An Existentialist Ethics
“From the period when I wrote la Nausée I wanted to create a morality. My evolution consists in my no longer dreaming of doing so.” By 1964, when he spoke these words, Jean Paul Sartre had renounced his intention of writing an ethical treatise based on the philosophy of l’Etre et le Néant. Converted to a radical Marxism, and immersed in Marxist thought and Marxist action, he was impatient of his former preoccupations. “…I discovered suddenly that alienation, exploitation of man by man, undernourishment, relegated to the background metaphysical evil which is a luxury. Hunger is an evil: period.” Remembering the more fantastical aspects under which the concept of value appeared in Sartre’s magnum opus, one might remark that the discovery was overdue. Mrs. Barnes, who as Sartre’s translator once offered in a glossary heading under “value” that it was “more specifically” the “beyond of all surpassings as the For-itself seeks to be united with its Self,” and who peoples her book with such dramatis personae as freedoms, consciousnesses, Being, Nothingness, and the Other, has, however, no such prejudice in favor of plainness, and she is one of those who regret that Sartre abandoned his earlier project. While naturally disowning any intention of writing Sartre’s book for him, she wants to show the possibility of an existentialist ethics with Sartre’s theory of consciousness as its base.
Sartre’s own reasons for renouncing the project seem to come from his preoccupation with Marxism. He no longer wants to talk about metaphysical freedom to those who lack the “real freedom” that must wait on social revolution. Nor does he wish to construct a morality for an unjust world. Mrs. Barnes seems to find the last point more puzzling than it is, supposing Sartre to be obsessed with an ideal of ethical purity not to be realized in a setting of injustice. But Sartre’s objection seems to be made clear in his study of Genet, where he speaks about the form that generosity, for instance, must take for “alienated man.” He must give away his possessions, since one can only give what one has; but this “ambiguous virtue,” which in one sense places man above things, also confirms him in the “illusion of possessing”; while the beneficiary is doubly enslaved: to the thing and to the man who gives. And in another place Sartre denies to an unjust society based on exploitation the right to judge morally one who steals. It is surely not as unreasonable as Mrs. Barnes suggests to refuse to say what is morally good or bad in a society whose practices are as bad as our own.
Sartre may, therefore, have good reasons for declining to develop an ethical system at the present time. But this is not, of course, to say that there is some special difficulty about an existentialist ethics, and Mrs. Barnes, herself not a Marxist but a tolerant reforming liberal humanist, is quite within her rights in trying to set it up. She wants to derive her own humanistic morality from existentialist premises, and even to reach such specific principles as those favoring religious and racial toleration and a better place for women in society. The question is whether the system will yield her so much, and indeed whether it will yield any substantive moral principles at all.
THE DIFFICULTY is familiar, and afflicts every moral philosopher who tries to evade the uncertainties of moral judgment by placing absolute value in the manner not the content of choice. Sartre, while denying objective moral judgment, had allowed into his system the one absolute of good faith, with the authentic choice of the man who chooses in good faith. The Sartrean concept of good faith is formed from his theory of human consciousness, and more especially from his description of the contrast between persons and things. Things, he said, are beings in themselves; persons for themselves. (The famous contrast between l’Etre en soi and l’Etre pour soi.) Things are embedded in reality; determined by their own natures and by the laws of causality, they simply are what they are. Conscious beings, however, are always more than what they are, and as it were detach themselves from reality by their judgments and their projects. Their projects are necessarily about what is not but is to be brought to be; and man, for Sartre, is above all the kind of being who shapes reality according to his thoughts. Men are free both to determine their actions and to create values for themselves.
The Sartrean man of good faith is the one who has the courage and honesty to recognize his freedom, which, however, he is tempted to deny. And so by one movement of bad faith a man will try to see himself as a thing, with all his actions determined by external forces or by his given nature, as Baudelaire described himself as “l’enfant pourri et condamné d’un couple disproportioné.” By another he will deny that it is he himself who creates his own values, insisting that duties exist for him, like something lying in his path. He is looking for justification for his values where the other looked to determinism for an excuse. The man of good faith knows that he can have neither justification nor excuse.
THE PROBLEM for the humanistic existentialist is to find a place in this system for moral values such as justice and charity. For what if a cruel tyrant should have chosen in all good faith and authenticity the values of a cruel tyrant? How can he be condemned? Sartre himself did not solve this problem, though he made sporadic, rather feeble, attempts to show that one who chose authentically must choose freedom for himself, and therefore for others. These rather Kantian arguments appear mainly in l’Existentialisme est un Humanisme, which is an inferior production, and they are very sketchy indeed.
Mrs. Barnes, for whom this problem is critical, argues in her own way that to treat other people despitefully must involve bad faith.
