The Inauthenticity of Authenticity

The dominant moral system is that of authenticity. In the morality of authenticity, one is only acting morally if one is acting most like “oneself.” And one is acting like “oneself” insofar as one is acting differently from everyone else. That is what is viewed as one’s individualism. At the same time, claims of authenticity also get wrapped up in various group identities. Not only must one be authentically oneself, but one must also be authentically black, authentically Hispanic, authentically Asian, (but never authentically white, because that’s racist), authentically gay or lesbian or trans, etc.

This morality of authenticity is most typically associated with progressive, postmodern thinking; however, this morality is in fact deeply conservative. The morality of authenticity demands that we remain exactly who we are at all times and never change. In that way, it is deeply essentialist — in a way that makes religious essentialism look outright liberal in its plasticity! More, the morality of authenticity demands that we stay in whatever culture we are born into, and never try to change that culture, neither from within and certainly never from without. This makes believers in the morality of authenticity traditionalists whose traditionalism would make political conservatives blush.

In this sense, the morality of authenticity ignores the fact that humans do in fact change over time, and that cultures and subcultures are fluid as well. Oddly, though, this demand that people remain unchanging is a demand made most strongly on minority groups. Blacks must remain authentically black; gays must remain authentically gay; women must remain authentically women. However, white, straight men must remain open and ready and willing to change, and the majority culture must always be fluid and accepting. Failure to do so makes one racist, sexist, and homophobic.

The result is that there are behaviors in minority cultures that proponents of the morality of authenticity end up defending that they would condemn in Western culture. Objectivication and oppression of women and the murder of gays is ignored in non-Western cultures, while the mere expression of the opinion that women should be able to choose to be stay-at-home wives and mothers and should not have to work if they don’t want to is inexcusable traditionalist sexism so egregious that we need safe rooms full of coloring books and puppies to protect delicate ears from hearing such things.

The morality of authenticity gets expressed in a variety of other ways as well, the most obvious of which is in the arts. People treat the arts as though its sole purpose is to “express yourself.” If the purpose of art is to express yourself, then authenticity is central. And if authenticity is central, then the use of forms of any sort is oppressive to the expression of one’s authenticity. After all, one does not authentically express oneself in sonnets. The result is (in the case of poetry) a bunch of baggy free verse doggerel that all sounds exactly the same, regardless of the author (perhaps why the same postmodernists promoting the morality of authenticity also proclaimed the death of the author). Meanwhile, my seemingly inauthentic sonnets each carry their own individuality while simultaneously carrying my voice.

What good is a moral system which insists that never changing who you are is desirable? While not being imposed on by others is certainly desirable, there is a difference between imposition and internal improvement. More than that, there are certain kinds of “authenticity” which are bad for society, including psychopathic personalities and cultures that devalue education and/or work. Further, it’s one thing to use government power to force people to fit into your idea of the good, and it’s another thing to criticize and encourage people to change their behaviors. The problem is that when people cannot tell the difference between the two, we end up with governments forcing people to behave in certain ways, because force is always the easiest path.

In this sense the ethics of authenticity falls into the same trap as the voluntarist ethics it was intended to replace. Although I have been focusing on the ethics of authenticity, in Beauty in the Word, Stratford Caldecott argues that the natural law tradition and the voluntarist tradition are the two main branches of ethics. The natural law tradition, which one could also call virtue ethics, was promoted by realists like Aristotle and Aquinas. The voluntarist tradition comes out of the nomialists, such as Ockham, and involves an emphasis on commandments.
 The natural law tradition is interested in what it is good to be and “freedom for,” while the voluntarist tradition is interested in what it is good to do and “freedom from.” Caldecott argues that

The second tradition leads in the modern period to a split between ‘deontological’ ethics (ethics of duty, as in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy) and ‘teleological’ or consequentialist ethics (ethics of goal, as in Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill), which supposes that we choose either on the basis of obligations and rules that determine what is right and wrong, or on the basis of what will bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. (152)

