- Commentary on "Neurotechnologies, Relational Autonomy, and Authenticity"
Mary Walker and Catriona Mackenzie's (2019) "Neurotechnologies, Relational Autonomy, and Authenticity" provides much needed reflection on the lens through which ethical concerns about the use of neurotechnologies are usually viewed. There is a general worry about the sometimes rapid and radical effects that such technologies can have on personalities and values. These concerns are often described as worries about how such technologies might alter our identities or compromise our authenticity. Clear theorizing of the notoriously slippery notions of "identity" and "authenticity" is, however, surprisingly rare in these discussions. Walker and Mackenzie's paper undertakes that theoretical work, arguing that the major concerns raised with respect to identity and authenticity in this context are better understood as concerns about autonomy. To make this case, the paper first provides an account of authenticity that seeks to steer between the extremes of essentialist and existentialist views. Walker and Mackenzie's view sees authenticity as a matter of either acknowledgment or endorsement, sometimes one and sometimes the other. Authenticity, in this sense, contributes to one dimension of a complex notion of autonomy, and its implications for the ethics of neurotechnologies is understood as stemming from its effects on autonomy.
This is a very rich investigation that makes multiple contributions. The discussion of authenticity and its connection to autonomy is not only useful for clearer thinking about these neuroethical problems but more broadly as well. The recognition of the social aspect of these issues and the multidimensionality of neuroethical problems that have been typically considered along a single dimension is also immensely important. My goal in this commentary is to explore Walker and Mackenzie's picture of authenticity and its relation to autonomy in a bit more detail and then to consider the implications of this exploration for the application of their analysis to the ethical concerns about neurotechnologies offered at the end of their paper.
First, a few more words on the picture of authenticity developed here. Existing views of authenticity, we are shown, tend to cluster around two poles. The essentialist pole understands identity roughly in terms of being true to a [End Page 129] pregiven essence, while the existentialist pole sees it as something we create through active choice. Each picture includes some serious difficulties. It is hard to believe that there is a clear, pregiven essence to be discovered, but it is also implausible to think that we can make ourselves out of whole cloth. The solution offered is to conceive of authenticity as a more complicated notion that can rest on either endorsement or acknowledgment. Sometimes authenticity is enhanced by acting on motives we have chosen, and with which we wholeheartedly identify, but sometimes it is enhanced by acknowledging features of ourselves discovered and articulated through "an active process of interpreting and evaluating our identities, values and commitments and making decisions about whether and how we will act on them" (21). Some authentic features, in other words, are chosen as features we wish to have, and others are acknowledged as features we in fact do have. In the latter case they may be features that we wish we did not have, and we may come up with strategies to avoid letting them play much of a role in our lives. We are told, moreover, that authenticity is not just a matter of what is "inside" or chosen but is "conceptualized in a way that is consistent with recognition of the socially constituted and situated nature of the self" (Walker and Mackenzie 2019, 107). Further, Walker and Mackenzie draw on Charles Taylor's argument that authenticity "requires not disavowal but acceptance of unconditional relationships and moral demands beyond the self" (107).
This all seems absolutely right and extremely promising. Pointing out the way in which much neuroethical discussion has assumed a basically essentialist picture of authenticity and making a forceful case that authenticity is a much more complex notion unquestionably pushes the overall discussion forward a great deal. Once this important observation has been made, however, some questions naturally arise about precisely how the multidimensional picture of authenticity presented is supposed to work and how it relates to more traditional...