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Is an Existentialist Ethics Possible?

Does Sartre’s philosophy give us any clues about how we should live? Yes, says Jonathan Crowe – he showed us that we can’t avoid choosing.

The early French existentialists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, were very much public figures. They involved themselves in political and social debates, applying their philosophical views to current issues and events. Given this practical approach to philosophy, it seems paradoxical that philosophers continue to be sceptical about the possibility of constructing an ethical theory based on existentialism. In this article, I want to explore two of the main reasons for this scepticism and suggest that there is a way around them.

The first reason frequently given for doubting the possibility of an existentialist ethics is that existentialism is merely descriptive. The main thrust of existentialist philosophy has always been ontology – that is, existentialist philosophers have sought to describe and categorise the elements of the world as it appears to them.

However, ontology, or describing the world as it is, is quite different from ethics, which asks how the world ought to be. To construct an existentialist ethics, it seems, one would have to bridge the seemingly insurmountable chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, made famous in modern moral philosophy by David Hume. Most philosophers now accept that one cannot validly reach conclusions about what ought to be the case based solely on descriptions of how things are.

The second reason for being sceptical about the viability of an existentialist ethics arises from the widespread perception of existentialism as a form of moral subjectivism. According to moral subjectivism, morality is simply a matter of individual preferences. There is no objective way of judging one person’s moral preferences to be better or worse than those of another.

In this way, existentialism is often portrayed as promoting a view of morality where anything goes. This picture fits in well with popular perceptions of existentialist philosophers as trenchcoat-wearing nihilists solemnly proclaiming the death of God in cafés on the Parisian Left Bank. While hanging about in cafés in Paris is certainly an important part of the existentialist tradition, I would argue that the existentialist view of morality is more complex than this picture suggests.

In order to explore the above objections to an existentialist ethics further, it is useful to examine how Sartre approaches these issues. Sartre, generally acknowledged as the central figure of the existentialist tradition, made his best-known attempt to outline an existentialist ethics in Existentialism and Humanism, first published in 1946. In that work, Sartre argues that one is morally obliged to recognise the value of both one’s own freedom and the freedom of others.

Sartre contends that valuing other people’s freedom is necessary to maintain ‘strict consistency’. Since I cannot avoid recognising that I am inherently free, any decision not to value freedom amounts to self-deception. However, this argument has been criticised on the basis that Sartre’s appeal to ‘strict consistency’ is unjustified. Sartre seems to assume there is moral value in behaving consistently with human reality, without offering any justification for this view. As such, he appears to be drawing an unwarranted inference from description to value.

It is important to note that Sartre’s reasoning only involves an invalid inference from description to value if he is interpreted as trying to prove that freedom is valuable. In other words, the above objection understands Sartre as advancing an argument something like the following: freedom is a fundamental feature of human reality, therefore humans ought to value freedom.

However, I think there is another way of reading Sartre’s argument in Existentialism and Humanism that does not involve such an invalid inference. Perhaps, rather than attempting to prove that freedom is valuable, he is arguing that the worth of freedom is self-evident; that is, if we carefully examine our ethical beliefs, we will find that we are already aware of freedom’s inherent value.

On this interpretation of Sartre’s argument, his appeal to ‘strict consistency’ is not an attempt to derive freedom’s value from the factual observation that we are free. Rather, Sartre is pointing out that, since the value of freedom is self-evident to anyone who carefully considers the nature of ethical action, it would be inconsistent for us to act in a way that undermines freedom’s moral value. In other words, any attempt to deny freedom’s worth is unsustainable because it goes against moral values that anyone would recognise, upon reflection, to be correct.

At this stage, the reader will no doubt be asking why she or he should accept the assertion that the value of freedom is simply self-evident. She or he may even be thinking that this appeal to self-evidence is a bit of a philosophical cop-out. It is true that disputes about self-evident values have an unfortunate tendency to disintegrate into mere exchanges of claim and counter-claim, with each disputant baldly asserting the obviousness of the values upon which she or he relies. However, this is not the only way to conduct such arguments.

