Most of us believe we ought to live authentically. We see it as a key feature of being personally fulfilled. One of the troubles with being authentic is that each person ought to have some grasp of what it means for them. And so issues of unique identity and what one happens to like often becomes conflated. There is no ultimate justification for preferring coffee over tea. Yet we all believe that we would be should be able to justify how we ought to be living. Often, people who claim that they are living authentically will tend to resist conversations about identity with the claim that “it is up to me – the decision is mine – and since you are not me, you can’t understand what is right for me.” So, it is often really hard to talk in reason with those who claim authenticity. We worry that we can offer no argument for someone to change their behavior if having the right to one’s choice is the sole arbiter of which choices are the best. An unattached woman may have the terrible responsibility of deciding whether to have an abortion or not, and some believe that the simple fact that it is her responsibility to make a choice justifies any choice she happens to make. Authenticity, to some people, means that any choice, as long it is self-made and legal, is authentic and is in no further need of justification. Under this belief, discussion or persuasion seems impossible. It seems that you can’t say anything, in reason, to such a person.

When I lived in Thailand, I would find things that perturbed me. I often got the strong message that I should just “butt out”. Why? Usually, the reason was that whatever I was contributing to or complaining about was not designed for me; i.e., I was not the intended audience. For example, I worked at a high school in which I actually had to pay someone to enter my grades into their computer system. This would have never been done in other places that I taught (Canada, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia). I would have been provided the training to do the job myself and would have been expected to accomplish it on a deadline.  That is, I encountered a task that was a job requirement, and I had to pay out of my own pocket to get it done! I couldn’t talk to anyone with reasonable arguments to persuade them any differently; they knew it was a problem from my perspective (and often from their own) and accepted it anyways. It soon became clear that this obstacle was not set for me; instead, it was for the underpaid accountants of the school. It was a corrupt and inauthentic process (in my mind, it still is), but it taught me a lot about one of the conditions of authenticity, and what it meant to act authentically in an unjust situation. It was simply a horizon I couldn’t escape because it was part and parcel of being a teacher. It just was what it was.

It turns out that being authentic requires that you are part of the intended group of any situation. If you happen to be part of the situation, but not a member of the intended group, then you are confronted with the difficult choice of adapting yourself and your practices or going through the long process of reforming an unjust situation. That process is often so long, that you may have exited the situation before justice is fully established. It would require a type of recognition I did not possess. I would have had to battle for this recognition in order for justice, as I perceived it, to be restored. 

Thai classroom in Kamphaengphet, Thailand

Further, there were certain parts of living and working in Thailand that indicated another structural feature of what it means to be authentic. Also at the same school, there was a day when everyone intended to go out and give food to monks. I was invited to do the same. Although I had a great appreciation for Buddhism, for acts of charity, and for the role the Buddhist monastic order played in Thai society, this ritual of the community giving food to the monks was not primarily about any of these features. The giving of food to monks, from a practitioner’s perspective, is associated with making merit. In other words, the action implied some eternal effect that I did not believe was true. Unlike the previous example of paying to accomplish a job task, I was part of the intended audience; Thai Buddhism is to be applied universally. When I declined to bring the food and attend the event, I had to overcome objections from other foreigners present about “opting out”. Interestingly, the local Thai teachers, being the Buddhists they were, were gracious in allowing me to opt-out, especially after demonstrating that I adequately knew what the ritual was. The foreigners thought that this ritual “was what it was”, i.e., it was a social fact we could not escape. Yet the Thai teachers saw it differently.

For the Thais, an authentic engagement required me to belong to a common interest and awareness of the eternal significance of the event, and that this was related, in some sense to what is ultimately fulfilling. I was permitted not to agree with it, but I needed to know what it was. Thus, authenticity required that we had a common concern. In this case, the concern was with what brings personal spiritual fulfillment.

These two requirements of authenticity, that it originates in a particular community and that it aims at common concerns, are very instructive for us if we want to understand what authenticity is, and what is at stake.  Charles Taylor, in chapters 4 and 5 of the Malaise of Modernity, talks about these under the terms “inescapable horizons” and “recognition”. It turns out that these two features constitute any of our moral conversations.

