OUR IMMORAL OBSESSION WITH “AUTHENTICITY” AND THE PERILS OF SELF-ACTUALISATION
(Returning to the moral essence of “identity”)
Whilst undoubtedly well-intentioned, positive psychology has often been criticised for being unduly individualistic in its ontology. Founded in a desire to rebalance a perceived over-emphasis of the “wounded self” in psychoanalysis, and to rectify the exploitative conditioning of behaviourism, positive psychology examines how to generate personal well-being and a “positive” life. Yet, sadly, Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” and subsequent “self-determination” theories (that focused mainly on individual “psychological functioning”) were quickly meshed with libertarian ideology and its pursuit of negative, personal freedom into a romantic tale of heroic self-actualisation.
In this ever more uncertain and dangerous world, where traditional values and communities are being eroded, and external change is constant… or so the story went… we can only truly rely upon ourselves. Hence, to master the rugged seas of postmodern anxiety and realise “our best self” we have to embark on a quest for authenticity. Successful living means to connect to our very “essence” and live in accordance with our “soul”. Of course, most of this is fiction…
Contrary to simplistic but popular ideas of self-actualisation, like Dan Pink’s “autonomy-purpose-mastery” mantra, mature identity formation is not just about intrinsic motivation or the fulfillment of individual psychological needs. (I can be intrinsically motivated to do many bad things!) On the contrary, identity is an essentially relational meaning-making process, centered in the active and dialogic positioning of ourselves in a web of relations and relatedness. Hence identity formation is intrinsically a moral act, as it mediates our standing towards others and society, and determines what things “mean to us”. In this context, “identity” serves not only to interpret our life and behaviour in the present, but also connects us to the future. We construct an evaluative narrative of the Self that inspires the kind of life we want to live and who we want to become.
Unfortunately, in spite of the hype, “authenticity” here often fails to provide an effective (moral) criterion to guide our lives: especially when it overemphasizes our own thoughts, feelings, desires and passions, it quickly becomes an excuse for self-centeredness, selfishness and a lack of engaged citizenship. This dynamic is also exacerbated by increasing societal pressures to constantly polish and exhibit our “private Self[ie]s”, especially on social media, thus increasingly crowding out and silencing the “public Self” — our supporting cast in a collective identity that does not show us at “centre stage”. Most shockingly, then, what is dubbed “authentic” often simply reconfirms a very narrow template of stereotypical behaviours that propagate the hegemonic paradigm of positional consumerism and individualism — thus obstructing any more profound examination of our values and motives.
Undoubtedly, the maintenance of a coherent sense of Self has become more difficult in our plural postmodern society — but, rather than taking undue shortcuts for (im)moral orientation, we must invest in a deeper understanding of ethical “options” and a more active participation in societal dialogue to find collective and individual answers. Lest we might mistake emotivism for significance and selfishness for (good) character — and that would be tragic for both ourselves and the world around us. “Being our best” must never become an excuse for not “doing our best”. Or as Frank Martela points out: the meaning of our life is often simply what we mean for others — authenticity alone won’t do the trick.