JEAN PAUL SARTRE
The Humanism of Existentialism II
is the second part of the 'Existentialism is a Humanism' outline.
It overviews Sartre's discussion of ethical and existential issues
(freedom - responsibility, moral decisions and values, individualism
and intersubjectivity, anguish and forlorness, despair and universality).
II FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY
It is a well known fact that Sartre in his many
works regards responsibility as the necessary consequence of inalienable
human freedom. This is another reason why he also favors a strict
"either - or" between God's existence and human freedom:
either God exists or man is free and responsible. There is no third
possibility and all philosophical efforts to find an intermediate
way between divine omniscience and human freedom are simply a waste
||This is a very bold stance, directly opposed
to the mainstream of Western philosophy which typically attempts to
reconcile human responsibility with the existence of an all powerful
and all knowledgeable being. In addition, moral responsibility has
been traditionally linked with God as the ultimate guarantor of values
and sanctions. Sartre repudiates both components of the traditional
view: in his eyes God is an impediment for human freedom and responsibility.
The tension between human freedom and God is therefore insoluble.
||Sartre is convinced that human responsibility
makes sense only if there is no God; otherwise divine foreknowledge
and predestination necessarily exclude alternative options and consequently
||In this essay Sartre derives responsibility
from the priority of existence much more than from the absence of
God. This could create the impression that he is now changing his
approach to the question of freedom. Actually, there is no discrepancy
between these two ways of arguing for responsibility given the fact
that the priority of existence excludes any pre-given essence that
would predetermine the course of human actions and the subsequent
course of events. If man as existence makes what he is, man is both
free to fashion his own self and is accordingly responsible for the
outcome of his actions ("for what he is").
||Of course, no one is responsible
for what has preceded this "thrust toward existence" simply
because we do not come to the world based on our consent but are,
so to speak, "thrown" into it. But we are resposnible for
everything that follows. Now that the transcendent source and foundation
of responsibility is gone the question arises to whom man could be
responsible in the first place? Sartre's answer is simple: only to
himself. Not even to some absolute moral standards.
From the previously established priority of existence
Sartre now derives two intellectual tasks with a clear practical
(1) To make sure every man is aware of "what he is" (this sounds
like an Enlightenment project of ever increasing awareness), and
(2) To "make the full responsibility of his existence" rest on man
(this comes down to a kind of "total responsibility" which does
not allow for excuses).
||Full responsibility for own existence is
grounded on self-awareness and personal freedom to make choices. By
exercising freedom to choose man becomes totally responsible for himself.
But his responsibility does not stop there; it extends to other people
so that at the end it assumes the form of universal responsibility.
There are at least three circles in the extension of our responsibility:
||- Individual responsibility:
If existence precedes essence man is responsible for his own actions
(and his individuality)
- Total Responsibility: If man is free to choose what he is
going to make of himself, he is entirely responsible for what he is
- Universal Responsibility: If man is fully responsible for
what he is presenting as the image of man, he is responsible for all
Terminology: Individual responsibility corresponds to the
common sense notion of responsibility. Two other may be problematic
if they are over-stretched beyond any reasonable concept of accountability.
To avoid possible misunderstandings one needs to bear in mind their
real scope. Total responsibility is designed to eliminate typical
excuses for our choices and actions: human nature, heredity, subconscious
drives, emotions, circumstances, external forces. Universal responsibility
is strictly based on individual responsibility: a man is responsible
for all men not in the sense that one is responsible for what every
idiot might be doing, but in the sense that in his actions he involves
humanity one way or another.
||In the preceding part of the essay Sartre
has explained the first principle of existentialism, the principle
of human subjectivity: man makes himself and remains responsible for
what he does of himself. Now Sartre introduces another variant of
the term - subjectivism - which is very often used promiscuously
with the first. Unfortunately it coincides most often with the vulgar
connotation of subjectivity. Sartre warns of this equivocation, frequently
used against existentialism, by pointing to two different meanings
of the expression: (a) "Subjectivism means, on the one hand, that
an individual chooses himself" (strict individuality), and
(b) "on the other, that it is impossible for man to transcend human
subjectivity". While Sartre does not deny that (a) is a kind of truism,
he is aware that it is commonly misunderstood in the sense of espousing
subjective (arbitrary, emotional, personal) views.
Hence he particularly stresses the second meaning (b) as "the essential
meaning of existentialism" (along with the second sense of subjectivity).
If taken in the sense of fundamental subjectivity (it is impossible
to overcome freedom and choosing the way it is impossible to jump
over your own shadow) the term "subjectivism" denotes an insurmountable
predicament of human existence. In comparison with (b) the vulgar
meaning (a) now appears as pre-philosophical and so inadequate to
be associated with the first principle of existentialism which addresses
man in general rather than an isolated, capricious or whimsical individual.
When "charges are brought" against existentialism the term "subjectivism"
is being used rather in the sense (a). This is a vulgar notion of
subjectivity which does not say much about the main tenets of existentialism
even though existentialism cannot deny its proclivity toward passionate
and singular existence as opposed to one-sided rationalistic and generalized
renderings of human nature. This is the boundary
that separates Sartre from the post-modernist critique of totality
and universality in the name of particularity and individuality.
||Throughout the essay one should notice a
latent ambiguity between two meanings of the word "man": (1) an individual
who formulates self-projections and (2) mankind which makes plans
only implicitly and anonymously. Both are called subjects by Sartre
although mankind could be only a generic (virtual) subject. To be
sure, these are different although interrelated levels. Its inner
connection is revealed in the act of choosing. Everyone chooses for
themselves but also for others. This renders the act of choosing necessarily
ambiguous and loaded with unforseeable consequences. However, when
speaking about "projects" or "life-defining plans"
Sartre refers only to individuals that shape their own identity, not
to human race that collectivelly (although spontaneously) creates
the essence of being a man.
||Sartre surreptitiously introduces the idea
of universalization which he uses as a regulatory principle in assessing
the viability of existential choices. Thus when he says that "man
chooses his own self" he means it universally in three different senses:
(a) All men make choices for themselves ("everyone of us does likewise");
(b) In creating a man that we want to be, every act creates an image
of man as we think he ought to be; (c) In making their choices everyone
choses man, or as Sartre phrases it, "chooses all men". This means
both that choices are made for other men (they involve, implicate
others) and on behalf of mankind as implicit but universally binding
Note: One can accept both (a) and (b) as self-evident.
Every human action reveals an underlying rule of conduct. But (c)
poses a lot of problems. Of course, taken literally, "choosing
for others" does not make much sense; I cannot choose for others
nor can they choose for me. Sartre obviously means "representatively"
and the questions is then how he justifies this transition from individual
choosing for myself to choosing for mankind. The answer is not so
clear let alone convincing. We only clearly realize that this extension
of individual choosing into choosing for mankind represents Sartre's
effort to undo un-social and immoral consequences of his previous
claims that the freedom of others destabilizes my own freedom,
that the looks of others tend to objectify my personality, in brief
that hell is the other people.
presupposes freedom and entails self-evaluation. Freedom not only
lends the specific character to human reality. For Sartre, freedom
is the most fundamental value which renders possible all other values
the way our fundamental plan precedes and grounds our small choices.
