To figure out what it means to argue for the ideal of ‘being an authentic person’, I would like to borrow an example from Susan Wolf. She introduces it in her reflections in “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility” to show that the “deep-self view fails to be convincing when it is offered as a complete account of the conditions of responsibility” (1987, 367). The deep-self view says “that if we are responsible agents, it is not just because our actions are within the control of our wills, but because, in addition, our wills are not just psychological states in us, but expressions of characters that come from us, or that at any rate are acknowledged and affirmed by us” (365). Wolf refers to Harry Frankfurt, Garry Watson, and Charles Taylor. Though she does not explicitly refer to Frankfurt’s and Taylor’s theories of authenticity, it seems obvious that the deep-self view is closely related to the idea of authenticity or, more precisely, to the idea of corresponding to your true self and of expressing it authentically.
To challenge the deep-self view (and turn it into the ‘sane deep-self view’) Wolf introduces the following example:
Jojo, the son of an evil dictator, is raised up and educated to follow in his father’s footsteps. He becomes a brutal dictator and totally endorses his role and his function, “including sending people to prison or to death or to torture chambers on the basis of whim” (365).
Wolf’s description of the example is rather short. But it seems to be very similar to the North-Korean dictator Kim-Jong Un. Wolf states that Jojo is not really responsible for his deeds. He is acting according to his deep-self, but he is also not ‘sane’: He probably knows what he is doing (first condition of sanity), but he cannot distinguish between right or wrong (second condition of sanity) due to the problematic genesis and formation of his deep-self (cf. 368). According to Wolf, it corresponds to our current pretheoretical intuitions to regard Jojo as insane and thus as not being fully responsible for his actions. Many people might agree that he should not be called on to account for his deeds. However, Shoemaker and Faraci have shown that experimental data does not confirm Wolf’s assumption about our current pretheoretical intuitions (cf. Faraci and Shoemaker 2010). I think that there are not only strong intuitions, but also good reasons to deny that Jojo is insane. His education and indoctrination have not automatically destroyed his capacity of distinguishing between right and wrong and of taking a moral point of view or at least of considering different perspectives—which I regard as fundamental capacities of authentically being ‘a person’. I will start from a volitional view of authenticity and amplify it step by step to examine if and how Jojo would be regarded as being authentic according to different accounts of authenticity. Thereby, I want to extrapolate which ideas about being authentic and about being a person have to be presupposed for ascribing authenticity as an elaborated ethical ideal to someone.
The Volitional View of Authenticity
According to a volitional view of authenticity, Jojo is authentic. Wolf underlines Jojo’s wholehearted identification with his role and with his function as a dictator. If this wholehearted identification is the decisive aspect of authenticity—regardless of the question of whether the contents of the identification are self-authored or whether they are adopted from others or even the result of indoctrination—Jojo is true to the self he wants (to want to) be. And he is not a wanton, insofar as he does not solely act on the basis of whim. If we allow for a neutral, formal conception of authenticity (what the person takes herself to be or wants herself to be), there is no problem to describe Jojo’s self-understanding, his actions, and his way of life as being authentic. Describing him as being ‘authentic’, however, does not automatically entail ascribing value to that description. Nevertheless, on closer examination, it is very difficult to separate any conception of personal authenticity from ethical evaluations related to ideals like strength of character, resistance against the pressure of conformism, sincerity, or truthfulness (cf. Trilling 1972). Following Trilling, the quest for individual authenticity as truthfulness towards oneself, which has replaced the older ideal of sincerity, serves as a substitute for the search for truth and for the striving for a life according to an eternal and universal idea of the good, or, to put it another way, it can be regarded as a substitute for the orientation towards a universal ideal of the virtuous self or ‘the authentic person’ as such. With Trilling, the career of the modern ideal of personal authenticity is a reaction to the transformation of a self that was well-integrated into social structures (though probably sometimes bound to those structures in a negative way) into a self that is much more self-directed, but does not feel at home and cannot find its place in the social world or in a higher order of the universe.
