A while back, I took a wonderful class entitled “Meaning in Life.” It dealt with meaning, obviously, and personal significance, purpose, fulfillment, death, and philosophy. My professor was named Mattias Risse and he’s really quite erudite. The topic I wanted to write about follows a lecture of his about renowned existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Ancillary topics are scientism, truth, and ethics. The background is in the era of 1900-1960, thinkers such as inimitable philosopher Bertrand Russell and the French intellectual Sartre were trying to find meaning and purpose in a secular-humanistic way. Much later, philosopher Robert Nozick made some improvements to their work. None wanted to slide into radical scientism as much as they didn’t want to resort to theological/religious assumptions. Indeed, Sartre penned a significant essay entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism”, and this is a medium-length encapsulation of how Sarte believes ethics is part and parcel of a developed form of existentialism.
“One way of thinking about this debate is: Is there anything left for systematic inquiry once the sciences are done?”, Risse asks.
He continues, ‘So, once physics has said everything there is to say, can other people say ‘We are truth-providers, too.’” Both science and theism would tend to drown out their adversaries, as history and the modern-day landscape shows.
“So, for example, is any humanities discipline providing any truthful insight? Is any humanities discipline providing anything that has a claim to objectivity?”, Risse asks. He is basically wondering if scientistic thinking has shut down the alternative views of the universe, of humankind, of meaning and values.
He notes that radical philosopher David Rosenberg, who is an unapologetic defender of a ceaselessly physics-oriented view of everything would say No. “So, you can still sit in philosophy class or English class and talk about texts, but all you’re doing is exchanging subjective views that are [questionable], and inform each other of facts that other people have missed, but there’s no objectivity otherwise lurking” is how Risse characterizes this negative view of humanistic and humanities-oriented disciplines. In other words, the only claim to truth that is legitimate according to radicals such as Rosenberg or various theists is through their particular “camp”, as Risse is fond of describing it.
Risse cautions: “But if you take a different notion of objectivity, then, for example, if there is something about ‘the distinctively human life’; the kind of life one can lead that is inherently deserving of respect, then that is an objective notion in that you are actually making a mistake if you are treating people a certain way. Right?” I would answer Yes.
Heralding the humanistic viewpoint ably, he shows that “If you have a notion of objectivity that backs that up, then you can also say, for example, about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that it is something that we really all have objective reasons to stand by, and we have reason to hold people accountable for if they violate it.” We are talking about subjectivity and objectivity in human values, institutions, and epistemology (the study of knowledge).
Here is a salient point: “…Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and [late 20th-century Harvard philosopher] Robert Nozick – they would all be [classified] as in this camp of secular humanism, which is an approach which does think that questions about meaning and morality can be answered in a broader way than the ‘scientism camp’ allows. Secular humanism is a view which is opposed to both theism and opposed to scientism. …They are saying that not everything that is worth saying about morality and personal significance [i.e., meaning in life] is fixed by physical facts.
Remarkable philosopher and devout humanist/atheist Bertrand Russell has a reverence for human capacities (“almost like a ‘cult of humanity’ going on”); he encourages us to understand that the evolutionary processes that led to what we are today ought to engender a bit of awe for what human beings are capable of. Morality is indeed a thing, so kindness, pity, and selflessness are Russellian values (“once you understand your place in the universe, Russell thinks, a certain selflessness follows”). It’s “not terribly well-developed; it’s kind of like staking out a claim”. Russell’s famous essay A Free Man’s Worship is from 1903.
Towering intellectual figure Jean-Paul Sartre plays a significant role in this debate. He avoids science and “many of the fights Rosenberg would pick.” According to Sartre’s existentialism and humanism, one is urged to understand oneself; “what it’s like to be you is the only thing that matters” is how Risse puts it. “What’s out there in the world is really a peripheral question” we are taught. Understanding one’s unique view, situation, and life is key; “understand your subjectivity; it’s all we’re going to be able to accomplish.”