Each of these results in a different kind of freedom. Under the natural law tradition, there is “freedom for excellence,” while for the voluntarist tradition, there is the “freedom of indifference.” The ethics of authenticity seems to argue against both excellence and indifference (the latter since we must not only tolerate, but outright celebrate difference). 
 It is quite interesting that nominalism gave rise to voluntarism, which split into Kant’s “it doesn’t matter what the outcome, so long as you had good intentions,” and the utilitarian “it doesn’t matter what way you get there, so long as the goal is reached.” We see both of these at play today, in people who argue that what matters is their good intentions, not the fact that everything went to hell, and in people who think that it’s perfectly find to use force (of government) to achieve your goals, so long as those goals are noble. What is perhaps most notable is that these people are almost inevitable the same people.
 One of the problems with the volunarist tradition is that it sort of leaves out the question of who is coming up with the rules, and why, and what makes them inherently good (how would you know?), in the first case, and how do you know that your goals are good in the latter. The latter argues for “the most happiness,” but whose happiness? There was a time in the U.S. when most people would have been made much happier if there weren’t any gays around. There are societies today in which that is the case. These goals shift and change over time and from culture to culture. We are rightly appalled at many things considered perfectly normal in the past, but which if realized at the time would have made many people happy.
 There is also a bit of a contradiction in the idea of “freedom of indifference” and having goals. Why would you try to reach a goal about which you are indifferent? Should we be indifferent to happiness? To the rules? Doesn’t indifference to the rules undermine duty?
 At the same time, there is certainly something to be said for the freedom of indifference. It is probably because of this freedom of indifference toward women, gays, and minorities that led to the various liberation movements for those groups. It’s not that people were indifferent to their plight, but rather that they realized that if they had the same rights and were equal under the law, that it didn’t really affect them one way or another. If women being able to vote or minorities being able to eat or sit where they wanted to didn’t harm you, why oppose those things?
 For classical liberals and libertarians, this is an attractive proposal. It boils down to “I don’t care what you do, so long as it doesn’t harm me.” Combine it with an ethics of authenticity, and you have pretty much an understanding of identity politics and the liberation movements.
 Ironically, neither of the voluntarist ethics, and certainly not the ethics of authenticity, can actually make one moral. They can, at best, excuse difference and make one less likely to mistreat others (which is itself virtuous), but beyond that, how is one to develop morally? More than that, if we think about it at all, we should come to realize that none of these branches of ethics are even remotely useful for education. If the point of education is to learn, and the point of learning is to achieve excellence, then it seems that virtue ethics rather than voluntarist ethics or an ethics of authenticity are in order.
 Consider Caldecott’s example:

There is a certain freedom in being able to bash at random on a piano, but a higher freedom that comes from submitting to the discipline that yields the ability to play music — -similarly with the discipline that enables us to use language meaningfully and be understood by others, and something similar applies in the moral realm to the virtues. (153)

Who has more freedom, the person who doesn’t know the rules of playing the piano (which can only be gained through guided practice), or the person who does? The person who does, who knows the rules of playing the piano, has the freedom to produce many more sets of sounds from it than is the person who doesn’t know the rules. The latter’s efforts will mostly all sound exactly the same.
 The same is true of poets and painters. Not knowing the full set of techniques means you have very little freedom as a painter or a poet. The free verse poet who only ever wrote in free verse and only ever was taught free verse is far more restricted than is the person who knows how to compose a sonnet, a madrigal, and a roundelay. Indeed, the latter will be able to compose far superior free verse poems as well.
 The key to excellence in these things, including moral excellence, is achieving Aristotle’s golden mean between the two extremes in vice. Just as courage is the golden mean between cowardice and rashness, a great painter composes in a golden mean between throwing paints randomly at a canvas and paint-by-number. (Coincidentally, those who think Jackson Pollock was an example of the former is completely ignorant of his actual methods of composition.)
 Education, qua education, absolutely requires virtue ethics as a foundation. Teachers cannot be indifferent to their students, and students cannot be indifferent to what they need to learn. Good intentions are hardly enough (though that seems to be what underlies all education in the U.S. today), and an education based on the idea of student authenticity is laughable (what if they are “authentically” lazy, ignorant, and illiterate? — aren’t we all authentically illiterate until we’re taught to read?). An education designed to meet certain goals (other than the goal of creating free minds) will fail students precisely because the world is changing so quickly that whatever they are taught will be out of date by the time they try to get a job. 
 This isn’t to say that there aren’t times when one approach to ethics isn’t better than another. Sometimes the best you can do is have good intentions (but you ought to learn and not make that mistake over and over and over, because then I have to question those good intentions). Sometimes you have to be true to yourself (but that self will necessarily change over time, and most particularly if you become more educated). And a system that brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number most of the time is probably the better system to have, in general (meaning, a pluralist system founded in freedom, where everyone is free to pursue their own happiness). But let’s face it, if you fully embrace virtue ethics, then you will be better able to align intentions with goals and you will learn to become who you are, as you continue to grow and become a better version of who you are.
 For my money, education ought to be founded in teaching virtue ethics. Without that foundation, there can be no excellence in outcomes. Each person, privately, ought to embrace virtue ethics and individually behave based on those virtues. But socially, we shouldn’t impose on others, meaning we ought to basically treat them “indifferently,” meaning to live and let live, so long as I and others aren’t harmed. Personally virtuous people who publicly leave people alone, who find the freedom to be while also enjoying the freedom from the forced imposition of others, will create the most virtuous society overall.

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