Sartre, Existentialism, and Metaethics

A final research project on Sartre, Existentialism, and Metaethics written for my senior year Philosophy class:

For thousands of years, philosophers have been debating various formulation of ethical theories. Notable theories that have permeated through vast areas of moral philosophy include Aristotle’s virtue ethics, John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, and Immanuel Kant’s deontology to name a few. Further pursuits of moral theories arise out of the doctrine of major world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism among many others. Given the vastly different takes on what it means to be a moral being or to live a moral life that each of these theories and texts attempt to provide, the question that naturally arises is how we then make sense of all these options and discover the best ethical theory to adopt in our own lives and consequently apply to society. 

However, on closer examination, many problems arise from this deceptively simple initial question and around the notion of  a “best” ethical system. Is pursuing maximum pleasure in life necessarily the right way of living or are their divinely predetermined moral truths that we must lead our lives by? Perhaps, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggests, it is not even possible to identify a best, truest form of living and moral decision making that is compatible with our natural state of free will because no such universal moral standard exists. If we adopt this to be the case, then what implications follow from the way in which we should navigate around the world around us? In this paper, I will examine these metaethical questions through the work of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and argue that to preserve the notion of bad faith by Sartre’s standards requires a revision of his conception on the lack of determined morals with a separation of types of decision which becomes achievable and distinguishable through our best attempts to come close to living authentically. 

Sartre’s atheistic existentialist view provides us with a metaethical perspective to eliminate all notions of fixed natural ethical theories from his work in Existentialism is Humanism. This argument is founded on the premise of Sartre’s theory of existentialism that “existence precedes essence” (20). He believes that as humans, we live in a world without a predisposed human nature or a divinely designated purpose to realize and guide the direction of our lives, but rather we are condemned to be free. In this formulation, there is no assumed superlative artisan God that conceptualized man according to his plan in the progression of essence preceding existence. Instead, man first come to exist in the world through birth, and then as we begin to engage with the experiences of the world around us and make choices, we define and conceive our own essence (22). We choose and determine the meaning we give in our lives and not nature or some other moral higher power. Furthermore, alongside every decision we are making, Sartre draws upon Kant’s universal formulation of the categorical imperative to “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that is become a universal law,” in arguing that these decisions we arrive by choice reveal what we consider permissible action for the rest of society and the construct of human beings to be (533). This lack of a fixed design or purpose becomes the absurdity of our existence and the anguish of freedom, living in a life where we alone solely bear the responsibility and consequences for every decision we make as well as the judgment of how all other humans should be (23). “We can never explain our actions by reference to a given and immutable human nature… man is free and man is freedom” (29). Our lives and the meaning they possess are solely determined by the meaning we choose to assign.  

Yet, given this claim of the significant implications that our personal decisions have on individuals beyond ourselves in terms of setting a precedent for what is acceptable in the rest of society, it remains quite unsatisfying for there to be no means of direction as to what constitute a morally right choices for human beings to act in, especially in the face of contradictory selection of choices. As such, criticisms arise against the existentialist perspective in the form of how this manages to maintain a capacity to pass judgment onto the actions of others when we encounter individuals with their own subjective views of the world. As Sartre describes, in one’s individual decisions to marry and have children, they are not only choosing the way of living for themselves, “but also all of humanity to the practice of monogamy” (24). So in the case of another person choosing not to marry, by extension choosing all of humanity to the practice of asexuality, how are we to judge between these two opposing choices?  

Sartre’s response here to deal with the criticisms that the existential perspective allows for anything to go is to introduce the concept of bad faith more broadly. “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 passion, any man who fabricates some deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith” (47). An assessment of bad faith is not a moral or value judgment, but rather the logical judgment on distinguishing error from truth, Sartre explains. To be of bad faith is simply to deny or dissolution yourself from the previously assumed premise that man is condemned to an excess of freedom. Therefore, it follows that nonmoral judgment can be passed onto “those who seek to conceal themselves the complete arbitrariness of their existence, and their total freedom” such that lying to oneself or claiming to be “bound to uphold certain values” are instances of bad faith that attempt to avoid the truth of one’s responsibilities as a free individual (48, 49).  

To give us a better grasp on bad faith, we are provided with two examples in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. In the first example, a female on a date with another man deliberately and consciously pushes out compliments from the man on her physical appearance and actions of sexual advances from her mind, instead assigning her own meaning to them by convincing herself that the compliments are ones directed towards an appreciation of her mind and that the taking of her hand in his is nothing than a gesture reduced down to the placement of a hand “- neither consenting nor resisting – a thing ” (1). The situation is intended to demonstrate the use of freedom of choice to deny oneself of freedom and rational decision making. Given the specific details of this situation and the internal rationale of the woman examined, there appear to be clear instances of this woman voluntarily using her freedom to deny herself of freedom by feeding herself lies that the act of not pulling her hand away is not symbolic of consenting to the advances of the man with whom she is on a date with. In other words, Sartre claims that she is acting in bad faith. 