In his remarkable play/book No Exit, Sartre makes the case that since all human beings are seeking freedom and authenticity, “we kind of get in each others’ way; we have difficulty being a self in the presence of all these others trying to do the exact same thing” Risse explains. More to the point, “We are getting into trouble because we still need each other for validation.” He notes that the existential mantra “existence precedes essence sounds great; it’s very empowering of the individual. But then No Exit basically shows that the individual is quite stranded in a world of other individuals, and that it seems very hard to be free together and live authentically together.”
“The question is, Has Sartre found a better answer after all? That is certainly something he thought he did” Risse teaches.
Too much subjectivity as well as a lack of consideration for societal norms and collective sentiment was how existentialism was being received, it is said. Frankly, it’s a depressing play. It gave us the unforgettable characterization of social life as “hell is other people.”
Then, who knows what happened to him (criticism? World War II? Further thinking and discussion?), but in 1945, Sartre gives the lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism.” An attempt “to find a way of thinking of the presence of other people as actually good news, and to find space for responsibility in an existentialist lifestyle” is how Risse describes the important work.
It’s a racial position – that existence precedes one’s essence. This refers to the existential point of view that we create our own self and choose who we are to be more so than humans are caged in by our essence (human nature). It’s nothing at all like theism.
“There is nothing from the outside world that forces itself upon us prescriptively. So, what we ought to do is what we want to do…”, Risse points out. Existentialism makes one responsible for his own existence, if I were to paraphrase Sartre. It leaves us “free to design our own prescriptions for ourselves – whether or not we like it; we are actually ‘condemned to be free’”, Risse believes. In sum: “There is really only the choice of 1. Making something out of your freedom, or 2. Buying into someone else’s story.” We are free and responsible for choosing.
Authenticity is key. Really, truly examining your values, your self, and your theories about how the world and humankind are, and only choosing what you really can justify to yourself. Avoiding just following in your parents’, your pastor’s, or your friends’ footsteps. Strike out on your own. This is the arena of the strong and the creative.
“Bad faith” is what most people are mired in, Sartre thinks. The term refers to not truly exercising freedom; “buying into someone else’s story,” Risse describes it.
So, what to make of the prior, very cynical play No Exit. Risse believes: “In this essay, Sartre thinks there an exit after all.”
He lives for another 35 years, “and he makes great strides as a global activist.” Sartre doesn’t adopt “capital-C Communism,” but he does see a certain merit in avoiding a system that is dog-eat-dog and primarily about profiting. He values some social concern in addition to following one’s own path. He takes part in a “mock trial of the United States for the Vietnam War (with Bertrand Russell)” of all things!
With this essay, Sartre seems to be saying that (as Risse describes it) “there is nothing invalidating about one’s quest for authenticity to be in the midst of others, to be so intimately and reciprocally connected. He seems to be putting the dark message of No Exit in a different context.” Taking it to the next level. “The effort [in this essay is] to bring other people into existentialism and to see whether ideas of responsibility can in fact be articulated in such a hypersubjective view as existentialism.”
In the following summary (an amalgam of my and Professor Risse’s wording), Sartre is trying to show that existentialism is really about humanism (that it’s not just “about Number One” – a selfish and shallow view of the self and the world):
- Whenever I make a choice, it is necessarily in a social context
- In making choices, I am creating a self. Defining myself. Defining my values.
- I am a certain type of human being
- In making choices, I become a certain kind of human beingin the presence of others.
- In making choices, I define what it is to be human for others.
- In Sartre’s words, his conclusion is” “In choosing myself, I choose man.”
“Does this lead us to any idea of responsibility,” Risse wonders? Is any choice permitted?, as it is often phrased? “What about ethics and concern for the other?” is how Risse aptly puts the question. This is Sartre’s task with his piece “Existentialism is a Humanism.” “In this article, he tries to find a way for ideas of responsibility to enter existentialism.”
Sartre offered an ethical dilemma set in WWII. He has a student who comes to him wondering about the ethics and the wisdom of deciding to either a) go off to war against the Nazis, or stay home and care for his ailing mother. Apparently no one else is available to do so. But obviously France fighting Germany in 1940 was a serious draw, too. So ethics becomes part of the young man’s decision-making. He wants to do the right thing (at least, doing right is one of his considerations, along with perhaps glory and love).
