The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Moralist Phase Overview
Kem Stone - July 2006
It is clear that Camus comes a long way from his absurdist phase to the conclusions he draws in his moralist
period, but how strong are his positions? Essentially, the heart of Camus’ message (such as it appears in The
Plague) is to struggle against evil when we are confronted by it. The German occupation of France made this a
value necessary for survival, but how well does it hold up when considered objectively? If this is the conclusion of
Camus’ argument, what are its premises?
The first premise for Camus would have to be that life is essentially absurd. Anyone could argue for the struggle
against evil on religious grounds, but Camus will not abandon his conviction that we can not look beyond life to
determine life’s values. The commitment to an absurd perspective never wavers through Camus’ career. It is the
first principle and the starting point for all of his arguments. However, in Letters to a German Friend we see
that it is also the starting point for the nihilistic ideals behind Nazi aggression. If Camus wants an ethical basis by
which to condemn the Nazi’s actions, he must look beyond the absurd. While the Nazis had looked at life’s
cruelty and found themselves willing to add to it, Camus seeks to find a justification to struggle against it.
The only place to find such a justification is mankind, which is exactly what Camus appeals to in The Rebel.
Values do not come from God but from within the human mind. Whenever a slave refuses to obey his master’s
order, a value is created. The slave draws a boundary beyond which he will not go. Because he would rather die
than follow the order, the order becomes immoral—not only for the slave but by extension to all mankind. The
slave rebels not merely on his own behalf but on behalf of everyone, because he is willing to die for his conviction.
If he refuses to be a slave, he invokes the moral principle of the right to self-determination, thus making a reality of
what was once an abstraction. If absurdity is the first premise of Camus’ moral argument, rebellion is the second.
But merely refusing to be a slave is not sufficient to create a value. For this to happen, a third element must be
brought in—and that is solidarity. As long as others stand with the slave in his refusal to obey the master, the
master loses his power to give orders. What was once a vague idea in the mind of the slave—“I should not be
forced to do this”—is now a concrete moral principle. One slave’s revolt is now a massive rebellion, and through
this rebellion a new value is created—the value of freedom. This value is not bestowed upon each man by God,
but conceived of by man, fought for by man, and paid for with the blood of man. Furthermore, the value must be
continuously reaffirmed to stay alive. If a master is able to subjugate his people once again and deprive them of
freedom, their right to freedom will die.
This is the most important element of Camus’ picture of morality, and it is the final premise which justifies the
conclusion. Unlike ethical systems derived from religious doctrine, values in an absurd world are not written in
stone. They are like living, breathing creatures that must be continuously reinforced and reasserted in order to
stay alive. What makes freedom a value is not the blessing of the Creator, not a stone tablet upon which the word
is inscribed, but merely the fact that people are willing to die for it. Should people ever decide that freedom is not
worth dying for, freedom itself will die as a value.
Which brings us back to Camus’ essential claim. When we are confronted with evil, we must struggle against it
because the struggle justifies itself. It is empty to say that we struggle against evil because we are on the side of
good. When we struggle against what we designate as evil, it is because this force stands in direct opposition to
the values we stand for. The value of living in peace as a sovereign nation is what the Allied forces joined together
and defeated the German aggressors to uphold. Had the Germans prevailed, their values of strength over
weakness and Aryan superiority would have shaped the order of things today.
It might still be objected that Camus has provided no real basis for adopting the values he proposes, and to a
certain extent this is true. He merely selects the values of freedom, happiness, and dignity and argues that to
uphold these principles they must be fought for. As to why he selects these particular values, we merely have the
vague justification that such elements are necessary for human fulfilment. But if our values were different, could
we not argue that the meaning of “human fulfilment” would be very different, and we could still lead fulfilling lives,
though in a very different way? What makes happiness and dignity superior to subjugation and obedience?
One need look no further than Camus’ existing claims to find the answer: it is precisely that more people are
willing to die for freedom and happiness than for tyranny and oppression. Such a claim can not be refuted purely
by logic, and even a census of what everyone in the world would be willing to die for could not reveal whether it is
actually the case. But the fact that we live in a world in which time and again the struggle for human dignity has
won out over the impulse to subjugation is all we need. These are the values that have survived and they are the
values we live by. The world, however, is still absurd and nothing is written in stone. Should the world change its
shape yet again, and murder and violence once again become the general order of things, the value of happiness
and fulfilment will lose its justification until once again there are enough people willing to struggle to reaffirm these
But as an ethical scheme, Camus’ position still suffers from many problems. It is one thing to struggle against
violent, oppressive regimes when they threaten our freedom but how do we justify our actions in daily life? How
can I justify my helping another person in terms of the struggle to keep the value alive? If I am not willing to die
for one of my moral beliefs, does it therefore lose its justification? Furthermore, I find my moral beliefs constantly
undergoing changes. If I decide that helping others at my own expense is right one day and later decide that it is
more important to look out for my own interests, was I right then or am I right now? To say that I was right on
both occasions seems contradictory. We want our values to have some sort of fixed and permanent quality to
them otherwise they seem empty and meaningless. The transience of values is something that Camus’ career itself
illustrates quite perfectly, as many of his own opinions change between the publication of his first and last novels. I
will now look at some of these changes and consider the broader implications of such difficulties.