Authentic Desires and Excellence

Often within contemporary liberal democracies it is suggested that people should be authentic and only pursue goals that they endorse and they should also avoid refraining from satiating a desire, because society views that desire negatively.  The preceding is a popularly held conception of authenticity at its most basic level.  This conception of authenticity does not seem to be a problematic ideal, as it encourages integrity rather than gravelling servility, but the difficulty is that this conception of authenticity also tends to encourage self-satisfaction and can push people away from striving for excellence and developing their own potential as much as it can push people to develop their capabilities.

The difficulty is that some people may have a desire to excel, but they refrain from acting on this desire, because it would involve giving up the satiation of some other desire. In this case both desires are authentic desires in that they both are desires of the person, and they are not desires that the person wants to be rid of,  like the desire for alcohol that a recovering alcoholic has.  For example, I may feel a desire to excel by volunteering to promote literacy within my community, but due to the fact that I also have the desire to experience as much material comfort as possible I forgo the volunteer opportunity because it conflicts with the other desire, as volunteering involves giving up time that I could use to watch TV, play video games, or eat fine food.  In this case, both volunteering and experiencing material comfort are authentic decisions in that they are responses to authentic desires, but it seems like we would think less of the person who chooses to satiate the desire for material comfort over the one who pursues the desire to volunteer to promote literacy. We think that the person who pursues the desire to volunteer to promote literacy is somehow a more admirable person, because they correspond more strongly with the type of person that we aspire to become, than the person who chooses material comfort over volunteering to promote literacy. The one who chooses material comfort is certainly not a bad person; they may be perfectly humorous, genuine and nice, but they seem to have failed because they have chosen a fleeting experience of comfort over developing their character.

This example conveys two related yet distinct sets of desires. On one hand we have a desire for excellence.  That is we have a desire to become a certain sort of admirable person. On the other hand we have authentic desires to have certain kinds of experiences. These two elements are not unrelated as my character may influence the kinds of experiences I choose to pursue, but nonetheless they are distinct as the desire to see a concert is qualitatively distinct from my desire to be more courageous, generous or wise.

To get back to the preceding example we might say that we think less of those who let their desire for experiences of certain kinds prevent them from acting on their desire to excel, that is their desire to become a more excellent person. The reason for this is not an empty moralistic judgment that is the leftover of puritanical religions. Rather, the reason for this judgment is that ultimately people have to live with the fact that they have made certain choices to develop their character in particular ways, whereas the experiences that a person has are far less important. I may be upset that I have never got to see a band that I love perform, but if I pursue the authentic desire for notoriety at the expense of my authentic desire to be a good friend I have engaged in a much larger failing. Such an act reveals that I am weak-willed and have deeply problematic priorities and the same can be said of the person who lets their desire for material comfort prevent them from promoting literacy.

To get back to the issue of authenticity we have two sets of authentic desires. We have authentic desires for certain kinds of experiences, and authentic desires to excel, or put differently to become the kind of person we find most admirable. Ultimately, if we let our desire for certain kinds of experiences get in the way of our desire to excel we have failed in the task of living a fully developed human life. Those human lives that we esteem are admirable not because those who lived them had wonderful experiences, but because these people had admirable traits that lead them to do excellent things. Consequently, we need to prioritize the authentic desires we experience that are most important, and avoid letting trivial, but authentic, desires get in the way of fully developing our potential for excellence.





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