Existentialist Ethics
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
Jean-Paul Sartre, from Existentialism
Kem Stone - 2 October 2007
My own ethical opinions are without a doubt most closely aligned with that of Jean-Paul Sartre, as out-lined in this
article on existentialist ethics.  I was already quite familiar with this text before reading it again, as I have read it for
two classes and even wrote an exposition on it for a final exam in a course on 20th century philosophy.  I am in
complete agreement with Sartre that the source of values lies nowhere but in ourselves, and that we choose the
good by the actions we choose.  Though I am not as much of a devout atheist as Sartre, I am of the opinion that if
God exists, it is probably such a grand and incomprehensible phenomenon that human behaviour is of such little
importance to it and that no ethical commands can be derived from its nature.  Therefore I believe that whether
God exists or not, the existentialist standpoint is the best starting point for an honest, unbiased look at the moral
issue.

The primary claim that Sartre makes in this article is that for man, existence precedes essence.  To illustrate this
point, he gives an example of when the opposite is the case, such as in the case of a paper-cutter.  There is an
artisan which has crafted the paper-cutter according to a certain design to serve a definite function.  Thus, its
essence precedes its existence.  If the theologians are correct, and God has designed man according to a design
and to serve a purpose, man’s essence too would precede his existence.  Even without God, if we refer to
“human nature”, we have a universal concept of humanity of which each man is a particular example, and essence
precedes existence in this case as well.

Existentialism, by contrast, asserts that there is no definition of man either in the mind of God or written in nature.  
“Man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards defines himself.  If man, as the existentialist
conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing.  Only afterward will he be something, and he
himself will have made what he will be” (211).  Because man is nothing other than what he makes himself, the
responsibility for his actions lies solely on his own shoulders.  By our actions we choose
our essence, but this
extends even further as in creating ourselves as who we want to be, we also by extension create an image of
man
as we think he ought to be.  Thus, we are responsible not only for ourselves but for all mankind.

This leads to a feeling that Sartre describes as anguish.  “The man who involves himself and who realises that he is
not only the person he chooses to be, but also a law-maker who is, at the same time, choosing all mankind as well
as himself, cannot help escape the feeling of his total and deep responsibility” (213).  Many would immediately
object that they do
not have all of humanity in mind when they choose their actions, and that if they behave in a
way they are not proud of, they can say that at least not everybody behaves this way.  But the man who objects in
this fashion lies to himself, according to Sartre, and therefore also confers a universal value on the lie.  A man
ought to ask whether all men ought to model their behaviour on his actions, a claim similar to Kant’s categorical
imperative but without any implicit condemnation of certain actions that violate duty to one’s self or others.  Sartre
merely asserts that man chooses the good for all men, without offering any opinions as to what that good
ought to
be.

In many cases the anguish of this responsibility leads to quietism, or inaction.  Sartre uses as an example of a
military officer, on whose decisions the lives of the soldiers serving under him depend.  “All leaders know this
anguish.  That doesn’t keep them from acting; on the contrary, it is the very condition of their action.  For it implies
that they envisage a number of possibilities, and when they choose one, they realise that is has value only because
it is chosen” (213).  Quietism is not an escape from responsibility, as in choosing inaction for oneself, one chooses
inaction for all.  One only confers value upon an action by choosing it.

Sartre then turns to another existential emotion—forlornness, which results from the fact that God does not exist
and we must face the consequences.  Unlike the French thinkers of the late 19th century who believed we could
dispose of God and still maintain a heaven of ideas from which moral imperatives could be derived, existentialists
understand that with a disappearance of a divine giver of moral laws, all possibility of finding solid, fixed values
disappears along with it.  Sartre cites Ivan’s famous quote from Dostoevsky’s
The Brothers Karamazov: “If
God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.”  This is the starting point of existentialist ethics.  We have no
excuses for our actions, even if they are committed in the heat of passion, as we are responsible for our passions.  
And we can not appeal to signs or omens either, as we are responsible for our interpretation of omens.

Sartre offers a perfect illustration of forlornness in the case of a former student of his who was faced with a
particularly difficult ethical dilemma.  His brother, having been killed in a German offensive, desired to join the
Free French Forces and exact his revenge.  However, in doing so he would be leaving his mother, who had
nobody else to rely on, alone to struggle by herself.  He was aware that by joining the French forces he would be
acting for the benefit of a great number of people as opposed to only one, but that if he remained behind his action
would have definite good results in contrast with the uncertain results that might arise from his joining the
resistance.  “He was wavering between two kinds of ethics.  On the one hand, an ethics of sympathy, of personal
devotion; on the other, a broader ethics, but one whose efficacy was more dubious.  He had to choose between
the two” (215).

