The Narrative Reality of our Character

Ok, back with some thesis thoughts, following my previous discussion about Stanley Hauerwas’s character ethics.

Making the assertion that we need to recognize the relationship between our identity and actions expands our view of ethics to include the whole individual. The problem, however, is that character ethics can still be interpreted individualistically, as individuals simply strive to find their ‘true self,’ an illusive reality disconnected from everyday life. As I summarized earlier, this is problematic for Hauerwas.

One solution that Hauerwas proposes is to identify how our character as individuals is contingent upon the narrative reality of our lives, where we all have a story.

In terms of narrative, Hauerwas borrows much of his construct from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who stresses the narrative identity of individuals. Essentially, every person embodies a story – an “enacted narrative.” In the words of MacIntyre, narrative refers to the “concept of a self whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end.” Hauerwas takes this idea to correct the abstract nature of character by itself, as now individual identity is rooted in the unique stories that we all find ourselves. In this sense, there is no ‘true self’ apart from the contingency of our historic being.

Freedom, then, is not freedom from something, like the many outside influences that form who we are. Rather, in recognizing the narrative reality of our lives, our freedom is to be something – to be people who accept our history, and in the case of Christianity, accept our formation through the Christian narrative. As Hauerwas relates,

Our ‘freedom,’ therefore, is dependent on our being initiated into a truthful narrative, as in fact it is the resource from which we derive the power to ‘have character’ at all. Put simply, our ability to ‘have character’ does not require the positing of a transcendental freedom, rather it demands a recognition of the narrative nature of our existence.

When it comes to ethics, then, our actions can only be evaluated in relation to the entire narrative story of our character formation. Referred to as the “intelligibility of action,” behavior is understood in relation to complex narrative context from which each action arises. As a result, any attempt to assign moral value to our behavior must take into account the related factors of our particular narratives. Morality, in this manner, is never a matter of ahistorical analysis.

I find narrative ethics convincing in this regard. It acknowledges the complexities of life and morality. It chooses patient discernment of each particular context as opposed to making generic value statements about specific behavior, which often ignores the person related to that behavior. In our world where people are broken and hurting, I guess this just seems a little more realistic to me…

At the same time, narrative alone does not solve the individualistic approach to character ethics. Next post, I will discuss the focal point of Hauerwas’s Christian ethics – the necessity for community.


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