Existentialism: A Brief Insight
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Whatever I desire to do, other people or external events may thwart. We cannot rely on anything which is outside our control, but this does not mean we should abandon ourselves to inaction: on the contrary, Sartre argues that it should lead us to commit ourselves to a course of action since there is no reality except in action. Sartre gives a specific example to help explain the practical consequences of such theoretical concepts as abandonment.
A student’s guide to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism | Issue 15 | Philosophy Now
He tells the story of a pupil of his who was faced with a genuine moral dilemma: whether to stay in France to look after his mother who doted on him; or to set off to join the Free French in England to fight for the liberation of his country. He was forced to choose between filial loyalty and the preservation of his country. Sartre first of all shows the poverty of traditional Christian and Kantian moral doctrines in dealing with such a dilemma. Christian doctrine would tell the youth to act with charity, love his neighbour and be prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.
However this gives little help since he still would have to decide whether he owed more love to his mother or to his country. The Kantian ethic advises never to treat others as means to an end. But this gives no satisfactory solution:. Sartre maintains that even if he were to ask for advice, the choice of advisor would itself be highly significant since he would know in advance the sort of advice different people would be likely to give.
No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world. In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre does not always provide arguments for his contentions. Much of the lecture is delivered in rhetorical and exaggerated terms. He does not for example defend but merely states his belief in the extent of human freedom.
But, perhaps more damagingly, it is questionable whether he actually achieves his most important stated aim, namely to rebut the criticism that if there is no God then anything is permitted - or to put it in other words, he never demonstrates that his philosophy genuinely is a humanism, that it does not encourage the moral anarchy that some of his contemporaries believed it did.
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Sartre would argue that the fact that existentialists actually increase the scope of responsibility beyond its usual domain, making each of us responsible for a whole image of humankind, puts it beyond criticism in this respect. However, his move from individual morality to responsibility for the whole species is at least contentious. This is how he puts it:. What we choose is always the better. What he means here is that the fact that we choose any one course is evidence that we think it the best course of action, that that is the way that we show what we sincerely value in life.
He goes on:. This is unclear.
Why, because something is better for us should it be better for all? It is also self-contradictory because it assumes the human nature that elsewhere he is at such pains to say does not exist. On the basis of this unelaborated stipulation he continues:. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image if valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. This is surely a sleight of hand. In one swift movement Sartre has moved from the individual choosing for him or herself to the whole of humankind in an entire epoch.
This at least needs some kind of argument to support it. Particularly in view of the pivotal role it plays in his lecture. But even if we are to give Sartre the benefit of the doubt on this, does his universalisability manoeuvre really protect him from the charge that his philosophy would justify any behaviour whatsoever no matter how heinous? Take the example of Adolf Hitler.
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Here was a man who believed wholeheartedly that what he was doing was not just right for him, but for humanity: his eugenics programme and his entire philosophy of racial superiority, hideous as it was, was no doubt delivered in good faith. Had Hitler been an existentialist he could have declared that his choices had been made in a world without pre-existing values and that they were not just binding on him but on the whole of humanity for the entire epoch.
In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre does argue that someone who genuinely chooses to be free i. Quite clearly Hitler did not respect the freedom of people who disagreed with him or happened to be of the wrong race, so perhaps Sartre could answer the objection that his existential ethics could be used to justify the most horrendous crimes. If we accept the principle, then existentialist ethics escapes the criticism.
Nevertheless, despite its flaws and obscurities, Existentialism and Humanism has tremendous appeal as impassioned rhetoric. It addresses the kind of questions that most of us hoped philosophy would answer and which contemporary analytic philosophy largely ignores. Perhaps its greatest strength is its concentration on freedom: most of us deceive ourselves most of the time about the extent to which our actions are constrained by factors beyond our control.
Unfortunately it is extremely obscure in places. Even though they do agree that life is not optimally satisfying, it nonetheless has meaning. Existentialism is the search and journey for true self and true personal meaning in life.
Most importantly, it is the arbitrary act that existentialism finds most objectionable-that is, when someone or society tries to impose or demand that their beliefs, values, or rules be faithfully accepted and obeyed. Existentialists believe this destroys individualism and makes a person become whatever the people in power desire thus they are dehumanized and reduced to being an object. Existentialism then stresses that a person's judgment is the determining factor for what is to be believed rather than by arbitrary religious or secular world values.
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