Sartre’s Ethics

“… to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.”
Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous statement that ‘man is condemned to be free’ is predicated upon his insistence that “existence precedes essence.” So, freedom arrives instantaneously.

Emmanuel Levinas’ freedom related statement is that “responsibility is antecedent to freedom”. So, freedom arrives in second place.

Therefore, Levinas, at first sight, surely locks horns with Sartre’s existential situating of freedom?

The question is one of precedence. What comes first, freedom or responsibility? Presumably only one of these philosophers can be right, because at first glance there doesn’t appear to be a natural synthesis to these contrasting viewpoints. Whether it is freedom that comes first, or responsibility that gains ‘poll-position’, there is definite worth in trying to understand why this contrast arose between these two philosophers plying their trade in the same city at the same time. Maybe we’ll find a winner? Or, better yet, maybe we’ll find something more worthwhile than a boring winner.

Sartre’s stance, of course, was a reaction to philosophies such as Christianity’s that prescribe pre-destined ‘journeys,’ which effectively place individuals in a sub-ordinate roles as chattels to the service of a higher or greater good, society, or Being. Such paradigms, where one’s essence and hence life was thought to be programmed from birth, Sartre found intolerable and fundamentally flawed. Instead, he argued from an ontological position, which begun with a conception of being that included a clear presentation of subject-hood, and culminated in the assertion that individuals arrive before any role that they might have: existence precedes essence.

Now, there are two ways to engage with Sartre: The simplistic scampering over the neighbouring fields of ontology, phenomenology, consciousness and nothingness to get to the lush fields of freedom, bad faith, responsibility and ethics or the way we are going to do it. So, roll up your sleeves, stick on your wellies, we’re going wading.

It’s going to be difficult, messy, but also thrilling, rewarding and satisfying, because just like gorge walking one needs to let go and submit to the flow of the gorge/philosophy otherwise you might get sucked into the abyss. I’m playing partly, but there is a serious side here because Sartre is not normally known for his contribution to ethics and I greatly believe that he has much to say if one can follow his, at times, torrential and whirlwind-like thought progressions.

The philosophic extraction of Sartre’s thinking is clearly allied to, and borrows from, the writings of Husserl and Heidegger: two pioneers who carved out new territories in the post-Kantian and post-Hegelian philosophical landscape. Indeed, because Sartre constructed his own system somewhat over the foundations of other such thinkers, the confidence he had in building on solid ground would have been fairly safe to assume. However, whilst building, with his predecessors’ phenomenological and ontological principles, Sartre arguably, also desired to breathe an air less turgid and had ambitions to soar beyond the realm of their rather dense but hard-wearing theories.

Consequently, when working with Heidegger’s intense ontological study of being, Sartre radically positioned ‘freedom’ as his chosen priority in the flourish of ontological irony that is his epiphany, ‘existence precedes essence.’ Ironic because, even though he followed the same ontological priorities that Heidegger set down, he came to realise that freedom comes before matters of ontology, essence or being, where humans are concerned. By daring to make such a bold development within the construct of ontology, Sartre additionally enabled himself to present, to those that would listen, the key that could unlock the mental chains of oppression caused by centuries of dogmatic and pernicious thinking: An oppression which enabled those who were ethically and socially corrupt to grind and wear down their fellow brethren. By proclaiming that “man is condemned to be free,” and breathing the resulting heady air that he now found himself inhaling, Sartre would have believed that he was giving humanity a realisation of enormous benefit. As far as he was concerned, as a consequence of his work, each one of us could be in a position to embrace our freedom and liberate ourselves from any chains of oppression. The bounds of dogmatic tyranny, whether imposed by others or oneself, could now be broken by Sartre’s revelation.

For Sartre though, the colossal and triumphant declaring of one’s freedom was never to be the end goal of his thinking. Leading humanity out of the dark ages of manipulation and vice into a more promising new dawn was only part of the task. Empowering individuals to realise their freedom and take hold of it with both hands was not enough for Sartre. He understood that each individual, in their state of realisation as regards their freedom, should also attain the next stage in the Sartrean self-improvement course: ethics.

When one reaches and attains the level of freedom one should then progress to the next stage in order to prevent anarchy and atrocity from taking place. Giving individuals their freedom was not enough for Sartre because he knew he also had to give them the tempering qualities of responsibility and ethics, because we live in communities rather than in isolation. Having complete autonomy to act out one’s desires, when embracing one’s freedom, on an island with no other inhabitants is one thing, but doing so in a housing estate on the outskirts of a city centre is a completely different matter. Consequently, Sartre realised that we have to embrace others as well as our freedom. However, his challenge was to demonstrate why that should naturally be the case from the philosophical principles he had already laid down, and this challenge, if I am to be brutally honest, was unfortunately never achieved within the oeuvre that Sartre left. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that even though the challenge of presenting a clearly articulated route-map from ontological founding principles to ethics eluded Sartre, the demand of the task never did and it was always one that Sartre felt the presence of as unfinished business.

