Does Sartre’s existentialism provide a convincing theory of ethics?’

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Louis Connor

Does Sartre’s existentialism provide a convincing theory of ethics?’

Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) was one of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century. Disputation still rages as to whether Sartre provides us with a convincing theory of ethics or not. Ethical theories discuss conceptions such as values, obligations, duties, choices and freedoms to name just a few. They are used to guide our actions, offering solutions, in the political realm, to moral deliberations over abortion, euthanasia, and so on.
Very briefly, existentialism is the philosophical study of our existence. Existentialists would postulate that our lives are not defined by our existence but, rather, we have the ability to define our own existence.
This essay will argue that Sartre does provide us with a convincing theory of ethics through a logical interpretation of his theory. A convincing theory of ethics, and one which could help us solve moral deliberations, can be achieved through upholding the key tenets of Sartre’s existentialism, such as radical choice and, especially, our fundamental freedom. My essay will be structured as follows. I will begin with a discussion of the key principles of Sartre’s existentialism, starting with his emphasis that our existence precedes our essence. I will then explain how our existence puts us in a situation of complete freedom. Following this I highlight the corresponding responsibility which attaches to this fundamental freedom. I will then briefly outline how our fundamental freedom, according to Sartre, plunges us into states of anguish, despair and abandonment. To end my discussion of Sartre’s existentialisms key tenets, I will outline how we are to overcome this anguish, despair and abandonment with which freedom places us, by acting authentically and avoiding living our lives in ‘bad faith’. Finally, I will conclude with an example of the ‘sincere Nazi’ to show, how Sartre’s existentialism does indeed provide us with a convincing theory of ethics. I will refer to some of Sartre’s key works, especially his lecture ‘Existentialism Is a Humanism’ (1946), and another work ‘Being and Nothingness’ (1943).

When we are born we are suddenly thrown into existence. Man begins life as nothing, bearing of no example of any universal conception of man. He will grow up, live his life and then define himself afterwards. For Sartre, nothing has preordained our being, there is no human nature. It is with this lonely conception of our existence that Sartre posited that “existence comes before essence” (Sartre. 1946:1). To explain this analogy, Sartre often compared Humans to inanimate objects. Here I shall do the same. I give the example of a block of stone which is then sculptured into a statue. The statue is the depiction of a particular person, let us say a monarch. The statue is also of a particular size, and has been sculptured into a particular position. Only the sculptor knew about the statues constitutive elements, such as size, person depicted and shape prior to its existence when it was just a block of stone. In this sense, the statues essence precedes its existence. It was made according to the guiding principles of the sculptor. For Sartre, mans existence in the world is of the opposite to that of the statue. Man was not made, like the statue was made, according to some set of guiding principles as, for example, laid down by some divine being. Man simply exists and will define his own essence later, thus his existence precedes his essence. This suggests that Sartre’s existentialism adopts a humanist approach, suggesting that our abilities to develop and progress lie within ourselves objectively. However, Sartre does not support a humanism whereby man is shut in upon himself as an object. Rather he posits an existential humanism where man can surpass his objectivity by pursuing transcendent aims, in other words “man is not shut up in himself” (Sartre. 1946:16).

