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Against Authenticity

To be human is to be artificial.

· 6 min read
Against Authenticity
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.
What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.

~Oscar Wilde

That we should not lie is generally sound advice, though few of us are able to navigate life without uttering or affirming the occasional falsehood. However, some—generally those of a romantic temperament—also strive to apply this counsel to the self. They argue that authenticity is one of humankind’s chief virtues and that betraying it is immoral and tragic—immoral, because it requires a person to lie about their underlying being; tragic, because it smothers the unique self beneath a dull blanket of conformity.

I do not share this enthusiasm for authenticity because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. At best, authenticity can be undesirable; at worst, it is philosophically incoherent. The word “authenticity” is sometimes useful in ordinary discourse—we may say that a person is authentically a lover of the arts or authentically cheerful or authentically kindhearted, and it’s obvious what these claims mean. Nor will I deny that lying about one’s own traits and tendencies is often a bad idea and sometimes genuinely immoral. Nevertheless, authenticity, as understood by many of its modern champions, is not a noble or even attainable ideal.

The first problem with authenticity is that the very nature of the human self is artificial, and shaped by its surrounding culture. The romantic idea, familiar to most teenagers, is that the true self precedes society, that it develops according to its own logic like a self-contained embryo, and that it is dependent on others only for life-sustaining nutrients. To the extent that cultural influences are important, they are often seen as sources of alienation, coercion, and manipulation. The true self is precisely that which is not a product of society, that which resists instruction and conformity, and that which makes an individual unique. As a result, the romantic is obsessed with novelty in art as in life, praising the new often simply because it is new.

But this romantic conception of the self is wrong. We are not flowers or butterflies whose growth is largely an unfolding of prespecified potential. We are profoundly social animals with brains designed to absorb and assimilate our surrounding culture, beginning most dramatically with language. A person without culture is an abstraction like form without content, and the few known cases of “feral children”—that is, children who grew up with little human contact—are tragic testimonies to the indispensability of social learning.

Even a person’s most sacred beliefs—those about God and the relationship between humans and the cosmos—are inextricably connected to culture. The ancient Mediterranean worshipper of Isis and Osiris may have been a zealous Protestant in 17th-century Germany and a combative skeptic in 21st-century America. Similarly (though less consequentially), a champion of free verse in the 20th century may have been a stickler for meter and rhyme in the 14th. Dante wrote as he did because of his surrounding culture. Five hundred years later, he would have written differently. The same holds for virtually every imaginable belief and activity, from the mundane to the sublime.

Of course, the romantic would likely counter that although preferences about poetry and metaphysics are culturally influenced, deeper and more important predispositions are not. Maybe Dante would have written blank verse had he been born in England in the 1570s or free verse had he been born in England in 1930s, but he still would have had many similar traits and tendencies—a reverence for hierarchy and order, a sensitive and poetic mind, a disgust of moral treachery.

Furthermore, we know what it is like to defer to social conventions and hide our feelings and opinions from others. More poignantly, we know the painful dissonance of dissembling about crucial components of our identity, our political beliefs, our sexuality, and so on. Does this not suggest an authentic self that persists behind our everyday social self, impervious to cultural accidents and influences although it can remain forever hidden? And is it not to this self that we owe our fidelity?

Arguments like these can feel compelling because they are congruent with everyday experience, even though traits and tendencies are different from what most of us would call a self. Humans are complicated and multifaceted; they are capable of suppressing impulses and of outright lying. And society often encourages such suppressions and deceptions, rewarding those who politely respond to “How are you today?” with, “Great, how about you?” while punishing those who honestly respond, “Metaphysical despair is eating a hole in my heart, my dog is dying, I am lonely, and I get no joy from life.”

This can be frustrating, stifling, and in some societies, tyrannically oppressive. But it also makes civilization possible. Because we are both cooperative and highly competitive, our thoughts and impulses can be prosocial or antisocial. Some of those antisocial thoughts and impulses are relatively benign, though potentially offensive. Most of us have unflattering opinions about those with whom we interact, which we wisely suppress. This is one of the reasons children are both exasperating and effortlessly funny: They do not restrain their thoughts. If they think your eyes are too bulgy, your nose is too big, or your hair is too thin, they will say so.

More importantly, some of our thoughts and impulses are coercive, violent, or destructive. Few people are so virtuous that they have never wanted to denigrate, push, punch, or even kill another person. Some people are filled with rage and antipathy, and would happily dominate others if they were in a position to do so. One of the crucial functions of civilization is to curb these inclinations so that we can cooperate (and compete) without constant violence. Although this might be annoying from time to time, it leads to wealth, comfort, and cultural achievements that would otherwise be impossible.

Romantics may respond that it is not inauthentic to repress a fleeting desire to insult, assault, or murder someone else. It is inauthentic to suppress and distort one’s fundamental beliefs and desires. But is it inauthentic for a violent sociopath or a hateful racist to suppress his desires? If not, why not? Did Joseph Stalin live more authentically or less than he would have otherwise because he obtained near absolute power and could therefore act on his whims without fear of reprisal?

To put a finer point on the problem: Suppose we are comparing the behavior of Thomas and John, two people who are, for whatever combination of reasons, both full of hatred and envy. But while Thomas struggles to contain his rage, his competitiveness, and his jealousy, John does not. After years of hard work, Thomas has built a successful company and become a revered businessman who provides hundreds of jobs to a once-impoverished community. He attends church and is kind to everyone, despite his seething resentment. John, on the other hand, is unemployed and constantly bickers with others. He frequents bars and brawls to relieve his rage. But he does not lie—he is candid about his contempt for everyone. The champion of authenticity appears to be committed to claiming that John should be celebrated whereas Thomas should be condemned.

When I challenge those who value authenticity with questions like these, they generally respond that wanting to be a murderous dictator or a bitter bar fighter are artificial and alien desires. And since racism must be learned, that too is artificial and alien. After a string of such responses, they usually end up defining the true self as that self of which they morally approve. Of course, this makes the praiseworthiness of authenticity tautological, since the true self is, by this definition, capable only of generating morally laudable beliefs and behaviors.

For the value of authenticity to have force, it must mean something more than “One should live in a way that I consider to be admirable.” The most natural meaning of the claim is that a person should live in accordance with his or her natural tendencies and beliefs. But, as already noted, this proposition runs into problems once we accept that (1) some natural tendencies and beliefs are either offensive or destructive; and (2) some people are full of antisocial tendencies and abhorrent beliefs.

I would go even further, though. To get something worth praising from humanity requires effort, discipline, and constant constraint. The celebration of authenticity is premised, often only half-knowingly, on a quasi-Rousseauist belief that humans are naturally good and only corrupted by society. But this belief is patently wrong. Humans are not naturally good or evil. Rather, they are flawed, limited, and contradictory creatures, capable of envisioning a peaceful, cooperative society of abundance, but unable to achieve it because their efforts are undermined by selfishness and rivalry. Although they cannot fully achieve their moral goals, they can, with the guidance of wise norms and institutions, create a lively and flourishing civilization. And the function of these wise norms and institutions is to suppress, discipline, and reshape our natural inclinations. It is, in other words, to produce a cultured and civilized—that is, an artificial—human.

But to be human is to be artificial. And to contend that it is inauthentic to conform to one’s culture and to strive to suppress and overcome one’s natural tendencies is like contending that it is inauthentic for a mockingbird to imitate the song of another species. Paradoxically, the most authentic thing we can do is strive to transcend ourselves and become what we are not.

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