In that sense freedom is the source of all values. To say that freedom
is the highest value means that human existence is the highest value,
not some ideals, pleasures, power, happiness. If freedom is the only
foundation and justification of being, what could be more logical
for humans than to embrace it and to confer value on it? In order
to be able to freely value anything one must value freedom in the
first place. Hence, it is existentially inconsistent to freely choose
un-freedom and thus it is not possible to avoid free choosing.
The great tradition of libertarian humanism
clearly comes to the fore in this appraisal of freedom. It both explains
and justifies the title of the essay. But Heidegger finds that this
link with humanism only reveals how deep the existentialism of Sartre
is immersed in the metaphysical tradition of Western philosophy (cf.
The Letter on Humanism).
||The threefold splintering of choosing into
various universal implications finds its echo in the threefold concept
of responsibility: (1) I choose my own self and I am responsible for
what I make of myself; (2) By choosing myself I project an image of
man, of what man ought to be, for which I am responsible as well;
and (3) My actions have bearing on all men and I am responsible for
all consequences of my actions.
The first type of responsibility is Socratic (the responsibility toward
our own self). The second is Kantian springing from a rule or principle
of action (an "image" in Sartre's language). The third is Marxist
as it links my personal status with the bearing of my actions (or
Fichtean insofar it presents my actions as representative for humankind).
Sartre does not specify whether one is responsible for all possible
consequences of choices or only for predictable and intended ones,
but his prevalent stance is that responsibility is virtually unlimited.
It is also unlimited in the sense that it embraces all men (everybody)
because my acts convey universal messages to all members of mankind.
In fact I act as a proxy for mankind.
||Actions are not derived from some antecedent
values and norms. Norms and values reside in our actions, they are
not something transcendent. They are immanent to our actions which
themselves are implicit statements of values. By choosing something
we pronounce it valuable. Now Sartre makes another bald move and claims:
(i) that "we always choose good" and (ii) that "we can never choose
evil". But he also asserts (iii) that "nothing can be good for us
without being good for all".
These are surely surprising statements for an existentialist who
should be very careful not to claim something that imposes counterfactual
norms over reality. And these claims appear to be as counterfactual
as they could be. This is the reason why they are very often simply
dismissed as outright false or even absurd statements. Saddly enough
(but undeniably) one can choose something harmful to themselves
and even more, people can choose to do something really bad and
harmful to others. It could happen that what we have chosen turns
into something that is not good either for us or for others.
||Before one makes a final judgment on Sartre's
theory of "good choosing" it is advisable first to gauge
the proper meaning of his statements. In doing so one needs to distinguish
carefully different layers in this admittedly strange doctrine. Let
us examine all three claims step by step.
Do people always choose good? The majority of people do not think
so. But, for Sartre, it is contradictory to choose something and
not to affirm it as good. In other words, he claims that we always
choose what we view as good. At least for us. Unless I am a masochist
it would be strange to say that I am deliberately choosing something
bad or harmful for me.
Note: This is an old
Socratic idea developed in the Gorgias. Socrates assumes
that a man who acts should know what his action is good for. If
the man does not know that, he runs a risk of incurring a misfortune
to himself. If we choose something which is not good, as sometimes
happens (at least in the eyes of bystanders), it is so because we
do not recognize it as bad. We believed it was good for us. Once
we realize its true nature, we cannot choose it because what is
bad ultimately turns harmful for us. But no one wants to do any
harm to himself. Bad things could not be desired for the sake of
themselves, therefore they could not be our ends and no one can
want them. We cannot want what is bad, at worst only what we see
Can I be wrong and can I sometimes choose evil? According to Sartre,
this is not possible because to choose and to choose something good
are synonymous expressions. One is, of course, tempted to immediately
retort by pointing to those who choose to do bad things knowingly.
Sartre's answer is that these people treat evil as good. Even if
one said: "Evil, you be my good" (Milton) he would think it was
good for him to choose that way. It is not perhaps good "in
itself", but "in itself" is meaningless and irrelevant
in concrete situations. What we have chosen shows what we deemed
good for us and what we knowingly or not proclaimed as good for
Note: Here we encounter Nietzsche behind
Sartre's adoption of Socrates. For Sartre as well as for Nietzsche,
it is possible not to regard "bad" as bad simply because
there are no pre-given (objective) standards of morality. What is
an expression of our freedom or feels liberating in terms of our
potentials is good no matter what.
Can we choose something which is good for us but objectively not
good for others? This seems to happen every now and then. But here
again Sartre goes against common notions and asserts that when I
choose something I affirm it not only for myself, but for everybody
including my generation and my age. So there is no such thing as
objectively bad choice. How come? The answer is that, for Sartre,
every act is an act of universalization in a twofold sense: every
particular choice exemplifies both an "image of man" and "involves
all mankind". If my acts involve all men, they involve myself, and
then (i) and (ii) apply ("we always choose good", "we can never
choose evil"). On the other hand, "in choosing myself, I choose
man" so that it is impossible to choose exclusively for oneself.
And since I choose good for myself I cannot choose the bad for man
even if what I have chosen proves bad in its "objective"
consequences. One last corrective to the seemingly subjectivist
statement that I always choose good (for me) is that my choice must
pass the universalization test in order to be viable for me as well.
Note: The idea of universal bearing of our
acts is essentially Kantian. In his categorical imperative Kant
demands the moral agent to act so that the individual keeps humanity
in his mind or, in another phrasing, that the maxim of his conduct
could become a rule for others. By taking over an old Stoic view
Kant has formulated a principle of legislation for mankind which
allows that we fully exercise our freedom. Man is free as long as
he is subject to his own legislation. Sartre is now incorporating
this principle of universalization into his ethics in an attempt
to defuse the allegations of propounding moral anarchy and relativism.
||Due to Sartre's sketchy and ambiguous way
of exposition his ethical view is very apt for serious misinterpretations.
It is therefore important not to confuse his propositions with some
seemingly admissible but ultimately inappropriate conclusions.
- First misunderstanding is that Sartre simply espouses a kind of
wild ethical relativism. This accusation needs to be qualified. The
existentialism of Sartre is relativistic in the sense of denying moral
absolutes, not in the sense that our moral choices do not matter or
that no moral disputes make sense.
- Second misunderstanding is that Sartre is a sheer subjectivist (emotivist)
who denies the possibility of rational choice making. Here again one
needs to be very precise if we want to do justice to Sartre's position.
Sartre does not dismiss reason as relevant instance in our practical
decisions and even subscribes to some aspects of Socratic intellectualism.
Truly Sartre does not derive the necessity of choosing the good from
the necessity of possessing the right understanding of our actions
- he knows that our actions do not always follow reasons and standards.
He means rather this: since there is no absolute good or bad, there
is nothing to be mistaken about in our choices. When we choose there
is nothing bad in choosing since there are no virtues before choosing.
Once I choose I create something as good precisely by choosing it.
