Rehabbing Authenticity in an Ideological Age

We can only define ourselves authentically in terms of, in Charles Taylor’s words, a “backdrop of things that matter”—a set of values that transcend our arbitrary choices. The second of a two-part series.

In yesterday’s essay, I explored how the contemporary understanding of authenticity fosters a situation in which arguments against recognizing particular forms of identity-expression, no matter how lucid those arguments might be, are viewed as harmful, thus poisoning the rhetorical situation and partially explaining the odd fervor and sense of accomplishment obvious in publicity stunts such as the Human Rights Campaign call to update profile pictures with the “=” sign.

Such actions are considered as granting status to others, reversing harm, and cementing identity as enlightened, fair, and just. However, taking on such ready-made identities is not responsible but rather obfuscatory, veiling the “abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility,” as Václav Havel once described the effect of ideological systems.

Central to this vision, as Charles Taylor describes, is the “development of an ideal of inwardly generated identity,” the standards for which are never heteronymous: “Not only should I not mold my life to the demands of external conformity; I can’t even find the model by which to live outside myself. I can only find it within.”

If Taylor is correct, it would go some distance to explaining the seeming failure of arguments, whether religious or not, to be persuasive in the same-sex marriage debates. There’s been a torrent of commentary of late on whether natural law theory can possibly work for the “disenchanted modern rambling among the weed-thronged ruins” within “the modern conceptual world,” a conceptual world, Taylor might suggest, profoundly shaped by a vision of individual authenticity.

In this framework, natural law might not fail logically so much as confront a rhetorical situation in which argument itself runs into an affective barrier. Appealing to standards of justification distinct from internal demands of identity is judged a non-starter, for we’ve been formed to reject normative claims external to our own poetic vision of ourselves.

This poisons the well against natural law, orthodox religion, tradition, and anything not seen as coming “from within.”

For some, it may be quite tempting to jettison authenticity, to double-down on the objectivity found in metaphysics or rationalism, or, taking a different route, to bypass both authenticity and reason for the safer confines of traditionalism. Taylor’s own judgment, however, is the better way, for while he acknowledges the potential for the authenticity-identity-recognition nexus to slide into narcissism and subjectivism, he maintains that authenticity is a degraded “idea . . . very worthwhile in itself,” and, moreover, an ideal “unrepudiable by moderns.”

That is, authenticity is a moral development, a good thing, and we can’t get rid of it as a governing ideal even if we wanted. The rhetorical situation is unassailable, in a way, and any attempt to deny the subjective status of identity will be rejected tout court, and a good thing, too. I’ll echo Dignitatis Humanae in thinking this an expanded realization of the value of persons: “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.”

Like Taylor, I don’t find authenticity’s reign distressing per se, although certainly the ideological misuse of authenticity is a grave error with tragic effects; instead, with Taylor, I grant “(1) that authenticity is a valid ideal; (2) that you can argue in reason about ideals . . .; (3) that these arguments can make a difference.” Concerning authenticity, what is needed is “a work of retrieval, through which [authenticity] can help us restore our practice.”

As I’ve argued in an essay included here, contemporary versions of natural law, such as those articulated by Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, or Martin Rhonheimer (and in his own way Pope John Paul II) are examples of this creative retrieval in accepting an access point in human subjectivity. I’ve also articulated, with Steven Cone, an account of authenticity in our new book, Authentic Cosmopolitanism.

Narcissistic versions of authenticity, those demanding recognition because they are “mine,” are entirely ideological; they also are self-defeating from the perspective of authenticity itself, failing to grasp what authenticity is. As Taylor narrates, there is an impaired version of authenticity that views persons as monadological, sufficient unto themselves, rather than dialogically engaged with “significant others” as necessary partners in their own constitution.

As we summarize in the book, Taylor explains that human selfhood is always caught up into a moral framework of evaluation. There simply is no non-moral aspect to subjectivity since we always find ourselves engaged with our desires, project, and values. To be conscious is to be oriented toward some perceived good, and to lack an evaluating stance would be to lack human reason which is always “about something,” some project or task or purpose. We have consciousness that is concerned, careful, intending, and we have no other kind of subjectivity. Consequently, Taylor concludes that the moral dimension is an ontological reality—our status as subjects always entails and reveals our status as agents for whom value matters.

Of course, we experience multiple desires and concerns, sometimes pulling us in different directions, and agency includes evaluating these concerns against a larger horizon of value, against “strong values” which give direction to our life. Taylor identifies three basic types of strong values: (1) our sense that human life is valuable and deserves respect, (2) our sense of a meaningful life, and (3) a sense of dignity, of how we attain, or fail to attain, the respect of others. While these three categories of goods are understood and framed in a variety of culturally different ways, we nonetheless understand ourselves as situated within the moral space of these frameworks; we would be unintelligible to ourselves as engaged agents without the horizons provided by value.

Central to Taylor’s claim, moreover, is that the significance of our agency depends upon strong values transcending arbitrary choice, for if strong values were constructed ex nihilo the significance of moral space, and thereby our own significance, would be lost, “the very ideal of self-choosing as a moral ideal would be impossible.”

That is, authenticity requires “a backdrop of things which matter,” of values that transcend us: “Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial.” In Authentic Cosmopolitanism, we describe the self-transcending nature of value under the term “moral conversion,” by which we mean the development from merely satisfying appetites to acting in accordance with genuine value—a moral “growing up,” in other words.

In one way, the seemingly inconsequential mark of recognition involved in a Facebook picture is a kind of confused growing up. Meeting the needs of others, including their need to be respected and viewed with dignity, is to grasp a non-trivial strong value and so to move toward a less narcissistic version of authenticity. Still, this remains confused, largely inchoate, and even tending toward the self-contradictory whenever acts of recognition drown out lucid argument and engagement with those who disagree, for, as Taylor reminds us, ideals can be reasoned about, and the arguments over the ideals make a difference.

Authenticity remains an ideal. Awfully messy, to be sure, but not one we should jettison quickly, even when its manifestations are confused, narcissistic, and often oriented toward spectacle and stunt. But insofar as authenticity captures something of human dignity, we struggle to construct a more authentic version of authenticity, one oriented freely toward truth, and one always ready to argue rather than merely assert. As such, however little detractors in the same-sex marriage debates may wish to acknowledge this, our continued disagreement with them, so long as we disagree reasonably, not only marks our recognition of their dignity but in the long run ensures that dignity.

And far more than “=” ever could.

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