Sartre looks at Christianity and at philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ethics as a counterpoint. He concludes that these do not do the needed work because “Sartre notes that standard ethical advice doesn’t help with this dilemma because the intricacies of these two scenarios … [these approaches allow one to] argue for either of those options under standard ethical doctrine.” Sartre is trying to defend against a claim that existentialism doesn’t necessarily entail concern for others and right from wrong (i.e., ethics) because in fact the prominent alternative approaches (ethical theories) are inherently deficient.
“Sartre says you’ve got to make your own choices, anyway.” Sartre himself writes: “If values are vague and if they are always too broad in scope to apply to the specific and concrete case under consideration, we have no choice but to rely on our instincts.” He continues: “No general code of ethics can tell you what you ought to do….” I am not sure how I feel about this. I am probably 50% in agreement.
We ought to welcome hard choices, according to Sartre. Odd as this might sound. Why? “It helps to define yourself,” Risse says. More to the point: “Those hard choices provide us with the rare opportunities to actually shape our lives. Of course, then you have to stand up for them.” Define yourself and stand by it. Sage advice.
One’s choices become like a tapestry representing our lives, our values. “We are thereby engaging together in building the human condition,” Sartre says. Are we able to co-create our social world? We are all fairly similar, really; it’s universality.
“But he does not go so far as human nature; he refers instead to human condition” Risse points out. Sartre writes that “we can claim that human universality exists, but it is not a given; it is in perpetual construction. In choosing myself, I construct universality.” “What it is to be human is forged by us through our choices” (I think that is Risse saying that). Instead of Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it’s more like a blank screen; a tabula rasa,as John Locke termed it.
“In making our choices, we need to respect the freedom of others,” in Risse’s words, is where Sartre finally takes this. “I am obliged to will the freedom of others at the same time as I will my own. I cannot set my own freedom as a goal without also setting the freedom of others as a goal,” the great existential thinker puts it. This is the responsibility inherent in a good form of libertarianism.
In the end, no, every choice is not permitted. As Risse puts it, “You can’t just go into some kind of existentialist extravaganza; by living with other people, even as an existentialist, you are assuming responsibilities.”
“In conclusion, authenticity requires respect for the freedom of others.” I’m not sure if that is Risse or Sartre, but is probably, some amalgam of both. Either way I like it. It’s very defensible and quite consistent with the approach to self-growth and personal development inherent in my approach: “the values of the wise.”
Risse is, however, not too sanguine about how this all stacks up. He is a true philosopher, and values rigor. Only ideas that have air-tight merit deserve praise and endorsement. His first issue is that a) the problem of “needing others for validation while at the same time striving for authenticity” isn’t solved. Secondly, “At best, if what Sartre is doing here succeeds, on existentialism it becomes an option to bring in ideas of responsibility. There is still nothing about existentialism that commits you to being ethical in any deeper sense.” I think I see those criticisms. A theory of ethics and human life is only as good as the individual who employs it.
Is Risse a supporter of Sartre, humanism, or existentialism? Not in the end. Not per se. The third individual in question is preferred by Risse: “Robert Nozick provides some support of secular humanism to Bertrand Russell.” It’s more systematic. He characterizes Nozick’s work about value and ethics as “where we come to terms with the reality of science and the human presence in the world without slipping into the kind of subjectivism Sartre’s style – existentialism – preaches.” In sum, “Nozick is, in a way, the most systematic answer that we’ll encounter in response to this question of personal significance [i.e., meaning in life] in the non-theistic/secular humanism camp.”
Overall, this class is fascinating. I am a fan of existentialism, but Risse does point out that subjectivism leaves any approach to self-development, the human condition, and ethics somewhat vulnerable to criticism. After all, what if one thinks carefully and comes to believe that one’s highest calling is molesting children? Ideally, one has some objective support for why one’s sense of meaning in life and one’s ethical stance is not purely self-centered, because egoism is no justifiable way to live ethically.
Learn which “ethical theory” you favor by taking this free inventory called the Ethical Decision-Making Guide. Free, with no obligation. Think of it as a unique look at applied philosophy.