Existentialist view of free will and responsibility

Bonsu asked:

The existentialists, such as Sartre, claim that if there is a human nature, it is formed by a Homo Sapiens as it lives its life and is done so by the choices it makes. Relate the concepts of free will and responsibility to this claim.

Answer by Tony Fahey

The first thing that should be said is that the term ‘existentialism’ is not specific to any one thinker, or to any specific school or system, but a rather movement that includes a diverse range of philosophers with diverse backgrounds in philosophy. For example, there is Heidegger who, for a time at least, was a Nazi, Kierkegaard, a devout Christian, Nietzsche, an atheist, and Sartre, a communist and later a Marxist. However, notwithstanding such a mixed bag, it can be shown that central to each of their philosophical approaches was the view that existence precedes essence. That is, first we exist, and after that our essence, our nature, is defined by the choices we make.

In relation to Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, it is in his treatise Being and Nothingness that the Sartre presents his version of existentialism. According to Sartre being human consists of two modes of existence: being and nothingness. A human being exists as an ‘in-itself’ (en-soi), an object or a thing, and ‘for-itself’ (pour-soi), a consciousness. The existence of an ‘in-itself’ is ‘opaque to itself… because it is filled with itself’, whereas the ‘for-itself’, or consciousness, has no fullness of existence, because it is no-thing – its essence is determined by the choices it freely makes whilst it exists.

More than anything Sartre wanted to endorse the existentialist view that one is what one chooses to be, that one has no essence, no human nature, and no character that that on did not confer on oneself. To believe that one’s essence – one’s nature, is either given at birth or formed in some way from one’s early environment is to fall into what Sartre calls ‘Bad Faith’ (mauvaise foi). Bad Faith is a state of self-delusion: the condition of pretending to oneself that one has no option than to be that which one has become. According to Sartre, the function of Bad Faith is that it allows one to abdicate one’s responsibilities.

Some examples of bad faith include: a clergyman who, in his heart, knows that he has lost his faith, but continues to behave as though he were still a believer; a wife who no longer has any affection for her husband, but continues to behave as though she is a devoted wife; a business man or academic who convinces himself that his role is of such importance that he is obliged to work a ten or twelve hour day six or even seven days a week, or a defence lawyer who, notwithstanding the fact that he knows, beyond a shadow of doubt, that his client is guilty, continues to plead his innocence. In each of these cases each person refuses to face the fact that the situation in which each of them find themselves can be other than it is.

According to Sartre then, because consciousness is ‘no-thing’, we become aware that we are free to choose that which we desire to be. In other words, we accept that we are responsible for who or what we have become – and for who or what we can become in the future. This is the condition of human freedom – of fee will. To move forward, to perform an action, we must be capable of detaching ourselves from the world of existing things and so contemplate that which does not exist. The choice of action is also the choice of oneself. In choosing oneself one does not choose to exist: existence is given, and one has to exist in order to choose. It is from this that Sartre derives the phrase that encapsulates his understanding of existentialism: ‘existence precedes and commands essence’. Turning Descartes’ famous cogito on its head, rather than ‘I think, therefore I am’, for Sartre it is more the case that ‘I am, therefore I think, and because I think, I am free to choose’.


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