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What About Authenticity and Self-Transformation?

Concerns about authenticity in the context of medical enhancements begin with the ordinary understanding of authenticity as, roughly, being true to oneself.[1] The concern is that the use of medical enhancements, or at least some such uses, involves the agent’s not being true to herself. Beneath this charge is the idea that there is an underlying entity, the self, to which one must maintain a certain relationship of fidelity. This idea, however, suggests that the nature of the self is substantially independent of the agent’s will; otherwise, an autonomous decision to transform oneself in a particular way could not involve a failure to be faithful, or true, to oneself. According to the charge of inauthenticity, therefore, the self is in an important sense

“given,” an objective entity to which one’s life choices, including endeavors to change oneself, should conform.

Without being entirely sure how to conceptualize the self, at least in any depth or detail, I suggest that the model of the self that is assumed in this charge of inauthenticity is misleading. It seems more consistent with current understandings of the self to maintain that we can transform and, in some sense, even invent ourselves— ourselves—at least to some significant extent, an idea that runs counter to the image of the self as given or static. I will argue, further, that self-transformation through pharmaceutical enhancement is not, per se, an inauthentic act that involves a failure to be faithful to oneself (although I will later have to acknowledge some limits to authentic self-transformation). This thesis can draw support from further reflections on authenticity and narrative identity.

At this point, instead of understanding authenticity—as the critique does—sim- ply as being true to oneself, I recommend a slightly more expansive conception: being true to oneself and presenting oneself to others as one truly is. Authentic individuals express themselves, without pretense or artifice, through their choices and actions. With little tension between who they are and the personas they present to others, they may strike us as especially natural and at ease in their own skin. Amending the briefer analysis of authenticity by adding the idea of presenting oneself truly to others coheres with the observation that inauthenticity, in some cases, involves presenting oneself falsely to others.

Imagine a young couple, vacationing and traveling through Europe, who tell people they meet in their travels that they “met in Oxford.” Suppose, also, that they intentionally Anglicize their accents to strengthen the impression they make. In fact, neither of them has ever set foot in England and each of them has exactly one degree, from an undistinguished American state university. The presentation of themselves as Oxonians is motivated by a desire to impress and to hold special status among their new acquaintances.

Obviously, the couple is displaying considerable inauthenticity. The moral wrong in this case involves intentional deception of others. Of course, attempting to deceive others is pro tanto wrong, and the character trait of dishonesty is a moral vice. But inauthenticity sometimes involves self-deception. Suppose a college professor tells himself that he is a really effective teacher despite the absence of any significant evidence favoring this assessment and despite an abundance of counterevidence consisting of student evaluations and peer observation reports. He lies to himself, ignoring or discounting the evidence, because he needs to feel that he is a good teacher like both of his parents, whose approval he still seeks. Here inauthenticity takes the form of self-deception, which I understand as a species of failing to be true to oneself. (Whether one judges such self-deception morally wrong is likely to depend on whether one believes that the self-deceiving individual can be expected to catch herself in the distortion and put an end to it.)

Do all cases of inauthenticity involve deception of oneself or others? No, in my view, because some cases apparently involve failures of autonomy in the absence of dishonesty. But this complication need not delay our analysis of authenticity in relation to pharmaceutical enhancement. The cases of interest are cases, like that of Francis, in which an agent chooses the enhancement autonomously.

Perhaps we may say that self-enhancement projects that are both honest and sufficiently autonomous are ipso facto authentic. Assuming that this thesis is even close to the truth, it suggests that use of pharmaceuticals for enhancement purposes can be entirely authentic. There is no compelling reason to assume, in advance, that such cases necessarily involve dishonesty, a failure of autonomy, or the violation of any further requirement of authenticity (if I am mistaken that honesty and autonomy are sufficient conditions).

To return to our case, Francis’ proposal to change his personality with pharmaceuticals cannot fairly be accused of inauthenticity. Again, there is no reason to doubt that he is acting autonomously in pursuing this change. He is neither deceiving others about how he really is nor caught up in a trap of self-deception. Suppose he carries out his plan successfully. Francis has become more extraverted, less pessimistic in interpreting others’ words and deeds, and much more focused when he wants to remain concentrated on a task or activity at hand. Could one accuse him of deceiving others—or even himself—by claiming that he’s just posing as an outgoing and focused person? Not at all, because he has changed, just as he intended. If one grants this point, but claims that Francis is still in some way being inauthentic, on the grounds that he is not respecting his “natural” personality and cognitive style, we may fairly respond that this claim is rooted in the dubious idea that one is morally bound to be true to oneself by avoiding deliberate self-transformation. I am aware of no good reason to accept this general proscription. Insofar as many people’s efforts to transform themselves into better people strike nearly all of us as admirable, there is much reason to reject the idea in question.