Humans, according to Sartre, are not defined by their given characteristics or constraints. We hold the possibilities to pass our own facticity. One can not use the excuse of “It’s just the way I am”, for Sartre held utter contempt for such determinist statements. Equally, Sartre would disagree wholeheartedly with naturalists such as David Hume, who posit that we are moved to action by our passions. Sartre has no place for the excuses of our passions “upon which a man is swept into certain actions as by fate” (Sartre.1946:6). Man is responsible for all of his actions, even those he attributes to his passions.
Because man is not determined by any pre-ordained conception of human nature, he possesses complete freedom and free will. Man is free to live how he chooses to live and holds this freedom within himself alone. His destiny is his to shape as he chooses. Hence our morality is variable since we are free to act as we choose. But, a form of this morality is the conception of this fundamental freedom, and here Sartre expresses a Kantian approach, for “Kant declared that freedom is a will both to itself and to the freedom of others. Agreed” (Sartre.1946:15). This emphasises that a fundamental conception, or feature (but not a universal value) of human existence is freedom. This freedom, confronts man with a radical choice. That is, the choice to choose whichever action he commits to. However, one does not arrive at this freedom and corresponding radical choice a priori, for there exists, according to Sartre, a dichotomy of being. On one level we have our pour-soi (being-for-itself) which represents our human consciousness. The other level consists of our en-soi (being-in-itself) being the object of consciousness. In order for man to exercise, or access, his freedom, he must become aware of his pour-soi so that he does not become objectified by others en-soi. Through reflection of the objective world, or the en-soi, he makes it part of his consciousness, or the pour-soi. Only by overcoming this dichotomy of being can one, in the words of one prominent author, “achieve the essential man” (Billington.1993:161). Sartre also refers to this surpassing, or transcendence, of the objective self as mans element of subjectivity. Therefore, man is his own project, existent in being-for-itself (pour-soi). Our pour-soi may be ever changing, adapting to new commitments. But, essentially, for Sartre, this project is ours, and ours alone, “I am nothing but the project of myself” (Sartre.2003:573).
For Sartre, we must express our free will, and not, follow the choices made by others. This brings us to another important tenet of Sartre’s existentialism, that of responsibility. We are free, and radically free to commit to the choices we pick. But, we are also responsible for our choices. Because we are responsible for the course and direction of our lives, we are also morally responsible for our moral or immoral choices. We make ourselves, thus we are responsible. Indeed, it has been suggested that Sartre provides an ‘ethics of responsibility’. This alone, however, does not provide a convincing theory of ethics per se.
This emphasis on responsibility plunges man into a state of anguish. He feels anguish because he is aware of the responsibilities of his actions not just towards himself, but towards mankind as a whole. Man is also in a state of abandonment since there is no God. But Sartre goes beyond the realm of God to posit that there are no morals, principles or universal goods at all which have a priori existence; Man is abandoned. Man is also in a state of despair for when he chooses an action he remains within “the realm of possibilities” (Sartre.1946:8). There are certain possibilities within all actions. For example, if I have arranged to meet my tutor at 14:30, I am presupposing that there will not be heavy traffic, or that one of my tyres will not suffer a puncture on my journey, for I cycle to University. Thus I remain within the realm of possibilities. To reiterate, there is nothing to guide our behaviour, we can have no excuse for what we do, we are alone, and in this vein Sartre pronounces that “man is condemned to be free” (Sartre. 1946:6).
One could charge Sartre for being a pessimist, and further, that he does not provide a convincing theory of ethics since he posits that we can choose what we like as long as we are responsible for our choice. However, this is where two key principles are inserted by Sartre. Firstly, Sartre’s most renowned concept is that of ‘bad-faith’. Faced with the anguish and abandonment of the human condition, one may decide to live up to a pre-defined role. Instead of acknowledging ones radical freedom they decide to order their life according to a pre-defined role. In ‘Being and Nothingness’, Sartre uses the example of a waiter. The waiter suppresses his freedom and individuality by living up to the functions and roles of a ‘waiter’. The waiter is deceiving himself by doing so and is thus living in ‘bad-faith’. He believes, or pretends, that he must wake up at five o’clock every morning to carry out his functions as a ‘waiter’, and denies the fact that he has choices. One may criticise Sartre for not taking into consideration the constraints placed upon this individual. The waiter may need to work so he can keep up with his rent and pay his bills. However, this is not good enough for Sartre. The waiter does indeed have choices. He could, for example, quit his job, move out of his house and live with a friend. This brings me to Sartre’s other important concept of ‘authenticity’. The waiter always has a choice. An authentic person will avoid becoming the object of other peoples consciousness, he will accept responsibility for his actions and recognize that ‘he’ i.e. his self, is the result of his own choice, no-one else’s.
