by Chris Horner
At the heart of French existentialism – and especially the version associated with its most famous representative, Jean Paul Sartre – was the notion of radical freedom. On this view, when we choose, we choose our values and thus what kind of person we are going to be. Nothing can prescribe to us what we ought to value, and the responsibility of freedom is to accept this fact of the human condition without falling into the ‘bad faith’ which would deny it. The moment of existentialism may have passed, but the view that we are radical choosers of our values persists in many quarters, and so I want to consider how well this idea holds up, and what an alternative to it might look like.
Sartre’s account in Existentialism and Humanism, of the young man who comes to him for advice is well known, but may bear a brief recounting here. Sartre recounts the (he says true) story of a man, one of his students, who, when France falls in 1940 has a dilemma. Should he leave the country to join the Free French forces or stay with his widowed mother? Either course can be represented as the right thing to do. The commandments of the Christian religion are no help in making the decision – love thy neighbour leaves it quite undecided who is the neighbour here: one’s family or one’s fellow patriots. And if the Kantian approach to ethics is to be recommended then it remains unclear how ‘act according to that maxim which you could will as a universal law’ would apply. The maxim ‘protect your mother’ or ‘loyally defend your country’ could both be contenders.
And so the young man comes to his professor for advice. But as Sartre points out, we tend to go to the person whose advice we are already disposed to take. In any case, the responsibility to take advice, to listen to another and follow their advice, is still one’s own. One cannot escape responsibility that goes with choosing to act. Read more »