MORALITY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION, #22–All About Authenticity.

By Robert Hanna

“The Human Condition,” by Thomas Whitaker

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Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and The Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality

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This installment contains sections VIII.1 — VIII.1.3.

But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.

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VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

We’ve just seen how, in Camus’s hands, Sisyphus’s mythic condition is an existential metaphor for the human condition in general, and more specifically for the “human, all-too-human” predicament in a fundamentally physical, mindless, naturally mechanized, objectively real, and thus utterly meaningless natural and social world.

Hence Sisyphus’s condition and predicament are really our condition and our predicament.

And we also raised the questions: how could anyone in Sisyphus’s condition be able to say sincerely, “all is well”?, and how could anyone in Sisyphus’s condition be genuinely happy?

That in turn raises the existential question, how could anyone in Sisyphus’s condition be authentic?

And that brings us back to morality, since authenticity is the existentialist’s conception of the highest good, and therefore, according to the existentialist, everyone ought always to be pursuing authenticity.

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

But what is authenticity in the specifically classical existentialist sense of that term?

I say “specifically classical existentialist sense of that term,” because there are various uses of the terms “authenticity” and “authentic” in popular culture and pop psychology that are frequently criticized for presenting an approach to human morality and human life that’s “romantic and slightly self-pitying,”[i] self-indulgent, relativistic, and egoistic, even downright silly.

To be sure, it’s quite true that French existentialism did have a significant impact on avant-garde, “beat,” “cool,” and “hep-cat” popular culture in the USA — especially New York City and its café scene — during the 1950s.[ii]

And certainly it’s true that some people who belonged to that movement — self-professed existentialists — were indeed, “romantic and slightly self-pitying,” self-indulgent, relativistic, and egoistic, even downright silly.

See, e.g., The Hollywood send-up of existentialism (“empathicalism”) in the 1957 movie Funny Face

But as much as I like Audrey Hepburn, that’s specifically not what I have in mind by “existentialism.”

So, looking at the works of the paradigmatic existentialists (Heidegger, Sartre, De Beauvoir, and Camus) and the paradigmatic proto-existentialists (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Augustine, Cervantes, Pascal, Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Kafka), we can form a composite picture of the classical existentialist concept of authenticity.

Authenticity in the specifically classical existentialist sense of that term, then, is

(i) radically freely believing-in one thing, as a way of living an individual rational human life, also lived in solidarity with others,

or equivalently,

(ii) the radically free self-unification of one’s personality, throughout (what remains of) an individual rational human life, also lived in solidarity with others,

or equivalently,

(iii) having integrity in the deepest possible sense, throughout (what remains of) an individual rational human life, also lived in solidarity with others,

or equivalently and somewhat more explicitly,

(iv) the overall coherence of one’s desires, feelings, beliefs, choices, and actions, achieved as the result of wholehearted radical freedom, and experienced as such, throughout (what remains of) an individual rational human life, also lived in solidarity with others,

or equivalently and much more explicitly,

not merely being alive, but having a real, complete, and coherent individual rational human life life, also lived in solidarity with others, achieved by being true to your own sub-projects, all of which are organized around a single fundamental project, where this is achieved by radically freely and fully facing up to the present fact of your own essentially embodied finitude, by radically freely and fully facing up to the past fact of your own origins and your own personal history, no matter how bad and awful it has been, and by radically freely and fully facing up to the future fact of your own death, thereby taking radical full responsibility for all of them.

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

Radical freedom, or the radical human capacity to choose, act, and take fully responsibility, without any of those choices, acts, and takings-of-responsibility being in any way either causally determined or probabilistically random (indeterministic) and no matter what the circumstances, determines our authenticity.

Thus radical freedom in the classical existentialist sense is an act of self-creation: as Sartre puts it, we are nothing but we make of ourselves.

I also want to draw particular attention to the fact that radical freedom in the classical existentialist sense, and therefore authenticity, entails that at least sometimes you must take full responsibility for things over which you have (or had, or will have) no control.