What could help him decide?  Not Christian doctrine, as its prescriptions of “love thy neighbour” and “take the
more rugged path” could be interpreted to lead him in either direction.  Whom should he love as a brother—his
mother or fellow soldiers?  Which would be the more rugged path—going off to fight or remaining behind in
occupied France?  Other theories are also to no avail.  Kant’s practical imperative, to always treat a person as
ends and never as means, offers no solution.  If he went off to fight, he would be using his mother as means, and if
he stayed behind he would be using the French soldiers as such.  Finally, he decided that he could rely only on his
own feelings, and that his love for his mother outweighed all other concerns, so he stayed behind.  But even this is
not a solution, as it is only the fact that he remained behind that gave his love for his mother its value.  One can not
refer to a feeling to guide a decision, as the feeling is only formed after the decision is made.  And finally, that he
consulted a teacher does not mitigate his decision either, as when one asks for advice they already know what
sort of advice they will receive by whom they have chosen to consult.  The responsibility for the action he chose
does not lie in the advice he received, his personal feelings, or any ethical system, but solely on himself.

The final emotion that Sartre examines is despair.  This is the one mitigating factor when it comes to our personal
responsibility, and it means simply that “we shall confine ourselves to reckoning only with what depends upon our
will, or on the ensemble of probabilities which make our action possible” (216).  A simple example is that if I am
to pick up my friend from the train station, I ought not to choose my action in terms of possibilities that do not
depend on me.  My friend might have missed the train, or the train might have skipped off the rail, but this does
mean I should not be waiting at the train station when he is supposed to arrive.  “Possibilities are to be reckoned
with only to the point where my action comports with the ensemble of these possibilities, and no further.  The
moment the possibilities I am considering are not rigorously involved by my action, I ought to disengage myself
from them, because no God, no scheme, can adapt the world and its possibilities to my will” (216).

Sartre applies this concept to his own actions in support of Marxism.  He must rely on the support of his
comrades because he can not bring about the social revolution on his own, but there are limits because he will not
live forever.  After his death, he cannot be sure that his fellow-fighters will carry on his work and bring it to
perfection.  They might indeed set up Fascism, rendering all he has done in vain.  But that does not mean he
should abandon himself to despair and lapse into quietism.  His doctrine is the very opposite of quietism, as it
declares that “There is no reality except in action” and thus he will do everything he can to bring about
socialisation in his lifetime.

That reality exists solely in a man’s actions and that his dreams and desires are of no consequence unless he acts
on them will not be readily accepted.  A man may protest that the odds were simply not in his favour, and that he
could have done more had circumstances allowed him.  But this does not mitigate his responsibility, as his death
will take all of his ideas and aspirations from the world and leave only his works.  “A man is involved in life, leaves
his impress on it, and outside of that there is nothing.  To be sure, this may seem a harsh thought to someone
whose life hasn’t been a success.  But, on the other hand, it prompts people to understand that reality alone is
what counts, that dreams, expectation, and hopes warrant no more than to define a man as a disappointed dream,
as miscarried hopes, as vain expectations” (217).  This is the ultimate consequence of the idea that man’s
existence precedes his essence.

This final point is the only portion of Sartre’s argument that I would have any objection to, but on metaphysical
rather than ethical grounds.  I am not a strict materialist, and I believe the subjective world (or being-for-itself) has
as much reality as the world of objects (being-in-itself).  Therefore in my view a man is
both what he does and
what he perceives, though he alone has access to his perceptions and his death wipes them all away, leaving
nothing behind but the sum of his actions.  But if we do not think of time as linear, and understand all moments to
exist permanently in the totality of the universe, we can certainly see how a hope or a dream within a mind has just
as much existence as the work produced from that mind.

However, in purely practical terms I would rather the majority of humanity see things as Sartre from his atheistic
standpoint sees them than from the perspective I have just described.  Whether or not a man’s dreams do exist
permanently, I believe it would be a better world if everyone believed that they did not—that nothing has
permanent existence—and the only things that endure in the world are the results of one’s actions.  This is in the
same vain as my sentiment that even if there is a God who has already plotted the course of the universe it would
be a better world if everybody believed that there was not.  So ultimately, I believe that even if man’s essence
does precede his existence, and we are not completely responsible for our actions, we ought to behave as though
we are.