Sartrean Existenialism (3 of 3)

Responsibility. Here is somewhere that I think Sartre can be a great help, his notion of personal responsibility. But even here, I think that his overall existentialist approach undermines his intended goal, which is to spring people into action. Sartre taught that we are all radically responsible for our actions. We cannot blame chance, desires, human nature, or God for our choices. Like I said last time, we can’t “pass the buck.” We, on Sartre’s account, must acknowledge that we create who we are by way of our personal choices, and must stand up and own them. Now, before I support this notion, a word of critique.

Responsibility implies two factors, 1) persons and 2) a relationship. I can only be responsible to a person. I have no ultimate responsibility to a rock, a tree, or a knat (I, as a Christian, believe that I have some level of responsibility to them, but more on that shortly). No non-personal thing or force can bind my conscience or demand my allegiance. Likewise, responsibility implies a relationship. The level of the intensity in a relationship and it’s “closeness” determine the level of responsibility I owe. I am responsible to my boss up to a certain degree, I am responsible to my brother even more so, and my mother and father even more. But to what, or more appropriately, to whom is ultimate responsibility and loyalty owed? Well, if responsibility implies relationship and persons, then ultimate responsibility implies a relationship with an ultimate person. This of course is exactly what the Bible teaches.

And this is exactly what Sartre rejects. But, in rejecting this notion, he has effectively cut off the branch he’s been sitting on. With no ultimate Person to whom we are responsible, we have not derivative responsibility to each other. This is especially true of Sartre’s golden rules (live in good faith and be authentic). Why should we think that Sartre has tapped into some metaphysical law that (ethically) governs human behavior? We shouldn’t, these are Sartre’s rules, or better yet, his preferences. Ultimately, on his wordview, they reduce to no greater than a hunch.

Nevertheless, I agree that we ought to treat people as ends and not as means, and as subjects rather than objects. I agree that we cannot “pass the buck” regarding our actions, and that we need to “own up” to our decisions. I affirm all these things, but I do them not because of Sartrean existenialism, but rather because I reject Sartre’s project and affirm Christian theism.

I believe that because there is a Creator, rather than because He doesn’t exist, that there are objective moral laws. Sartre wants binding standards without God; I say this is impossibility. He may reduce the number of obligations, but that misses the point.

I affirm the notion of a human nature; the Bible affirms this notion as well. Now, of course, the Bible doesn’t teach human nature in the same way we may be accustomed to think of the subject in our western, scientifically advanced world. So, to hold the Bible up to this standard is to force an alien standard upon the Biblical writers, one that they were never seeking to hold themselves up against. Many who deny Christian theism would quickly point out that human and primates share over 80% of bodily mechanics and biological makeup. Is this true? Well, insofar as we’ve been able to discover via genetic research, Yes, it is. As a Christian, I have no problem affirming this. The Bible doesn’t make any claims on this matter to the contrary that modern science has “disproven.” What marks out humanity as special in the creation account is the status of mankind, not it’s genetic fingerprint. Humankind is the only creature that is created in the imago Dei, the image of God. Chiefly, this points to humanity’s position as vice-regent of creation (under God, the supreme King). In the Ancient Near East, the vice-regent was the embodiment of the primary King’s authority. So, much more could be said here, but some of this has been covered elsewhere in my brother’s entries. (Here, here, and here).

As a last point of critique here, it should also be noted that something else is basic, and essential to human nature (at least since what Christian theologians have called The Fall in Genesis 3), and that’s our moral proclivity to do things we know aren’t good, i.e. sin. With this in mind, we need to acknowledge two senses in which something can be considered “natural” for humans. I’ve dealt with this briefly here.

Now for my support of this notion of responsibility. I think Sartre was unto to something here. Once placed on a Christian footing, human responsibility makes perfect sense. And here I’m not speaking primarily of the notion that if we don’t obey the “Big Man upstairs” is going to throw a lighting bolt down on us. Far from it. The concept of responsibility is rooted in our humanity, in the very imago Dei itself. God has placed me in this world to reflect his love, glory, and justice. Since this world has fallen into sin, we need this ever more so. We are stewards of God’s realm. We are to beautify and develop this world in order to present it to God as an offering of devotion and love. Other human beings are likewise God’s vice-regents, and I should treat them as ends in themselves and not simply means because they aren’t sludge or some other morally insignificant thing, but royalty. Likewise, I have a responsibility to be a good steward over the earth, and how I use it.

People aren’t “things,” objects to be moved around and manipulated like so much furniture. As Sartre said, we are subjects! We have hopes, dreams, aspirations, and in classical Christian language, we have vocations, callings to which God has given us both desires and abilities. I am responsible to others because the development of human flourishing is essential to what it means to be human. When I act in irresponsible ways, when I pass blame for my actions, and fail to acknowledge how my choices shape both who I am, and as a result, who others will become, I’m not living up to my full humanity. In fact, it’s flat out dehumanizing.

This is one of the main reasons why when someone becomes a Christian, that is to say, they are born again because the Spirit of God graces them with new spiritual life, the Bible speaks of them being “renewed in the image of Christ.” Christ is the image of God, par excellance. He walked as God’s man, healing the sick, loving the outcasts, feeding the needy, atoning for our sin and brokenness, etc. While on earth, Christ lived a fully robust human life, and to this we are called.


Posted on April 3, 2008, in Existentialism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

    In general, freedom is self-determination to do good. Exis¬tentialists hold that Man is not free, but s/he becomes free by choosing each and every moment. Human freedom integrally taken has three-dimensional freedom, that is, personal, social and tran¬scendental freedom.
    Gabriel Marcel’s understanding of freedom is different–it developed during the First World War where he served as a messenger to inform the families of the soldiers who were found dead or wound¬ed or missing–it was there that he understood our freedom only through inter-subjectivity: It means that when I treat the other person as ‘thou’, I discover my own freedom. As Marcel says, “When I con¬sider another as thou, I treat him and apprehend him qua freedom. I apprehend him qua freedom because he is also freedom and not only nature (facticity). What is more: I help him in a sense to be freed, I collaborate with his freedom”.
    Marcel presents four kinds of freedom with the aim of bring¬ing out man’s true freedom: 1)A capricious child does not want to eat/go to school–this is not real freedom for the child really does not know what it wants. 2)A young man wants to manage his own affairs, do what he wants–here there is autonomy, freedom to conquer. 3)Freedom of Choice: When one chooses a partner in life. 4)Freedom of Commitment: A rich man looks after her bed-ridden wife dutifully and faithfully, he commits himself to her without marrying another. Freedom coincides with love, which no longer seeks itself but with the other, it is self-creating, self-transcending freedom.
    Freedom is not mere autonomy. It is the domain of ‘having’. A man of talents and money can do whatever he wishes but cannot waste his talents or money. A person is really free who is able to act authentically and integrally and realize the fullness of Being. Freedom is neither a task. In every concrete situation, man is called to decide the way in which he must commit himself in that situation. It is an answer. If one thinks of freedom as power he will be a fanatic, dictator and may lead to terrible consequences. His passion will rule over his thinking and his being and he will be a prisoner in the solitude of his pride. He is not free for he has used his freedom to become his own ‘slave’. Freedom is essentially something that proceeds from the inner person. Even the chained prisoner can have it, if he without bitterness uses his freedom to give meaning to this imprisoned life.

  2. I have given the beautiful thought of Gabriel Marcel on human freedom. I liked your criticism to Jean-Paul SARTRE. He does not situate our freedom within the limits, but puts us in a difficult danger of being irresponsible.
    I hope to develop more about this topic.
    It is interesting to revise it in the light of Christian freedom.

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