Let’s briefly consider one striking real-world example of this, the case of a former Yale Law School student, Ketema Ross:

Early one morning in 2007, Ross heard President George W. Bush [Yale] ’68 telling him that his next-door neighbors were traitors who needed to be gotten rid of. Ross broke into the elderly couple’s apartment and beat them with a broom handle. (They both survived the attack.) Charged with assault, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Now Ross says he has recovered his sanity, and a court order says he is no longer “a substantial danger.” And, after seven years of confinement in a psychiatric hospital, he has regained his freedom, mostly: by court order, he was conditionally discharged on January 11 [2015].[iii]

What radical freedom entails is that it’s really possible that Ross was radically free even during at least part of his “seven years of confinement in a psychiatric hospital.”

If so, then Ross had radical freedom even before he “regained his freedom … by court order.”

Moreover, what radical freedom requires is that Ross, whether during his enforced confinement in a psychiatric hospital, or since 2015,

(i) be able to take full moral responsibility for his violent actions under the grip of his schizophrenia, even though he was not legally responsible,

and also that Ross

(ii) be ultimately able to say, like Sisyphus, that “all is well.”

This radical freedom defies comprehension in terms of merely instrumental reasons, whether egoistic or utilitarian; and it requires, in effect, Pascal’s optimism.

Ketema Ross’s being able to say that “all is well” in this Pascalian sense is categorically not the same as an ordinary “feeling good about things” or an ordinary “feeling good about yourself.”

On the contrary, it’s a wholehearted, activist version of what the classical Stoics call ataraxia,what the Buddhists call nirvana, and what Nietzsche calls amor fati, the “love of fate.”

In achieving such a state of mind via your radical freedom, you do not merely passively accept things exactly as they are: instead, you actively affirm or, in effect, actively love things exactly as they are, and thereby change your life around them — as per Wallace Stevens’s man with the blue guitar:

The man bent over his guitar,

A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,

A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar

Of things exactly as they are.”[iv]

So, since authenticity according to classical existentialism is the highest human good, then according to its moral theory, we ought always to exercise our radical freedom in this Pascalian, Stoic, Buddhist, Nietzschean, and Stevensian sense.

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

In the brilliant opening sentences of her book, Humanistic Existentialism, Hazel Barnes writes that

[f]or almost a century now, prevailing psychologies and the literature written under their influence have agreed that men cherish the illusion of freedom while being in fact determined by heredity, by environment, and by early childhood experiences [and more generally, by fundamentally physical facts about the past together with the laws of nature]. Humanistic existentalism challenges this doctrine and claims that exactly the reverse is true: every man is free, but most men, fearing the consequences and the responsibilities of freedom, refuse to acknowledge its presence in themselves and would deny it to others. So radical a shift in point of view can be effected only when accompanied by a reorientation of all human attitudes. It requires a specific psychology to support it; it demands a reappraisal of the human situation.[v]

What Barnes is specifically emphasizing is this: that the classical existentialist thesis that radical freedom is the source of authenticity, the highest human good, and therefore that we ought always to exerise our radical freedom, directly entails an equally profound truth of existential moral theory, namely that

every man is free, but most men, fearing the consequences and the responsibilities of freedom, refuse to acknowledge its presence in themselves and would deny it to others.

The “human, all-too-human” refusal to acknowledge radical freedom in oneself, and the resolution to deny it to others — freedom-refusal and freedom-denial — is the same as inauthenticity, which in turn is morally impermissible.

Inauthenticity thus expresses our half-heartedness or double-heartedness, our conflicted personality, our lack of integrity, our psychological incoherence, our self-conflict, our self-deception, our “bad faith,” our phoneyness, our failure to be true to ourselves, and above all our resentfulness towards those who would be radically free, and our cruelty in denying them the exercise of their radical freedom, especially by means of coercion.

NOTES

[i] That’s Thomas Nagel criticizing Camus’s take on the absurd. See T. Nagel, “The Absurd,” in T. Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 10–23, at p. 22.

[ii] See, e.g., G. Kotkin, Existential America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003), esp. chs. 5–7.

[iii] C. Bass, “By Reason of Insanity,” Yale Alumni Magazine (May/June 2015): 48–53, at p. 49, available online at URL = <http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/4076/by-reason-of-insanity>.

[iv] W. Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Poetry 50 (May 1937), canto I.

[v] H. Barnes, Humanistic Existentialism: The Literature of Possibility (Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1958), p. 3.

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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