Wednesday, 6 November 2013

An Apology to Authenticity

I have perhaps been unfair to what I've been calling the Polonius virtue. While, when I started out writing about it, I said that I thought you could likely build an argumentative robust version of it, I haven't been doing the best job of keeping that in mind. Instead, I've generally been thinking of people who adhere to the Polonius virtue as being pretty seriously mistaken. Of course even thinking that they're mistaken might be kind of strange, since I first came up with this idea in the context of Moral Foundations Theory, and there are real questions about whether moral foundations (or values) are even opinions anyway, at least in the sense that we think of them; we don't seem to choose which foundations matter to us. But I still want to make a case for valuing authenticity to oneself, in some shape or another.

To recap, I suspect that authenticity is value that a statistically significant proportion of humans care about. One version of this is the Polonius virtue, so called because of this line from Hamlet, spoken by Polonius: "This above all: to thine ownself be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man." To whit, it is a moral good to be true to yourself, a proclamation taken to mean many things. I think the problem, in fact, is that it's taken to mean so many things, and so many of those things are silly that I forget that some of them may not be so silly. For instance, I won't apologize for thinking that acting "true" to your every impulse is a good thing; hardly anyone can believe that if they keep in mind how many times people have conflicting impulses. But I think there might be one possible reading which isn't so silly: you shouldn't lie about yourself to yourself.

If you want to navigate the world with much hope of success, it will be much better if you are honest about yourself. This isn't a claim that there is some deep, immutable self to which you might be honest, nor is it even a claim that there is a temporary but nonetheless coherent self-of-the-moment about which you might be honest. I can fully recognize that I'm conflicted, that I'm partially opaque to myself, etc. and so forth, and still say that I tend to feel certain ways about certain things (so, for instance, I am afraid of heights, I have depression) and that I tend to do certain things (so, for instance, I usually articulate inchoate emotional content in logical, procedural ways). If I'm going to make it, I ought to know all of this about myself.

Another take on it: I need to recongize when people around me are making demands of me which don't honour the ways in which I differ from their ideas about what humans are. I typically see drives for authenticity as being a little anti-conventional, and I think this insight--that people do make demands of you which just don't mesh well with your personality, your needs, your cognitive style, etc.--is where that anti-conventional attitude might come from. Sometimes the dominant narrative just won't work for us; we aren't all or always so easily caught up in our culture's folkways. Being honest about this does seem rather important, at least as a condition of other goods.

And, for goodness sake, this is precisely the sort of thing I've been hoping other people would start adopting (particularly ones I think of as being uber-logical, disembodied rational types, like the Less Wrong people--and that may be unfair caricature, as well). I guess I've been an advocate for particular version of the authenticity ethic and I didn't even know it. Which is ironic in the technical sense. I'm a perfect example of what can go wrong if you aren't aware of yourself: I spent most of my life with dysthymia and I didn't even know it. Had I known it, things might have gone much better for me. And I'm also a decent example of what can go well if you are aware of yourself: I knew in advance that I was going to have a depressive breakdown, and I got a medical leave in time to weather that storm without damaging my academic career. So this specific kind of authenticity ethic is one I'm deliberately cultivating.

I think there are a few ways the Polonius virtue can go wrong, however. The first is when knowing yourself becomes an excuse to remain static. The second is when people start generalizing about what people are like; this can be a case of thinking other people are more like you than they are, or in can be a case of reasoning out from beliefs you have about human behaviour, even when it does not correspond well with the evidence/other people's experiences. The third is using an authenticity ethic to support selfish behaviour. The fourth (perhaps a superset which contains the third) is privileging authenticity over other goods. I'd explicitly disagree with what Polonius actually says: you can be true to yourself (whatever you take that to mean) and still be false with other people. (The most obvious example is that you could lie, and know you're lying.) And I think a lot of the metaphysics or anthropology that people build around the authenticity is unfounded .As an example, you could say that Freudian psychoanalysis is a huge and erroneous mythology built out of the valuable recognition that we are opaque to ourselves and spend a lot of time trying to repress/suppress our desires so that they correspond with societal norms.

Another way it can go wrong, too, is that we can fool ourselves into thinking that we know ourselves when we don't. Smart people prone to introspection are, apparently, really bad for this: smart people are terribly good at rationalization, and trick themselves into thinking they know their own mind. I'm inclinded to think that a fairly good knowledge of psychology--maybe not formal education but at least some commitment to following academic psychology, rather than folk psychology--would help people in this, but maybe not. That might just improve the plausiblity of their rationalizations, not improve the accuracy of their rationalizations. Really, awareness of the limitations of self-awareness is a kind of honesty to oneself, isn't it?

So in future I will try to be fairer to this ethic, and recognize that it probably has a place, when articulated in a certain way and when it is not burdened with baseless metaphysics. In retrospect, it seems appallingly obvious that, at minimum, being honest with oneself about oneself is pretty important to proper functioning. We've just got to pair that with the twin insights that 1) we can never really know ourselves entirely and 2) we are constantly in flux.

And I'm sorry if I offended anyone with my callous dismissal of authenticity as a moral good.

1 comment:

S Hailstone said...

Thank you for this incredibly articulate and powerful post on this labrinthe our existence and self-constructs navigate. I feel validated and challenged. Thank you for the inspiration.

Sara Hailstone

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