Jojo surely knows his place in his society. He probably would not feel the need to be acknowledged as an authentic person; rather, he would make sure that his people regard him as ‘the true dictator’ who embodies the truth of power. But if an external viewer described Jojo as being authentic, he probably would refer more or less explicitly to important values and ideals that are ascribed to authentic persons. This does not mean that those values are automatically regarded as overriding compared to other values and moral norms. One can imagine a clandestine admiration for Jojo’s authenticity, for his wholehearted self-identification, for the clear and stable order of his volitions, as well as for his self-assuredness, which is still outreached by a strong disapproval of his immoral and anti-social comportment as a brutal dictator. So one could also imagine valuing him for being formally authentic without valuing what particular kind of person he is authentically—thus, without valuing the contents of his authentic self.
An Account of ‘Self-Authentication’
The volitional account of self-constitution via wholehearted identification and structuring one’s volitions usually presupposes a strong interrelation between authenticity and autonomy. Both concepts are based on the idea of a self-reference (autos) respective of something being self-generated. Authenticity and autonomy cannot be separated if generating one’s own personality means giving it a ‘law’ (nomos), be it the moral law or the formal law of how to structure and order ones volitions. Both attributes—autonomy as well as authenticity—underline that it is the person herself who generates this law and originates the structure of her self. The combination of authenticity and autonomy is related to the ideal of being a ‘self-made’ and ‘self-governed’ person. It refers to a value that is ascribed to the individual person and to her capacity to form her own personality, her identity, and to follow her own way of life in a self-directed manner. On that condition, it becomes more difficult to describe Jojo as being ‘authentic’. He misses the aspects of originality and self-authentication. He rather seems to be ‘originally self-alienated’. He is a kind of copy of his father. His role and comportment are given to him. He may identify with being ‘Jojo the authentic dictator’, but if he is not able to take a reflective distance towards his own role and personality and if he cannot imagine any alternative identity for himself, his identification seems to be too passive and too heteronomous to regard him as being actively ‘self-authenticated’.
According to Frankfurt, it is autonomy that is “a matter of whether we are active rather than passive in our motives and choices” (Frankfurt 2006, 20). It implies a strong connotation of activity and self-control; meanwhile, authenticity can also refer to the passivity of being necessitated by ones volitions and being captivated by love. So Frankfurt would not necessarily have to regard Jojo as being less authentic than his father because of his passivity towards the formation of his identity. The original use of the term authenticity refers to the authenticity of a work of art or a document. Those authentic works are, of course, made by a particular author. They do not generate themselves. Nevertheless, being an authentic person implies a prominent connotation of an active self-formation and a choice of a personal way of life among different alternatives. Existentialist accounts of authenticity are based on a strong idea of self-authorship. Such accounts connect “authenticity to human freedom”—the freedom of an “agent that makes of herself who and what she is through her choices” (and with Sartre she has no other choice than to execute such freedom) (Drummond 2010, 453). Nevertheless, the kind of accountability that is linked to this idea of freedom neither amounts to the moral responsibility of an autonomous agent who explicitly takes responsibility for his actions as he reflects about their appropriateness to moral law, nor does it really satisfy another notion of responsibility: a dialogical structure of giving each other reasons in the practice of holding each other responsible. This is the understanding of responsibility that Charles Taylor seems to have in mind when he argues for a responsibilization of authenticity. Furthermore, he presupposes a responsibility for self (cf. Taylor 1976).
Authenticity, Strong Evaluations, and ‘Responsibility for Self’
Susan Wolf underlines that Jojo cannot distinguish between right and wrong. In the limited horizon of his ideologically-restricted world there is just one unquestionable truth as well as one unquestionable identity for him. What does that mean for his characterization as an authentic or inauthentic person? Frankfurt presupposes that persons are characterized by “reflective self-evaluation that is manifested in the formation of second-order desires” (Frankfurt 1971, 7). Jojo has the second-order desire to be a successful and powerful dictator. He can probably distinguish between actions and events that are good or bad for him and for his aims as a dictator (e.g., what maintains or undermines his power). Still, to what degree is he really capable of a reflective self-evaluation? According to Charles Taylor, there is an important difference between “a strong evaluator”, who “ascribes a value” to some of his desires, and “a simple weigher” (1976, 287 f.). The latter is “already reflective in a minimal sense”—which “is a necessary feature of what we call a self or a person” (ibid.). He can reflect about the strength of his different desires and about the best way to fulfil them. Nevertheless, the simple weigher lacks a certain ‘depth’, because he cannot articulate and communicate his evaluations or develop contrastive characterizations like good vs. bad. He may be able “to step back from the immediate situation” (ibid.), but he cannot really step back from his desires. He fails to reflect on “what these desires express and sustain in the way of modes of life” (288).
