Based on Sartre’s argument that there is no fixed morality or human nature to determine human action, he believes that humans have radical freedom. This means that people have the absolute power to choose how they will act in any given situation and in their lives as a whole. Tomorrow morning, anyone could choose to become a vegan or take up snowboarding, quit school to become a farmer, or go on a crime spree. These choices are not individual in the sense that they don’t affect other people, but rather in the sense that nobody else can override one’s own conscience.
In fact, it is precisely because of this radical freedom that people are wholly responsible for the choices they make and for the people they become, even if their control over their choices does not imply control over every outcome. Since nothing outside a person forces them to act in any particular way, people are completely responsible for the outcomes of their actions (although not for the circumstances in which they act, unless those are circumstances are of their own making). This radical freedom has both positive and negative components. The positive component is that people get to decide how they want to live; the negative component is that people are always forced to make some decision—even if that’s the decision to do nothing—and take responsibility for it. This is why Sartre argues that people are “condemned to be free”; the one thing nobody can choose is to not have choices. Anguish, as Sartre defines it, is the feeling of moral responsibility that accompanies the necessity to choose and the recognition that one will never receive a final judgment about the correctness of one’s choice. Whereas Sartre’s critics argue that existentialism causes anguish, he replies that anguish is an inescapable fact of life. Turning away from anguish, according to Sartre, does not mean overcoming it, but rather hiding from it in bad faith: it means choosing to do nothing and pretending one is not morally responsible for oneself. In Sartre’s mind, people’s choices are all that matter: what a person chooses to do makes up the entirety of their life, character, and essence. Mere beliefs do not matter because all beliefs are either expressed in action or bad faith. Unfulfilled plans and fantasies, likewise, do not matter because they never come to fruition.
However, a person’s actions do not only express their own character; they also reflect that person’s view of what is good for humanity as a whole. Sartre argues that “there is not a single one of our actions that does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be.” Put another way, Sartre believes that people are responsible for their choices to all of humanity (this is part of how he answers the objection that, without objective morality, there is nobody to hold anyone else responsible). Sartre argues that nobody would choose an evil over a good, so choosing any particular end means taking that end to be good. Every action expresses a good that “concerns all mankind.” This makes every actor a moral “legislator” for humankind as a whole, and it means that everyone should always ask, “what if everyone acted that way?”
Although Sartre is not terribly clear on this point, there are a few interpretations of his reasoning here. One interpretation is his argument that “nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all”—the very concept of a moral good implies that it is universal. A second is that every actor responds to the common human condition through their actions, so those actions reflect a belief about how people should navigate that common condition. Sartre gives the example of choosing between Christian and Communist union membership; this choice would express one’s belief about the value of struggle in the real world versus resignation in this world for the sake of rewards in the afterlife. The sense in which an individual fashions humankind in their image through any particular action they take functions, in a way, as a substitute for the sense in which God is said to have fashioned humankind in his image. This does not mean that each action expresses a view of the human good, but rather that the totality of a person’s actions across their life—the totality of their human project—in turn reflects a total value system.
There is one overridingly important factor in determining which values to choose. That factor is simply the fact of radical freedom. Sartre argues that freedom is “the foundation of all values,” since nobody would be able to develop a value system through their actions unless they were free to begin with. This means that one important measure of a person is the extent to which their actions reflect and respect “the quest of freedom in itself.” Near the end of his lecture, Sartre offers two examples from literature: Maggie (from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss) and La Sanseverina (from Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma). The two women espouse opposite moralities with regards to sex and relationships but Sartre says they are morally equivalent because they both act for the sake of their own freedom. He invents counterexamples, characters who act in the same way but only do so because they believe they have no power to consciously affect their situations, which he uses to demonstrate that living authentically is less about what one chooses than the consistency of those choices with the freedom of all people. In fact, he says that “one can choose anything, so long as it involves free commitment.” Conversely, choices that deny human freedom—whether they are forms of bad faith that deny one’s own freedom, forms of violence that hinder another’s freedom, or impulsive decisions made out of hasty judgment—are inconsistent with the absolute character of that freedom. And a crucial part of existentialism’s purpose (and especially this lecture’s purpose) is to offer people a way to understand and act with respect for their own freedom by dispelling forms of bad faith and confronting the anguish that is an inherent part of any moral decision, whether people choose to recognize it or not.
Radical Freedom, Choice, and Responsibility ThemeTracker
Radical Freedom, Choice, and Responsibility Quotes in Existentialism Is a Humanism
It makes me wonder if what they are really annoyed about is not its pessimism, but rather its optimism. For when all is said and done, could it be that what frightens them about the doctrine that I shall try to present to you here is that it offers man the possibility of individual choice?
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.
All leaders have experienced that anguish, but it does not prevent them from acting. To the contrary it is the very condition of their action, for they first contemplate several options, and, in choosing one of them, realize that its only value lies in the fact that it was chosen.
Man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
People would prefer to be born a coward or be born a hero.
Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, or of Kant, when we say “I think,” we each attain ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves. Therefore, the man who becomes aware of himself directly in the cogito also perceives all others, and he does so as the condition of his own existence. He realizes that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which we say someone is spiritual, or cruel, or jealous) unless others acknowledge him as such.
Historical situations vary; a man may be born a slave in a pagan society or a feudal lord or a member of the proletariat. What never varies is the necessity for him to be in the world, to work in it, to live out his life in it among others, and, eventually, to die in it. These limitations are neither subjective nor objective; rather they have an objective as well as a subjective dimension: objective, because they affect everyone and are evident everywhere; subjective because they are experienced and are meaningless if man does not experience them—that is to say, if man does not freely determine himself and his existence in relation to them. And, as diverse as man’s projects may be, at least none of them seem wholly foreign to me since each presents itself as an attempt to surpass such limitations, to postpone, deny, or come to terms with them.
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.