Authentically Unethical

Authenticity is the among the favourite buzzwords of the day. (My pal Andrew Potter’s recent book, The Authenticity Hoax, is a wonderful take-down of the concept.)

There are lots of ways the feel-good word, “authenticity”, can fail us. See, for a start, this blog entry by Deborah Gruenfeld and Lauren Zander, for the Harvard Business Review: Authentic Leadership Can Be Bad Leadership.

…being who you are and saying what you think can be highly problematic if the real you is a jerk. In practice, we’ve observed that placing value on being authentic has become an excuse for bad behavior among executives….

Gruenfeld and Zander’s basic point is that while authenticity (being who you really are) is great in principle, is authenticity the right goal if “who you really are” is a jerk? And in fact, there’s a fine line between being a jerk and being unethical. For starters, although most of us have our moments of rudeness, it is unethical — a serious character flaw — to consistently act like a jerk. Consistently acting rudely demonstrates a lack of respect for other people, and that’s unethical. So aiming for authenticity might not be all it’s cracked up to be, especially when compared to the more obvious aim of being a decent human being.

(See also Andrew’s Authenticity Hoax Blog.)

1 comment so far

  1. Greg Sadler on

    Looking at the HBR article, what they’re now calling “authentic” just means “sincere”, or not “hypocritical”. And, certainly, if one’s a jerk, being “authentic” simply means giving full rein to one’s jerkiness, in ways that are usually held back — and for good reason, since most people over the long haul don’t like jerks.

    Practically every serious moral theory out there in its full application — embodied in lives and communities, rather than just being an abstract theory — requires that some “natural” (or “authentic”) aspects of human motivation, behavior, desires, emotions, etc. be modified, pruned away, repressed — and social condemnation (even ridicule) of these is in general a good thing.

    The goal generally — very explicit in any sort of virtue ethics but there in other moral theories as well — is to thereby enable human beings to realize their nature more fully — a different, better, richer sort of authenticity unavailable to the “authentic” jerk.


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