I myself would like to put it like this: Since I recognize that freedom is my essence, both as myself and as a human being, I cannot truthfully deny that the same is true for all other persons. Their freedom is as much a part of the data as my own. Therefore, if I declare that the development of my own free projects is the goal and good of my life, I must—if I am in good faith—allow simultaneously that my freedom holds no privileged place over this assertion when it is made by someone else. If the ethical choice includes acknowledging my responsibility for the way in which my consciousness has objectified itself in the world, then part of this objectification has resulted from my being the author of acts which have structured in a particular way the situation in which the other has made his choices. If the ethical choice is a resolve to justify one’s life, my relations with others cannot be ignored.
This passage is unhappily typical of Mrs. Barnes, whose writing lacks the virtue of compression and whose arguments will hardly bear examination. For what if I recognize that other people are free beings but choose to treat them as I treat things (in this sense as things) because this fits my purposes best? I justify my conduct like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic—by reference to my self interest. Is it not natural, I say, that my own interest is what is most important to me? I do not claim a privileged position for it in any other sense. I follow my own self-interest and expect others to do likewise, secretly admiring them if they do. None of Mrs. Barnes’s arguments really touch the problems of the ruthless, unjust man: she has certainly failed to show that given Sartre’s theory, with its distinction between l’Etre en soi and l’Etre pour soi, we can infer a humanistic moral code.
Nor is she on firmer ground when, taking some concepts from Sartre’s ontology, but applying them in a rather un-Sartrean way, she declares that there are two forms of self-realization corresponding to man’s temporal and non-temporal nature. The problems that she would like to solve are real and interesting: for instance to do justice to the protest of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (the Man from the Underworld) against reason and the prudent life. But to talk about arbitrary action as the realization of the “non-temporal self” (otherwise: the choice of Nothingness as opposed to Being) is to move away from the problem, not to go to its heart. It does not in itself matter that the terminology is abstract and grandiose; but it does matter that “the non-temporal” represents now this (the absence of “remembrance and anticipations”), now that (the rejection of a “self imposed pattern of life”). The truth seems to be that Sartre’s philosophy makes a very bad starting point for anyone inclined to suppose that he had established precise truths which could stand as the premises of further speculations, if only because such grand conceptions and so many ill-defined terms can take one into nonsense in one minute and a half.
NOR DOES Mrs. Barnes ever confront the central thesis of Sartre’s moral philosophy: that each man must create his own values and that he will apprehend this in angoisse. In what sense is it true that one must create one’s values for oneself? In one sense it clearly is true, since nothing but the individual’s acceptance of values will make them his values, as we speak of a man as having, say, aesthetic rather than moral values, or again commercial or worldly values, rather than either of these. For let something be never so objectively valuable judged from the point of view peculiar to morality, aesthetics, commerce, or worldly success: these values are not mine unless I make them so. One may insist, as a corrective to Sartre, that I cannot make something good from one or the other point of view; but given these values I can adopt or ignore them as I choose.
There is thus something good in Sartre’s insistence that we create our own values, even though his arguments, involving some highly complex and dubious propositions about the relation between actuality and possibility, may not present the matter well. Most importantly he is out to destroy a superstitious attitude to existing value systems and even to morality itself. We are inclined to suppose that we “have to” accept these values, as if the sky would otherwise fall; and parents and educators try to treat our acceptance as not in question. But should one not ask why one is taking as one’s own any set of values whatsoever—morality as much as fashion, social custom, or law? Perhaps the ends of the moral system are our ends, but perhaps they are not. Some men love justice: others obey the rules of society because they have never seen that it was open to them to refuse, and indeed pretend to themselves that it is not.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a false note in Sartre’s insistence that to recognize one’s own liberty is to experience angoisse, and even a hint that he has not banished superstition as thoroughly as he believes. One naturally wants to give all honor to the author of Les Mouches, himself involved in the terrible decisions of the years of occupation, and in the conflicting loyalties of contemporary Marxism. Moreover, the philosophers of existentialism are sensitive to what is strange and monstrous in the human situation, as Sartre himself shows in many places. But it is another matter to insist on a kind of anxiety or dread as the correlate of the mere consciousness of freedom, and particularly the freedom to choose one’s own values. Sartre, like Nietzsche, saw himself as one who would face the reality of the fact that God is dead. Yet one might say that this is what he has failed to do, and might see his philosophy as haunted by the authority he denies. For what but the idea of God, taking over from our parents, could so much as give meaning to the thought that there is one way, beyond the different value systems, in which our lives should be lived, so that we should be moral, or successful, or self-assertive, or live elegant interesting lives? We are indeed faced with a choice, but not with a strange judgment—a judgment as it were of a super-value—which we must make in God’s place.
In a way Sartre is right in saying that we create values for ourselves; in a way he is wrong. He is certainly saying something interesting and important. It is sad that Mrs. Barnes, with her easy acceptance of dubious arguments, and her lack of clarity, fails to do justice to the issues at stake. Her industry is not in question, nor her tolerance and humanity; but it all comes to less than it should for lack of the touch of steel.
Sartre & Values January 4, 1968