Therefore I set up my values in the process of choosing and I set
them so up that my choice becomes the right one.
||Having established the priority of existence
and the fundamental freedom of man, Sartre now draws practical implications
from these two premises. The first is universal validity of our projects
while the second is our universal responsibility springing from the
fact that we involve others. The whole reasoning could be represented
in this way:
If existence precedes essence
2. If we exist and shape our image at one at the same time
3. If in doing this we involve all mankind
(1a) Then this image
is valid for everybody and for the whole age
(2a) Then I am responsible for everyone else
(3a) Then our responsibility is much greater than usually supposed.
The critical point in this deduction is (1a). Why should our image
of man be valid for everyone? Sartre's answer is that we cannot
but act as if it were. And we cannot avoid its universal implications.
This does not mean that the scope of inevitable universalization
procedures could be stretched indefinitely. It is a simplification
to ascribe to Sartre without qualification the view that every time
I choose something as good or valuable for me (what I ought to be)
I choose it as valuable (good) for everyone (what man ought to be).
His claim holds only for fundamental choices - to be, to
be free, to be authentic, to be spontaneous. Derivative choices
that pertain only to my singularity or idiosyncrasy (ex.: enjoying
the smell of newly printed books) do not possess this universal
When I choose my freedom as my primary value I propose that each
person's freedom should be his primary value. Every person's freedom
is the source of all his values. But this does not mean that I should
choose as valuable anyone's freedom other than my own. Of course,
if I wish others to act in accord with their freedom, then I have
to wish that they have freedom to act.
|| Sartre gives two examples to illustrate his
point that our choices and acts entail both universality and responsibility.
The only question is whether and how our choices pass the logical
test of viability. The first example (join a union) stands for a social
action, the second (get married) for an individual choice. The
examples given by Sartre could be easily expanded into a more
elaborate analysis with at leastt the following connotations
||Social Action - Unionizing
|| Life Style
||Christian Union- Resignation
||Staying single - Denying species
||Abstinence - Self-Denial
|Possible but Self-restrained
||Socialist Union- Reformism
||Getting married - Playing safe
||Monogamy - Stability without freedom
|Self w/Universal Responsibility
||Communist Union- Radicalism
||Having companions - Free choice
||Promiscuity - Autonomy
|| If I choose to join a
Christian union, I am sending a message that resignation with the
world is the best thing for man. In other words, I go by the the rule;
give Caesar his own and find consolation in heaven (hereafter). This
is an implication of my choice and a norm at the same time. If I want
to show that the best thing for man is resignation, then I want to
be resigned for everyone no matter whether I say it openly or not.
As a result, my decision has involved all humanity. But that involvement
is contradictory because it does not offer anything in this world
as this is an action for non-activity or self-denial.
By the same token, if I choose to get married,
even if this decision depends on my personal circumstances and a
strong wish, I am involving all humanity in monogamy. By getting
married I say monogamy is the best thing for me and for others.
Again this is both an implication and a norm. It is not self-contradictory,
but as its social counterpart (unionizing based on the principle
of piece-meal reformism that leaves many out), cannot be properly
universalized. It promises certain security but is biologically
problematic (maybe we are not monogamous beings after all?) and
limits our personal freedom.
|| Sartre thinks that only
a radical activism and free relationship are viable and universalizable
human choices. This explains his very unorthodox personal life style
(free affairs with other women while maintaining a long-lasting relationship
with Simone Beauvoir, non-institutionalized support of radical leftist
groups, etc). If a non-conformist and courageous search for authentic
existence is still a valid criterion of life one can say that Sartre
was the embodiment of the "single individual" Kierkegaard has described
as the human ideal, only that he gave it a more cosmopolitan, worldly,
urban and universalistic twist. If "the how" of life commitment
values much more than "the what" of verbal propositions
then, with regard to Sartre's passionate stance for social justice
and the emancipation of the oppressed, it makes sense to claim as
some penetrating critics have done it, that in a sense it was better to be
wrong with Sartre than to get it right with Reymond Aron.
||All these examples are explicated based on
their implicit maxim of action which is universalized according to
Kantian claims. This explains both Sartre's contention that we
choose for all men and that we choose only good. Socrates (my
conviction that my choice was good for me) is complemented by Kant
and his test of viability.
III EXISTENTIAL CONCEPTS
The triple assertion of subjectivity (in the sense
of making ourselves, in the sense of universal bearing of our actions
and in the sense enormous responsibility stemming from it) provides
the right context for proper understanding of those "grandiloquent
words" that both fascinate and spook the broad audience. Now
that the conceptual backdrop is secured Sartre feels ready to
explain the meaning of the concepts like "anguish", "forlorness",
"despair" and the like beyond their vulgar, predominantly
negative connotations. Generally speaking, they are all indicative
for the fundamental constitution of human existence in terms of
its freedom, orientation toward future and law-making character.
What is "anguish"? Certainly not just a negative emotion
that indicates a defective adaptability or an emotional disorder
in some hyper-sensistive individuals. On the contrary, anguish is
the state of mind which attests that a man is taking seriously his
freedom and responsibility with regard to many possibilities of
action available to him. Anguish is the result of self-awarwness
that I am a being capable of choosing freely among many possibilities
none of which is either necessary or certain.
||Why existentialists say that "man is
(1) Because man is free and at the same time responsible. A man "who
involves himeslf" cannot escape the feeling of immense, deep
and total responsibility for his actions and for other men.
(2) Man is responsible not only for the person he chooses to be but
also for other men. He stakes himself out by choosing both himself
and all mankind. His actions are inevitably actions of a lawmaker.
(3) Man is constantly in anguish not because he makes daily trivial
choices but, as Sartre stated in the discussion following the lecture,
(a) because his "original choice" is constant but uncertain
and (b) there is no justification for the choice made.
If this feeling is constitutive for human existence
to such an extent that it touches upon man's fundamental plan, all
men should be anxious (in anguish). But this seems to be a counterfactual
claim given the number of those who "function" so smoothly
that they show no sign of any interior anxiety.
||The appearance of total
absence of anguish is due to two reasons:
(a) People are fleeing from anxiety by renouncing freedom, or
(b) they are hiding anxiety from themselves by deceiving themselves.
||In both cases they apply a technique of "double
dealing" (la movaise foi).
Sartre details extensively the mechanism of "bad faith"
in Being and Nothingness. Here he only briefly indicates
how it works on the example of a person who refuses to accept that his actions have wider implications and that he himself is responsible for them. The refusal is motivated by the desire to avoid anguish.
||A person fleeing from anguish or hiding it
typically regards his actions as only his, that is as singular and isolated acts: "This is only my project
and nobody else's business." Such a person maintains that he
is the only one involved and he refuses to take into account others
or to consider other implications.
In order to better understand Sartre's concise example we can give it some flesh and bones. Suppose that somebody is littering or cheating before our eyes. Instead of asking him 'why are you doing this' to which he may bluntly retort 'None of your business' we can challenge him on a level that he wants to supress: "What if everyone acted that way?" This is the
first question to ask a person who behaves as an isolated individual.
(Placing actions into the world of others)
The easiest way for the person to reject further discussion would be to say "Not everyone does act that way." (Shrugging
shoulders - and refusing to go out of the shell.) The meaning of this statement although acknowledging that others do not do the same is in fact: "I am doing what I want for myself and those who do otherwise have their own reasons. So leave me alone."
