Is it necessary to live an authentic life in order to lead a good life?

Submitted on March 25, 2015 as an essay for a philosophy course at HKU.

“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,” said Steve Jobs in the 2005 Stanford University commencement speech. In modern times, there has been growing attention towards authenticity. The ideal asks people to realize their unique traits within themselves, express that inner self in the external world, and to become “the person you are” (Guignon, 2004). It is about how one stays true to one’s own personality despite external pressures (Ryde, 2014). However, it is not immediately clear whether authenticity is an essential condition for one to live a good life. In this essay, I shall argue on the reasons why it is not a must for a person who lives a good life to be authentic. I shall provide my arguments based on different theories of a good life, namely hedonistic theory, desire-fulfillment theory and human flourishing theory.

Philosophers like Bernard Williams have argued that authenticity allows us to regain unexpressed certainties of mankind in our societies (Williams, 2002). However, it does not mean that good life can only come after authenticity. Realistically speaking, when people are to reflect upon themselves, it could be difficult for one to find out exactly what one wants. Even if one is certain about his/her goals, the individual will also face the pressure of achieving the goals. Nevertheless, the failure in being authentic also does not necessarily imply the absence of “good life” for an individual.

Imagine a university professor in Hong Kong who is also a mother of a 3-year-old child. Ever since she was young, she has always dreamt of doing research and discovering new things in renowned institutions around the world. Suppose she has obtained a prestigious offer from Oxford University, where she can further her academic career and achieve what she wanted to achieve. Deep down in her heart, she wanted so badly to further her research with the best team in the world, where she could make groundbreaking research and even earn a distinguished award for herself. This was her authentic self. It was only that the timing of this offer was unsuitable – she has the moral responsibility to look after her child to satisfy her role as a mother. Hence, she ultimately decided to stay in Hong Kong and reject the offer, something against her authenticity, in order to provide care for her child[1]. In this case, she is not authentic to herself, because she failed to stay true to her personality under external pressure. However, at the same time, it would be too counter-intuitive to suggest that she must not experience a good life once she declined the offer. Even though she is unable to follow her heart and do the things she most wanted herself to do, she will be able to see her child grow healthily and happily. She will also gain life satisfaction for witnessing her child’s growth. Our intuition seems to suggest that she is still able to achieve a good life despite not accepting the offer.

The argument on the necessity of being authentic (here we mean the modern view) to live a good life is also problematic in the sense that it fails to explain the good lives many individuals had in ancient times. In ancient China, the capacity of individuals to be themselves was affected heavily by the social constraints back then. Take the example of Su Shi (or Su Dongpo). He was widely regarded as one of the most outstanding poets in ancient China. However, Su Shi was actually most concerned about improving the wellbeing of his fellow citizens, and he believed his role was to contribute to the country and improve the livelihood of the people. He was aware of the deep social and economic crisis hidden under the seemingly prosperous society back then (Yang, 2012). His love and care towards the country were illustrated in his well-renowned piece Xi Yu Ting Ji (喜雨亭記), where he displayed his immense concern towards state policies and the livelihood of the people through his artistic usage of words in describing the rainy scenery at the pavilion. Nevertheless, having outspoken against reform policies, he was eventually demoted to a very low position with no real power. Feeling hopeless, he continued creating outstanding masterpieces, such as Nian Nu Jiao: Chibi Huai Gu (念奴嬌.赤壁懷古), which made him among the most renowned poets in China of all times.

In the case of Su Shi, his authenticity lies on working for the wellbeing of the populace. What he wanted to do the most was to work in a position that can contribute to the livelihood of the people. However, the emperor did not favour him, and he was eventually demoted. In this sense, it could be argued that he ultimately failed to be authentic to himself because the political constraints prevented him from getting the chance to sit in a position where he could truly become the person that he was. Rather, he chose to further his poetic abilities by continue to create outstanding poems. Since his work became hugely influential over Chinese poetry, and that he was well remembered by many centuries later, it also seemed too absurd to suggest he did not live a good life. Failure to become authentic, or failing to truly become the person you are, does not necessarily imply the lack of elements that constituted the notion of “good life”.

