Sartre’s search for a new way to think about human life’s value is largely a response to the decline of religion in the modern world. Sartre is explicit about his atheism and believes that humans create morality for their own purposes, rather than receiving it from some supernatural source. Because of this, he suggests that people are “abandoned” in the world, and he thinks that, whether people choose to recognize it or hide from it, the human condition is structured by this abandonment. Whereas Dostoyevsky declares that “if God does not exist, everything is permissible” in order to suggest that people have to believe in God in order to have morals, Sartre simply accepts that there is no God and everything is permissible. Accepting abandonment in this way does not mean that every action should be allowed, but rather that, without an omnipotent being to pass judgment on people, morality is revealed as an entirely human construct.
This idea of abandonment is, in large part, a product of history, both philosophical and political. In the late 18th century, early atheist thinkers of the Enlightenment like “Diderot, Voltaire, and even Kant” sought to find a basis for morality in people themselves rather than in the commands of God. However, they did so by searching for a universal human nature that could replace God’s role as the source of morality and behavior, which Sartre believes is just as arbitrary as worshipping an invisible, improvable deity. Around the turn of the 20th century, thinkers like Marx, Freud, and especially Nietzsche started to suggest that morality was historical rather than absolute. Once philosophers began to clearly see the way moral norms have arbitrarily changed (often serving the interests of the powerful throughout time), it became harder and harder to think about morality as a set of absolute rules about right and wrong conduct. Nietzsche famously announced that religious morality was obsolete by declaring that “God is dead,” and this “death” is the background to Sartre’s entire philosophy.
More precisely, the death of religion is the starting point Sartre’s ethics: he thinks people are free precisely because there is no preordained moral code. His concept of abandonment reflects this growing sense of a moral vacuum in philosophy, but also the moral vacuum that grew during and after World War II. When Sartre delivered this lecture, Paris had recently been liberated from Nazi occupation and the public had recently begun to see the full extent of the Nazis’ war crimes, as well as the crimes that French collaborators had committed against their fellow citizens. The pressing need to explain the presence of such human evil also led the public to question traditional forms of morality. Sartre no doubt included the story about his student (who found himself unable to choose between loyalty to his mother and loyalty to the French Resistance during the war) in order to demonstrate the connection between the moral dilemmas of war and the philosophy of moral responsibility he was advocating. For the student in that situation, there are no right answers about which path he should choose, but he is nevertheless responsible for what he chooses. Similarly, Sartre argued that one of Nazism’s root causes was people’s blind obedience to authority, which he interpreted as people doubling down on traditional morality in order to avoid facing the fact of abandonment. This decision is a textbook case of what Sartre calls bad faith, in which people freely choose to believe in moral principles that tell them they are not free. Of course, the horrors of Nazi Germany also influenced Sartre’s critics, who worried that his animosity toward traditional morality might further the erosion of values that they saw in Nazi war crimes.
The last important consequence of abandonment is that the existentialist outlook on life must include “despair,” or the refusal of irrational hope. Because, in Sartre’s view, there is no rational basis for believing that one will be saved by God or the inherently good will of human nature, Sartre argues that it makes little sense to speculate about the qualities or effects of things about which one has no knowledge. Rather, he says that “I must confine myself to what I can see.” This does not mean that one should not want or try to succeed in one’s actions, but rather that one must always take account of the fact that no amount of effort will guarantee success; nobody ever has complete control over any scenario or can know for certain what is to come in the future. This is why Sartre agrees with Descartes’s invocation to “conquer yourself rather than the world.” In Sartre’s view, this despair is actually what makes existentialism an optimistic doctrine: by seeing the potential for human action to change the world’s problems instead of waiting for intangible or divine forces to fix them, existentialism would give people practical clarity, rather than false hope in times of crisis.
Near the end of his lecture, Sartre sums up his existentialism as “an attempt to draw all of the conclusions inferred by a consistently atheistic point of view.” His critique of Enlightenment atheists makes it clear that, for Sartre, simply rejecting God does not mean one has truly recognized human freedom. The difference between the Enlightenment atheists and Sartre’s “consistently atheistic” standpoint is that he refuses irrational hope of any sort. Instead, Sartre insists on viewing everything probabilistically—in the same way as people “assume that the train will arrive on time” without knowing for sure—and acting without certainty that one’s actions will produce the intended effect. Therefore, a “consistently atheistic” philosophy (the only sort that Sartre believes is adequate to the realities people experience) cannot promise what is right and wrong, but merely that people are free to act as they will and are responsible for the outcomes of their actions. Indeed, he thinks he need not even rule out the possibility of God for his atheist existentialism to make sense for people; even if God exists, he thinks, the fact that people have the ability to choose what they do is enough reason to believe that everyone should act freely, based on their own consciences and assessments of their circumstances, rather than following a predetermined moral code in bad faith.
Abandonment and Atheism ThemeTracker
Abandonment and Atheism Quotes in Existentialism Is a Humanism
When God creates he knows exactly what he is creating. The concept of man, in the mind of God, is comparable to the concept of the paper knife in the mind of the manufacturer: God produces man following certain techniques and a conception, just as the craftsman, following a definition and a technique, produces a paper knife. Thus each individual man is the realization of a certain concept within this divine intelligence.
Man is indeed a project that has a subjective existence, rather unlike that of a patch of moss, a spreading fungus, or a cauliflower. Prior to that projection of the self, nothing exists, not even in divine intelligence, and man shall attain existence only when he is what he projects himself to be—not what he would like to be.
In choosing myself, I choose man.
If a voice speaks to me, it is always I who must decide whether or not this is the voice of an angel; if I regard a certain course of action as good, it is I who will choose to say that it is good, rather than bad.
Dostoyevsky once wrote: “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” This is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and man is consequently abandoned, for he cannot find anything to rely on—neither within nor without.
If someone were to ask me: “What if I want to be in bad faith?” I would reply, “There is no reason why you should not be, but I declare that you are, and that a strictly consistent attitude alone demonstrates good faith.” What is more, I am able to bring a moral judgment to bear. When I affirm that freedom, under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim than itself, and once a man realizes, in his state of abandonment, that it is he who imposes values, he can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values.
That does not mean that he wills it in the abstract; it simply means that the ultimate significance of the actions of men of good faith is the quest of freedom in itself.