Identity and Authenticity

This new use of genetic testing has raised a series of intriguing questions. If genetics is what makes one a "real" Native American or a "real" Jew, then is the DNA self the authentic self? Increasingly, DNA testing does establish criminal identity, parentage, and paternity. At stake in this discourse is how one defines and creates identity. In reflecting on this problem, the work of Charles Taylor is useful. Taylor notes that modernity threatens an authentic sense of identity in several ways.

For Taylor, the sense of self is diminished by "three malaises." First is an increasing individualism, the idea that the conscience and the consciousness of the self is shaped by our attachment to freedom understood as autonomy from hierarchy, order, and authority. The self is understood less as a person within a social structure but far more narrowly, and this may well "flatten and narrow our lives, making them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society." Genetic knowledge, in this view, portends an ever greater threat in this direction—it is not just the individual person but her genes that seem to direct the will. Taylor's second malaise is the cluster of fears about the use of instrumental reason, technology, and efficiency as both explanatory and justifying. For Taylor, who understands the usefulness and libratory possibility of technology, the critique is still important; he argues that devices, technological solutions, and a cost-benefit strategy will also "flatten" the moral self. Taylor's final concern is that a focus on the value of an atomized self, in a technological world driven primarily by instrumental reason, produces a world with less active citizenship and a diminished moral sense. If one understands that the condition of the world is such that it stands in need of healing and repair, and that medical genetics might well play a critical role in understanding and addressing many disease states, then one can turn to Taylor: "We are embodied agents, living in dialogical conditions, inhabiting time in a specially human way, that is making sense of our lives as a story that connects the past from which we have come to our future projects. That means if we are to properly treat a human being, we have to respect this embodied, dialogical, temporal nature" (p. 106).

For Taylor, the struggle to find the meaning of the authentic self is never fully completed or realized. He is not thinking here primarily of the problem of phenome to genome, but his model allows reflection on a similar set of issues.

Genetic identity is vexed by a concern that science is leading toward a post-evolutionary state, understood by bioinformatics professor Pierre Baldi as the result of an evolution and relationality that could be entirely planned on our collective behalf. If genetic codes and hence knowledge of the gene-protein-phenotype relationship is finite, it all potentially can be known. "[S]ooner rather than later we will know all the letters and genes in the human genomes, all the protein families, as well as their structures and functions ... in many ways we are reaching the end of our evolutionary odyssey ... All the things that have been created and molded by evolution stand a chance of being seriously challenged" (Baldi, 2003). Baldi's thoughtful optimism may be premature, as others have argued for a more iterative ethics, one that worries step-by-step about the actual thing one can do in science, rather than the problems created by a speculative future scenario (Olsen). Yet meaning is made through one's sense of journey and direction as much as by one's attention to the drama. One understands and makes meaning of genetic knowledge through attention to the past, and to the future, as well as to the present.

Philosopher Bernard Williams considers the novel by Nigel Dennis called Cards ofldentity, in which "an organization, called the 'Identity Club' engages in making people over, giving them a new past and a new character—a new identity." Williams notes that the key feature in the process was the choice of a new name. For Williams, what matters for identity is the relationship between the many, or the type, and the one, or the particular. Existence can be discontinuous, and identity is not to be confused with role. One's role or social identity is constructed, always shared: "[I]ndeed it is particularly important that it is shared and an insistence on such an identity, (say, Native American) is an insistence on the way that it is shared, by 'social processes'." Williams argues that such an identity, if embraced, is "an aid to living." Here, Williams notes that social identity is understood to be causative: "thought to explain or underlie a lot of the individual's activities, emotions, reactions and in general, life. And such an identity, particularly, if chosen is a search for a sort of a homecoming." Williams argues:

It is also typical of such identities that they are not just analogous to the classifications of nature, but closely related to nature . they seek to affirm and origin____ it is typical in such cases that they have some sense that they are not just opting for one group among others, but . finding something that was there; or coming home—one kind of obedience to Nietzsche's splendid instruction "become what you are." In such a case, what I have come to lies outside my will, something that is given, although I must choose to take it up. (p. 10)

Identity is political, and it is, for Williams, linked to the project of the Enlightenment itself—a project of understanding and discovery of what was there all the time.

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