authenticity charles taylor

Vocation and Identity

6:00:00 AMAlexander S. Anderson

Max Scheler provides us with a description of an idea that should be familiar to many of us: that is, the idea of an individual vocation or “calling” for each person. This calling, in contrast to the universal moral principles which come from an objective hierarchy of values, is generated and discerned internally.
[T]here is also the possibility of an evidential insight into a good whose objective essence and value-content contain a reference to an individual person, and whose ought therefore comes to this person and to him alone as a "call," no matter if this "call" is addressed to others or not. (1)
We can have a moral insight which is based upon a reference to an individual person, and a person can have moral obligations which are based upon who they are as a person.


Vocation is one of those sorts of obligations for Scheler. This, I think, is what most of us commonly see the idea of vocations as, too. Vocations, especially religious vocations, are often colored with what Charles Taylor calls the “ethic of authenticity”, an ethic for which “the voice or impulse is seen as particular to the person himself.” (2) We go out to try to find “what God wants me to do” in a process of self-discovery. Finding out what we are meant to do in life is intimately connected to who we are in a deep sense.


This is an ethic that many of us find very powerful. The call to “be true to yourself” is one that rings true for many religious as well as non-religious people. And it has become natural for many Catholics to apply this ethic, like Scheler did, to our own vocations. The priesthood, religious life, and marital or parental life are things we discern by knowing who we really are deep down. Our inner identity is seen as the source of the external role we play.


There’s something that seems to be very much true here, even if just in the negative. None of us want be forced into roles that our ill-suited to us, or worse, that we will be miserable in. It seems wrong to place the source outside of ourselves because we see that as the source of our misery. Placing the moral source of these roles in us seems to alleviate these woes, but it also adds new burdens. We need to “find ourselves” in order to find a vocation in a way our ancestors never did. This process is often long and arduous, and can be taken to unnecessary extremes.


But the practical effects are not the primary issue with this view. The primary issue is that our vocation is not our own. By this I mean that our vocation, in a primary sense, belongs just as much to others as it does to ourselves. There is no priesthood without a flock, no motherhood without children, and no marriage without a community to witness and support it. Our vocations are things that are just as much for others as they are for ourselves, and they make no sense outside a community’s traditions and needs. This is why vocation is often marked with ceremony and festival, the community is not only invited into the vocation, it is an integral part of it.


For these reasons, our own deep inner selves cannot be the primary source of vocation. Vocation comes, primarily, from a community’s traditions and needs. This is not so say that the person’s particular identity should be ignored, that she should be slotted into the spot that has been calculated to be most needed now. It does, however, mean that while the choice of vocation must consider who we are as an individual, the primary moral source of this vocation must be something outside of ourselves.


  1. Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics, p. 490.
  2. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 369.


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