One point of difficulty that arises with the definition of bad faith is that if the woman is free to make choices and Sartre’s claim that she chooses to reject her freedom by denying certain observable facts of her situation, is this action not in itself an act of applying the freedom that she still possesses? A useful way of understanding how the denial of freedom that constitutes bad faith can simultaneously occur when Sartre’s entire premise is that we are condemned to the anguish of freedom is provided by Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity, by considering two types of freedom: ontological freedom and moral freedom. De Beauvoir identifies the seeming contradiction in Sartre’s argument when he defines the human condition to be free and morality to will oneself to be free, but if morality is a choice, then it seems to imply there are instances where we are not free (Moore par. 9). This is resolved by adopting the definition of ontological freedom to be the necessary natural state of freedom that Sartre describes and moral freedom to be “a response to one’s condition of ontological freedom” in that we have the choice to decide whether or not we opt to recognize ontological freedom despite Sartre suggesting that it is a fact of our existence (Moore par. 10). With these distinct conceptions of freedom, where moral freedom is a choice of realizing the determined ontological freedom that all humans have, we are able to nuance the concept of bad faith to the act of failing to have moral freedom.  

Another point of issue with using this notion of bad faith as a measure of passing judgement on actions is that while the situation of the woman seems to helpfully demonstrate bad faith, situations of perceived bad faith become more complicated when the situations are not directly related to inhibiting one’s rational faculties, but are focused on defining an idea to be truth or falsehood in order to assess whether or not one is living in bad faith. To have bad faith, to willingly believe in what you can already perceive to be a lie, is an error and such a statement is a logical judgment as Sartre rightfully explains. However, the real difficulty lies in the fact that the consideration of what actions or decisions constitute bad faith evolves into a much more complicated process that seems to demand moral judgment in the face of high-risk decision making. For instance, is believing that murder is right, and by extension attributing this choice to a universal decision of applicability to all of humanity, considered to be bad faith? For a believer in the justifiability of murder to be thought of as being in bad faith, it would entail the preconceived moral standard that murder is wrong to be a truth, such that the believer is entertaining themselves with a lie, and thus is in bad faith. Therefore, in this way, bad faith ultimately seems like another formulation of condemning the choices, decisions, and beliefs in accordance with such greater ethical and moral standard as it seems unlikely that Sartre or others would agree to this one’s individuals conception of morally right murder as being good for all. Nonetheless, Sartre has already established from the beginning that there is no preconceived moral right way of living that was endowed with the purpose of our humanity. Ultimately then, this example and situation appear to fundamentally break down Sartre’s system in such a way that it is no longer compatible with making judgments on bad faith and the lack moral truths and is need of revisions.  

The update I propose for Sartre’s notion of bad faith with the lack of pre-defined moral correctness for decision making requires setting boundaries and limits to the extent of which bad faith can function. This, in particular, is inspired by the perceivable situational discrepancies between considerations of life or death, as with the question of murder, in comparison with the decision of a young man to stay with his mother or go help fight in the war (30). In this example that Sartre first appeals to in terms of explaining the reasoning behind atheistic existentialism, a young man must decide between taking care of his weak mother who depends on him to continue living and going off to help fight in the war for a momentous cause. The former is a smaller scale but a largely impactful role for the man, while the latter is a larger scale, but likely minimally impactful role for the man in the greater war (31). Sartre makes a valid claim here that the Christian doctrine nor Kantian ethics is capable of providing this man with knowledge of what is the morally right decision (31). In this scenario, no doctrine or moral truth can inform the man of how to live his life. His only remaining option is to live authentically in accordance with using his own freedom to make a decision and take full responsibility for his actions.  

Thus, in an effort to maintain nonexistent moral truth in this situation, but the possibility for moral truth as it pertains to the justifiability of murder, we must conceive of separated tiers of decision making. This first tier is the decisions that correspond to the existence of a universal right, perhaps knowable or unknowable at our present time, while the second tier is made up of decisions for which no universal moral right answers can be provided. In adopting this modified consideration of atheistic existentialism, we preserve the logical strength of Sartre’s argument against moral truths pertaining to the personal details of how one chooses to live their life while rescuing the idea of bad faith from situations in which it relies on exact truths of the nature of the world to judge others of inauthentic living.  

It is also important to note here that this modification need not contradict Sartre’s original claim that we are condemned to freedom, the excesses of freedom by which we navigate our lives and give our lives meaning and responsibility through our choices. The presence of a universal law by which we should lead our lives by does not contradict this freedom, particularly when we are incapable of having a guaranteed assurance that the laws we personally perceive to be ideal forms of living necessarily aline with the perfect universal living. Therefore, being in our state of having no means to verify or compare our rules against the truth of the one moral way of living, the existences of such a universal truth has no bearing on how we encounter freedom in our everyday decision making.  

Still, the natural question that arises from this is how we distinguish or separate out between these two tiers of decision making given the implications that each has when it comes to judgment on the morality of the decision or the lack thereof. To address this, we turn the concept of authenticity in existentialism. For Sartre, authenticity entails “taking full responsibility for our lives, choices, and actions,” and being true and honest to oneself in the absence of bad faith (27). Given this description of authenticity, why should we be motivated to pursue it when Sartre has already previously established that to reside in bad faith is not a moral fault, but simply a logical error? To address this, we circle back to our introductory question. Is it possible under Sartre’s formulation of atheistic existentialism to ever arrive at the knowledge of the morally right way of living?  

