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Authenticity and Enhancement

David Velleman, in the only paper of which I am aware that makes a defensible case against euthanasia, suggests that sometimes expanding our range of options is a bad thing, even if we choose wisely from our options. Velleman gives the example of dueling: I may be better off for lacking (by law) the option of dueling, because were the option available to me, I might be better off accepting a challenge than losing face, but I am better off still if I am never challenged. Velleman’s utilizes this claim in arguing against the legalization of the right to die: if I have the option of dying, then I may feel that I am required to justify my existence, especially when my continuing life is an emotional and financial burden on my family.

What interests me, here, is how an existentialist might respond to this argument and might urge its generalization. Existentialists, in the mould of Jean-Paul Sartre, might say that policies that lead me to think that I must justify my existence are a good thing; they lead me to recognize what was in any case always true. It is bad faith, or inauthenticity, not to face squarely the fact that I implicitly choose, and therefore am responsible for, my existence.

Now, I don’t intend to defend the underlying existentialist claim (moreover, even if the existentialist claim is true we might want to oppose the legalization of euthanasia on just the grounds Velleman suggests: we might think that the very ill or otherwise vulnerable ought to be spared the burden of justifying their existence). What interests me, instead, is a more sociological point. The conception of authenticity as consisting in resolute choice which lies at the heart of Sartrean existentialism resonates deeply with us, yet the expansion of options has not, so far as I can tell, led us to think that we need to justify our choices. Instead, we have understood our expanded options in terms of a rival conception of authenticity.

According to this rival conception, authenticity consists in harmony with who one deeply is. The idea is that each of us has some sort of essence, which places constraints on what we may authentically choose. It would be inauthentic, say, for me to choose to alter my personality if in doing so I moved out of step with who I most deeply am.

Now while many people have argued that various forms of enhancement threaten our authenticity in this sense, my suggestion is that instead these enhancements have been understood as enhancing authenticity itself. Sex change operations are the most obvious examples here: these are always understood as aligning the person with who they really are, deep down.  Peter Kramer reports that his patients experienced anti-depressants in the same kind of way: as helping them to feel ‘themselves’ (perhaps for the first time in their lives).

Perhaps Sartre was right, at least about one thing. Whether he was right in condemning it as bad faith or not, the pressure to see ourselves as having an essence, to which we must conform, weighs more heavily with most of us than the possibility of seeing ourselves as something to be created. Our new technologies might have allowed us to see ourselves as existing in a space of possibilities, between which we might choose and with which we could play; instead, we seem to see them as opportunities to iron out the kinks in who we truly are.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. I think another issue that needs to be explored here is the connection between “authenticity” as you describe it and identity. Am I the same person as I was five minutes ago, or as I will be five minutes from now? Intuitively, the answer to that question depends on how much I have changed / will change. Perhaps one reason we fear change, or the awareness of too many possibilities, is that it erodes our sense of a continuous identity, and consequently risks making us lose our bearings altogether. To avoid this we either convince ourselves that we have less choice than we really do, or take active steps to limit our choice (for example by opposing euthanasia).

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