- Commentary on "Neurotechnologies, Relational Autonomy, and Authenticity"
In "Neurotechnologies, Relational Autonomy, and Authenticity," Mary Walker and Catriona Mackenzie (2019) engage with discourses surrounding the morality of neurotechnologies, arguing that these debates have been largely mistaken in their focus on worries about the effects of emerging technologies on human authenticity. They offer an alternative, autonomy-centered approach that problematizes concerns about authenticity as necessarily "essentialist or existentialist views of the self" that "transcends socialization" (98). Instead, they suggest that, although authenticity is a condition for self-governance, autonomy itself is the more helpful way to frame current debates about neurotechnologies.
The goals of their paper, Walker and Mackenzie claim, include: 1) a reconceptualization of authenticity and the self without their essentializing gloss; 2) an understanding of authenticity as a component of autonomy; 3) a turn toward relational autonomy in order to achieve greater clarity about both; and 4) an implementation of a new understanding of authenticity, autonomy, and the self in the moral debates about current and developing neurotechnologies. They also suggest that neurotechnologies might very well be beneficial in improving patient autonomy competencies, justifying their further development and further deflating concerns about their effect on patients' authentic identities. While I find both the topic and the direction of the arguments to be timely, necessary, and insightful, I want to offer a few thoughts that might help move the authenticity-autonomy-neurotechnology discourse toward some broader criteria for both critique and evaluation—criteria that include concerns about the self and about autonomy and that incorporate empirical data as a way to evaluate theorizing about both.
I begin with agreement: I find the authors' view that the focus on the self (and thus on authenticity—in this commentary, I use the shorthand of "self" or "identity" when addressing issues about an "authentic self") in discourses about neurotechnologies is essentialist, existential, or too formalistic (e.g., Frankfurt 1971) to be largely correct. Their suggestion that "authenticity might instead be [End Page 120] conceptualized in a way that is consistent with recognition of the socially constituted and situated nature of the self" and is thus consistent with "relational approaches to autonomy," however, requires a bit more consideration (107). On the one hand, as someone whose work centers narrative approaches to moral theory, I find this claim to be persuasive: limiting identity to a "pure," authentic self can amount to a caricature of splendid existential isolation; abstracting the self with procedural requirements of self-control toward one's will can both ignore the deeply social aspects of who we are and exclude a vast number of human beings who already take their sense of themselves to be deeply embedded in the intersecting moral geographies of their lives. Indeed, I take the authors' claim that "authenticity should avoid regarding the self as separate from or prior to social relationships and socialization" to be right (108). On the other hand, as someone who has also worked extensively within the narrative discourses on personal identity, I find that the shift from centering the self to focusing on autonomy (however relational) within debates about neurotechnologies calls for a bit more analysis.
2. Autonomy or authenticity?
Let's begin with Walker and Mackenzie's claims that the idea that (relational) autonomy "is a broader concept than authenticity" (108) and that authenticity "should be understood as one component of self-governance, and that the value of authenticity derives from its role in supporting self-governance" (108). In fact, Walker and Mackenzie (2019) wish to "extend" the idea of authenticity to include "endorsement and acknowledgement" of our self-defining actions, where "endorsement-based accounts [that] assume that only reasons for action with which we identify are authentic" (109) are supplemented by acknowledgment-based ones, which allow that "both chosen and unchosen features of one's identity, and both chosen and unchosen social relationships can be authentic" (110). Importantly, then, we do not need to choose among our reasons and actions to determine which self they constitute or which identity is truly "authentic."
So far so good. But I want to put a little pressure on the authors' argument that autonomy ought to be the proper worry of...