This reaction, as common and effective as it may
be, rests on a self-deceptive suppression. But no one in the long
can escape the impact of the anguish ball contained in the following
question: "What would happen if everybody looked that way?"
||This is a very disturbing thought as it directly
involves the person into the world of other people and into the world
of universal responsibility. It is not possible to diffuse the tension
it creates. Now, there are only two options left for the "absolute"
individual: either to accept the responsibility of "a lawmaker"
and start "enjoying his anguish" or to try to flee from
it again and to pay the price of self-deception.
||The only way to escape anguish in this case
is a kind of self-deception (lying to oneself). It is a deception
because it presents given facts as a necessity, as something unavoidable
and absolutely objective although they are also a result of our acceptance
and choice. In other words, the person claims that things should be
as his acts imply while denying any universal message and being unable
or unwilling to ground his own choice. At the same time this refusal
of universalization is espoused as a universal rule.
Note: In the
Republic Plato defines the "true lies" in a manner
that bears striking resemblance with this self-committed ignorance
and deception. Is there any historical link between Plato's "true
lies" and Sartre's "bad faith"? It seems that there
is at least in so far as Plato's true lies pertain not only to the
"highest realities' of the universe but to self-knowledge as
"Uneasy conscience". Why? Because we are aware that our
attempt to separate our involvement from others is dishonest. We
are conferring "a universal value" upon the lie about
the way how things should be. How a fact that "not all people behave
that way" could become a lie? By cutting the alleged fact off
from the context of its production and mediation as well as from
the moment of human freedom. It is a lie that I am absolutely isolated
individual, that I have to be selfish, that my acts are without
bearing upon others, that it has to be so, namely that some people do this
and others that, and that those who do otherwise also go by the
principle "mind your own business". If I present something
contingent as my necessity, if I choose to take it as my maxim because
it is expedient no matter whether it is contrary to the demands
of universalization or not, then I am proclaiming it as a universal value
although I deny doing it. The underlying logic goes as follows:
Since whatever I do, it remains I have chosen it as superior to all of its
alternatives, my choice becomes a norm both for myself and others.
By refusing this universalization the person who lies to himself
that this norm is only for himself and does not involve others (which
is a contradiction) universalizes a lie.
||Some individuals who otherwise truly accept
responsibility might nonetheless try to conceal their anguish. For
instance, the patriarch Abraham is portrayed in the Bible as
if he had no hesitation and fear when he took the knife to sacrifice
his son Isaac. He was calm and poised, he did not talk. But Sartre
believes that this potrayal of Abraham gives only an outward aspect
of Abraham's mind. He implicitly suggests that Kierkegaard's depiction
of Abraham in Fear and Trembling is more faithful to the original
event than the biblical rendering of the story precisely by exposing
his silence as a mask for anguish. Therefore Sartre contends that
"anguish is evident even when it conceals itself".
||Although Kierkegaard does not use explicitly
the phrase "the anguish of Abraham" he complains that traditional
and familiar versions of Abraham's story "omit" the anxiety,
distress and paradox (Fear and Trembling). However, if we take
the story seriously, Abraham must have been in anguish. Why? Because
he could not have possessed certainty, because he made a risky choice
and assumed enormous responsibility. Anxiety in his case stems from
the discrepancy between the conflicting demands of the ethical and
the religious as well as from his inability to make himself understandable
||"An angel has ordered Abraham to sacrifice
his son." Sartre recounts the story from memory and confounds
it with the promise conveyed to Abraham by angels. In fact, the order
was given to Abraham in his dream (Gen., 22, 1), which makes
the ambiguity of the situation even more tormenting. But Sartre is
right that the whole uncertainty of the moment would have been wiped
out had the messenger really been an angel and had Abraham been absolutely
convinced that an angel was simply relaying him the demand of God
to sacrifice Isaac.
||However, even then there would remain a cloud
of doubt big enough to nourish our anguish. For how one could be sure
that what appeared as an angel was really an angel, that the order
was truly coming from God and that the addressee was really Abraham.
Finally, how one could be sure that the order was understood properly?
There is no proof of certainty there and there could not be any. No
certainty - no exemption from anguish.
||The need for a proof of certainty was replaced
by (1) Abraham's acceptance of the voice as divine and by (2) his
decision to obey the order, all based on an absolute relation with
the Absolute. Sartre leaves Kierkegaard's interpretation of Abraham
at this point because he thinks that in this singular event only the
moment of anguish possesses a universal value, not the resolve derived
from blind faith. His point is simply this: If Abraham is not in anguish
he must be in bad faith - hiding his uncertainty or renouncing his
||Sartre shows that in terms of missing "proofs"
there is not much of a difference between Abraham's recognition of
the voice, a madwoman's claim that somebody talks to her on the telephone
and my own choice to affirm something as the act to perform.
- What proof does Abraham have that the voices come "from heaven
and not from hell, or from the subconscious, or a pathological condition"?
- "What proof did she (the woman) have that it was God (on the
- "What proof is there that I have been appointed to impose my
choice and my conception of man on humanity?"
Like Abraham and the madwoman I do not have proof
that would eliminate all doubts and give me an unequivocal authorization
for my actions. It is my responsibility if I interpret reality one
way or another and it is my decision to act as if my interpretation
is right. I am helplessly an imposter.
The "father of faith" Abraham is "the father of us
all" in a more profound sense than just being the progenitor
of "many nations": he has demonstrated that making decisions
without absolute certainty is what constitutes human existence.
What I do is (i) always my choice and (ii) my conception of man
and the good.
||I am Abraham although I am not being singled
out by God. And yet, at every moment I have to "perform exemplary
acts". I am not beheld by God, but I am more Abraham than Abraham
because I am being watched by the world. "For every man, everything
happens as if all mankind had its eyes fixed on him and were guiding
itself by what he does."
I cannot simply say it is my duty to obey God or
I am acting on behalf of humanity. Sartre inserts here a prequalifying
test. I have first to ask the question Abraham was spared by God:
"Am I really the kind of man who has the right to act in such
a way that humanity might guide itself by my actions?" Everyone
who does not submit himself to this (Kantian) test of dignity to
be taken as a model "is masking his anguish." Kant asked
am I worthy of happiness, Sartre rephrases the same by asking am
I worthy of being a human agent.
||The qualifying question is always answered
one way or another. It is not possible to avoid it, to abolish choosing
and to stay away from acting. This is the reason why anguish is inevitable.
Anguish does not lead to spiritual passivity, inaction and rejection
of volition. Anguish is not an obstacle, but the condition of action.
Anguish is the anguish of responsibility. In making tough decisions
one cannot help having anguish. According to Sartre, all (responsible)
leaders know this anguish. And still this "direct responsibility
to the other men" whom their action involves does not paralyze
leaders. Without risk there is no action, because action entails
freedom and responsibility, and they in turn generate anguish with
regard to many open possibilities.
||When leaders choose something they realize
that it has value only because it is chosen. Values do not exist prior
to choosing and action. On the contrary, like "human nature"
they are something that comes later. If God does not exist then normative
commandments do not pre-exist either.
