Lecture 13: Sartre’s Ethics. Brief Summary.
Note: generally, ethical theories attempt to justify ethical principles. They begin by
presenting some premises about
what humans are, do, or desire
, and then attempt to argue
from that claim to conclusions about what humans
to be, do, or desire.
Scholars believe that the main reason Sartre had such a difficult time developing an ethical
theory is that his view on the human condition and especially on the natural dispositions of
human beings did not give him the premises he needed to reach normative conclusions
consistent with his own ethical preferences.
Notebooks for an Ethics
is a special work devoted to existential ethics. Sartre worked on
the book for more than a decade, and the manuscript reached enormous proportions. Sartre,
however, became dissatisfied with the result for various reasons and abandoned the
manuscript. It was first published in 1983, three years after the author’s death. [The essay,
New, Authentic Way of Being Oneself
is a part of the
Notebooks for an Ethics
reinforces the suggestion in
Existentialism as a Humanism
that the basis for ethical judgment is not merely the freedom and contingency of human
existence but that freedom and contingency as comprehended on the plane of authenticity.
The main emphasis is thus put on “radical conversion”, on becoming authentic.
Authenticity is one of the most controversial topics that has captured the attention of some
influential contemporary thinkers. In this age of the 'death of God', the attention is focused on
man. Today, "where humanity is left without any 'pillars of fire' to guide its way, is the
cultural and intellectual background for the emergence of the search for authenticity."
Thinkers on authenticity are diverse in their explication of this topic. Nevertheless, they all
agree in principle that a positive definition of authenticity would be self-nullifying.
Authenticity defines itself as lacking any definition. It is pathos of incessant change, as
opposed to a passive subordination to one particular ethics. Thinkers of authenticity tend to
call into question and eventually replace conventional with unorthodox concepts of truth.
In Sartre, authenticity is discussed vis-à-vis freedom. At the core of Sartrean thought is an
idea of extreme freedom. It is inferred from the stand of atheistic Existentialists that "if God
does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who
exists before he can be defined by any concept, and that this being is man, or, as Heidegger
says, human reality."
The precedence of existence over essence ultimately resolves in the negation of human
nature. This same negation endows man with the freedom to make himself. Man is nothing
else but what he makes of himself. He is nothing else than the summation of his free actions.
However, we cannot think of freedom without