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Existentialist Ethics and Happiness

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

In his Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre presents the basic framework of his ethical theory. His words in this work, as well as some of his other writings of indicate a way in which individuals may discover such ideals for themselves. However, he never presents anything nearly as absolute as an ethical code such as many other philosophers have developed. Nor does Sartre present anything more than the ontological foundations upon which ethical theories which concern ideals and actions in those ideals' service could be based. He never directly presents any ethical theory which says "do this, don't do that." This is so because the whole point of existentialism, the aforementioned ontological foundations upon which Sartre's ethical theory is based, the framework of Sartre's ethical theory, is that man is free.

This is one of Sartre's major points regarding the situation in which humans find themselves in the world. Man is always free. This is a point which cannot be ignored if one is to develop some sort of ethical code for oneself based upon Sartre's philosophy. However, to fully understand this point, one must understand what precisely Sartre means by "freedom" or "being free". To Sartre, freedom is not the traditional notion of having fairly unlimited possibilities. Rather, freedom consists entirely in the fact that, at any given moment, an individual has any possibilities from which to choose. The individual is always free to choose between these possibilities. Further, due to the fact that objects, actions, choices, people, and all other objects in the universe are inherently meaningless, man can have no recourse to blame anyone or anything else except for himself for the free choices which he makes. In fact, the meaning and value which certain things have to an individual arise and are determined solely from that individual's choices and nothing else.

In order to distinguish precisely what leads a given individual to act in the way which they do, or to choose from their range of possibilities, Sartre distinguishes between motives, reasons, and ends. Motives, he says, are the complexes of emotional dispositions, passions, and desires which lead to actions. These motives can only be understood with reference to the individual's hierarchy of values. Reasons are objective conditions in the world which the subject apprehends as being able to serve as the means to accomplishing our end. Many reasons can exist for our actions. What is important is that a reason is experienced by the actor as a reason. Finally, ends are the goals at which our actions consciously and directly aim. It is only by pursuing the possibility of changing a given situation in a certain way and as an end that we come to organize the situation in terms of reasons and motives. Furthermore, in this schema, Sartre tells us, "the motive is an integral part of the act…[but] the act, the motive, and the end are all constituted in a single emergence". Thus it may be seen that this "single emergence" is solely based upon the individual's free choice of one out of a given range of potentialities or possibilities. While that free choice is, itself, based upon values, those values are, themselves, freely chosen. Further, these values are only chosen by their expression in the choices which an individual makes. Thus a circular system emerges that, while circular, is not based upon circular reasoning. Rather, it is based upon freedom, a freedom which is free even from the individual actor's own past.

With these definitions and this beginning of a sketch of a theory of motivation, it is now possible to more precisely elaborate and examine Sartre's theory of action and motivation. It goes without saying that an understanding of such a theory is an absolutely necessary prerequisite to the development of any sort of ethical code based upon Sartre's philosophy, for how are we to know how we should act if we don't know how we do act and what causes us to act in the ways in which we do?

At every moment in time, we are presented with a range of possibilities for action from which we must choose what to do. Consciousness of these possibilities, or, at the very least, of some of them (which Sartre believes is necessary for an act to truly be an act, rather than an automated response or simple continuance of behavior) is necessarily consciousness of nothingness, as we perceive in the world a lack of something which it is possible, through our act, to bring into being. Thus, when we act, we act in order to both negate present conditions and in order to bring the negation of the present, a nothingness-recognized-as-such possibility, into being. Therefore, every act is, simultaneously, an expression of freedom, a double negation, a (double) consciousness of nothingness (possibility), a transcendence of the present, and a transcendence of the actor's self. The actor transcends himself in a way similar to the way in which he transcends the present; that is, he must project himself beyond his presently existing definition of himself towards some possibility which is, as mere possibility, a nothingness which the actor then, through his subsequent actions, attempts to bring into being. It is because of this fact that the act itself is one with the act's motive and its end. The act's end is the transcendent towards which the actor projects himself, while the motive for action is a combination of the actor's values, emotions, and perception of a possible nothingness. Thus the "one emergence" is an act which simultaneously reveals the actor's perception of possibility, free choice of that possibility, values, and the hoped-for end. It is important to note, at this point, that the reason is not part of this emergence. Rather, it is a rationalization of an act from the context of objective social, political, economic, personal, or any other externally observable, presently existing conditions. However, these presently existing conditions are not, Sartre says, enough to ever totally determine an action. Consciousness of nothingness in the form of possibility is absolutely required for an act.