Our identity amidst others

I want to first say something about the first of these requirements, that the authentic person, and her concerns, emerge in reference to a particular community. Reasoning in moral matters is always reasoning with somebody. One has a conversation partner (an interlocutor), and you don’t reason from the ground up, as if they did not recognize any moral demands. They would be impossible to argue with. But imagine you are talking with someone who is trying to live authentically. That means they are trying to shape their lives to be more authentic. In this case, we do not merely have their preferences. Instead, if we assume that both of us are trying to live more authentically, we can ask: What constitutes the kind of life that can actually be authentic? And what does being really authentic truly call for? In other words, what features of human life are required for people to live authentically and what does living authentically actually mean?

Taylor points to our social character; human life is shaped in reference to its relationships with others. This is clearly true as long as we are expressing ourselves. Instances of expression don’t merely happen with words but can also include languages of art, gesture, love, and so on. All of these expressions originate in exchange with others – let’s call them “significant others”. In this sense, the genesis of the individual spirit is not monological but dialogical. To be clear then, the origin of individual human identity and its ongoing formation happens in connection with others, and not independent of them.

This isn’t merely a fact about the origin of the human individual which we can dispose of later on. We don’t simply learn the languages in dialogue and then go on using them for our own individually-defined purposes as would be the case with the fictional, unattached woman contemplating an abortion I imagined earlier. I think this describes our situation to some extent in our culture now. We are expected to develop our own opinions, worldviews, and stances on things largely through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity. We define our identity always in dialogue with, and sometimes in a struggle against, the identities that our significant others want to recognize in us. Even if we outgrow some of those significant others (our parents, for instance), and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues in us as long as we live.  

Significant others contribute to our life not merely in our so-called formative years, but also throughout our lives at the level of life about “who” we are. Some of you will still want to hold on to the monological ideal. You may argue that we should strive to define ourselves to the fullest degree possible. In doing so, as the argument goes, one can gain some control over the influence of parents, and also avoid falling into further such relationships of dependency. You may say that we need relationships to fulfill ourselves, but surely not to define ourselves.

This is a more common argument than you might think. Yet it seriously underestimates the first condition of authenticity that I mentioned above: that we belong to the intended group for which our identity is relevant. The monological ideal improperly minimizes identity formation to its genesis. It forgets how our understanding of things can be transformed by the activity of enjoying them in common with the people we love. If you think about it, some goods only become accessible through such common enjoyment. Consider what is meant by “identity”: it is who we are, and where we are coming from. It is the background against which our tastes, desires, opinions, and aspirations make sense. If some of the things I value most are accessible to me in relation to the person I love, then she becomes internal to my identity. Because of this, it may take a great many wrenching breakups to prevent our identity from being formed by the people we love.

Often, those proponents of the monological ideal will conceive of this as a limitation, from which we might hope to liberate ourselves. Certainly, this is one impulse behind the life of the hermit or the solitary artist. However, even these figures seem to be aspiring to a kind of relationship – a dialogical existence; in the case of the hermit, the interlocutor is God, and in the case of the artist, the work itself is addressed to a future audience – perhaps yet to be created by the work itself. No matter how one feels about it, the making and sustaining of one’s identity remains dialogical. Any heroic effort to make such a condition otherwise, would, in any case, be a rare phenomenon if it was possible at all.

What should now be emerging for you from this brief sketch of the dialogical feature of our identity, and the common horizon of significant concerns that emerges within communities is that authenticity has constitutive features (necessary characteristics). If one undercuts these constitutive features, one undercuts the ideal of authenticity itself. In other words, you will undercut not only your own identity but also the aspirations that are meant to be fulfilling. Let me explain by first of all outlining what it means to be part of shared horizons:

When we want to go through the process of defining our individual identities, we see that we rely on a background of shared meaning, although that background may be not clearly understood. Defining myself means finding out what difference in me is significant in comparison to others. For example, I might be exactly the same height as, say, Steph Curry – but so what? What matters are the important truths, like I might be able to uniquely write in a way that helps people, or in making people laugh at the most needed times. The difference is obvious. Being exactly the same height as Steph Curry has no real human significance, whereas the other examples can be readily connected in the realms of human significance. In the case of the coincidence of height between myself and Steph Curry, one can’t attribute any moral significance without a kind of special claim – like Curry’s height is a measuring stick for manhood, or his height is a spiritual number in the structure of the Universe. But these claims can’t just be based on what we happen to feel is right. What if the special claim doesn’t pan out, or could be replaced by a better explanation? Your feeling a certain way is never a sufficient reason for determining what is significant.

