[We are] condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, [we are] responsible for everything [we do.] ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
1. Basic Ideas of Existentialism
Could it be that all of the major ethical theories—deontology, utilitarianism, natural law, contract theory—-abstract to speak to an amorphous ethical reality? But perhaps precision in ethics is a chimera. The philosophers known as existentialists generally believed that all the major theories discuss thus far were mistaken—for precisely these reasons.
Existentialism is a philosophical movement whose origins are in the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). Other major figures in the movement include Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969), Martin Heidegger (1899 – 1976), Albert Camus (1917-1960) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980.) Existential philosophy is incredibly rich and diverse and its proponents include communists, socialists, atheists, theists, and nihilists. Despite this diversity, almost all existentialists share a few basic ideas that are relevant to our discussion.
Kierkegaard’s rejection of a “rational and philosophical” Christianity serves as a starting point for our deliberation. He believed that Christianity erred by trying to be reasonable, when in fact it’s based on faith and trust. Faith isn’t a matter of affirming certain rational propositions, but of acting in a certain way. Kierkegaard made this point in his famous retelling of the biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac. It wasn’t reasonable for Abraham to sacrifice his son simply because God asked him to; instead, following his God’s orders was an act of faith. From an ethical point of view Abraham action was immoral, but for Kierkegaard faith and religion transcend reason and ethics.
These considerations lead to the first basic idea of existentialism: reason is an inadequate instrument with which to comprehend the depth, mystery, and meaning of life. Reason’s limitations were poignantly described by the Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky who said that while reason satisfies our rational selves, desire is the real manifestation of life. But as we saw in the first chapter, Western philosophy began when the Greeks used reason to understand the world. Greek rationalism led to a search for the rational and objective foundations of knowledge, meaning, truth, and value.
The existentialists reject this tradition. They repudiate the abstract, obtuse, specialized, esoteric, and formal subtlety which divorces the intellect from life. They maintain that life isn’t an equation or riddle to be rationally resolved; it’s more of a mystery to be lived. Reason can’t resolve our most pressing existential concerns; it can’t tell us the meaning of life. Theory, speculation, and metaphysical and moral abstraction are worth less than concrete reality. Thus existentialism emphasizes concrete, personal experience over rational abstractions. This is its second basic idea.
The emphasis on the concrete is also captured in the existential dictum “existence precedes essence.” This means that we exist first, as particular, concrete, human subjects before we are defined by any universal, objective form or essence. Existence refers to ‘that a thing is,” while essence refers to “what a thing is.” For instance, the essence of the four-legged, tail-wagging, car-chasing thing we often see is “dogness.” That is what is! But the existentialist denies that there is any human nature that tells us what we are or what we ought to do; rather, we exist first as concrete human subjects and then proceed to create our essence. Fate or a God don’t determine us, we determine ourselves. We may become saints or sinners, but it’s up to us to decide. In the same way, moral theories can’t tell us what to do. Intellectual theories are too detached from life to provide any guidance in our concrete lives. Theories may provide the rationale for human actions, but they can’t command our assent.
We can easily see how moral theories can’t make us do anything. The prescriptions of natural law, a social contract, the categorical imperative, or the net utility can’t command our conduct because we can always ask, “Why follow these theories?” Moral theories may define our moral duties and obligations, but they mean nothing without personal commitment. Action “x” may violate the natural law, the social contract, the categorical imperative, and the greatest happiness principle but, “so what?” That doesn’t tell us we shouldn’t do “x.” These theories assume ethics is objective, that some actions really are right or wrong. By contrast, existentialism emphasizes the human subject as the only ultimate source of morality. Only when we commit ourselves to some course of action do we act as moral agents.
The emphasis on personal commitment brings us to a third basic idea of existentialism: human beings are radically free. We are the ones who create the meaning, truth, and value in our lives, and we are totally responsible for our lives. We often claim to be unable to do certain things, but in fact we don’t do them because we don’t want to. If we wanted to do them we would. For instance, the fact that it’s wrong to steal doesn’t prevent us from doing it, only we can do that. True, we can’t do everything—we can’t fly—but we can choose from our available options and, in the process, create our selves. In summary, existentialism claims that: Moral theories which derive from rational thinking are defective because they emphasize personal abstraction over experience, and they can’t account for the role that human freedom—manifested by personal commitment—plays in the moral domain.
2. Sartre And Freedom
The famous existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre ( 1905 – 1980) was a philosopher, playwright, political activist, and social critic. The complexities and nuances of his philosophy are formidable, but Sartre’s philosophy best characterizes the unique features of an existential ethics. The key concepts in the Sartrean analysis of ethics are: freedom, angst, bad faith, and authenticity. We discuss each in turn.