The expression "forlorness" is a rendering
of the German Verlassenheit (literally "abandonment"),
the term used by Heidegger to denote the situation after the "death
of God" (or God's withdrawal from the world). Along with Nietzsche
who has pronounced this shocking news (Gay Science, #125)
we need to "face all the consequences" of the modern demise
||These consequences are very serious and existentialism
does not take them lightly. On the contrary, Sartre holds (following
Nietzsche) "it very distressing that God does not exist, because
all possibility of finding values in heaven of ideas disappears along
||A suprasensible (transcendent) world of meaning
The center of human existence and the source of values have vanished.
We do not have the divine protection Abraham had, but we still have
to live in uncertainty.
We are left alone. This is scary. What to do? What to value?
Sartre rejects a kind of secular ethics which disposes
of God but retains His place for ethical norms with the justification
that only in this way we can establish a binding ethics and thus
save society and civilization. For Sartre this is a philosophy of
the "half-way" or "reformism". Its credo is
that everything could remain the same despite the fact that God
has gone. It wants to "abolish God with the least possible expense", which means without accepting that we are alone, on our own and that we must exercise our freedom and take responsibility in creating values.
||A priori Values
The secular ethics of preexisting values preserves God in form of a priori norms. If we are serious with the "death of God" we need to recognize
that with the death of God His place has disappeared as well. So
there is no room for a priori values "inscribed in a
heaven of ideas". Objectively existing values are only a substitute
for a dying God. Therefore we have to choose between three positions:
|Theism: If God does not exist, everything will be in
vain. With Him everything will be redeemed and reconciled in
|Reformism: Nothing will be improved if God does not
exist somehow. We need an ethics that will replace God and make
|Radicalism: Nothing will change if God exists. We can
be free and responsible only if God does not exist.
||Sartre's ethics is opposed both to the outright
heteronomous morality of resignation and to the objectifying morality
of a priori existing norms.
Transcendence cannot impose obligations or promise rewards because
it does not exist. By the same token, it is not a priori that
we must be honest, that we must not lie (against Kant and the ethics
of French teachers around 1880).
||Why is it so distressing that God does not
exist? Because we have lost the center and the direction, everything
appears meaningless and arbitrary. (cf. Nietzsche's description of
this situation in Gay Science, #125) There is "no possibility
of finding values in a heaven of ideas". If there are no objectively
binding norms, everything becomes permissible.
||"If God didn't exist, everything would
be possible." (Dostoevsky) "If God exists everything is
permissible to Him." (Lacan)
||It is frightening that we are left alone
(forlorn). There is nothing to cling to. Only we (men).
But we are free. This should give us a new strength, we should
embrace our freedom enthusiastically, even with optimism.
"Man is freedom."
||There is no "determinism" in human
conduct. What Sartre means is rather that there is no "hard determinism".
Everyday experience of choosing provides irrefutable evidence that
we are not pre-determined in our actions. We can deliberate about
doing something or forgoing it only if we believe that it is in our
power to make that decision. This does not mean that we do not have
reasons and motives for doing it or not. It only means that there
is no necessity or external coercion which does not allow choosing.
I am free to choose many things, only not free not to choose.
||Man is "condemned to be free".
Why condemned? Because man has not created himself and did not have
the initial choice of coming or not to this world (he was "thrown
into the world"). But afterwards he is responsible for living
on and free in interpreting it. How free? Because he is "thrown
in the world" as free and "responsible for everything he
does" after that initial moment of being born for which he cannot
be held accountable. Man can always change a given situation by choosing
alternative venues. The only thing he is not free about is to decide
whether he is free or not.
||Sartre rejects the common notion of passions
as forces transforming man into a passive object of their impact.
Does he deny that "sweeping passions" (drives, instincts,
urges) take control over man and determine the course of his actions?
Sartre acknowledges that such drives and passions exist, but holds
man responsible for them as well. There is no fatality in the way
how drives and desires operate. They cannot force anybody to act in
a certain way without the individual succumbing to them. If they get
the upper hand the subject is responsible for assenting to them and
he cannot make excuses afterwards. Passions are our responses to a
situation, but they are not predetermined. The fact that different
people display different passions in the same situation amply corroborates
that they are chosen or at least stem from free spontaneous acts of
||Man forges his own destiny. What he does
is "the future of man" (a reference to the statement of
Ponge: "Man is the future of man."). But that future is
not inscribed anywhere in heaven. If God or anybody else can foresee
it - it ceases to be a future. It becomes a past to be unfolded and
leaves no real freedom to man. Therefore future for man must remain virgin,
which means that we are forlorn (or left to ourselves).
Note: Francis Ponge (1899-1988) was a French
writer on whose poetry Sartre wrote an essay in 1944 ("L'homme
et les choses"). He was specially attracted by Ponge's lines
about how we conceal dehumanization as the form of work.
||We are alone, with no excuses behind us (determinism
is a form of "bad faith"), nor justification before us (no
transcendence that pulls the strings). We are a "purposeless
passion" for we can never attain a full identity with that what we
have been nor with our projects what to be.
|1. God is dead (does not exist).
|2. Everything is permissible (no Good in itself).
|3. We are free (we choose).
|3. Future is open (to be forged).
|4. Therefore we are forlorn (it is upon us).
|5. Thus, we have no excuses.
||How to resolve a dilemma between two possible
(1) Stay with mother - something certain and important for a very
concrete individual, something that requires a direct and predictable
action based on the ethics of sympathy.
(2) Join Free French Forces - something uncertain but important for
a vaster group, something that requires a chain of very dubious, mediated
and collective actions based on the acceptance of social ethics.
Case Study: A student of Sartre is
torn between his love for the mother who needs him to be able to carry
on and the desire to avenge his fallen brother by joining Free French
Forces in England. If he does the latter his mother will be left behind,
if he does the former he will let down his country.
||Which ethics to listen? The one that appeals
to personal devotion or the one that appeals to responsibility for
a "national collectivity"?
Neither Christian nor Kantian ethics give us the clue how to resolve
the dilemma. The former says "be charitable, love your neighbor,
take the more rugged path", but it is not clear which action
is here more charitable, more in accord with the demand to love your
neighbor (your kin or your fellow subject) and which "path"
is more rugged. The latter asks to take another person always as an
end and never as a means, but the problem here is that whatever one
chooses the the other option will be reduced to a mean.
Note: This is probably
an overstatement - it is not clear why the categorical imperative
would be violated if the student from Sartre's example had chosen
to stay with his ailing mother. It would be safer to say that in that
case something that deserves to be taken as a practical end would
be postponed and thus practically disregarded. Anyway,
the categorical imperative (always act so that the principle of your
action can become a universal law) proves insufficient to resolve
dilemmas which require choosing between different but legitimate values.
