Category Archives: Existentialism
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.
Now that I’ve quickly sketched out some main themes in Sartre’s thought, I think it’s safe to begin a critique. I say “begin” because I don’t intend on dragging this out into a long response to everything with which I either agree or disagree. These are simply some quick thoughts.
Atheism. First, Sartre never truly argued for his atheism. In fact, as I mentioned in part 1, he would have preferred God’s existence over his nonexistence. Why? Then at least it wold mean that someone, somewhere, has imbued the universe with some cosmic significance. Yet, strangely, Sartre taught that if God did exist, his constant gaze would turn us into objects, would dehumanize us. This was too much for the brand of subjectivity Sartre so highly prized. But again, just because the notion of an all-knowing, all-perceiving God bothers Sartre and caused him great unrest doesn’t mean that this God doesn’t exist any more than saying that because it bothers me that when I eat chocolate I tend to gain weight means that chocolate doesn’t exist. Neither my, nor Sartre’s, likes or dislikes determines what exists apart from our preferences. This is all to say that Sartre never sought to argue for atheism per se, he simply assumed it. And that’s a huge deal, because so much of his system (though he would never have called it that) is dependent upon atheism’s truth. Take that away and, for all his positive insights into human interaction, etc, what we’re left with is a few floating truths here and there, not a coherent worldview.
Morality. My second critique is built off of what I began to say in the last post, namely that combined with a lack of belief in objective ethical norms Sartre’s notion of authentic living mix to make a dangerous and deadly combination. In Sartre’s scheme, no one can say that torturing babies for fun is wrong, no one can say that Hitler’s actions against the Jews was evil, and no one can say that the slavery of Africans was reprehensible. All we can say is we don’t like those choices. That’s a nice little bit of autobiographical information, but that’s hardly a denunciation of evil. Hitler was simply being the person he wanted to be, he was “authentic.” And, if Hitler rejected passing the buck for his actions, then he was living in good faith. Therefore, he passes both of Sartre’s litmus tests and is therefore a perfect Sartrean existentialist!
Authenticity. Sartre, as I mention earlier, gave pride of place to his notion of authenticity, of “good faith.” I see a major problem here. In order to “be all you can be” we need to know what we’re supposed to be. That is, the notion of authenticity, rather than existing within a framework where essence is excluded, actually presupposes the notion of human essence. If not, on what basis on Sartre say that a person is living inauthentically? I can only know if person A is not living according to the way they should if I already have an idea of how they should be living.
Rules and norms. Likewise, and this touches on Sartre’s rejection of moral norms, it is arbitrary to oppose any rules given his rejection of a Creator God and human nature. You cannot say on the one hand, “there are no rules that bind our conscience,” and then, on the other hand say, “but you must live authentically and in good faith.” Given Sartre own philosophy this reduces to a power play, a way of him imposing his own philosophic “laws” on us while ruling out the authority of any others. It’s purely arbitrary and thus without warrant.
Next I’ll develop both my critique of Sartre’s doctrine of radical responsibility and offer some thoughts based on a Christian worldview.
Existentialism is a particular school of thought in the history of philosophy that greatly interests me. This is because I believe that –in it’s Sartrean form- existentialism both gets so much right and gets so much wrong. But first, it’s helpful to step back and take a look a the basics of existentialism. What are its basic assumptions about reality? What are it’s motives and goals?
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre developed his brand of existentialism building off of the teachings of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. But, unlike Kierkegaard, and following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Sartre rejected the notion that God, especially the God of the Christian Scriptures, exists. Interestingly, Sartre admitted that his belief in atheism distressed him. He wished that there was purpose, direction, and a loving hand guiding his life. But instead, all he found was the cold, hard, “thrownness” of human existence. This gets at one of the foundational tenets of Sartrian existentialism, a denial of any objective human nature or coherent pattern for the world around us.
There is no God to create us in His image, so human life is not inherently sacred. There is no God to tell us what is good and beneficial for human flourishing, and neither is He there to warn us of which actions dehumanize us and harm others and our world. In summary, there is no objectively “given” code of ethics and behavior, nothing inherently evil or good. Likewise, we aren’t the special creation of a loving Creator, but instead the products of blind, natural forces; an infinitesimally small bubble of sea foam floating in the infinitely large sea of nothingness and meaninglessness. So, if there is no human nature, there is no “pattern” or end toward which we should strive. Here Sartre flips the ancient philosopher Aristotle on his proverbial head. Aristotle taught that we all have an essence, something that determines what we are, and our entire existence is defined in terms of “becoming what we are.” We fulfill our potential by becoming fully human. Essence precedes and guides existence.
For Sartre, just the opposite is true; existence precedes essence. Since we have no human nature, our essence is determined by our lived life, the actions we take and the choices we make. Thus, if someone was to ask, “Who is Joe?” We couldn’t really answer that question while I was still living, since my time period to define who I am (my life span) isn’t over. Only after my existence comes to an end can we determine my essence. Now, this can have both good and bad ramifications. On the one hand, it means that I cannot be defined by the poor choices I’ve made. Essentially, I can remake myself by altering my decisions and taking another course of action. My failures don’t define me because the “whole story” isn’t in yet. On the other hand, we cannot ever, if Sartre is correct, say that we “know” a person’s character, since they are radically free to change their “essence” with any given decision. This leads to the next major foundation to Sartre’s thought, one already hinted at thus far, radical freedom.
If no God exists, and we have no human nature to direct us how to live, then, according to Sartre, we are “radically” free. The freedom that Sartre speaks of is radical because we are ultimately accountable to no one but ourselves. The responsibility for our actions cannot be passed off to something, or someone (or someOne) else. This is what Sartre speaks of as “bad faith.” Bad faith is the label Sartre uses to categorize the actions of someone who explains their choices in terms of causes or influences other than their own will. To say that I had to make decision X because of my heredity, environment, human nature, or divine will is, essentially in Sartre’s mind, to “pass the buck” and avoid responsibility and ownership for my own life. Instead, we are to be “authentic” persons, people who embrace our actions and take ownership of our lives.
Notice here though that I have spoken nothing of how one is to life their authentic life. That is because Sartre himself wasn’t aiming to tell us which actions we are to take. In fact, in principle Sartre only lays out two “rules,” 1) Be authentic, and 2) don’t live in “bad faith.” So, if my method of authentic living is to become a tyrant, that’s fine (remember, for Sartre, there are no moral absolutes), likewise if I choose to serve others to my dying breathe. Objectively speaking, there is no moral difference between the actions of Hitler and Mother Theresa. In fact, thinking in terms of “objectivity” is a no-no to Sartre; it denies the ultimacy of subjectivity that he prizes so greatly.