We begin our discussion with Sartre’s notion that we are radically free. If we are in a bad mood, for example, it’s because we choose to be. The external world doesn’t impose itself upon our consciousness; we control our moods, thoughts, attitudes, and choices. And we aren’t determined by our past choices! We can easily demonstrate.
Suppose we are trying to decide whether to study or drink beer. No theory or promise eliminates this choice. Early in the morning, we might say to ourselves, “tonight I will forego the beer and study.” But when the evening comes we must make a choice, beer or books. Or suppose we promise ourselves that on Monday we will start a diet. But when Monday comes, our former promise means nothing. At that moment we must decide, diet or dessert? Our promises, ideas, and theories mean nothing because when the moment of choice arrives we stand face to face with human freedom. In the same way, our past promises don’t determine our present choices, our present choices don’t determine the future. No matter how we try to deny our freedom, it forces itself upon us.
For Sartre, freedom derives from human consciousness. We are conscious of both objects in the world and of ourselves as subjects, and this self-consciousness is the source of freedom. Self-conscious beings can imagine themselves as more muscular, attractive, knowledgeable, famous, or wealthy. In short, they can be conscious of what they lack, and can freely choose to fill these voids. Thus, freedom emanates from our consciousness of possibilities, particularly the possibility that we can be more than we are now. The concept of freedom is difficult to conceptualize and articulate precisely because, Sartre says, it isn’t an abstraction. Rather, it’s intensely experienced in the moment of our actual, concrete choices.
Unfortunately, freedom is paradoxical. We are free to do anything except not make choices, thus we cannot not be free. We are, in Sartre’s words, “condemned to be free.” This frightening phrase captures the essence of the paradox of freedom. We can’t escape freedom! To illustrate, suppose that we want to know if we should perform active euthanasia on our terminally ill parent. We can choose to do it or not, but we can’t not choose because not choosing is itself a choice. There is no escape from the fact that human beings must choose and that they are thus responsible for their choices.
Consider another example. We are trying to choose between believing or disbelieving in the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. We can choose to believe, to not to believe or to hold our belief in abeyance. But any choice carries with it an awesome responsibility. If we believe because we think it’s the safest choice or because we have been told to, we are responsible for our pragmatism or credulity. If we don’t believe because we have no evidence or because we don’t care, we are responsible for our skepticism or apathy. And if we don’t choose at all, we are responsible for our indecision because not choosing is a choice itself. Thus we can’t avoid making choices.
One way to try to escape our freedom is to accept creeds and theories which tell us what acts must be performed. But this doesn’t solve the problem. We have simply taken the choice to another level where the question becomes, “what creeds should we subscribe to?” Thus there is no escape from the fact that we are prisoners of freedom. We are alone; we are without excuses. It seems we are “condemned to be free.”
3. Angst, Bad Faith, and Authenticity
According to Sartre, when we encounter freedom and realize its paradox, we experience angst or anxiety. This anxiety results from the grave difficulty we have in accepting total responsibility for our acts. We are alone in the world without any guidance or any eternal principles to inform and console us. Instead, we must create our own values; we are like Gods! We experience the dread of knowing we can do anything. But angst, anxiety, or dread result from the complete responsibility that accompanies our freedom to create value.
So great is freedom and its accompanying angst, that it’s easier to deny freedom by avoiding painful decisions and pretending that freedom doesn’t exist. Sartre says there are three ways this can be done. The first is to fail to choose. But, as we have just seen, to not choose is itself a choice, thus non-choice doesn’t allow one to escape from freedom. The second is to be what Sartre calls a “serious-minded” individual who pretends that some objective values dictate the right choice for them. But these values mean nothing unless we make them our own. They can’t make us do anything.
Sartre’s demonstrates how moral values fail in the example of the young man who must decide whether to stay home with his mother or go off to join the French Free forces fighting the Germans in World War II. The young man’s brother had been killed trying to stop the German offensive, and he wants to avenge his death, but his mother wants him to stay in France with her. What should he do?
Sartre claims that no moral theory could resolve this dilemma. It doesn’t help to claim that the young man should do his duty since he experiences a conflict of duties. It doesn’t help to recommend that he should do the good or the natural, inasmuch as he can’t ascertain what the good or natural is. It’s no help to follow the principle of utility either because he doesn’t know what might happen. He might stay home and feel guilty, or go to war and be killed. He can’t even be sure what is in his own interest. Sartre asserts that the young man must choose a course of action by himself and live with complete responsibility for the consequences. Abstract theories fail in real life situations, Sartre says, because real life isn’t an esoteric puzzle. Life is about flesh and blood, men and women, and life and death.