The latent ethical driving force that I find in Sartre, I realise is founded, some might say, thinly within Sartre’s own works. However, because my interest lies in the ethical, my reading of Sartre deliberately extends to the piecing together of fragments which I believe form a frustrated aspiration on his part to find an ethical goal and end-point to his thinking. The weight and authority for this being given in such items as his promise, right at the last of Being and Nothingness, that he will write on ethics in a “future work” and indeed “devote” that text to ethics, and of course his unfinished writings on ethics, published posthumously by his adopted daughter, Arlette Elkaim-Sartre, in a planned pact upon his passing.

Revealingly though, within such items as his non-delivered promise and unfinished notes, as well as evidence of a philosopher deeply concerned with ethics there also evidence of one who had thought himself into a cul-de-sac, from which the preceding foundations and premises of his thoughts would not let him escape to reach for the ambition of an ethical telos. Sartre’s own, and somewhat borrowed, philosophical pathways had led him away from ethics to his eternal consternation.

David Pellauer, in his “Translator’s Introduction” to the English version of Notebooks for an Ethics attributes the nub of Sartre’s difficulty to his formulation of consciousness within ontologically based principles:

“Consciousness as for-itself, where the for-itself is ontologically independent of being-for-others, is an ontological fact at the most fundamental level of human existence.”

Or, to explain it another way, within Sartre’s ontological system, consciousness arises without the need for anyone else. Consciousness, as described by Sartre, could surface in a vacuum or on an island; other people aren’t required for its presence to manifest. Consequently, under such a system, as Pellauer observes, “There are others, other for-itselves, but they are not necessary for the existence of my consciousness as for-itself.”

So, Sartre, rather frustratingly, gives us freedom, but he can’t give us each other.

Pellauer neatly sums up this Sartrean ontological cul-de-sac: “while oppression can be overcome, alienation cannot.”

Under Sartre’s ontologically rooted thinking one is given the power to liberate oneself, but also destined to be forever alienated from one’s fellows without ethics. This is due to there being an effective ‘glass ceiling’ to ontologically based philosophy where ethics cannot be reached. There simply is no provision for the necessity of others within ontology, which in turn ultimately means that others do not matter. This is not a good starting point for ethics!

Sartre, of course, understood the limitations of ontology and when writing Being and Nothingness he demonstrated this awareness:

“Ontology itself can not formulate ethical precepts. It is concerned solely with what is, and we can not possibly derive imperatives from ontology’s indicatives.”

Indeed, this matter is well known within philosophy and is sometimes referred to as trying to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ However, even though Sartre understood the limitations of ontology he was still enchanted by its power and revealed this quite openly in Being and Nothingness when he stated that ontology “does, however, allow us to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.”

The task for us, therefore, becomes to re-examine Sartrean ontology to try and catch this “glimpse” of ethics and to understand quite where Sartre got to in regard to our relationships with one another and perhaps, just as importantly, ourselves.

Sartre’s ontological starting point actually began with phenomenology. Following Husserl’s work, Sartrean phenomenology, as was traditional within the phenomenological discipline, rejected the dualism of past philosophies that found their basis in a ‘real’ world hidden behind a world of appearances. For all those studying phenomenology, the so-called ‘world of appearances’ was where their interest lay and their focus conducted. The perceived object or perceptual experience was all that mattered to their philosophy; anything else was forever bracketed and excluded from their study. Consequently, Sartre set about his task by examining perceived objects and perceptual experiences and came to the conclusion that he had to turn inward and perform a thorough inspection of his own conscious processes to understand the perceptions he experienced.

The subject of Sartre’s enquiry started to shift at this point and peel away from phenomenology, because he had become fascinated by what phenomenology had led to: consciousness. Such was his fascination, that Sartre essentially developed an initial founding premise for his new approach to philosophy: “The first procedure of a philosophy ought to be to expel things from consciousness and re-establish its true connection with the world.” Consciousness, or to make it clear within Sartrean thought, one’s own consciousness, was Sartre’s starting position. A position that gave him so much but also, as we know, eventually led to a hampering of his ethical ambitions.