To judge any particular thing or issue as important, it must be measured against a horizon of intelligibility. That means, the background horizon fulfills the essential task of making something significant. Suppressing or denying the horizon of significance would then undercut any claim to our authentic identity, thereby undercutting our aspiration to be authentic. Stressing the legitimacy of any choice because it is a choice made by a person serves to undercut the significance of any of the options.

Let’s take the example of the discussions around non-standard sexual orientations. Many people want to argue that heterosexual monogamy is not the only way to achieve sexual fulfillment and that those who are inclined to homosexual relations, for instance, shouldn’t feel that they are on a less worthy path. This fits well in the current understanding of authenticity, with its notions of difference, originality, and the acceptance of diversity. Yet, some forms of this conversation slide toward affirmation of the commitment itself. The argument sometimes goes: all options are equally worthy because they are freely committed to; it is the commitment that provides the worth. This, however, undercuts the significance of the commitment of sexual orientation, which is of the same kind as whether one likes blondes or brunettes, or taller or shorter people. Once sexual orientation is treated as a commitment like these choices of preference, the original goal, which was to assert the equal value of this orientation, is undermined. The difference so asserted becomes insignificant.

But the ideal of authenticity cannot be defended and asserted if the horizons of significance are undercut. You may argue that the significance of your life is precisely because you chose it, but unless some options are more significant than others, “self-choice” become trivial, and quickly incoherent. Self-choice as an ideal only makes sense if some issues are more significant than others. Which issues are significant, I do not determine. If I did, no issue would be significant.

So, you as a moral agent, trying to define yourself meaningfully, exist on a horizon of important questions. Any attempt to shut out the demands of society, history, nature, or the bonds of solidarity to others, or the call of God, i.e., issues of significance emanating from beyond the self, leads quickly to triviality. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that come from beyond the self, it presupposes these demands. And thus, the interlocutors in a moral conversation can say something in reason to each other.    

The Importance of Recognition

I’d like to now shift our attention to the second requirement of authenticity, that it aims at common concerns, and not merely self-fulfillment. Some people who argue for their own authenticity have a purely personal understanding of fulfillment. They treat a person’s various associations and communities in which they enter as instrumental to their individual fulfillment. Two examples will suffice to demonstrate this:

On an intimate level, this so-called authentic perspective treats romantic relationships as being in service to personal fulfillment. A romantic relationship may go on until death if it continues to serve its purpose for each member, but there is no point in declaring that it should be “until death do us part” from the beginning. On a social level, a university student, under the name of authenticity, treats their education, especially their access to it, as in service to what the student understands their fulfillment to be: let’s say, a high-paying job.

Both examples of so-called authenticity are defined in ways that centre on the self. This authenticity distances the individual from her relation to others. But these two examples are really interesting: they embody two key ways that authentic self-fulfillment has become a preoccupation for so many of us. The first phenomenon is the presence of universal rights: everyone should have the right and capacity to be themselves and the only reason to limit anyone’s right to self-fulfillment must be the protection of an equal chance at this fulfillment for others. The second phenomenon is the increased emphasis on relationships in the intimate sphere. Often, romantic love relationships are seen to be the prime location of self-exploration and self-discovery and are among the most important forms of self-fulfillment.  Together they place the good life of authentic self-fulfillment within the sphere of ordinary life, rather than some higher sphere, like the kingdom of heaven. In other words, ordinary life is the life of production and family, of work and of love.

If authentic self-fulfillment is a kind of cultural goal embodied in the university and in intimacy, then it importantly acknowledges that our identity requires recognition by others. I mentioned before that our identities are formed dialogically.

Historically, human individuals have always needed recognition. However, in previous generations, recognition was not so much experienced as a problem, since social recognition was based on social categories everyone took for granted. Socially derived identity was, by its very nature, dependent on society. The real problem with recognition occurs when we think that identity is inwardly generated in a monological sense. The problem is that inward, monological identity does not enjoy recognition from the beginning. It has to win recognition through exchange. And it can fail.

A student in university, to pick up my earlier example, can remain unrecognized if one does not enter into the open dialogue on offer at a university, a dialogue that is unshaped by a predefined social script. In fact, university raises the stakes in this battle for recognition. Failing to equally recognize students in a university by all parts of the institution – from its policies and procedures to the treatment of and by faculty, staff, and other students – can inflict damage on those who are denied such equal recognition. In the university, as an example of a social institution, the crucial principle is fairness, which demands equal chances for everyone to develop their own identity.  

