The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Changing Moral View - Ethical Questions
Kem Stone - July 2006
All of the moral questions in The Fall are directly addressed by Clamence, so there is not much difficulty in
making an ethical analysis. It is a bit more difficult to determine the ethical outlook of The Stranger because
Meursault has almost no concern for morality or ethics. It would be easy to misinterpret Camus as advocating
nihilism, but we know that Camus certainly did not believe we should abandon morality. He is quoted to say, “In
the darkest depths of our nihilism…I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism.” But nothing is said in
The Stranger about how we can transcend nihilism or what a better alternative may be.
However, Camus does directly address these issues in The Myth of Sisyphus, published only a year after The
Stranger. Like Sisyphus, Meursault scorns the gods, hates death, and has a passion for life. Like Sisyphus, his
whole being is also exerted towards nothing. It is clear these works are related, and Sartre himself expresses the
‘The feeling of the absurd is not the same as the idea of the absurd. The idea is grounded in the
feeling, that is all. It does not exhaust it.’ The Myth of Myth might be said to aim at giving us this
idea, and The Stranger at giving us the feeling.... (Sartre, CCE, 114)
If we accept this interpretation, we can conclude that The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus share the same
ethical outlook. The latter can help us to understand the former.
We may now examine how each book treats the ethical issues central to Camus, and determine which of his
beliefs change over the course of his career and which of them do not. The first question he deals with is the issue
at the heart of absurdist ethics: In the absence of God or any divine power to dictate morality, can we justifiably
condemn anything? Camus’ treatment of this subject is closely tied to that of other thinkers such as Dostoevsky
who explored this subject in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, one of the characters in the book, makes the
assertion that if there is no God or immortality, then everything is permitted.
Ivan’s ideas about God and morality are closely tied to issues of immortality, but Camus, like Sartre, prefers to
drop the reference to immortality and use the proposition ‘If there is no God, then everything is permitted’ as a
point of departure for talking about the moral consequences of a universe without divine or transcendent values.
In both The Stranger and The Fall, Camus explores the implications of this proposition.
In The Stranger, Meursault clearly rejects God and places no value on any moral code that may come from him.
When the prison chaplain tries to make him accept his subjection to God’s laws, he becomes angry. “He wanted
to talk to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I had only a
little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God” (Camus, Stranger, 120). Meursault is concerned only with
the life he is living, and considers any thought about a life after this to be a waste of time. Camus goes into greater
depth in “The Absurd Man”:
There is but one moral code that the absurd man can accept, the one that is not separated from God:
the one that is dictated. But it so happens that he lives outside that God. As for the others (I mean
also immoralism), the absurd man sees nothing in them but justifications and he has nothing to justify.
(Camus, Myth, 49)
His claim is that because we know nothing of God, we can not justify any system of morality based on him. Not
surprisingly, he maintains this view in The Fall. Clamence proclaims, “God is not needed to create guilt or to
punish. Our fellow men suffice, aided by ourselves” (Camus, Fall, 110). This is one of the convictions over
which Camus never wavers.
The second ethical question that is a central theme to both novels is that of selfishness. To what extent are humans
selfish and what moral obligation do we have, if any, to take the interests of others into account? He raises this
question in The Stranger through Meursault’s indifference to others. If the interests of others mean anything to
him, he would care about what would happens to them after he dies.
We have no reason to think that he is concerned about what will happen to other people after he is
dead. He is not totally indifferent to the needs and desires of other people. But his capacity for
sympathy is feebler than that of most people and he does not believe that he ought to be concerned
about other people’s interests. (Kamber, 42)
But does Camus believe we ought to be concerned with the interests of others? Again there are no definitive
answers to be found in the novel.
He takes up this theme again in The Fall, but explores it in far greater detail. Clamence is the epitome of
selfishness, and he knows it. Even his charitable acts are committed out of self-interest. He gives us a rather
amusing image of his unbridled egoism:
From as far away as I could see a cane hesitating on the edge of a sidewalk, I would rush forward,
sometimes only a second ahead of another charitable hand already outstretched, snatch the blind
person from any solicitude but mine, and lead him gently but firmly along the crosswalk among the
traffic obstacles toward the refuge of the other sidewalk, where we would separate with a mutual
emotion. (Camus, Fall, 21)
Unlike Meursault, other people do matter to Clamence, but only insofar as they can be used to serve his own
interests. Clamence recognises his flaw but he is not compelled to change. By presenting human selfishness in
such an unredeemable character, Camus means to condemn it. Yet he has no argument for why people ought not
to be selfish, and once again he fails to adequately answer this question.
Another question Camus raises in both works deals with judgment. What right, if any, do people have to
condemn others? It is in Camus’ treatment of this issue that we begin to see some significant changes in his
thinking. In The Stranger he suggests that we have no right to judge others. While sitting in his cell, Meursault
reflects, “I’d realised that the most important thing was to give the condemned man a chance” (Camus, Stranger,
111). To the absurd man, no system of laws or ethics has any value or importance. Without such a system one
cannot justifiably condemn anything, so Camus believes we should not judge others.
But in The Fall Camus is saying something completely different. One of the first topics Clamence comments on is
judges. He recalls how he used to have a scorn for judges, but he has since changed his mind. “It can’t be
denied that, for the moment at least, we have to have judges, don’t we?” (Camus, Fall, 18) Camus has clearly
had a change of heart with regards to humanity’s need for judgment. Clamence can be seen as a representation of
humanity, and he is begging for judgment. If most humans were like Clamence, it would be hard to argue that we
did not need judges.
The subject of judgment is very closely tied to the subject of authority, and it is on this subject that we find the
greatest rift in Camus’ opinions from The Stranger to The Fall. The question raised is this: Should some people
have moral authority over others? There is no doubt that Camus thinks this is an important issue. In The
Stranger, it is with respect to this issue that Meursault comes closest to moralising. Waiting in his cell, he
imagines himself reforming the penal code in ways that would give the condemned man more of a chance.
Although he has no discernible values, he seems greatly disturbed by there being no chance to survive an
execution. If something goes wrong with the guillotine, they would merely raise the blade and try again.
So the thing that bothered me most was that the condemned man had to hope the machine would
work the first time. And I say that’s wrong. And in a way I was right. But in another way I was
forced to admit that that was the whole secret of good organization. In other words, the condemned
man was forced into a kind of moral collaboration. It was in his interest that everything go off
without a hitch. (Camus, Stranger, 111)
To the absurd man, values are empty so nobody has a right to impose their values upon another person. The
guillotine is moral authority; a death sentence forces the prevalent moral authority over anyone who does not
conform. Camus believes this is wrong, and no one should be forced into any form of moral collaboration.
Yet in The Fall he takes precisely the opposite view. Having already pointed out the horrors of freedom,
Clamence calls himself “an enlightened advocate of slavery.” He now believes that people can not moralise for
themselves; that they are scoundrels in need of judgment and a master to dispense it.
But on the bridges of Paris I, too, learned that I was afraid of freedom. So hurray for the master,
whoever he may be, to take the place of heaven’s law….In short, you see, the essential is to cease
being free and to obey, in repentance, a greater rogue than oneself. (Camus, Fall, 136)
It now seems as though Camus believes that people should be forced into moral collaboration.