When I was growing up, a common refrain heard on the elementary school playground was: “I can do what I want. It’s a free county.” This was a frustrating argument my fourth grade brain knew on some level was not true, yet it was used to justify all kinds of nefarious school yard abuses. “It’s a free country” is a misguided understanding of rights-based freedom in the United States, but as to the the claim “I can do what I want”, are the school children right? Are we free to do what we want? Do we have a choice in all situations? Do we have what philosophers refer to as free will? Jean-Paul Sartre believed we did.
Though partially known for his fiction and plays, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) might be best known for his association with the philosophy of Existentialism, a label he uncomfortably accepted. This association was nearly unavoidable once he published his best known philosophical work Being and Nothingness (1943) which outlined his existentialist theories.
Though a tremendous work, many felt Being and Nothingness required further elaboration on issues such as freedom and ethics, so Sartre agreed to offer a lecture to clarify his stance on Existentialism. The lecture took place on October 29th, 1945 at the Club Maintenant in Paris. Attended by an enthusiastic crowd, the atmosphere was electric. Was the great Parisian Jean-Paul Sartre finally going to set his critics straight? The lecture that survives is now known as Existentialism is a Humanism, a short work in which he directly addresses, among other existentially related themes, the question of free will.
Radical Freedom and Responsibility
The position he took on the matter was quite simple. Freedom needs no justification; it is a fundamental aspect of our condition. What is our condition? That existence is inherently meaningless.
While this might seem counterintuitive to the idea of lifting the spirits of those coming out of the most destructive war the world has ever witnessed, Sartre’s message was intended to lead people towards hope. Because our condition is one of meaninglessness, we have radical freedom to shape who we are, both as individuals and societies. Without the condition of meaninglessness, this freedom would be restricted by an appeal to an authority of some kind dictating how one should live, and was that not what the people of Europe and East Asia just came out of?
Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us, in the luminous realm of values, any means or justification for excuse. That is what I mean when I say that 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.
There are, however, checks on this freedom. It was not a permission to just dive into whatever questionable activity we like. This was not an appeal to hedonism or relativism. Existentialism has been criticized for being light on ethics as far as a philosophy of living goes. As a response, Sartre includes that though we are free to make our choices, we must acknowledge those choices have consequences, both for the individual seeking the authentic creation of the self and society at large. Radical freedom requires radical responsibility.
In someway, the idea here is similar to Kant’s maxim of universality:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction. – Immanuel Kant
In other words, when making a moral decision, you should envision a world where everyone also makes the same moral decision. If your hypothetical world remains a desirable place to live as a result of your moral decision that everyone else also makes, then it is a morally good decision. This is very similar to Sartre’s approach. When choosing an action:
I am therefore responsible for myself and everyone else, and I am fashioning a certain image of man as I choose him to be. In choosing myself, I choose man.
Yet this still might leave one wanting in respect of a moral code; it is hardly prescriptive. To help breathe life into his abstract theory, Sartre offers a couple of examples, the most famous being what I will call the Son/Soldier/Mother, which goes as follows.
Sartre recalls one of his former students whose mother was a widow. This student, who we will now refer to as “son/soldier”, also had an older brother who went off to fight on the German Front in 1940 and died. The son/soldier greatly wanted to avenge his brother’s death by joining the Free French Forces. Yet by choosing this, his ailing mother, who had already lost one son and a husband, would be thrown into utter despair, especially if he were killed. If he stayed, he would directly help his mother on a daily basis live a better life, yet if he went to fight, in a very small but important way he would be helping humanity defeat the destructive forces of Nazi Germany. The son/soldier was caught between two moral choices, one which would benefit an individual (his mother) and the other which would benefit humanity. What choice should he make?
Sartre says there is no moral code that can address situations such as this. And how could there be? A decision between directly doing good for another individual, or collectively doing good for the whole of humanity; there is no way to square it. Much later in the lecture, Sartre returns to the example and says this:
Consider again the case of the student [son/soldier]: in the name of what – what inviolable moral maxim – could he possibly have decided, with perfect peace of mind, whether he should abandon or remain with his mother? There is no way of judging. The content is always specific; inventiveness is always part of the process. The only thing that counts is whether or not the invention is made in the name of freedom.
