The Issues
Philosophy and Civil Society

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THE ISSUES: AN OVERVIEW

ISSUE THREE

ISSUE THREE: The Postmodern Reconstruction of Personal Life

         Full cultural citizenship, full participation in a liberal democratic civil society, requires citizens to undergo a certain difficult and often painful process of individualization. Citizens must learn to see both self and other as free and equal individuals, as individuals who stand apart from, or who are not exhaustively described by, the attributes they possess as members of particularistic ethnic, religious, or class-based communities.
         To persuade citizens to undergo this process of individualization, special cultural resources are needed. Among them are moral ideals that define as praiseworthy the participation in this individualizing process.
         Two such moral ideals proper to modernist liberal civic culture are the ideals of authenticity and autonomy. Authenticity -- roughly, the mandate to become "who one really is," and autonomy -- roughly, the mandate to "be one's own person," have shaped personal life in the West for over three hundred years. To the extent that these moral ideals have been effective, they have produced citizens whose individualized identities have made them capable of full participation in civil society.
         
However, the credibility of these moral ideals is entirely dependent upon notions of human identity -- notions like "real self" and "free will" influenced by Enlightenment culture. To the extent that Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge are called into question, the moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy lose their persuasive power.
         A civil society cannot exist without the cultural means necessary to reproduce its members. If the ideals of authenticity and autonomy are no longer effective in producing the kind of individualized identities required for full cultural citizenship, new ideals must replace them. But what form will these new moral ideals take? How will personal life in the post-Enlightenment West be transformed by these new ideals?

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Page last edited: 01/20/02

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