To take up the other example of the importance of a romantic relationship, we can immediately notice how much an original identity is vulnerable to the recognition given or withheld by a lover. Love relationships are not important simply for fulfilling ordinary life, but also because they are intimately connected with inwardly generated identity. In the intimate sphere, the identity-forming love relationship has crucial importance.

The question with which I started this section can best, then, be put this way: Can a mode of life that is centred on the self, in the sense of treating our associations as merely instrumental, be justified if we are trying to be authentic? And we can now further ask whether these favored modes of living together, such as a social sphere governed by the principle of fairness or an intimate sphere that uniquely fosters self-exploration and discovery, will allow for this kind of inward, monological identity which is disaffiliated.

Socially, the answer may be a clear yes. After all, the recognition of difference and diversity seems to merely require that we accept some principle of fair procedures. If you asked members of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committees at any university, they would say the lion’s share of their work was focused around this. Fair procedures, however, don’t acknowledge a strong allegiance to a participatory social order. The answer seems that we can “hang out and be at ease” so long as everyone is treated equally. 

But this is too simple. After all, what is at stake when we are truly recognizing differences at a social level? It means recognizing the equal value of different ways of being. What source provides the acknowledgment of equal value that social identity recognition requires?  We saw earlier that just the fact of people choosing different ways of being doesn’t make them equal; nor does the fact that they happen to find themselves in these different sexes, orientations, races, and cultures. The difference on its own cannot be the source of value.

If men and women are equal, it is not because they are different, but because measured against some source there exist some common or complementary properties which are of value. They are beings that are capable of reason, love, memory, or dialogical recognition. Christians might answer that the judgment of equal value may be because all are sinners, or all are made in the image of God.  Socially, if we are to unite on mutual recognition of difference, i.e., an equal value of different identities, then we must share more than a belief in this principle. In other words, we also have to share some standards on which the identities concerned check out as equal. Some real agreement on value must be established or else the formal principle of equality will be just a show.

You and I can pay lip service to equal recognition socially, but we won’t have an understanding of equality unless we share something more. Recognizing difference, like self-choosing, requires a horizon of significance, and in this case, a shared one.

We can now see why developing and nurturing commonalities of value between us, i.e., looking at our goods rather than simply one’s own interests, becomes important. One of the crucial ways we can do this is to share a common political life, see each and every person as created and loved by God, or by journeying together in one phase of life’s journey such as our undergraduate education. The demands of recognizing differences themselves take us beyond mere fairness.

Well, how about intimacy? Can we see our love relationships, or even our closest friendships, as instrumental to our fulfillment? Are they so fundamentally tentative? Here, the answer is easier. They cannot be so instrumentally treated if they are also going to shape our identity. If the intense relations are going to be identity-forming, then they can’t, in principle, be tentative. They may be able to break up, but they can’t be merely instrumental.  While identities do change over time, My identity-defining relations can’t be seen, in principle and in advance, as dispensible and destined to end by being superseded by other relationships. If self-exploration does take such a form, then what I am exploring is not my identity, but some types of enjoyment.

If one wants to be authentic then, instrumental relationships will inevitably lead to boredom and despair. Pursuing your own fulfillment by forcing others to be instruments of your own fulfillment would put illusion right into the heart of our authentic lives.

As we can see, the moral stakes of being authentic run right through the center of our intimate and social lives. It isn’t just that treating other people more wholistically and under the umbrella of common concerns makes us better moral creatures, although it does do that. What is also at stake in the striving to live authentically is that our ability to pro-offer recognition of value in the social sphere beyond simple fairness, and to understand the identity-forming relationships of others on an intimate level constitute and empower our ability to be more authentic.

It turns out that the concept of common goods is constitutive of pursuing one’s interests. And the moral requirements of a clearly articulated authenticity are more demanding than we may have thought.

2 thoughts on “The Moral Stakes in Being Authentic

  1. Such an insightful post. I think a lot of times, we forget that life is lived in an interpersonal context. All our strivings and ideals have to therefore be defined in the context of these interpersonal interactions. How do different people come together to create a higher meaning out of their common circumstances? How is it possible to transcend our individual and cultural differences to define something that can continue to bind us into a common striving? Unless we define this construct, authenticity may lose its meaning. For a lot of people today, authenticity has come to mean the freedom of choice, irrespective of how it impacts others!


    1. Hi Vidya. Thank you for the comment. The questions you ask in it are some of the same questions that have animated me, and my thoughts. I really believe that people say that their authenticity is really just their freedom of choice. But they say that only because they are unable to realize or admit that it goes deeper.


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