For instance, if your friend has confided you that he was cheating
on his wife and then his wife, also your friend, asks you about that,
whatever you choose to say you will violate one moral principle and
the value it states (either the promise of confidentiality or the
obligation to tell the truth).
|Ethics of Feelings
||Feelings and instincts are vague and un-decisive
as leads. How to determine the value of a feeling? How to compare
different feelings and to assess their respective value? A feeling
obtains value not by being followed, but by performing an act which
manifests and confirms that affection. "The feeling is formed
by the acts one performs." Practice is decisive for defining
feelings. Therefore I cannot refer to a pre-existent feeling in order
to be able to act upon it. Gide was right in saying that "a mock
feeling and and a true feeling are almost indistinguishable".
If they both lead to the same practical consequences the difference
does not matter much. This is another confirmation that stataments
are acts and why performances imply commitment (cf. Pascal's answer
to the question: how to induce faith?).
||Actions, performances and practices are more
fundamental than feelings, preferences and values.
||1. The true condition for action does not
lie in my instinct and feelings.
2. It is not to be found in any general ethics.
3. One cannot get any direction from others without personal involment.
|| Very often people have already decided on
the kind of advice they are going to get. In asking for advice they
only seek for confirmation.
Therefore, in choosing your counselor you have chosen the advice.
Even priests will advice depending on their practical stance.
In choosing Sartre you have chosen to be reminded on what you are
condemned to: "You're free, choose, that is, invent."
||There are no objective orientation marks.
Therefore do not look for omens in the external world. There are none.
Man is condemned to interpret everything that may appear as a sign.
And man chooses the interpretation. In doing this man chooses himself.
In that sense Sartre says that man "is condemned every moment
to invent man".
Case Study: A young man who "had botched
everything" in life does not fall into despair and bitterness
but decides to interpret his vicissitudes as a sign that his true
vocation is to serve God. But he could have deciphered those "signs"
differently, "to turn carpenter or revolutionist". Only
he is responsible for his interpretation.
implies that we ourselves choose our being. Forlorness and anguish
(The first pressuposes absolute freedom, the second unlimited responsibility.)
A. You are free (Forlornness).
B. You cannot avoid choosing (Anguish).
C. By choosing you create an image of man that you want to be (Invention).
||The word "despair" is typically
used as a synonym for human despondency and hopelessness. But again
Sartre distances himself from a superficial understanding of those
expressions that existentialist use to describe human moods. He takes
the term "despair" in the sense of self-confinement that
resembles some Stoic techniques designed to facilitate an adjustement
to the adversities of environment. Sartre does not suggest a positive
acceptance of the rugged reality but a clear awareness of what could
be done given the circumstances. Briefly, one should reckon only with
"what depends upon our will", or, in a more modern formulation,
one should care only for "the ensemble of probabilities which
make our actions possible".
Sartre admits that in real life we are "left
in the realm of possibility" and that we always have to deal
only with probabilities (a lesson learned from Hume and his destruction
of causation?). He is also aware that the realm of possibilities
is virtually indefinite and that the bulk of them are beyond our
control. But for him this is not a sufficient reason to despair.
Not even when possibilities do not open according to our wishes.
What does he suggest?
||First we should not seriously engage in pondering
sheer logical possibilities. Next we should ignore the possibility
that something might happen by chance or miraculously (supernatural
possibilities). One should reckon with possibilities only as long
as "my action comports with the ensemble of these possibilities".
When my actions do not strictly involve these possibilities I should
disengage myself from them, which means I should practically disregard
them. If this attitude is viewed by some as giving in to resignation
and despair, so be it, but it is better to direct our activism where
it could yield some results than to be disappointed that the possibilities
beyond my reach do not conform to my expectations. If I cannot do
something I should not expect that some transcendent factor will instead
adapt the world to my will. On the contrary, I should adapt my will
in keeping with the Stoic insight that what is not in my power should
not be my concern.
Note: In support of this attitude Sartre quotes
Descartes' exhortation: "Conquer yourself rather than the world."
(Descartes is much more famous for his more activistic statement that
we need to make ourselves the masters of Nature.)
||Social activists (especially Marxists) do
not accept this attitude. They object to Sartre that his Stoicism
is not healthy and heroic. On the contrary, it masks the despair of
an isolated individual who does not realize that we are not alone
in our struggles, that other people can provide support and that our
fights are both collectivelly and historically defined undertakings.
Therefore they demand from Sartre to recognize the true forces of
Revolution, embrace them (overcome his bourgeois individualism), put
everything into (historical) perspective and thus secure the meaningfulness
of his actions, for "you're not going to live forever".
These critics also imply a moral obligation to heed this demand, for
"otherwise you're immoral".
||Sartre is ready to rely on others only within
groups that allow individual initiative and do not reduce their members
to mere numbers or pawns. As long as group actions are transparent
and perceived as the actions of the subjects involved he can see himself
engaged in common struggles, precisely because he can regard the support
and unity coming from others as real and meaningful probabilities.
||But he is not willing to embrace some abstractions
or collectives (the Party, the Revolution, the Good, the History)
as a condition of his engagement. Since these instances lack a direct
experiential link with his actions Sartre is reluctant to delegate
his activism into the hands of their leaders. On the contrary, he
is rather skeptical about their announcements and demands. He cannot
count on men he does not know by simply relying on human goodness
(that is another ghost coming from the concept of "human nature")
nor can he internalize big promises on behalf of an imminent historical
progress. He knows very well that history is contingent and that men
can freely choose not only a different course of action but also different
ends (Fascism instead of Socialism).
Progress is desirable but it is not inevitable. One way or another,
"things will be as man will have decided they are to be".
But I cannot be sure which way they will be decided no matter how
I am now eager to fight for the cause of social justice and freedom.
Future is open. This does not mean that I am relinquishing any ambition
to fight for a global social change. On the contrary, I am very
much engaged in it despite the uncertainty that gives birth to my
anguish. But it is my own, inalienable action. I do not give up
ideals, only illusions.
IV EXISTENTIAL ETHICS
||The anguish that conditions and follows action
does not have anything to do with the "quietism of despair".
Sartre renounces quitesim and despair despite the fact that he does
not know what the future brings. His motto ("saw") is "Nothing
ventured, nothing gained." This means that the only certain way
not to achieve anything is to give up upfront any intention of trying
something. In contrast he fully invests his energy and enthusiasm
in the struggles of the present. Even though he lacks certainty, he
does not beg for any consoling illusions or incentives coming from
transcendence. He counts on himself. He is confident in his action
although not in the outcome. Therefore his position should not be
confused with the resignative posture od those who say why strive
for something when everything is in vain anyway. He rejects the quietism
of those who say: "Let other people do what I cannot." I
am what I do, and I should not not extrapolate my projects by adding
to them what others may or may not do in the future. I should focus
on that what I can.
||Quietism reconciles with the current frustrations
and places the unaccomplished strivings onto the shoulders of other
people. But other people might not be interested in taking over. Sartre
saves the integrity of human reality by transforming its potentials
into free actions that realize the "plan" here and now.
His stance about human reality and human true self is expressed in
the statement that "there is no reality except in action".
Hence he rejects the idea that there is a true yet not actualized
Self deeply hybernating in the inwardness of our being. He is almost
brutal in dismissing the reveries about unrealized human potentials
("propensities, inclinations, possibilities") which are
typically cited to compensate or excuse for real wretchedness and
unfruitfullness of an individual.