In contrast to a psychological approach, which could have tended towards a more intimate study of the internal workings of one’s consciousness, Sartre’s new phenomenological framework focused on the matter of separating what was one’s consciousness and what was not: The distinction of ‘that which is conscious’ and ‘that which is not conscious’ had arrived within Sartre’s philosophy. However, Sartre doesn’t leave this distinction within a discussion solely fixated upon consciousness. For him, this distinction also takes on an ontological bearing.

In some ways this was entirely predictable given that Sartre’s acknowledged starting point was a phenomenological rejection of what Nietzsche described as the “illusion of worlds behind-the-scene”. The hint being, from the first, that Sartre’s desire was to philosophically understand what there was in the world that he inhabited and that this, however one comes to it, is fundamentally the discipline of ontology. Consequently, within Being and Nothingness, Sartre wore his colours on his sleeve and gave his introduction the title “The Pursuit of Being,” which, by such heavy referencing to the word ‘Being’, was an open declaration of serious ontological intent. In retrospect therefore, it is of no real surprise that Sartre cast the results of his separation of ‘what is conscious’ from ‘what is not conscious’ in terms directly representative of his ontological leaning and utilised the magic touchstone and ontological signifier that is the word ‘Being’.

So, almost predictively, within the sixth component of “The Pursuit of Being” sub-titled “Being-In-Itself”, Sartre formulated his ontological separation of a phenomenological derived understanding of consciousness:

“Since the being of consciousness is radically different, its meaning will necessitate a particular elucidation,.. being-for-itself (l’être-pour-soi)… which is opposed to the being-in-itself (l’être-en-soi) of the phenomenon.”

The particular elucidation Sartre gave to his description for the “being of consciousness” finds its definition therefore grounded whole-heartedly within an ontological setting as the signifier “being-for-itself.” Such grounding though, goes beyond the level of signification because, for Sartre, the real understanding and ontological relevance of being-for-itself only occurs when it is juxtaposed to its phenomenological other: being-in-itself. To that end Being and Nothingness in some ways becomes an exposition based on that juxtaposition, with the content and relationship of being-for-itself and being-in-itself encompassing the remainder of his text.

To begin the process of understanding their relationship Sartre, in “Chapter One: Immediate Structures of the For-Itself” utilised the strictly logical understanding for the concept for identity, where ‘A’ equals ‘A’. So, when he examined Being-in-itself he stated: “being is what it is” and went on to explain, “in the in-itself there is not a particle of being which is not wholly within itself.” For Sartre, the identity of Being-in-itself is completely self-contained, there is nothing else going on: “of this table I can say only that it is purely and simply this table.”

The cleverly worked juxtaposition that Sartre wanted us to understand, of course, is that one cannot state the same about a conscious process: “I can not limit myself to saying that my belief is belief; my belief is the consciousness (of) belief.” Unlike the table, one’s belief cannot be limited and is more than a mere thing defined as ‘belief’ because it is formed from consciousness and not from physical brute matter. The difference being that consciousness has latent within it the power of the infinite, whereas physical objects are wholly finite.

Interestingly, there is a peculiarly Sartrean problem with the simplicity of my description. Sartre, after following the thoughts of Spinoza and Hegel, rejected their “appeal to infinity” which explained the difference of consciousness from brute matter. Instead, he determined that any such “appeal to infinity” acts counter to its intention and actually fixes or reduces the “being of consciousness to that of the in-itself.” In place of infinity therefore Sartre placed his own concept, if we can call it that for the moment: “Nothingness.”

I warned that Sartre is an intellectual whirlwind at times.

The simplest way to express his dissatisfaction with the “appeal to infinity”, popular in Spinoza and Hegel, is that by using a phrase such as “appeal to infinity” one actually removes the required capacity of infinity because it has effectively been contained and tamed to fit neatly within such a phrase. The idea being that infinity by its nature should not be able to be contained because of its inherent quality of being infinite and not finite. Setting a phrase to something places that something within the confines of the finite and removes possibilities of infinity. Consequently, Sartre opts out of the problem of reduction by introducing “Nothingness”. Now, quite what he does with “nothingness” we shall have to wait and see.

Possibly no “glimpses” of ethics as yet, but patience my friends, patience.

These are my personal views on ethics and they are not intended to represent the views of Conway Hall Ethical Society.
 Dr. Jim Walsh

Monday, 15th Aug, 2016

Arlette Elkaim-Sartre, bad faith, Being and Nothingness, being-for-itself, being-in-itself, consciousness, David Pellauer, ethical, ethics, existence precedes essence, free, freedom, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Jim Walsh, kant, Levinas, man is condemned to be free, nietzsche, Notebooks for an Ethics, nothingness, Ontology, phenomenology, responsibility, sartre, Spinoza

Originally published at on August 15, 2016.