In the following talk, given May 20, 2021, I was happy to share much of my research on Authenticity as a moral ideal, following the work of Charles Taylor. However, I find that Taylor’s work is slightly unstructured. It takes the work of someone with more political training – Hannah Arendt – to provide the structure for which the moral ideal takes root. While we implicitly understand that authenticity is something we strive for, taking an effort to explain how authenticity makes its emergence in the shape of authentic individuals. It is in that spirit that I gave the following talk.
More than this, I was asked a question of how authenticity helps us settle moral disputes. This is a difficult question to answer flatly – as if it helps us provide a kind of measuring stick by which to make moral judgments easily. Instead, I offer that since authenticity rarely appears fully developed, it helps adjudicate moral disputes as pointing us to a way forward. There were two specific questions asked in the Q & A session that I believe I did not fully answer.
First, I give the example of masks in the talk. Can authenticity provide a moral answer to whether one ought to, or ought not to, wear a mask in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic? I believe it can. If one person wants to be in my presence who does not wear a mask, and I insist the they do – how can the ideal of authenticity act as a persuasive reason to convince the other person? Typically, if the person is able to wear a mask but chooses not to, they will have to account for particular kinds of responsibilities they have toward me. In order to maintain a relationship with me that respects my choice for wearing a mask, they will have to concede at a certain point that I am within the realm of self-fulfillment to demand such behavior. This is especially true if that person is considered significant other. I, too, would have to hear the other’s insistence not to wear a mask. The argument that wears or doesn’t wear a mask needs to be addressed head on, and as an argument for each of our best interests would include the issue of responsibility for our good friend – which is an issue of defining who is our significant other. However, it is in the nature of significant others to have another person’s best interest – their best self – at heart. And once we admit that common concern, then what behavior contributes to one’s best self gets admitted, and the moral argument can begin. It doesn’t settle it, but it certainly points the best way to go.
Second, I was asked about how authenticity would apply to Adolf Eichmann, the high-level Nazi functionary who was tried in Jerusalem after the end of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt, using Eichmann as the example, called evil “banal”. For Arendt, this was a realm of “not thinking”, which was a kind of abdication of action. For Arendt, Eichmann wasn’t acting , but was instead performing the activities of labor and work. For Arendt, human beings who do not enter the realm of action, but are merely thrown back into labor and work, are in a rather boring state of evil – which is exactly what Eichmann was. To attempt to live outside the realm of responsibility for our actions is boring, but inevitably evil. What was evil about it was that it showed an inability to be able to think, i.e. to think from another’s perspective. This is exactly opposite of being authentic, which requires that we are able to represent another perspective to ourselves and to make a considered decision.
And with those qualifications, I invite you to look at the following talk. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the King’s University in Edmonton for providing the venue for the talk, and for those many people from Canada, the United States, Thailand, India, and Korea who attended.