An Existentialist Ethics

by Hazel E. Barnes
Knopf, 462 pp., $7.95

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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