Well, perhaps we can get close. By overwhelmingly promoting authentic living amongst our population, a form of knowledge-seeking that pushes aside tensions and biases across different religions to endlessly ask questions and have each individual to chase after good faith decisions that don’t consist of deceiving of lying to oneself, it seems inevitable as bad faith diminishes, that the possibility for a consistent moral truth emerges from the individual consensus of each person living authentically, or at the very least, for clearly impossible ethical moral theories to be dismissed. To even conceive of a possibility to rid ourselves of ethical theories that are blatantly wrong through authentication living though, we must understand the standards and limitations of human authenticity. Sartre appears to define living authentically to being true and honest to oneself, but as revealed through the examples of talking with a priest for divine advice and questioning signs from the university or God that demonstrate an alarmingly significant weight placed on the singular word of an individual or an everyday occurrence, authenticity demands more than just honesty (34). These characteristics that are necessary to authenticity in one’s life includes to capacity to function on extreme levels of self-awareness, with “unbiased self-examination, accurate self-knowledge, reflective judgment, personal responsibility, humility, empathy, understanding for others, and willingness to learn from the feedback of others” (Yacobi). With the introduction of these conditions for achieving personal authenticity, it becomes readily apparent how much more difficult it becomes, especially given the presence of illusions, biases, and wishful thinking driven by various social groups, backgrounds, religious, and ethnic cultures. It seems given these circumstances that one can approach the perfection of authentic living, but never arrive at it. Nonetheless, it is still a worthwhile goal to aim to achieve it and along the way attain partial authenticity. 

This conception of the authenticity as a means of arriving at truth can perhaps be most convincingly seen when we examine how Sartre himself can be understood as appealing to this approach in his reasoning out of the natural value and state of human freedom. As we noted earlier. while Sartre advocates for denouncing bad faith and any discussion of moral truth, he himself engage in such conduct when making that denying yourself of freedom is inherently a wrong as well as failing to maintain a strictly consistent attitude in simultaneously valuing the freedom of others (48). Under the definition of bad faith, these premises adopted are unjustified. However, if we examine the reason as to why Sartre arrived at such a strong belief in the inherent value of freedom, it seems likely that he arrived at this perceived self-evident truth of freedom is “a fundamental feature of human reality” through acts of authenticity (Crowe par. 9). In other words, it seems a likely interpretation that Sartre himself arrived at an assessment of freedom being valuable as a moral truth of life by carefully and authentically taking note of the impact of freedom in the lives of individuals and the self (Crowe par. 10). An important point to make here is that this does not necessarily imply that Sartre or the method of living authentically relies on ontology and what is to make claims about what ought to be included into an ethical system. Rather, it simply signifies that the value of freedom and other universal moral truths can emerge through vigorous efforts towards an unbiased examination of the self and the world. 

We can see progress in this area when we recognize the example Sartre brings up of questioning and integrating sources of supposed divine signs or in the instances of having self-aware knowledge that attempting to arrive at knowledge through a priest entails preexisting bias in terms of the selection of the type of priest to approach (34). Consistency in opinion and the arrival of the same conclusions through collective individual authentic experiences help signify moral truths without proving them, but does not for the practical applications of how we navigate and structure our society around moral truths, which is how we fundamentally learn to separate out the two categories of decision making as it pertains to having a choice to adhere to a morally right way of living. As with the experiences of a waiter pretending to reduce himself to a life of being a waiter before a free agent, the woman on the date, or a man trying to justify murder as morally right, collective experiences of individuals across different backgrounds tend towards a similar consensus that each of those individuals are living in bad faith, as opposed to the instance of the man choosing his mother or the war, where there is no available morally right choice to adopt. This is not to say that at present that the majority opinion should be the moral truth or that even past or future opinions by virtue of being expressed by a consensus of individuals necessarily denotes moral rightness. Rather, it is the idea that in chasing after the ideal of perfecting authentic living amongst society that it brings us ever closer to discover the moral truth that we are incapable of verifying, but perhaps able to narrow down by eliminating evidently immoral ethical theories. 

Works Cited

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“The Limits of Authenticity.” Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 June 2018. 

Crowe, Jonathan. “Is an Existentialist Ethics Possible?” Philosophy Now. N.p., 2004. Web. 1 June 2018. 

Moore, Charlotte. “The Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy Now. N.p., 2008. Web. 1 June 2018. 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “A Selection From “Bad Faith” from Being and Nothingness.” Trans. Hazel Barnes. (1956): n. pag. Philosophical Library. Web. 1 June 2018. 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” HCCS Learning Web. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 June 2018. 

Yacobi, Ben G. “The Limits of Authenticity.” Philosophy Now. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 June 2018.  


Deranty, Jean-Philippe, “Existentialist Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) 

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