Some may argue that authenticity is a necessary condition for good life because life satisfaction actually comes from the fulfillment of the purpose in life. For example, Mark Twain, a renowned American author, once said that “the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why[2].” Proponents of this argument may apply the desire-fulfillment theory by quoting John Rawls, who argued that the good for an individual is the fulfillment of a rational life plan (Kazez, 2007). Kazez developed his point by saying that life plan is what you established early in your life. He argued that life plan included the key things that you wanted to achieve most in your life, and an individual who fulfills his/her life plan will have achieved many of his/her key desires. Hence, it can be argued that if an individual fails to stay authentic and achieve his life plan, one would ultimately have something missing in one’s life. He would never truly live a good life because this means he is unable to achieve many of his key desires in life.

However, it would be too unrealistic to suggest the failure of achieving one’s life plan would necessary imply that one has not achieved the key desires in life. In reality, one might have many different desires, and one might have to sacrifice one desire in order to achieve another desire. Let us revisit our earlier example of the mother scholar. Deep in her heart, she might want to go abroad to further her career in academic research, and to achieve what she aspired since she was young. This might be her first-tier desire. However, as confined by her role as a responsible mother, she had to stay in Hong Kong to look after her child. Nevertheless, this does not mean that she hates looking after her child; in fact, she should also have a strong desire to see her child grow well, though this desire might fall (relatively) short of her initial desire dictated in her life plan. It is reasonable to suggest that witnessing her child grow could be her second-tier desire. According to the desire-fulfillment theory, an individual’s wellbeing actually comes from the obtainment of favourable outcome of one’s desires (Murphy, 1999). If she could fulfill her second-tier desire by seeing her child grow well, it can also be said that she is still able to have a good life because she has, still, fulfilled her second-tier desire. Hence, it is common for many individuals to have different desires, and fulfillment of any of them would mean good life to that individual as suggested by the desire-fulfillment theory.

The good life experienced by the scholar mother can also be explained by other theories of good life. For hedonistic theories, a good life is one filled with happiness (Parfit, 1984). When the mother sees the wellbeing of her child, it is reasonable to suggest that she will experience pleasure-that, as she is satisfied that the child is growing healthily and happily. She will also experience life satisfaction, as she is happy to see her child grow. Hence, from a hedonist point of view, the mother is surely experiencing a good life.

On the other hand, human flourishing theory (HF) dictates that a human being who is able to develop and enjoy the exercise of cognitive, affective, sensory, social and physical powers will be able to enjoy a good life, because they represent the components of wellbeing (Kraut, 2009). One is able to flourish in life if one can fulfill the distinct role of a human being by living in accordance with one’s role (Bryon, 2012). Hence, this implies the existence of objective values for a certain action/behavior, and that value does not depend on whether the certain action is authentic to one. In this example, she has undoubtedly fulfilled her role as a mother. In looking after her child, she is also able to exercise and develop her affective and social powers in the process. According to HF, she has allowed the development of aspects that can make her life flourishing. The decision of looking after her child allows her to obtain a good life.

Hence, according to the different theories of a good life, it can be seen that authenticity is not an essential condition for a life to go well. It is not to say the idea of authenticity is rejectable or not important; it is just that one can still enjoy a good life despite not being authentic.


[1] This is adapted from Professor Joseph Chan’s original example during the 4th lecture titled “True to Oneself” as part of the CCHU9052 course at the University of Hong Kong.
[2] The quote can be found at the following link:



Bryon, K. (2012). Human Flourishing: An Exploratory, Grounded Theory Approach. Fuller Theological Seminary, United States. pp. 3-6. Retrieved from 

Guignon, C. (2004). On Being Authentic. London: Routledge. Chapters 1 and 8.

Kazez, J. (2007). The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. Chapters 4-5.

Kraut, R. (2009). What is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-being: Harvard University Press. pp. 137-140

Murphy, M. C. (1999). The Simple Desire-Fulfillment Theory. Noûs, 33(2), 247-272.

Parfit, D. (1984). Reason and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 493-502.

Ryde, R. (2014). Creating Authentic Organizations: Bringing Meaning and Engagement Back to Work: Kogan Page. pp. 2-3.

Williams, B. (2002). Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp. 179-183

Yang, Z. (2012). Dialects of spontaneity: Art, nature, and persona in the life and works of Su Shi. Princeton University, United States. pp. 7-14. Retrieved from 

Submitted for HKU course: The Best Things in Life: A Philosophical Exploration (CCHU9052).

Copyright © 2015 Eric Cheung. All rights reserved.

Please note that copying without proper acknowledgement (plagiarism) is a very serious offence in the academic world.


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