Example: "What I've
been and done doesn't show my true worth."
||Real is only what manifests itself, no hidden
nature or "a host of unused possibilities".
This holds true even for my own selfhood. In fact
there is no true self sitting inside me, no real me, no showcase "personality"
apart from the one realized in life.
"There is no genius other than one which is expressed in works
"There is really no love other than one which manifests itself
in a person's being in love".
"A man is involved in life, leaves his impress on it, and outside
of that there is nothing."
Note: B. Croce argued along similar lines that
an idea which does not find expression in thoughts and words is a
Only realized reality counts, not dreams, expectations,
and hopes. The latter define man only negatively, by refering to
what he is not or failed to be: "a disappointed dream, miscarried
hopes, vain expectations". The former provides a way to define
man positively (cf. Schelling's idea of "positive existence").
Yes, man "exist only to the extent that he fulfills himself",
but this means that he is then indistingusihable from his life:
"the ensemble of his acts". This does not mean that a
man is only "a series of undertakings". Sartre is sensitive
enough to compliment his "definition" by adding "the
sum, the organization, the ensemble of relationships which make
up these undertakings".
||Man's destiny is within himself.
But it is not inscribed in his physiological or psychological constitution.
If individuals behave like soft, weak, cowardly or downright bad people,
this is not because of their heredity or biological make-up. Even
less because of "the workings of environment" or "society".
Zola's characters are potrayed in that way and this why they allow
only one type of comment: "Well, that's what we're like, no one
can do anything about it."
Sartre rejects any biological, psychological or sociological determinism
in defining human character. No one is condemned to be a coward because
"he has a cowardly heart or lung or brain" (this naive notion
of cowardice is nicely worked out in Baum's Wizard of Oz whose
characters eventually realize that they do not need better organs
if they act in accord with their ideals). There are no born cowards
as there are no born heroes. There is no such thing as a cowardly
or heroic constitution. The coward makes himself cowardly and the
hero makes himself heroic. The first by performing acts of "renouncing
and yielding", the second by standing up and fighting. Both have
always a possibility to act differently, only not to be defined on
the basis of the acts they perform. "Action is the only thing
that enables a man to live" (= to be what he is).
Note: This explains why it makes sense to
regard cowardice as a moral vice and courage as a virtue (cf. Aristotle).
Of course, one particular action is not sufficient to claim any state
of mind as a virtue for it requires a continuous and comprehensive
involvemnt. But to ascribe any chosen reaction as a consequence of
natural or social circumstances is, for Sartre, just another way of
||Sartre now addresses the charge that existentialism
immures man in his "private subjectivity". The basis for
that charge is the acceptance of the Cogito as the starting
point (see above). To be sure, Sartre accepts the individual certainty
of the Cogito as an abosulte truth which grounds all subsequent
probabilities. It has to be taken as a starting point because every
individual can experience it with the same intensity as an unassailable
| But the subjectivity that Sartre proclaims
to be the foundation and the "absolute truth" is not the
Cartesian self-enclosed res cogitans = "a strictly individual
subjectivity". Sartre contends that while performing the cogito
one discovers "not only himself, but others as well". This
goes against both Descartes and Kant, but Sartre regards this extension
of awareness as a justified departure from their solipsistic and egological
ruminations. He asserts that "through the I think we reach our
own self in the presence of others, and the others are just as real
to us as our own self". Others are therefore not just "walking
automata" of Descartes. On the contrary, "the man who becomes
aware of himself through the cogito also perceives all others,
and he perceives them as the condition of his own existence"
(I become fully aware of myself only through the look of another person,
otherwise I am entirely immersed in-the-world). Descartes' cogito
and Kant's a priori subjectivity of awareness have to be
transformed into transcendental inter-subjectivity. Next step
in Sartre's broadening of human consciousness is the integration of
Hegelian need for recognition: I cannot be anything (positively or
negatively) without being perceived by others and recognized as such
(cf. the dialectic of master and slave in the Phenomenology of
Spirit). Summing up all these stages in the development of Western
subjectivity Sartre anounces the discovery of the world in which "man
decides what he is and what others are".
||Although Sartre denies that there is a universal
essence embodied in human nature he acknowledges that there are universal
human conditions, or beter to say "a universal human condition"
that outlines man's fundamental situation in the world. The fundamental
situation of man is defined through certain a priori limits
such as: to be in the world, to be there at work, to be in the midst
of other people, to be mortal. These limits are both objective (found
everywhere) and subjective (must be lived, otherwise do not exist).
||Historical settings change and differ, but
they have universal value because in all of them man assumes
attititudes toward those fundamental constants. The answers are different
(escapism, adjustement, rebellion), but they all could be understood
by every man even if they are formulated within a specific culture
or a society (this is what Sartre calls "configuration").
The universality of man consists precisely in the fact that we always
find a man in them, although not as a pregiven magnitude but perpetually
made. But I build the universal both in choosing myself (absolute
choice) and in understanding the configuration of every other man
||The absoluteness of choice does not do away
with the relativeness of each epoch. "The relativity of Cartesianism"
(as a historically conditioned view) and "the absolute character
of Cartesian involvement" (consciousness aware of self and others)
go together. On the contrary, existentialism is concerned to establish
a connection between the absolute character of free involvement (self-realization)
and the relativeness of the cultural ensemble which may result from
such a choice. According to Sartre, not only that there is no contradiction
between "being like a configuration" and "being absolute"
but there is no difference between "being an absolute temporarilly
localized" in history and "being universally comprehensible".
as another term for historical situation should allow for the interplay
of relativness and absoluteness.
Having analyzed the charges that allege an excessive philosophical
stress on human subjectivity, Sartre now turns to those that accuse
existentialism for sheer subjectivism. These are contained in the
(1) "So you're able to do anything, no matter what." (the
objection of anarchism)
(2) "You're unable to to pass judgment on others, because there's
no reason to prefer one configuration to another."
(3) "Everything is arbitrary in this choosing of yours. You
take something from one pocket and pretend you're putting it into
Sartre regards all these objections as pointless.
(1) The first objection is absurd if it supposes that
one can do everything. This is simply not possible. But if not everything
is possible, this does not mean that we cannot choose.
||- Existentialism claims that "choice
is possible" and that one "can always choose". This
means only that one cannot avoid choosing, because "if I do not
choose, I am still choosing".
||- It is also absurd to claim that one can
choose to do anything disregrading all consequences. At least this
is not what existentialism says. Existentialism contends that one
cannot avoid responsibility for the choices made.
||- To say that not choosing is a kind of choosing
is not a word game. It points to the extended realm of responsibility
that keeps "fantasy and caprice within bounds".
||Sartre warns not to confound his theory with
Gide's theory of "arbitrary act". Andre Gide conceives freedom
as equal with gratuitious, wild chance. Therefore his individual acts
"out of pure caprice" (cf. Fruits of the Earth).
||The only similarity with Gide's theory is
the absence of preestablished values, but the caharcter of acting
is very different. Choosing in an "organized situation"
while taking full responsibility for his acts is not an arbitrary
||Sartre allows a comparison beween "making
moral choices" and "making a work of art". But he refuses
to call his philosophy of action an "aesthetic ethics" just
because it displays some parallels with artistic creativity. The main
point here, however, is that even if the equasion between the two
were justified his ethics could not be regarded as arbitrary, for
we do not regard artistic creation as arbitrary (cf. "Le Mystere
de Picasso" by G. Clouzot).
||Existentialist ethics shares with art "the
same creative situation". The moment of creativity and invention
is essential in both because in both there are no a priori
rules which determine what is to be done. There is no single compelling
action to choose and "there is no definite painting to made".
