To Thine Own Self Be True: Authenticity as a Helpful Guide for Making Ethical Decisions

For the past several weeks I have been thinking about an article in the Vancouver Sun written by Douglas Todd.

The article, written in the context of the Olympics, suggests that a helpful tool for making ethical decisions is authenticity–i.e. the ethical merit of a decision can be measured by the extent to which it reflects “being true to oneself”. The importance of making tough ethical decisions remains significant even as the morally “mixed-bag” that was the Olympics fades into the rearview mirror.

The question Todd asks is therefore an important one:  should our ethical decisions take into account our own unique identities?

Before answering this question a little more needs to be said regarding what is exactly meant by the words “be true to yourself”.  Certainly authenticity should not be taken to mean that a person can in good conscience suspend their moral faculties and merely respond to situations with a “gut-reaction”.  Rather Todd argues that authenticity should be understood in light of the good of the community.  In other words when an individual is making an ethical decision part of the process should include asking themself how they, in light of who they are as an individual, could best contribute to the good of the community.

If understood in this light the idea of being true to oneself suddenly seems like a helpful criterion.  For instance it holds together in healthy tension the worth and autonomy of individual people and humanity’s intrinsically communal nature.  For this and other reasons Todd’s approach is one that I find helpful provided the following nuance is added:  rather than making decisions on who we are vis-a-vis the community we should make decisions based on who we ought to be.   Because it is fresh in my experience I’ll use my Olympic experience as an example to explain what I mean:

In a previous blog I expressed my mixed feelings towards the Olympics but also noted that I wouldn’t be donning a balaclava for the purpose of protesting.  Instead I engaged in moderate participation in the Olympic festivities including several trips to Robson Square and a medal ceremony at B.C. place highlighted by an excellent performance by Burton Cummings.  My participation was not a matter of being caught up in the moment or compromising my convictions about the Olympics by giving in and joining the party but rather a matter of being “true to myself”.  I am not a protestor.  It’s simply not a part of my makeup–rather I believe that my role vis-a-vis the communities of which I am a part requires me to participate in the good while trying to abstain from and draw attention to the bad.  That being said it is difficult for me to understand how I would have become aware of the Olympic “darkside” without people being true to their “calling” as protestors.  It is equally difficult for me to perceive how I would see the good without people in my life who simply enjoy the party as it presents itself.

It therefore seems most likely to me that the potential of ethical success in a given situation is maximized when individuals make the best possible and authentic decisions in the context of what is best for the community.  Although it is difficult for those of us who tend to find themselves on the ends of the spectrum (an Olympic e.g. are protestors and Olympic fanatics) to recognize the value of those on the opposite side the fact remains that our various communities whether they be families, cities, churches, or country may be less than they are today without the presence of the other.

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