Existential Morality

The moral aspect of Sartre's existentialism, as I understand it:

Existence precedes essence. There is no 'human nature': man is what he wills himself to be. There are no ends or goals that he is constrained to look up to. God does not exist and therefore no moral rule or code can legitimize itself by the fact that God imposed it. Even if God existed and imposed these moral rules, men would still be able to challenge them, just like the rules of any political authority. In his existential freedom man can always ask God "Why should I obey?". No authority can legitimize any moral code of conduct, nothing can make it binding on us. In the absence of objective moral rules, no action is ever impermissible, and neither is an action ever justified.

Ethics is like art. Our responses to specific moral situations are creative acts that we are forced to invent by our free choice. We cannot judge these choices to be morally right or wrong (because there is no objective morality) but we can judge these choices, just like we can judge an artist's work despite that there is no objective aesthetics. We can judge whether these choices are based on error or truth (logical judgement), and we can judge whether people are guilty of self-deception (mauvaise foi) and dishonesty towards their own freedom by excusing their actions as a result of human passion, fate or determinism, and not the result of their own choice. 

Everything is permitted, but not everything is beyond judgement.

Comments

Awais Aftab said…
I have issues with the absolute freedom that Sartre likes to believe we possess, given the understanding we now have of how often our actions spring under the influence of unconscious factors. Also, Sartre's argument for rejecting 'human nature' revolved mostly around the notion that without God there can be no human nature, and he doesn't seem to address the idea of human nature existing as a result of biological determinism. If actions of humans are constrained in some ways by inherent biology, then in some sense a human nature may exist, and if that is so, a quasi-objective morality (something on the lines of Virtue Ethics) may be elaborated. Will write on it some other day.
Wonderful post. I haven't read Satre, so I am going only on your post. I agree with you about the biology and my only knowledge of it comes from Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. Pinker says (trying to reassure parents, I think) that although biology plays a part in forming a child's personality, when they get to a certain age there's very little, if anything, parents can do to determine the personality of their children (unless they seriously screw them up).

However, I like the idea of Satre's moral autonomy. The fear that people may make wrong choices is no reason to deny them the choice and by giving people the freedom to judge others on choices, I think it gives society a chance to decide what it values and what it doesn't. Perhaps the biology can influence our moral determining, but only to some degree. What we shouldn't allow anyone else to determine is what we're allowed to question.
Komal said…
"We can judge whether these choices are based on error or truth (logical judgement), and we can judge whether people are guilty of self-deception (mauvaise foi) and dishonesty towards their own freedom by excusing their actions as a result of human passion, fate or determinism, and not the result of their own choice."

So there is an objective morality then? There seems to be an objective morality if honesty is considered better than dishonesty, and so on.

Virtue ethics is way better than this bullshit :P
nuclearbattery said…
fascinating. going to think about this. and looking forward to what else you have to say about it...

what book/essay should one read to study Sartre? assuming that one has not read him before, and this is the first book/essay they'll pick up.
David Thomson said…
Contrary to Sartre's belief, there is an absolute reference for morality. Morality is those actions and behaviors that lead to the good health and well-being of individuals and communities. Therefore, health and well-being are the absolute reference. We can judge the morality of ourselves and others based on their health and well-being. Human nature is those actions and behaviors that contribute to the health and well-being of the human being. Likewise, dog-nature is those actions and behaviors that contribute to the health and well-being of dog-being. Human nature is inherently constrained by our biology; in order to maximize our experience as a human being, we must do those things for our body and mind that give the body and mind health and well-being.
pappubarista said…
@David
How do you measure "well being" of individuals and communities? And how do we deal with conflicts in their interests which will arise at some stage? Making "well being" the absolute reference sounds like a utilitarian trap to me.