One way to advance discussions about self-evident values would be to offer a theory that explains how the values in question fit in with other aspects of our moral perspective. While it would clearly be unreasonable to seek proof of allegedly self-evident values – a central characteristic of self-evident truths is that they do not need proving – it does not seem implausible that one might be able to provide some kind of explanatory account of how it is that such values are self-evident.

In order to see what shape such a theory might take, let us return to the second objection to an existentialist ethics mentioned at the start of this article – namely, that existentialism treats morality simply as a function of individual preferences. Some of Sartre’s comments on values appear to give strong support to this view of existentialism. As with the previous issue, however, I think there is a way of reading Sartre’s argument which avoids this implication.

Existentialism and Humanism contains a famous anecdote that is sometimes cited in support of an interpretation of existentialism as moral subjectivism. The story concerns a student who approached Sartre for help with a moral quandary. The student was faced with a choice between going to England to join the Free French Forces and staying in France to care for his aging mother. As each option held a different type of moral attraction for him, he asked Sartre for advice as to how he should resolve this practical dilemma.

After considering the student’s situation, Sartre responded with what must have seemed a very unhelpful suggestion: “You are free, so choose.” At first glance, Sartre’s response may seem to support an interpretation of his ethical theory as a form of subjectivism. However, Sartre’s recognition that, in this type of situation, no theory of morality could help the student decide how to act does not necessarily entail that there are no objective values. It may simply be that moral values are such that they do not always point to a single course of action.

According to some philosophers, all moral values can be reduced to a small set of foundational principles – perhaps even a single, overarching principle, such as Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative or a utilitarian principle requiring the greatest possible proportion of benefit to harm. Other philosophers, such as John Finnis and Charles Taylor, recognise that not all moral values are part of the same overarching theory. In fact, we often find ourselves in situations where we are called upon to choose between several attractive courses of action, each of which appears to represent a different type of moral value. In these situations, as Sartre makes clear, there is nothing left to do except choose.

This sort of approach to ethics enables us to explain how it might be that freedom is self-evidently valuable. On this view, choice is an essential component of moral deliberation. It is impossible to engage in genuine ethical reflection without recognising the central position of choice in moral experience. This goes some way to explaining why one cannot consider ethical questions without receiving practical reinforcement of the moral value of freedom.

The realisation that choice is an essential aspect of moral reflection does not mean that morality is simply a matter of individual preferences. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Since we cannot avoid becoming aware of the importance of freedom in moral experience, it follows that we must acknowledge any course of action that conflicts with the value of freedom as morally untenable. In Sartre’s terms, such actions are revealed as forms of self-deception or ‘bad faith’. Furthermore, as Sartre argues in Existentialism and Humanism, this realisation of the need to value freedom extends not only to our own freedom, but also to the freedom of others. In other words, it is impossible to regard freedom as a purely subjective value. This is because freedom’s value is most keenly experienced through our awareness of the needs and desires of other moral actors.

Our awareness of the value of freedom arises from our practical experience of ethical choice. However, the core subject-matter of moral choice concerns our relationships with other inhabitants of our moral universe. In this sense, moral deliberation is invariably outward-directed; it is a response to a question issued to us from a source external to ourselves. Since the value of freedom is experienced most directly as an element of our interactions with other sentient beings, it is impossible to regard it as something of purely subjective importance.

The idea of freedom has played an important role in many influential modern moral theories, including those of Kant and G.W.F. Hegel. Rarely, however, has it been argued that freedom’s importance means everything is permitted. Rather, freedom has been seen in terms of realising one’s moral potential.

Sartre’s conception of human self-realisation centres on the need to recognise the capacity for meaningful choice in both ourselves and others. This picture of our moral potential is liberating, as it emphasises the need for each person to adopt her or his own set of moral priorities. However, our moral choices are not unrestricted. In the end, we must choose, but we cannot choose to deny freedom.


Jonathan Crowe is a doctoral candidate in law and philosophy at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

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