A Ku Indeed!

Is Authenticity a Moral Notion?

Posted in Course Material, Existentialism by Chris on September 4, 2007

One of the things that the existentialists are known for is their almost collective desire to move away from moral categories. Nietzsche says that we must learn to move “beyond good and evil” whereas for Kierkegaard, the religious existentialist, a proper relationship to God reveals that ethical categories are contingent, such that one’s relationship to God transcends ethical categories.

Usually what existentialists do is replace moral talk with talk about authenticity. Has the person achieved the ability to “be who they already are” (to use Nietzsche’s famous motto)? If so, then we don’t say that the authentic person is morally better than the inauthentic person; instead, we say that the inauthentic person is fake or counterfeit while the authentic person is genuine. Or we might say that the authentic person is “resolute” (to use Heidegger’s terminology) or “strong and noble” (to use Nietzsche’s).

Of course, the question we come back to is this: aren’t these ways of describing loaded?

Isn’t it better to be noble than to be slavish? Better to be resolute than irresolute? Better to be genuine than fake? Some, like Heidegger, seem to just rule this out completely. Both ways of being — resolute or irresolute — are equally ‘ways of being’ for a person. So it’s hard to say that one is ‘better’ than the other. All we can say is that one is genuine and the other is not.

In Heidegger’s case, I wonder whether his way of talking hides a presupposition — that moral language hides talk about ontology. So when he says that X can’t be better than Y because X and Y are both equally ‘ways of being’ he seems to be suggesting that one of the two would have to not be a way of being (for the thing in question) for it to be ‘worse’ than the other option. And clearly he isn’t about to say that inauthenticity is less ‘real’ than authenticity.

But are moral categories restricted to ways of talking about ontology? Does one thing have to be “less real” than another thing in order for it to be “worse”? Can’t being inauthentic be worse than being authentic merely because one is less genuine than the other? Of course, I recognize that someone might ask: “on the basis of what?” My initial response: it isn’t what it claims to be. But, “why is this worse than being what one claims to be?”

If we aren’t prepared to say that in the one case a thing is less ‘real’ — and so ontology backs up our moral intuitions — than what is it that is performing that role? Maybe nothing is? Perhaps authenticity is moral primitive –it doesn’t lead to the good life for us, it rather expresses what the good life is for us (here I’m thinking of Slote’ agent-basing examples).

No doubt, there are more questions here than answers!


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