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sartre1.jpg (1855 bytes)Philosophy 102:  Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry
Sartre, "Existential Ethics"

1. Explain what "existence precedes essence" means.
2. What is the significance of the statement that "man is a being who hurls himself toward a future"?
3. Explain why existentialists believe that "in choosing myself, I choose man"?
4. What causes anguish in humans? In what ways do we deny this anguish?
5. Why is forlornness a result of the human condition?
6. In what sense is humanity "condemned to be free"?
7. How does Sartre define despair? Give an example showing this concept.

Very few philosophers other than Jean-Paul Sartre have emphasized as much that we are entirely responsible for not only what we are but also what we will be.

If we look at ourselves and find that we are unhappy or we are in circumstances which limit us, then Sartre states we have only ourselves to blame.

a. We cannot blame our parents or teachers or friends for their influence. For, if they have influenced us, it is because we have allowed them to do so.

b. Insofar as we allow others to influence what we really want, we are inauthentic human beings living in bad faith.

We usually become this way through "trying to get along." We do not have the moral courage to "lead our own lives" and set up our own projects. Instead, we drift from thing to thing, being "controlled," so we think, by external circumstances.

1. Explain what "existence precedes essence" means.

Existence: the fact of being, the presence of something, the "thisness," "that it is."
Essence: the kind of thing it is, the blueprint, plan, or description, the nature of the thing, "what it is."

a. Sartre wants to maintain that man intrinsically has no nature. That is, he is thrown into this world, not of his own making, and is condemned to determine what he will be. In other words, our "existence precedes our essence." We exist first and determine our essence by means of choice.

b. Contrast this view with mainstream Christianity.  Man's nature comes first--man is a sinner.  Consequently, here, essence precedes existence, since man is entirely subject to God's plan or blueprint.

c. Contrast Sartre's view with the construction of a table. The carpenter has in mind the nature of the table and works from a plan. From sawing, sanding, nailing, and so on, the table comes into existence. Hence, in this case, "essence precedes existence."


2. What is the significance of the statement, "Man is a being who hurls himself toward a future"?

a. Essentially, this statement means what we will be is what we choose. As Ortega put it, "We are the novelist of our lives." We can choose to be creative, dull, or a plagiarist.

b. As Sartre writes, we are a plan aware of itself. "Man is nothing else than his plan: he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life."


3. Explain why existentialists believe that "in choosing myself, I choose man."

a. Through our choices, we determine or create what we will be. In those choices, we choose according to what we believe we ought to be. (Compare this view to the Socratic Paradox that we are unable to choose the bad.)

b. Consequently, we are creating ourselves according to what we think a person ought to be. This image is, then, what we think man ought to be. You are responsible for what you are and, as well, you are responsible for everyone since you choose for mankind.

c. You create an image of man as it ought to be, since we are unable to choose the worse. In a sense, in deciding, I'm putting a universal value to my act by deciding in accordance with the belief that all persons in this situation should act in this manner.


4. What causes anguish in humans? In what ways do we deny this anguish?

a. Our choices are a model for the way everyone should choose. If we deny this fact, we are in self-deception. If we say, "Everyone will not act as I have done," then we are giving a universal value to the denial.

b. How can we know what to do? How could Abraham know it was the voice of God who told him to sacrifice his son Isaac? There are no omens; there are no signs by which to decide.

c. We are responsible for ourselves--we are the sole authority of our lives. We cannot give up this responsibility except thought self-deception or bad faith.

d. The anguish results from the direct responsibility toward others who are affected by our actions. (E.g., the military leader who chooses to advance, knowing full well that many will die.)


5. Why is forlornness a result of the human condition?

a. Forlornness or abandonment is the consequences of the belief that we are our only source of value. We can't count on God's forgiveness or a pat on the shoulder. God is not the source of value; value can't come from above.

b. Sometimes this point is put following Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: "If God did not exist, everything would be permitted." The inauthentic rejoinder, in Sartre's view would be, "If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent Him." We must take responsibility for our own choices.

c. What can we find to depend upon? There are no means of justification or excuse for our actions. We do not have an external standard known to be right. None of the following are excuses:

"I did it because I'm a Christian"
"I did it because God commands it."

"I did it because to err is human."
"I did it because I am only human."


6. In what sense is humanity "condemned to be free"?

a. We are condemned to be free because we are responsible for what we choose to be.

b. The following are not excuses for how we act: from passion, "That's the way I am," "I couldn't help myself," "See what you made me do," and "I just had to do it." These all entail choices we have made.

c. We are condemned to be free because we read the signs as we choose. We are condemned to establish our own values. As Margaret Anderson once wrote, "What an error it is to believe that suffering alone is enough for self-development. If it were, our planet would already be covered with saints and angels. Suffering kills some people; others are deformed by it; some become mad; only a few improve or progress. One must have more knowledge to benefit by suffering."


7. How does Sartre define despair? Give an example showing this concept. 

a. We act without hope because we cannot know in advance the consequences of our choices in the world. To choose not to choose is a choice, so we must choose.

b. Despair results because there is no final authority but ourselves to help us choose rightly. We must choose without ever knowing the consequences of the choice.

c. If I try to stop a robbery in progress, and the thief shoots someone, I'll never know whether I did the right thing. I cannot predict the potential help or harm that result from my actions, yet I am fully responsible for the consequences of my actions.

If you understand these questions and answers, try the multiple choice section of a sample test on Sartre.

Further Reading

The Ethics of Absolute Freedom: David Banach summarizes in an online lecture some of the main ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialism and Human Emotions.


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