The most important way to deny freedom is to act in bad faith. We act inauthentically or in bad faith by thinking of ourselves as passive objects manipulated by other people, social conventions, religious commands, or moral codes. In other words, we deny our subjectivity! Sartre tells the story of a young woman who is being slowly seduced. As the young man’s hand begins to touch her, she pretends not to notice. She believes that something is happening to her, that she is a passive object. But she isn’t. She is allowing this to happen and can stop the young man, and she acts in bad faith by pretending not to be free. Or consider students who don’t want to read and study and who blame the teacher or school for their failure. They are mistaken; they could study hard. When we avoid painful decisions and pretend that we aren’t free, we are acting in bad faith; we are refusing to take responsibility for our actions.
In perhaps his most famous example of bad faith, Sartre tells the story of a waiter who thinks of himself as an object controlled by the role he plays. He denies his freedom to leave at any time, to just walk out. But Sartre says the waiter isn’t controlled by the role, the rules, the society, moral theory, God, or anything else. He can be what he wants, even if that means becoming unemployed and living on the streets. It’s the awesome nature of this responsibility that invites a retreat from freedom and exemplifies bad faith.
Our actions—not ethical theories or abstract principles—create our value. We often deny this and reduce our existential anxiety and doubt by accepting systems, theories, and principles that give certitude. But in so doing, we fail to ask questions and we don’t actualize our potential to doubt and thereby be fully human. We refuse to search for the values that make life meaningful and don’t confront with courage the anxiety that accompanies the creation of value in our own lives.
If we do have the courage to create value, the courage to commit to a course of action and accept full responsibility for our choices, we act authentically, or in good faith. Sartre doesn’t say much about good faith except that it involves choosing the values, purposes, and projects for which we take full responsibility. Authentic individuals don’t allow anything to dictate to them, they simply choose to commit themselves to a particular course of action.
4. Problems for an Existential Ethics
The most obvious problem for Sartre’s ethics is whether freedom exists to the extent that he supposed, or if it exists at all. And there are other difficulties. Consider again the Sartrean project.
When acting in bad faith, we pretend that something controls our behavior. Now imagine individuals who live according to the moral principles with which they have been raised. Occasionally, they have considered that these principles may be groundless and that they could be rejected. However, the idea that they must create their own principles, values, and meaning in life is frightening. So they silence their doubts.
Sartre believes such individuals are morally culpable for accepting their initial moral principles, for supposing that these principles control them. But are such individuals really so bad? Suppose they are pleasant, dutiful, conscientious, and kind? Is it really true that those who deceive themselves into thinking they are controlled by moral rules, or who have never considered the possibility of other principles, are immoral? It doesn’t seem so.
Now our appraisal would probably be different if these individuals had accepted were more dubious principles. If they had been taught since youth to torture animals and set houses on fire, we would likely condemn the actions that follow from their principles. But this suggests that we condemn their acts, not because they performed them in bad faith, but because their principles and actions are immoral. This suggests that it doesn’t matter whether actions are done in good or bad faith, but whether the actions are good or bad.
The point becomes even clearer if we examine cases of actions done in good faith. Imagine individuals who strive all of their life to create their own values. After a long and arduous intellectual journey, they decide that there are no gods or objective values. Nonetheless, they dedicate their lives to working arduously in cancer research. They give no reason for their choice other than to say, “We freely commit ourselves to this project and take full responsibility for the outcome of our life.” Whatever else we may think of it, there is something praiseworthy about this enterprise; this life lived in good faith.
This exemplifies what some existentialist call a project. Projects are self-created endeavors which allow us to experience freedom and authenticity. Whether our project is to be parent, medical researcher, plumber, teacher, dancer, or concert pianist, the way we do it, according to Sartre, says more about the morality of the action than the action itself. This follows from the fact that there are no objective values. If we act in good faith—the unique expression of our own being with full recognition of our freedom and its attached responsibility—then we act morally.
The problem here is with sincere killers, torture advocates or Nazis. If they really believe they are doing the right thing—say killing for their gods—and they do it without hypocrisy and in good faith then, according to Sartre, they act morally. In fact, it doesn’t matter what they do as long as it’s done in good faith. Here we encounter the same problems that plagued other theories of subjective value. If there is no objective foundation to morality, then anything is allowable. Thus, good and bad faith are unable to distinguish between what we ordinarily assume are right and wrong actions. This suggests that something more is needed to understand the nature of morality than mere commitment. Is there any way for Sartre to avoid this conclusion?
