Inarticulate Authenticity

Thirty-six years ago, Robert Bellah and others, in their seminal book “Habits of the Heart:

Individualism and Commitment in American Life” identified a problem and prophesied its

social consequences – that of political and social polarization. We live in those prophesied

consequences today. The problem, as Bellah and his co-authors identified it, was the tendency

of us to form into, what they called, lifestyle enclaves. (Bellah, et al., pp. 71-75) Lifestyle

enclaves involve two particular types of alienation: 1) they concern only the private life of the

individual – especially her labor and consumption; and 2) lifestyle enclaves segment us

socially to include only those with a common lifestyle.

Today, political polarization is one context for our individual lives, where we are either liberal

or conservative which are, in fact, such lifestyle enclaves. They are enclaves because they are

governed by the two types of alienation that Bellah identified – they are focused primarily

on entrenched consumption and lifestyle habits rather than actual public commitments, and

they put us only in the company of those with a common lifestyle – as exemplified in the

choices between getting or not getting a vaccine, and wearing or not wearing a mask. Your

choice of either of these two examples can barely escape the accusation of “enclave”

relativism. If I happen to doubt the legitimacy of a vaccine, and you decide to get a COVID

vaccine, the given framework of my enclave, in this case, conservative, will lead me to accuse

you of conforming to your enclave, in this case, liberal, that reinforces a certain lifestyle you

happen to hold. From the opposing lifestyle enclave, if one gets a vaccine, they are

conforming. If one doesn’t wear a mask, they are selfish. Thus both are labeled as inauthentic.

Framed in this way, a choice that conforms to a given social context requires a further

justification for it to be called “authentic” – otherwise, we are doing what everyone else does,

for well-worn reasons that are common to everyone in our enclave. Our inability to get to

these types of justifications is now in real jeopardy.

The challenge is that we smuggle a related set of moral presuppositions into our accounts of

what is, or what is not, authentic. In the case of accusations of conformity, we couch it in

language that one ought to be able to act in counter to a dominant cultural milieu. To accuse

someone of selfishness is to place them in a camp of persons who do not properly consider the

impact of their actions with care for diverse others. However, there is little consideration of

the person’s actual moral reasons in either case. Instead, there is a mode of storytelling about

the other that caricatures the other, and prevents us from the moral dialogue.

So, it is in an ever-present context of personal choices and social conformity that authenticity

gains its importance. I believe that articulating what we mean by being authentic will go a

long way to answering these types of moral questions. Further, it will give a deeper

understanding of a grounded commitment to the primacy of the “individual”. In other words, in articulating authenticity we won’t simply be justifying our decisions; we will also go a long

way to seeing the mechanics of how authentic and free individuals with political

responsibilities and moral obligations actually even appear.

Authenticity makes its appearance in other ways as well. In University, we encourage students

to write in their own voice, that is, to distinguish what they have to say from the research they

have used to provide a background for their opinions. (Robbins, 2018) In terms of careers, we

have emphasized the idea of calling in pushing students to vocation, which is somehow better

than simply finding a job. (Wilding, 2018) In discipleship, evangelical and mainline Christians

emphasize a personal relationship with God that in some sense is unique, as it ought to be.

(Turnau, 2021) In marriage and life partnership, the demand for ourselves and our partners to

“be ourselves” is commonplace – because love cannot happen unless it is genuine. The demand

to be authentic is ubiquitous, and exerted without question, as an axiom. But like the endless

debate of liberal and conservative, what it means to be authentic is in some sense inarticulate.

The understanding of authenticity as a strong moral ideal has three significant obstacles to its

proper articulation. First, critics of authenticity often see it in some of its most trivialized and

self-indulgent forms. They collapse it with moral relativism. (Bloom, 2021; Price, 2008) The

critics argue that authenticity pushes people to do whatever they want, and to treat others

instrumentally – i.e. as tools for an individual’s own development or fulfillment, in other

words, toward narcissism or sociopathy. If authenticity meant this utilitarian model of self-fulfillment,

then the critics would be right. And certainly, there is some warrant for this type of

criticism; under the name of authenticity, the pursuit of self-fulfillment has often appeared as

trivial and self-indulgent. I won’t belittle you (my audience) by enumerating the many

examples. But I believe that such modes reflect a very deep confusion about the moral force of

authenticity.

Second, proponents of authenticity, likewise, miss the moral force of authenticity. A culture,

broadly speaking, of tolerance and self-fulfillment tends to shy away from questions of what

would be higher forms of life. Ronald Dworkin and Will Kymlika, among the proponents,

believe that governments should not contribute substantially on matters of what constitutes the

good life, in effect pushing conversations about authenticity to the margins. (Dworkin, 2021;

and Kymlicka, 1991) To say it more simply, they concentrate on the fairness of procedures

rather than on commitments to actual goods, as in the case of emphasizing equality of

opportunity rather than equality of outcomes.

A third factor obscures the importance of authenticity as a moral ideal: normal social science

explanation. Social science tends to shy away from invoking moral ideals in favor of

supposedly harder and more down-to-earth factors in generating explanations. So,

individualism and feelings of “self-responsibility” are explained as by-products of social

change such as spin-offs of industrialization or globalization, or greater mobility, or

urbanization. And while there are significant causal relations to be explored between these

factors and individualism, the accounts that invoke those causes frequently skirt the possibility

that changes in culture and outlook owe anything to their own inherent power as moral ideals.

Even where individual freedom and the enlargement of instrumental reason might be

understood as having intrinsic reasons that help explain their rise, this attraction is often

understood in non-moral terms, as in the advantages they bestow on people regardless of their

moral outlook. Freedom allows you to do what you want, and instrumental reason gets you

more of what you want. The result is an extraordinary inarticulacy about authenticity; the opponents slight it, and the proponents can’t talk about it, and our investigations can’t consider it.

Does any of this matter? It does because articulating authenticity has a moral point. It doesn’t

simply correct wrong views, but it makes the force of an ideal people actually hold more

palpable, more vivid, and have a deeper resonance. By doing so, articulating the ideal and how

to foster it empowers people to more fully live up to it, and to do so with greater integrity.

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