to a community or tradition: those who believed that you should go to the Church in your neighborhood and belong to the sect of your nation; or that you should marry those chosen by parent or who are closest to your family; or who see work and labor not as personal vocations but as community or familial functions (e.g. you’re a smith because you are a Smith, you’re a priest because you’re a Coen, you’re a circus performer because you’re a Wallenda, etc.) Some glimmers of this traditional view remain (as when people root for local or national sports teams or take pride in their ancestry) but for the most part the sort of structures necessary for people to enjoy traditionalism simply don’t exist, and even if history took a strong turn toward traditionalism tomorrow, we would still be fifty years from having a traditionalist or communitarian society.
I don’t see any simple way to praise or condemn either authenticity or traditionalism. I favor authenticity on balance, but this is not to say one can’t recognize severe limitations and even soul-crushing blind spots in it. We can all feel horror over a traditionalist ethic that traps the occasional person in a life they find repugnant and to which they have no innate inclination, but there are horrors in authenticity too. Authenticity takes it as axiomatic that any action as good if all those affected by it find it fulfilling, but it’s easy enough to see where this can go wrong.
Sexual activity seems to be one area of human life where those committed to an ethic of authenticity fail to see the paradoxes and difficulties of their commitments. We want Churches, schools, communities, etc. that speak to our unique needs, but what about the manifold ways that sexual desires are individuated to persons? We can’t condemn them like we condemn violence or property crime, where the activity is clearly contrary to the personal desires of the victims. So one group of those in the ethic of authenticity see no meaningful limits at all in sexuality as such – we can condemn violence or imperfect consent, but only in the same way we condemn any act of violence against the person. Within the ethic of authenticity, there doesn’t seem to be any sexual morality, only acts of violence that might happen to involve sex. Everything else is just a matter of what (mature enough?) participants find fulfilling. Notice that there is much more involved here than a “do no harm” ethic. Authenticity adds to this that justice is best achieved by an activity that all parties find fulfilling.
True, we are not always in a position to know what is fulfilling to us. We can meaningfully tell someone “you don’t want to do that” even while recognizing that he obviously has an immediate desire to do the thing in question, like a man who lights a match to have enough light to see if he still has gas in the tank. But I don’t see all that many arguments about sexual morality that move along these lines, and it’s even unclear what such an argument would look like. There seems to be a widespread disapproval of, say, polyamory, but I’m aware of no arguments that try to make the desire itself mistaken. And who would be bold enough to say that the desire of the other person is mistaken anyway? What puts us in a better position to see that than the person who has it? Whatever danger is ultimately involved is more subtle than the dangers we can point to in with a guy holding a match over the gas tank.
Similar problems arise in education. Students want to take class X because they find X-related activities fulfilling, but education seems to be largely a process of insisting that what one finds fulfilling now is not what is ultimately fulfilling. We can get by for a while by being confident that students are young enough that no one thinks they’re in a position to know what is fulfilling or not, but this confidence fades quickly.
So the traditional theories of sex and education have yet to fully find their justification within the ethic of authenticity, and there is a widespread belief that authenticity simply rules them out altogether. I haven’t got the answer either.