What about Jojo? As stated above, he is not a Frankfurtian wanton who follows all of his desires and impulses immediately without any self-reflection, self-control, or self-structuring. And as he wholeheartedly and deliberately identifies with his role and personality in Wolf’s example, he also does not seem to be a simple weigher. He may be able to articulate and communicate strong evaluations according to the ideology of his dictatorship. Wolf’s statement that he cannot distinguish between right and wrong does not mean that he is not able to articulate any contrastive evaluations. She intends to point out, rather, that he is not able to take a moral point of view or to use neutral and objective standards of judgement.
I think that Taylor implicitly presupposes two different levels of strong evaluation: reflective evaluation and self-reflective evaluation. Jojo is a strong evaluator in so far as he reflects on his evaluations and articulates them. Still, he lacks another important form of evaluation. He probably steps back from his desires and from the immediate situation. But he does not properly step back from himself—from his role and personality. Hence, he does not lack responsibility at all as Wolf presupposes, but he does not take any responsibility for (his own) self as Taylor conceives it. To be responsible for your own self means to be responsible for your actions, for acting in line with your evaluations, and “in some sense for these evaluations themselves” (289). And responsibility for the self essentially implies a possibility of re-evaluation and of questioning one’s own values and convictions: “Have I really understood what is essential to my identity? Have I truly determined what I sense to be the highest mode of life?” (296). I would like to stress that those two questions, which Taylor introduces to describe the procedures of a re-evaluation, can also be used to characterize the essential elements of a ‘responsibilized’ version of authenticity. They aim at a correspondence to one’s own deep sense of self (i.e. What is essential to my identity? Am I true to my true self?), and they aim at a correspondence to an ideal of the good life and thus of ‘the good self’ (i.e. What do I sense to be the highest mode of life? Am I truthfully striving for the ideal of a good life?).
Jojo would probably not be ready to step back from his own identifications or to re-evaluate. Instead, he would rather “refuse any radical questioning” (Taylor 1976, 298). Living in a closed horizon of a totalitarian regime maybe prevents him from adopting different perspectives, which would enable him to figure out alternatives of himself (cf. Bransen 2000). If so, he would not able to perform a radical and deep self-reflection: “it is a reflection about the self, its most fundamental issues, and a reflection which engages the self most wholly and deeply” (Taylor 1976, 299). This kind of strong evaluation and deep reflection about one’s own identity and about the setting of one’s convictions and evaluations makes us “responsible for ourselves” and this “is essential to our notion as a person” (ibid.). The ethical ideal of being an authentic person is strongly related to the idea of becoming aware of who you really want to be. This presupposes the capacity to step back from the present version of yourself and evaluate it in the light of the questions: Which person do you truly want to be? How do you really want to lead your life? However, this does not mean to presume implementing a universal standard of being ‘the perfect authentic person’ as such.
The account of authenticity that is most suitable with the idea of self-reflective evaluation is an epistemic account: Marina Oshana argues for such an “epistemic conception of authenticity offered by Karl Jaspers and taken up by Larry Man”, which basically defines authenticity as “truthfulness toward oneself and about oneself in word and deed” (Oshana 2007, 424). Thus, inauthenticity is characterized by dishonesty, self-deception, and a lack of integrity, which occurs because a person is not ready to accept parts of her life or history, in particular personal failures and indulgence. Oshana states that “one is inauthentic or lives inauthentically when one is not honest with oneself and, perhaps, others about one’s position in the world and about one’s ability to transform or even to take a stance with respect to that position” (425). The importance of a reference to ‘the world’ and one’s position in it can be strengthened by a “‘phenomenological’ account of authenticity” that is based on the understanding of self-responsibility in Husserl’s ethics (Drummond 2010, 452). According to John Drummond, this account “connects authenticity to truthfulness, to having the proper sense of things” (453). The phenomenological alternative to the existential self-choice or “self-definition” is the idea “of self-realization insofar as I realize myself as a truthful and responsible agent” (453). Drummond emphasizes that Husserl’s self-realization transcends the Aristotelian idea of a realization of natural predispositions insofar as it is most important for Husserl that human beings are able to make sense, which means to make moral sense and to establish structures of meaning and understanding. This corresponds to Susan Wolf’s presupposition that human beings have an original “interest in truth” and an “interest in meaning” (Wolf 2002, 236). Against Frankfurt, she underlines that those interests also predefine the realm of possible objects that are worth caring about. A person cannot wholeheartedly identify with something opposed to those interests.