Some cases of self-transformation, however, are not so easily reconciled with our judgments about authenticity. Suppose, for example, that Jonathan, who is gay, lives in an intolerant community in which he knows that professional and social success are vastly less attainable if one is known to be gay. Rather than hiding his sexual orientation, Jonathan wants to alter the aspect of who he is that would need hiding. So he takes a pharmaceutical that reliably has the effect of eliminating homosexual attraction and desire. He has now transformed himself in a way that he considers— in his social context—to be a social enhancement (where what is “improved” is the capacity to avoid certain spontaneous feelings). The challenge here is that Jonathan’s self-transformation seems highly inauthentic, yet it is unclear that my account— specifically, the suggestion that self-transformation projects that are honest and sufficiently autonomous are ipso facto authentic—can support this judgment.

One might defend the account as it stands on the grounds that Jonathan’s decision seems semi-coerced by his community’s homophobia, in which his selftransformation was (arguably) not sufficiently autonomous to meet the conditions for authenticity. But I suspect that this response would miss much of the point of the present challenge. Even if we tailored details of the case so that Jonathan’s choice


would appear to meet conditions of autonomy, there is something about his deliberate self-transformation—as opposed to the social conditions that motivate it—that seems inauthentic. Yet he is not being dishonest. He knows himself, we may assume, well enough to avoid self-deception. Moreover, following the “enhancement” he is not lying to others: he really does lack homosexual attraction and desire. Yet, one wants to say, there is a sense in which he really is gay—and that his “enhancement” involves a failure to be true to himself.

My suggestion is that some acts of self-transformation are inauthentic not because they are dishonest and not because they are insufficiently autonomous but because they are insufficiently self-respecting.12 I think this condition of authenticity is thwarted by Jonathan’s self-transformation project. Note that the present qualification to the account of authenticity proposed earlier—the adding of this third con- dition—has two important implications. First, it sets limits on the extent to which people may transform themselves, whether using pharmaceuticals or other means, authentically. Thus, even if the image of a preexisting self that exists entirely independently of one’s will is indefensible, the polar-opposite image of a self that is entirely up for voluntary transformation with perfect authenticity is also indefensible. Some acts of deliberate self-transformation fail to show sufficient self-respect and are for this reason inauthentic. Jonathan Glover helpfully discusses “selfcreation” as conscious shaping of one’s own characteristics “while respecting the constraints of natural shape and grain” (Glover 1988: 136). Although Glover was discussing the extent to which self-transformation is possible, I am appropriating this moderate image as characterizing the extent to which authentic selftransformation is possible. We may authentically transform ourselves using pharmaceuticals (and other enhancement technologies) within limits set by the importance of self-respect. Meanwhile, I deny that there is any good reason to think that Francis’ self-transformation involves a failure to respect himself and, for this reason, inauthenticity.

So far in this section we have focused on the concept of authenticity and have vindicated Francis’ self-transformation project in these terms. We can advance similar points in terms of narrative identity. Assuming again that Francis carries out his self-transformation project successfully, his use of an SSRI and stimulant has had a significant effect on his narrative identity, but there is no reason to think that this effect on his identity is morally problematic. After all, what does narrative identity concern? It concerns a person’s self-conception, what she regards as most important to who she is, her self-narrated inner story. And who Francis is includes the sort of person he wanted to become just as much as it includes what he was like beforehand. His inner story is a continuing narrative, and, to the extent that circumstances allow him to make autonomous choices and act successfully with regard to who he is, he is the author of that narrative. In this way, it may be helpful to think of deliberate self-transformation as the autonomous writing of one’s self-narrative. In writing this particular story, Francis expresses his values and priorities. And because he does so without deception, a failure of autonomy, or insufficient self-respect, Francis’ project of self-transformation via use of pharmaceuticals is authentic. Jonathan’s self-transformation project, by contrast, involves inauthenticity through insufficient self-respect, which also damages the quality of his self-narrative.

  • [1] The discussion of this section draws several ideas from my 2005a: 108-113 and 2012: 75-78.
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