The example of the sincere Nazi is constantly referred to when discussing Sartre’s existentialism. The sincere Nazi wholeheartedly believed in the principles of Nazism and the annihilation of the Jews. The sincere Nazi has chosen in ‘good-faith’, for he is aware of other choices available to him and has made his choice in recognition of his corresponding responsibilities and freedom attached to it. The question is whether the fact that he chose in ‘good-faith’ made his choice better or not. A reply to this conundrum is offered by Gordon Graham who suggests, in an existentialist vein, “that the life of the sincere Nazi is objectively bad but subjectively good” (G.Graham.2004:87). The Nazi is sincere since he chose freely and created values that were for him. He transcended his objective self, grasping his subjectivity. I will now posit two arguments that don’t allow one to use Sartre’s existentialism as a justification for one to behave as one chooses carte blanche. This will thus show that one can develop a convincing theory of ethics through a logical interpretation of Sartre’s existentialism.
Firstly, the sincere Nazi, by exercising his radical choice, is legislating for the whole of humanity. He is choosing for everyone, everywhere, to choose the annihilation of the Jews. Clearly, adopting Graham’s argument set out in the previous paragraph, this is objectively wrong. Subjectively the sincere Nazi is acting in ‘good-faith’, this we have established. But our facticity, as Sartre would posit, is objective. Yes we can surpass our facticity because we are radically free. But one can not be said to be free if you are imprisoned because of your facticity, as the Jews were. Essentially, one who is imprisoned because of his facticity is being denied the essential feature of the human condition; freedom. He can not, whilst imprisoned and condemned to death, surpass his facticity.
Secondly, Sartre lived according to his existentialist philosophy. Sartre would not justify the killing of six million Jews. No-where does Sartre posit that we can surpass another’s facticity in the name of our own. We can only surpass our own facticity. The Nazi’s persecuted the Jews in the name of un-truths. The Jews were not recognised as sharing the same essential facticity as Germans, or more specifically Aryans, as being human. Sartre’s emphasis on responsibility thus allows for Nazi’s, irrespective of whether individual Nazi’s acted in accordance to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ faith, to be punished for the atrocities that the Nazi regime freely committed, and thus accepted responsibility for.
To suggest that Sartre’s existentialism does not provide a convincing theory of ethics to which we could solve moral deliberations of the severity of those raised by the Holocaust is demented, and would render Sartre’s existentialism unintelligible. Sartre was not a nihilist. Rather, moral deliberations can be solved by upholding Sartre’s conceptions of fundamental freedom and radical choice as constitutive elements of human existence. One could ask the question, when faced with a moral conundrum, “does action, or choice, ‘x’ impede upon the fundamental freedom and/or radical choice of the individual, as constitutive of the whole of mankind?”
I have shown that Sartre’s existentialism does provide us with a convincing theory of ethics through a logical interpretation. By interpreting Sartre’s existentialism logically, one can conclude that one is free in respect to our facticity, not to rationale or law. Thus an act, or choice, which impedes upon our fundamental freedom, based upon our facticity, is wrong. One may continue, is ethically wrong.
Word Count (2200)

Billington, R. (1993) Living Philosophy: An Introduction to Moral Thought. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
Graham, G. (2004) Eight Theories of Ethics. London: Routledge.
Howells, C., ed. (1992) The Cambridge Companion to Sartre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kerner, G.C. (1990) Three Philosophical Moralists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mautner, T., ed. (1996) A Dictionary of Philosophy. Abingdon: Blackwell.
Sartre, J.P. (2003) Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge.
Sartre, J.P. (1946) Existentialism Is a Humanism. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 24 November 2008].
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008) Jean-Paul Sartre. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 24 November 2008].

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