The problem of flexibility

The case of Betty shows that authenticity is a regulative and open-ended ideal that requires us to stay open to new information and evidence, both factual and evaluative. We strive to build a congruous whole from the diverse aspects of our selves. Yet, on the other hand, we do not want to commit ourselves to any particular self once and for all, however coherent that self may be. Instead, we want to remain open to new experiences that can trigger change, learning, and growth (even if it is dubious whether authenticity may require us to continuously seek for such growth). In fact, psychological studies on the notion of "true feeling" indicate a strong connection between authentic emotions and personal change (Morgan & Averill, 1992).[1]

This suggests that there is after all an intimate connection between sincerity and authenticity. Sincere and spontaneous emotions constantly provide us with new information that has the capacity to challenge our present understanding of the world and ourselves, including the emotions we conceive of as authentic in virtue of their coherence with our other mental states. For instance, I can feel happy that my friend got a tenured job that both she and I applied for and disappointed at the fact that she, rather than I, got the job. Here I have two conflicting emotions about the same event, my friend's success, evaluated differently by my two emotions. The emotions are ambivalent but I have equally good reasons for both of them.[2] Happiness for my friend's success is warranted by moral reasons that emerge from our friendship, while disappointment at the same outcome from my perspective is warranted by eudemonistic reasons that focus on my personal well-being. Accordingly, both emotions in the example qualify as authentic even if one of them may come to dominate the other in my mental life because ambivalence is difficult to endure in the long run. Yet this kind of undistorted openness to our mental states is essential to self-knowledge and our personal development. Therefore, sincerity is a necessary condition of emotional authenticity after all (see also Averill, 2005).

In the first place, an authentic emotion must be sincere in the sense of being psychologically real, whether it emerges spontaneously or only through conscious emotion management. This means that sincerity must be distinguished from spontaneity in the context of authenticity even if our spontaneous emotions typically respond to perceived changes in the condition of our values and concerns quite reliably. For the same reason, mere display without a proper physiological-cum-experiential state does not qualify as an authentic emotion even if the display were coherent with one's internally justified beliefs and values.[3] In another sense, sincerity is necessary for authenticity because latter is not primarily a state but a regulative ideal of a process. For it is essential to authenticity that one's coherent pattern of emotions, beliefs, and values remains open to revision and change. Indeed, authenticity is a regulative ideal just because all such coherent patterns are intermediary stops in a continuum that does not have a final end state. This flexibility is so vital to authenticity that the entire ideal becomes unattainable and incomprehensible if a person ceases to be responsive to new factual and evaluative evidence (see also Pugmire, 1998, p. 131).[4]

The flexible nature of authenticity is consistent with Morgan and Averill's research on "true feelings". Their finding that "true feelings" often relate to a resolution of a personal crisis or internal turmoil indicates that these experiences involve a transition towards a more coherent and integrated self. In fact, authentic emotions are often both constitutive and expressive of a restored or renewed integrity in one's self. The integrity account of authenticity is thus capable of combining both the normative and the innovative aspects of authenticity. Therefore, I agree with Averill and Nunley who argue that "an authentic response is one that stems from the self that reflects the true ideals and values of the person" (Averill & Nunley, 1992, p. 184).

  • [1] When asked to compare episodes of "true feelings" with ordinary emotional episodes of similar length and intensity, 92% of the subjects in Morgan and Averill's study endorsed the phrase "the true feelings taught me more about myself ", while 73% subscribed to the phrase "the true feelings helped more in clarifying my values". Morgan and Averill summed up these results by concluding that 'true feelings' can reflect a renewed commitment to previously held beliefs and values, or they can signal a change in beliefs and values, a new self-in-the-making" (Morgan & Averill, 1992, p. 117).
  • [2] I return to this example in the next chapter, where I will argue that this kind of ambivalence is not strict because the opposite emotions do not have the same object even if they are about the same event. Greenspan (1988, pp. 109-136) provides an example of strict emotional ambivalence: the simultaneous love and hate of a nonchalant person. Here love is warranted by the energising spur that it gives towards the socially valuable end of bonding, whether or not this end is achievable in the particular case. Yet the subject may also hate the person for his nonchalance because that trait hurts her feelings. I don't think that the impersonal, utilitarian reason warrants love in this case. Therefore, hate would come out as a more authentic emotion in my view. However, Greenspan does not discuss this case of strict ambivalence in terms of emotional authenticity but instead as an example of rationally appropriate emotional ambivalence.
  • [3] Of course, bodily expression of an emotion is one way of inducing a corresponding real if only faint emotional feeling in oneself, as a large body of psychological research attests (see e.g. Laird, 2007). However, if this causal link for some reason fails, there is no emotion to be appraised in terms of authenticity.
  • [4] I am aware that this conclusion goes against an influential folk understanding of authenticity as being resistant to change, come what may. I admit that authenticity may in some exceptional cases be manifested as steadfastness and robust commitment to values which together with equally firm beliefs result in resistance to change. More often, however, inflexibility and stubbornness are symptoms of a personality disorder. In any case, resistance to change is a contingent rather than a necessary feature of authenticity.
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