Acting in Bad Faith
The most despicable thing the son/soldier could do in determining his decision would be to act in what Sartre called Bad Faith. The creation of the authentic self, which can only be achieved by appealing to freedom, might be the greatest maxim of Sartrean Existentialism. Bad faith is when we act in opposition to our freedom by adopting the attitude of the herd, allowing the masses or an authority figure to do the thinking for us.
Think of a person who adopts the ways of a group to which she is suddenly a member. Perhaps a student in a new school or an employee in a new office. Our tendency is to want to fit in, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not, so we begin to mimic certain attitudes, gesture in similar ways, mirror a particular type of dress, even emulate speech patterns or a particular style of humor. The danger here, Sartre believes, is that those who find identity in such groups find it a little too much and lose their authenticity, becoming a parrot of the party line. Sartre is hardly the only philosopher of existentialist lineage who had concerns about this. In the 19th century, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both strongly ridiculed and opposed herd mentality.
If the son/soldier had allowed a religious leader, a government official, or even a friend to powerfully influence his direction or decide for him his answer to the moral dilemma, he would have been acting in bad faith. Even worse would be if the son/soldier simply looked around at what others in similar situations chose and went with the majority. But the son/soldier would not even be off the hook if he went with the minority. There is only one way to authentic action, and that is to choose for yourself what action you will take and live your way through it.
When Sartre talks of freedom, he associates it with words such as anguish, despair, abandonment, and nausea. We think freedom is simple and desirable because our rights-based concept of it is derived from the notion that the right in question is something we should just have. Sartre’s freedom is cut from a different cloth. It is radical freedom couched in responsibility, without appeal. You are the genesis of your action.
There are some counter-arguments to Sartre’s notion of free will. Detractors will ask what about a person who is genetically disposed to addiction and cannot control himself around alcohol? Or a child who has known nothing but violent, abusive discipline; is she responsible for violent outbursts in school? Indeed, there are some cases where it could be argued that a person’s ability to freely choose an action is severely hampered if not made entirely impossible by circumstances, but Sartre would have difficulty with this. Though there might be extraordinary circumstances, that does not lessen the responsibility of the choice in any way.
If we define man’s situation as one of free choice, in which he has no recourse to excuses or outside aid, then any man who takes refuge behind his passions, any man who fabricates some deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith.
On most days and in most cases, however, we are not subject to the types of extreme circumstances counter-arguments pose. Though some actions might still be difficult, those actions are freely made. You want to quit smoking but keep lighting up day after day? Guess what? There are no excuses for your choice. Accept the responsibility of being a smoker or quit, but don’t you dare say you had to have a cigarette because it has been a stressful day or that quitting is hard. Those two things might very well be true, but lighting up is a choice you are making, plain and simple. To think otherwise is to sacrifice your freedom and admit your life takes place in a deterministic universe.
Want some examples that do not involve the degree of addiction that we might associate with smoking? How about when you eat that donut in the employee break room, a reward for your hard work, when you are trying to lose a few pounds? Or when you find yourself constantly on your phone even though you know your evening would be far richer if you were more present with the others sitting across the table from you? Or when you call into work to tell them you are sick so you can have a day off? How do you justify your actions? And do those justifications clear a path towards a more authentic self or create roadblocks?
Perhaps the practical thing we can take away from Sartre’s notion of free will is that it can force us to question the motivations behind the actions we take and the justifications we create. Through that awareness, which arises from our acknowledgement of our responsibility, we appeal far less to excuses. This results in moving closer to embodying our most authentic self, which frankly might help us sleep better at night.
Despite the numerous counter-arguments, which are important to take into consideration when considering the overall philosophical issue of free will, Sartrian free will is ultimately a philosophy that empowers one to take charge of one’s life. In this way, the school yard children are right. You can do what you want. You are free. However, the consequences of your actions made in freedom also belong to you, without appeal or excuse.
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Note – all quotes come from Jean-Paul Sartre’s lecture Existentialism Is a Humanism with the exception of the quote from Kant.