The artist is making himself while he is painting (Picasso), the agent
makes himself in choosing his action (the young student). And in both
cases a judgment is in order only afterwards.
||(2) The second objection
(inability to pass judgment) is justified in one sense, but entirely
misplaced in another.
||It is justified if it refers to the fact
that a person who sincerely "involves himself and chooses his
configuration" cannot sensibly prefer another configuration.
This is a logical and psychological necessity. It is a kind of constant
for man since man has not historically changed in that respect. Situation
always changes. What does not change is the necessity to make choices
in a situation.
||The objection is unjustified with regard
to the fact that one can pass judgment about other people's choices,
all the more so since one makes choices in relationship to others.
This judging is rather of logical than moral nature. It refers to
the truth or falsity of choices (this is what Sartre calls "bad
faith"). For instance, the existentialist can say that somebody
is in a state of "bad faith" if the analysis of the person's
choice and words indicate that he is taking refuge behind certain
excuses. Or if he claims that there are certain pre-existing values
that he must choose.
Note: In this essay Sartre contends that a man
can esape from freedom and responsibility only by virtue of a mechanism
called "bad faith" (movaise foi). This mechanism
manifests itself in two forms: (a) lying to oneself (exemplified
by the person who claims that "not all people act this way")
and (b) making excuses (now illustrated by the person who invokes
passions or other objective factors to account for his conduct). The
former engages himself in "double dealing", the latter in
"dishonesty" (as reads the English rendering). It
is important to note the terminological identity of the two which
was unfortunately lost in the english translation (in both cases the
French original has one and the same phrase - "bad faith").
||"Bad faith" is understood as a
kind of error or inconsistency rather than a moral defect. The inconsistency
consists in maintaining that there are some pre-existing values imposed
on me and at the same time declaring that I want them. This is a kind
of contradiction, but Sartre regards it as a kind of falsehood as
well: "Dishonesty (bad faith) is obviously a falsehood
because it belies the complete freedom of involvement." (This
aspect of "bad faith" receives a detailed discussion in
Being and Nothingness.)
Of course, one can choose to be in "bad faith" and pay the
price. In sofar as those who choose "dishonesty" hide the
complete arbitrareness and the complete freedom of their existence
from themselves, and insofar as they do this "out of spirit of
seriousness or by means of deterministic excuses", they are exposed
to my "unbiased" judgments. Thus it is possible to criticize
a choice at least in the sense of unveiling its inherent contradictions.
Note: "The spirit of seriousness"
is the expression of M. Montaigne denoting the attitude of rationalist
objectivity which regards the world as the Sartrean "being-in-itself".
In Being and Nothingness Sartre says that the spirit of seriousness
has two characteristics: "it considers values as transcendent
givens independent of human subjectivity, and it transfers the quality
of 'desirable' from the ontological structure of things to their simple
material constitution" (Being and Nothingness, p. 626).
||The coherent attitude is the stance of "good
faith" (bonne foi). Once we recognize that we are forlorn
and the creators of values we cannot but want only one thing: freedom.
Hence we want freedom for freedom's sake. And we want it in every
particular circumstance. The test for choices is always one and the
same: has the invention been made "in the name of freedom"?
Note: In his exaltation
about freedom Sartre does not address the following objection: "How
can we choose that which defines our very human condition and fromn
which we can never escape?" (R. Bernstein, Praxis and Action,
p. 152). Or, in other words: "If all people are aready free -
why would they also want to be free?" (cf. Guignon and Pereboom)
The answer is probably that since a denial of freedom is also a form
of freedom, it makes sense to demand that we positively accept
freedom. Kantian ethics on which Sartre obviously draws does not face
the same problem, because it postulates freedom. But Sartre believes
that Kant's ethics is too formalistic and abstract. It is not sensitive
enough to the complexity of reality that prevents any a priori
judging. Two opposed moralities could be both chosen as forms
of "free involvement" (compare the choices of Maggie Tulliver
||In wanting freedom we discover that it depends
entirely on the freedom of others, and that the freedom of others
depends on ours. Now the solitary freedom must give place to the will
for freedom within the complex realm of involvement (engagement).
Having recognized that man is "a free being who, in various circumstances,
can want only his freedom" I must recognize that I can want only
"the freedom of others".
Note: Here again Sartre
pays tribute to Kant who strongly affirmed both the non-instrumental
value and the universal character of freedom: "freedom desires
both itself and the freedom of others". However, this transition
from self-assertion to genuine respect for others and even engagement
for universal liberation has never been elaborated by Sartre with
a desirable clarity and completeness.
||(3) Third objection
says that values could not be taken seriously if we can choose between
Sartre claims that values are rather created by man than chosen.
But creating values is both indispensable and unavoidable if we
want to have values in the first place. Since God does not create
them and since they do not exist a priori the only question
is do we need them and if so are we capable of creating them. His
answer is positive. Creating values is nothing else but giving life
a meaning. "Value is nothing else but the meaning that you
Note: But if values are not justifiable, then
no choice is better than another. This is the problem which does
not find a satisfactory answer in Sartre.
||Precisely the possibility of creating values
opens a prospect to create "a human community" (obviously
not just any type of society, but one that transcends current forms
The basis for that is to be found in man's ability to transcend both
himself and his conditions.
"Man is constantly outside of himself; in projecting himself,
in losing himself outside of himself" (cf. the literal meaning
of the word ek-sistence).
Besides, man exists by pursuing transcendent goals, by passing-beyond,
by "being this state of passing beyond", by seizing upon
things only as they bear upon this passing-beyond.
With regard to these transcendent goals that involve all men Sartre
finally explains in which sense it is appropriate to regard existentialism
as a humanism.
He denies that existentialism is "humanistic" if humanism
denotes a theory which takes man "as an end and as a higher
value". Man is always ahead of any given end, since he is always
in the making. The theory that man is "the end" operates
with an "aerial view" of humanity that focuses on "the
highest deeds of certain men". But Sartre rejects it as "absurd"
since it presupposes an "over-all judgment about man",
a perspective inaccessible to man. This type of humanism is possible
only as self-enclosed (the example of Auguste Comte) because it
is based on a definite image of man.
For Sartre, the only appropriate humanism is the one that affirms
that man is in the process of self-overcoming. Existentialism is
humanism in the sense of connecting this transcendency of
"going beyond" (not to be confused with the divine transcendence)
with the subjectivity of a being embeded in a human universe
(not to be reduced to the Cartesian individual mind). Humanism is
a reminder that "man fulfills himself, not in turning toward
himself, but in seeking outside of himself a goal which is just