The Ethics of Existentialism

Posted: March 21, 2011 in Philosophy
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Simone de Beauvoir (9 January 1908 – 14 April,...

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Is existential ethics an oxymoron? According to atheist existentialism there is no God, there are no absolutely values and there is no such thing as human nature. We construct ourselves and the world around us through the choices we make. If one accepts this model of reality is there anything stopping him from being “immoral”? Simon de Beauvoir tries to answer this question in her book “Ethics of Ambiguity”.

The basic principle of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. We are responsible for creating our own essence through the choices we make. However, man does not exist or act in a vacuum. We live in a dynamic world external to us, and all our choices are made in situations external to us. These situations are perceived and interpreted subjectively by us. According to Sartre, this subjectivity is the starting point of existentialism.

This subjectivity is also the starting point of one of the strongest criticisms of existentialism: If we all perceive the world subjectively, if there are no objective values, if there is no human nature to appeal to and if we are all free to create our own values however we wish, then immorality must be permissible. If someone enjoys hacking children into pieces and feeding them to dogs, does existentialism permit him to do so? There is no God to set the rules, there are no objective values saying murder is universally wrong. There is only the man’s subjectivity and his right to create his own values. Since he enjoys murdering children he is free to create his own value system where murdering children is a good, moral action. Is there anything stopping an existentialist from being this man?

In order to answer this question we have to look at what it means to live authentically. Living authentically is to live with the truth; living in denial or self- deception, or voluntarily shutting our eyes to the truth is to live in “bad faith”. Since human beings are free and that is the basic human condition, the existentialist thinks the only way to live authentically is to embrace this freedom we are born into. Accepting this freedom means accepting the fact that we are responsible for creating our own values, for creating the meaning and purpose of our own lives. Building our values and our own meaning is what Beauvoir calls our “life project”. Since our life project is based on the acceptance of our innate freedom, every life project entails valuing our own freedom. Beauvoir claims that valuing our own freedom implies valuing everyone else’s freedom as well.

Consider a person who has decided to live authentically – he starts on his life project and, thus, values his own freedom. What is stopping him from not valuing other people’s freedom? Why must he value other people’s freedom just because he accepts his own? The answer to this lies in the ambiguity of the human condition. We are subjects, yes, but we are also objects. Human beings do not live in a vacuum: we share our world with other human beings, each of whom are also free and, thus, are subjects in their own right. The ambiguity of the human condition is that these other people are objects in our own world where we are the only subjects. However, in other people’s worlds we are the objects and they are the subjects. So, we are simultaneously subject and object. If we only value our own freedom and not that of others then we are treating ourselves as pure subject and everyone else as pure object. This would mean we are living in “bad faith”.

Another reason Beauvoir thinks valuing ones own freedom entails valuing the freedom of others is because of self-interest. In order to understand this we have to take a look at “inter-subjectivity” or the state created through social interaction. This is the state of being aware of not only ourselves and our own point of view but also of others and their point of view. According to Sartre inter-subjectivity is necessary for self-knowledge. While I don’t completely agree with this, I think it’s somewhat true. There are things that we can know about ourselves irrespective of any social contact. For example, I do not need society to have a favorite season or to be scared of storms. However, there are other things that we do need people in order to know about ourselves, like weather we are witty or shy or talkative. There are so many traits that we would never develop or discover about ourselves if we did not live in a society. One could even argue that the majority of the traits we currently possess would remain unexplored without interaction with other human beings. Thus, other people create new opportunities for us, they create new ways in which we can explore our freedom.

Even though we are free, that is, we can choose between different options in any circumstance, this does not mean we can do whatever we want. The scope of what we can do is limited by our power. However, other people can expand our power through theirs. For example, a fashion designer can gain inspiration through the work of an architect. We can find new ways of exploring our freedom from the ways in which other people express theirs. If we do not value other people’s freedom, we narrow their power, which in turn narrows our own power.

One could argue that it is not necessary that other people’s power enlarge our own, the opposite is also possible. Even if everyone is living authentically, different people want different things and have different values: a clash of wills is bound to happen. Nietzsche would say only the weak run away from clashes, the prospect of a battle of wills should delight us; but Nietzsche aside, one must not assume that opposing wills is necessarily a bad thing. Even if a battle is lost, the process of battling expands our inner power; there is always something to learn from conflict, it will always make us stronger in some ways, which in turn, opens opportunities for us in other battles.

We have seen that living authentically, or living with the truth of the human condition (according to existentialism) leads to valuing human freedom in general. An existentialist would clearly live authentically, since accepting existentialism is to accept the truth of our freedom, which is, equivalent to living authentically. Simon de Beauvoir has, then, successfully shown that an existentialist would be moral (assuming immorality only stems from not valuing other people’s freedom). So in a way, existentialism does not permit immorality since people who subscribe to it would not be immoral. However, since according to existentialism itself, there are no objective standards, one cannot say everyone should follow existentialism and live authentically.

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