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The Future of Ideals


The early part of the twentieth century was as revolutionary in the domain of ethical ideas as in other realms. An ethical culture inherited from the preceding century was to all appearance destroyed. This culture, the high-bourgeois culture of the nineteenth century, had emerged gradually from years of revolution and counter-revolution, and seemed then to be developing steadily and expanding its reach towards the end of the century and up to the first world war. Yet what followed it, and in fact overlapped with it, being already presaged well before the war, was quite other: the mainly 20th century phase we call ‘Modernism’, acutely fragmented not only in aesthetic but also in ethical terms, marked in politics by nationalist, collectivist and populist clashes. However, Modernism too, and in particular, many of the ideas in ethics which were characteristic of it, now belongs to history. That much has for some time been clear; the change is complicated, confused, hard to outline; discernibly though, we're in a new period and have been for perhaps a third of a century—quite how long depends on which aspect of change one considers, and on how one interprets its character.

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1 Which is not to say that any ideal of private intimacy must have these particular limitations.

2 ‘All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body’, Pugin apparently said. Pevsner N., The Buildings of England, London, vol. 1, 3rd edn. (Penguin 1973), p. 523.

3 Not of religion: which, unlike churches, is wholly absent as a theme.

4 ‘Positive freedom’, the freedom actualized in the person and citizen, was by no means a concept alien to high-bourgeois ethical culture, though it may have been alien to purely economic liberals.

5 Thus I agree with Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue, London: Duckworth, 1981) about the exemplary importance of Principia Ethica (though not with his diagnosis of what it was that was exemplary and important).

6 As far as this goes, any liberal must be on its side. But even here the ideal of authenticity is liable, by its negative nature, to be undiscriminating about what prejudice is. The very word ‘discrimination’ is an index of this. It has come to mean ‘prejudicial discrimination’, acquiring thereby rightly ugly overtones but losing some of its usefully positive ones.

7 Murdoch Iris, Existentialists and Mystics (Chatto & Windus, 1997); Taylor Charles, Sources of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1989), The Ethics of Authenticity (Harvard University Press, 1992).

8 Even Rawls' political liberalism, though neutral about most ‘conceptions of the good’, works a version of this ideal into its ‘political’ conception of the person.

9 In Ethics of Authenticity Taylor seems to use the term ‘authenticity’ to cover both what I have called realized spontaneity and and what I have called authenticity, but in practice he distinguishes them, favouring the former while deploring the latter as a bad or corrupt form.

10 ‘The Existentialist Political Myth’ reprinted in Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, (London 1997)—see e.g. pp. 137–139.

11 Sources of the Self, pp. 502–3.

12 Also Bernard Williams' more recent work, notably Shame and Necessity (Cambridge University Press).

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
  • URL: /core/journals/royal-institute-of-philosophy-supplements
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