Sartre’s Views on Morality: Not Convincing
In this paper I address the discussion question that calls for a critique of Sartre’s views on anguish, forlornness, and despair. After discussing them in general, I drill down on these concepts insofar as they relate to moral theory. I argue that Sartre’s assertion that objective moral theories are “useless” in guiding human choices is weak, and that his offer of an alternative prescription for action is strikingly similar to the morality he dismisses.
My small group discussed definitions and concepts of forlornness, anguish, and despair. We noted how the three are interrelated. Forlornness was understood as the condition that emerges when I understand that I am condemned to be free (The Humanism of Existentialism 295–297). This is because existence precedes essence. In other words, the mere fact that I exist does not speak to my essence. There is no a priori meaning in human life, no purpose. It is only after I exist that I create my own meaning. Because, rather than inheriting meaning, I create it myself — I am free to make my own choices (and have no choice but to choose). That I am condemned to be free, is one of the few a priori truths. Unfortunately, according to Sartre, there is no God who can direct or judge me, nor is there objective morality that is useful in guiding my decisions. I must face difficult choices on my own. Therein lies my freedom, as a being-for-itself with self-awareness, to create my own purpose and reality, since it is not predetermined.
Forlornness then leads to anguish when I realize that my free choices confer value to the world, and my actions affect other people (indeed, they inform the entire human race) (The Humanism of Existentialism 294–295). This is an enormous responsibility. Because no a priori purpose, no God, and no prescriptive moral standards can tell me what choices to make, I am faced with considering the question, “What if everyone did this?” I realize that the human race only has meaning and value to the extent it is conferred by its members, and thus, being a member of the human race, my choices are choices for the entire human race.
Finally, despair results from the knowledge that my freedom is bounded by external realities, yet such realities do not contradict the truth that I am free (The Humanism of Existentialism 299). Even if I am physically imprisoned, I am (paradoxically) condemned to choose my experience within those bounds. If I am drafted into war, I am free to desert or kill myself; if I choose to fight, it becomes my project that I have freely chosen and will experience in the way I choose (Being and Nothingness 353). Despair also arises from the understanding that I cannot count on others to follow through with projects (because others, too, are free and may change their minds or commitments) (The Humanism of Existentialism 299). In my despair, I am advised to conquer myself rather than the world, and to disengage from possibilities that are not rigorously involved by my action. I need to avoid illusions and only do what I can (The Humanism of Existentialism 300). As with anguish and forlornness, if I don’t experience despair, I am, in bad faith, fleeing from my freedom and its consequences. In the case of despair, denying that I am free due to external realities in the world or the failures of others is indeed fleeing.
AREA OF DISAGREEMENT
In my group, the question arose of whether Sartre’s denial of objective morality as a useful tool in decision making is convincing. That there should be objections to this proposition is understandable, since many of us take for granted that certain actions are simply right and others simply wrong by universal and objective standards. This is what we have been taught, and to many of us, it seems self-evident. Is not torturing people for pleasure objectively and universally wrong? Can we really say that because we are free we get to choose whether we want to torture people or not? To say that such prescriptive standards for justified behavior are useless, which is what Sartre seems to be arguing, is a radical concept. We hashed this out, and reached a loose consensus that Sartre’s argument is weak at best, but some of us rejected it outright. I expand upon this question, vis-à-vis my own views, later in this paper.
ENRICHING MY UNDERSTANDING
My own understanding of Sartre’s philosophy of freedom was greatly enhanced by the class discussion. Now, I clearly understand the implications of existence precedes essence: I alone am responsible for my experience of life. Indeed, I actually experience anguish, forlornness, and despair more than ever before. I am even aware of how I have fled from my freedom by blaming my unhappiness on other people, or on society in general. This is a painful realization, because suddenly I lose my alibi and am faced with the responsibility fixing the problem(s).
These realizations notwithstanding, regarding morality, I am one of those in the group who is not convinced by Sartre’s seeming rejection of a priori morality. I feel that his argument against the usefulness of objective moral theory is weak. I will now explain.
THE PROBLEM OF MORALITY
First, I want to clarify what I mean by objective morality. I mean transcendent, universal, prescriptive moral principles that exist, a priori, independent of human experience. If objective moral principles exist, they reside in the realm of ought (i.e., people should follow them), whether or not people actually do follow them (the is realm). In other words, objective moral principles are more than sociological observations of what people do; they are prescriptive principles for what people ought to do. It is relevant to my argument that follows that people might or might not actually abide by moral directives, if they exist.
Does Sartre deny the existence of objective morality, or does he claim it is useless? I claim he does both. First, I interpret the following statements as a negation of objective morality altogether: Sartre criticizes a “certain kind of secular ethics which would like to abolish God with the least possible expense” (The Humanism of Existentialism 295). Namely, this type of ethics, while denying God, retains a priori moral directives “to be honest, not to lie, not to beat your wife, to have children, etc., etc.” (The Humanism of Existentialism 295) The problem here, according to Sartre, is that “nothing will be changed . . . [we] shall find ourselves with the same norms of honesty, progress, and humanism . . .” (The Humanism of Existentialism 295–296)
Second, a priori ethics are in any case useless. After giving a scenario of a soldier facing a choice between fighting for his country or caring for his mother, Sartre concludes that conflicting moral theories lead to either choice and thus “If values are vague, and if they are always too broad for the concrete and specific case that we are considering, the only thing left is for us to trust our instincts” (The Humanism of Existentialism 297).