5. Other Existential Thinkers
Sartre’s could rely upon a God as the ultimate source of objective value, but Sartre was an atheist. For Kierkegaard, ethical principles have their place, but they are subservient to a God who can suspend them. Moreover, this God doesn’t always share our moral judgments or the dictates of our moral conscience. If that were the case, we would only need our conscience in order to be moral, and would not need God. According to Kierkegaard, faith is higher than reason in the moral domain, inasmuch as moral principles and theological abstractions mean nothing without an intensely personal commitment to the moral or religious way of life.
Other religious existentialists have taken up the Kierkegaardian project. They generally reject proofs for the existence of a God and absolute moral principles. They emphasize human subjects and their freedom, accepting a God as the source of objective value. Thus a religious existential ethics rejects the rationalism of natural law ethics and, at least in Kierkegaard’s case, moves in the direction of a divine command theory. However, by positing an objective source of morality, ethics may more properly be called religious than existential. Such theories are open to all the philosophical objections we may pose for any religious claim. A theological existentialism must be built upon a theology with all its attendant philosophical difficulties.
Another existentialist who tried to respond to the criticisms of existential ethics was the French writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). Like Sartre, de Beauvoir made freedom central to her ethics. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, she argued that we recognize the lack or the emptiness in our being and try to fill these spaces by freely choosing projects. We devote our labor to projects that, hopefully, disclose our unique being. By engaging in a project we experience the freedom to give our lives value and meaning. In the struggle to overcome the obstacles inherent in our project, we discover our own being as free.
De Beauvoir admits that ethics is ambiguous, but not that it’s absurd. If life were absurd, nihilism follows. But amidst ambiguity, we have the opportunity to give life value and meaning. If values were transparent or translucent, we would not have this chance to disclose ourselves as free being through our projects. Since values are more opaque, the genuinely moral person lives in a world of painful and continually questioning. Ambiguity provides the realm in which we may create our values.
In the final analysis, freedom was the ultimate value for de Beauvoir, and she opposed any action that limited human freedom. The ultimate precept is to respect the freedom of others. She gave the following example of how the precept worked. If others attempt suicide under the influence of intoxicants or temporary depression, we may interfere with their freedom. But if they want to end or ruin their lives after rational deliberation, we should allow them to do so.
Still, despite her claim to the contrary, it seems unlikely that freedom is the only value or even the most important one. For example, most people don’t think that freedom is more important than justice or life itself. In addition, whenever principles other than freedom are introduced, we move away from the spirit of an existential ethics. This isn’t to say that freedom can’t function as the ultimate moral principle, only that if it does we have another objective moral theory.
6. An Assessment
If we really do create values by freely choosing projects, then there is no way to distinguish good projects or actions from bad ones, other than to say some are freely chosen and some aren’t. But it just doesn’t seem true that our commitment to something makes it valuable. Nor does it seem true that our lack of commitment makes something worthless. As with various elements of other theories we have examined, there is something counter-intuitive about existential ethics. It appears that the existential account of value is just too subjective.
Another difficulty with the existential theory of value is its irrationalism. If ethics is merely a matter of choosing, then no choice is irrational. If we ask existentialists why they chose “x,” their only possible reply is, “we just choose.” But this is unsatisfactory. If we can give no reason why we choose something, then our choice isn’t rational. Existentialists can give no reason why they chose anything precisely because there is no reason to choose. If there were, then ethics would be rational and objective. This is another problem with the existential account of value; it’s too irrational.
Of course, an existentialist rejects this critique. They argue that the whole point of an existential ethic is to show that reason is an inadequate instrument to understand morality. But are we really satisfied with a theory that can give us no reason why we ought to do something? If I tell you that you should go jump in the lake but can’t tell you why, aren’t you hesitant to do it? And doesn’t this show that reason must play some role in ethics? Thus, even if the existentialists are right about reason’s limitations, it doesn’t follow that reason plays no role in the moral sphere.
Other existentialists try to overcome the subjectivism and irrationalism with God, freedom, or some other objective standard. But this undermines the radical nature of existentialism, suggesting that ethical theorizing is necessary to uncover the objective foundations of morality. Remember, existentialism was attractive because it proposed to bypass the task of uncovering the principles operative in the moral arena, but without principles existential ethics is bankrupt. The existentialists are correct when they argue that morality involves personal commitment, but if they can’t tell us what to be committed to or why the theory is deficient.