The idea of a ‘self-responsibility’ for an authentic unfolding of one’s individual personality implies an obligation to develop one’s talents and capacities and thereby contribute to the task of making sense by interpreting the world as truthfully as possible. A conception of authenticity as truthfulness towards oneself and towards ‘the givenness of the world’ is fundamentally interconnected with the idea of taking responsibility towards others for one’s life, one’s words, and one’s deeds—that is, for one’s self, as far as one is able to (re-)evaluate and modify one’s comportment and one’s characteristics. Even though persons are not able to ‘make themselves’ and to change or influence all of their natural dispositions and socio-cultural imprints, they are able to try to be truthful about themselves in their self-evaluations. And they are able to ask themselves whether they should stay true to the self they actually express in their actions and comportments or whether they rather want to become another version of themselves, which sometimes can be the “morally best” choice (see above). A self-critical epistemic form of personal authenticity is not only compatible with responsibility. It can even be regarded as an essential requirement of a responsible manner of dealing with one’s own personality. Jojo obviously really lacks this kind of self-responsibility and self-critical authenticity.
Being Authentic without Being a (Morally Responsible) Person?
By implementing a universal standard of personhood, it is possible to describe Jojo as an authentic dictator, but also to deny that he is an authentic person because he fails to (fully) realize his capacity of being ‘a person’ both with regard to his self-constitution and with regard to his actions. This holds true if Taylor’s responsibility for one’s own self is regarded as an essential feature of being a person. And it also holds true if moral autonomy and an active self-constitution as a moral agent are regarded as the fundamental functions of personhood (cf. Korsgaard 2009). Following a Kantian line of thought, persons are distinguished by their capacities to act as reasonable moral agents, to govern themselves, to establish their own normative principles, and to take a moral point of view.
Susan Wolf’s Jojo, however, is characterized by an authentic incapacity to take any neutral or alternative point of view exceeding his personal dictator perspective. He is not able to step back from his convictions and habits. Does this serve as an excuse for being immoral? I have already underlined that it would probably be very demanding for Jojo to transgress the limited horizon of his worldview. It is possible that he has not learned anything about alternative ideals and values. And nobody else (no concrete other inside the system of his dictatorship) has the authority to call him to account for or to question his evaluations and his wholehearted identifications. Still, if Jojo—as a human being—is equipped with a general human ability to distinguish right from wrong, to take a moral point of view, and to act according to the moral law, this excuse is not satisfying. This also holds true if we do not share the strong Kantian claims about personhood, but still attribute a general capability to persons to transgress or widen their horizon, to consider different standards, to think about alternatives, and to take different points of view with regard to their actions, their evaluations, and their own identity. In particular, if Jojo is confronted with the people he mistreats—with their suffering and, perhaps, also with their protest against his tyranny—and if he puts himself into their position, this should prompt Jojo to start thinking differently. Actually, Susan Wolf holds that “although there is much in our characters that we did not choose to have, there is nothing irrational or objectionable in our characters that we are compelled to keep” (Wolf 1987, 370). She concludes: “although we may not be metaphysically responsible for ourselves—for after all we did not create ourselves from nothing—we are morally responsible for ourselves for we are able to understand and appreciate right and wrong, and to change our character and our actions accordingly” (371).
For Wolf, Jojo is not included in this ‘we’ as he is regarded as insane. She is right that he may not be able to generate distinctions between right and wrong apart from the distinction between what is good or bad for the fulfilment of his role as a dictator because of his very special experiences and education. But Jojo is not insane in a way that virtually makes him unable to learn how to understand the difference between right and wrong and thus to live and act in a morally responsible manner. As a potentially reasonable, moral, and adaptive person, he can be regarded as responsible for gathering information about alternative convictions, evaluations, and about examples for being a better sovereign of his state. He should transgress his horizon (and, as he is the dictator, one can imagine that he could actually open the borders of his country if they limit his horizon), even though this would be demanding. Following this line of thought, the procedure of self-authentication as an authentic person implies to take moral responsibility for one’s life, one’s words, and one’s deeds as well as for the attempt at least to try to choose and realize the best alternative of one’s self.