In the context of anguish, forlornness, and despair, it is understandable why it is important to negate objective morality. If people are condemned to be free and suffer forlornness, their state of freedom is underscored if there are no universal prescriptions for action. (Indeed, Sartre rejects such a priori moral directives as contrary to existentialism, which holds that “all possibilities of finding values in a heaven of ideas” disappears along with God (The Humanism of Existentialism 296). Says Sartre, “Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist” (which, of course, he believes is the case) (The Humanism of Existentialism 296).
I have two points of contention with Sartre’s argument on morality. The first is that I do not agree that moral codes are useless in informing our decisions. The seconds is that, after dismissing moral codes, Sartre seems to recommend a criterion for choices, i.e., the understanding that our individual choices impact all of mankind, that is remarkably similar to the underlying premise in many objective moral systems — to better the condition of mankind — and thus leads to the very morality that he dismisses.
First, I object to Sartre’s absolute statement that values are “always [emphasis added] too broad” (The Humanism of Existentialism 297) to determine a course of action. In fact, I suggest that recognized moral systems often are specific enough to provide clear directives in a given scenario. For example, if I borrow money, I simply have a duty to repay it as promised. However, moral systems recognize that sometimes directives conflict, and often provide for a method of adjudication in such cases. For example, W.D. Ross proposes that objective morality contains at least seven non-reducible prima facie duties. Significantly, he declines to rank them because when they conflict their relative weight is contextual. In Sartre’s scenario, for example, faced with a choice between fidelity (promise keeping) to one’s country on one hand, and gratitude and beneficence towards his mother on the other, the soldier could choose to rate his duty to his mother higher; whereas if a friend’s (rather than mother’s) health was at stake, the duty to country might come first. Although the ultimate decision is left to us, either when employing moral systems or rejecting them, there seems to be a big leap from asserting that prescriptive morality is sometimes less than deterministic, to asserting that it is “always” useless and throwing it out altogether.
Second, if there is no objective morality as Sartre suggests, then what dictates (or should dictate) human behavior? Is it simply arbitrary? Sartre seems to say it’s not arbitrary, but rather is guided (or should be guided) by something — the answer lies in the concept of anguish: “. . . one should [emphasis added] always ask himself, ‘What would happen if everybody looked at things that way?’” (The Humanism of Existentialism 294) Importantly, many secular ethical systems, whether consequentialist or deontological, ultimately cite an objective basis in maximizing human happiness and bettering the human condition. It is not clear that this basis is substantially different from that of Sartre’s ethical system, i.e. responsibility for how my actions affect all of mankind. Admittedly, however, unlike conventional objective moral systems, Sartre’s morality is theoretically not a priori — but that theoretical difference may not be relevant if the prescriptive properties are similar. I suggest that Sartre’s “should” cannot be distinguished from the “should” of a priori morality, in a practical sense.
Thus, Sartre attempts to rebuild a system of ethics while simultaneously denying it is objective. Whereas deontological (duty based) moral systems such as those suggested by Ross specify honesty as a duty, Sartre advocates honesty while avoiding calling dishonesty immoral: “. . . I am not obliged to pass moral judgment on [a dishonest person], but I do define his dishonesty as an error” (The Humanism of Existentialism 305). He seems to play on words: Whether dishonesty is “immoral” or simply an “error,” Sartre seems to be accepting objective ethics that are not dissimilar to the deontological systems he denies.
Finally, what would be the cost to Sartre’s existentialism if I am correct and he fails to negate either objective morality or its usefulness? I suggest it would be minimal, because as I have argued, in the real world people choose whether to obey moral codes or not; and if they obey them, they choose which ones, and they choose how to prioritize sometimes-conflicting directives. It seems like even with the existence of objective morality, people are still free to choose. Indeed, Sartre’s own argument that morality is “useless” because its prescriptive value is null supports my present argument that objective morality does not inhibit freedom of choice. Indeed, even if objective morality exists and is often useful in a prescriptive sense, people are ultimately free to choose their actions.
In summary, I have developed a meaningful understanding of Sartre’s concepts of anguish, forlornness, and despair. In their light, I understand Sartre’s motivation for maximizing human freedom by denying the existence and usefulness of objective moral principles. However, I assert that Sartre fails to make a convincing case for the absence of objective morality. Indeed, he struggles to reinstate a universal prescription for action without calling it morality. Finally, I assert that the absence of objective morality is alas not required for the existentialist project of declaring that people are condemned to be free.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Being and Nothingness.” Guignon, Charles and Derk Pereboom. Existentialism:Basic Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001. Book.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Humanism of Existentialism.” Guignon, Charles and Derk Pereboom. Existentialism:Basic Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001. Book.