Sartre also says that when we make our choices, we "choose man". In other words, when we make choices, we choose what we think is right, and therefore, what we believe is right for mankind. Now, of course it is absurd to think that if I choose to be a garbage man, I am simultaneously saying that everyone alive ought to choose to be a garbage man. This is not what Sartre meant. Rather, he is saying that when I make that choice, I am declaring my belief that every single person who finds themselves in my exact situation (economically, socially, historically, familially, etc.) would and should become a garbage man.

Often, Sartre's philosophy is pessimistically accused of being nihilistic. However, with all of this in mind, one may come to appreciate the errors of any pessimistic critique of Sartre. One critic who approaches Sartre rather pessimistically and, in the meanwhile, badly misunderstands him, is George Schrader. In his "Existential Philosophy: Resurgent Humanism," Schrader says that, in existentialism "Happiness if conceived of as a state of perfect equilibrium in which there is neither tension nor stress, is too simple an ideal for man…Once [man] has discovered the contingency of happiness…a more sophisticated and comprehensive ideal must be found." Schrader's errors in this passage are four. First, Schrader asserts that part of happiness' undesirability as an ideal is due to its "contingency." Second, Schrader defines happiness badly. Third, Schrader assumes that there can be a higher ideal than happiness. Fourth, Schrader attempts to dictate (or at least dictate the ruling out of) an ideal for man. It seems, upon close examination, that all four of these errors are based upon bad misunderstandings of Sartre.

Schrader says, "Once, however, it has discovered the contingency of happiness and the difficulty of holding oneself within it, a more sophisticated and comprehensive ideal must be found". The vicissitudes of external circumstances and human life in general ensure that any end towards which we can direct ourselves is, in fact, contingent and difficult to maintain. This seems like a misunderstanding of human life rather than a misunderstanding of existentialism. The fact that life is difficult and will present various obstacles to the attainment of any goal is simply a truism that Schrader seems to have disregarded. Even in existentialist terms, though, one can see that the difficulty of staying happy can't discourage one if happiness is perceived as a possibility and as valuable. If one doesn't perceive happiness as a possibility in Schrader's terms, that is simply because he (and apparently Kant before him) has defined happiness badly. Furthermore, the very act of defining something like happiness seems to fly in the face of the existentialist idea that man can define (assign meaning and value) for himself. In the spirit of this, and the admitted difficulty of defining such a thing as happiness, I shall refrain from providing a definition here. However, the important point is that every man, by the tenets of existentialism, must decide, for himself, what happiness means for him.

Further, it seems to be quite a leap to allege that man can develop an ideal that is "more sophisticated and comprehensive" than happiness. The whole reason that happiness has, since Aristotle, been perceived as the ultimate end to life, is due to its comprehensiveness. An Aristotelian styled argument for happiness is still extremely applicable to what Schrader is saying. Any ideal that Schrader might offer as an alternative to happiness cannot be the ultimate end because it is merely an end which is a further means to happiness. Success, accumulation of wealth, honor, serving others, even freedom, are all only valuable to individuals because of their additional potential to make the individuals happy. Money is a means to happiness, an individual serves others because it helps the others and makes the individual in question feel happy to help others. Even the existential notion of actualizing one's freedom is only a further means to happiness. There can be no other sensible ultimate end. The value of having freedom (and its danger as well) lies in the fact that it has the potential to make me very happy or extremely miserable, and I have no one to blame for that outcome except for myself. I may experience anguish at the range of choices I have before me, but if so, that is only because I do not know which option will best serve the future realization of my happiness.

Even if we allow that, since under existentialism man is free to choose his own values, an individual might posit some other ultimate end for his life besides happiness, Schrader is still badly mistaken as ruling happiness out as a viable option for everyone. Everyone, because they have this power to freely choose their values, also have the power to choose what happiness will mean for them. No one would choose to attempt to actualize an end for their life which would make them miserable. That would be ridiculous. It is simply not possible. Man always attempts to do what he believes is best for himself, even if that is acting in the interests of others. Happiness is better than misery. Thus man chooses things which make him happy, or at least, which he thinks will make him happy.

The whole point of existentialism is to show man as being free from all of the baggage upon which he can blame his choices. Such a state may throw us into anguish or existential crises in the face of absurdity. Nevertheless, in the end, it leaves the universe open to us to define as we will, and it leaves all possible ends open to us to set as our goals should we desire. Any attempt to view existentialism pessimistically, to rule out what logically appears to be the ultimate goal of human life (and what is, if not this, at the very least a viable option for some) butchers the tenets of existentialism and denies man the full freedom that is truly his under Sartre's system. The truth of the matter is, man is free, free not only to define happiness as his end, but to define both happiness and its pursuit in terms far more realistic for himself than any absolute, rigid system of ethics would allow for.


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