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Sartre and the Moral Life


At the time of writing L'Être et le Néant, Sartre intended both to give a new account of human experience and action, and, subsequently, to offer a ‘new morality’. It is clear that he wished to keep the two enterprises separate, the former not entailing the latter (720:625–626) but also that they would together form an integrated Weltanschauung, as he puts it. But Sartre's philosophical account of human life cannot, I shall argue, be integrated with any morality whatsoever, since his account really entails the impossibility of the moral life. It is not surprising that doubts about what remains of morality, once the Sartrean picture has been accepted, are prominent in the last pages of L'Être et le Néant; I intend to show that they deserve more serious attention than some commentators have thought, and that the major problem over Sartre's moral philosophy is not the interpretation of authenticity but the investigation of his account of moral choice.

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1 Figures in parentheses show: before the colon, page numbers of Sartre J.-P., L'Être et le Néant (Paris: Gallimard, 1943); and, after the colon, of Sartre J.-P., Being and Nothingness, trans. Barnes H. (London: Methuen, 1957, 1969). I have often used my own translations.

2 See Sartre's ‘Lettre-préface’ to Jeanson F., Le problème moral et la pensée de Sartre (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2e ed., 1965), 12.

3 Especially 722:627. Various attempts have of course been made to answer Sartre's questions for him, and thereby to construct ethical or meta-ethical views consistent with his pronouncements in L'Être et le Néant. Notably, these involve admitting that Sartre's more pessimistic remarks are ‘exaggerations’, and one of these approaches: either, Sartre's views are not found to dictate the content of one's moral principles, but only the manner in which they are held and implemented (see, for example, Manser A., Sartre—A Philosophic Study (London: Athlone Press, 1966), Ch. X, and Jeanson F., Le problème moral …, pp. 265 ff); or Sartre's views are seen to entail the use of freedom as a supreme value (see, for example, Anderson T. C., ‘Is a Sartrean Ethics Possible?’, Philosophy Today, XIV (1970), 116, 140). I will try to show that these constructions are over-optimistic and that Sartre came to appreciate this.

4 For Jeanson, for instance, ‘le problème moral’ is not that Sartre may have destroyed all morality, but the general one of working out how to live, given his doctrines (Le problème moral…. 268, 273, etc.) Implicitly it is soluble, although Sartre himself adopts an air of paradox when facing it: ‘toute morale est à la fois impossible et nécessaire’ (Saint Genet—Comédien et Martyr, Paris: Gallimard, 1952, 211).

5 Despite the implication of this crucial paragraph of Sartre's—that ‘choice’, though not deliberate, temporally precedes deliberation—it has been suggested that the priority is of meaning and not in time (see: Fell J. P., ‘Sartre's Theory of Motivation: some clarifications’, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, I, No. 2 (1970), 33). Certainly Sartre denies that there has been any prior reflective choice, and often says that choices are made in action, not before it. But suppose that, using Sartrean materials, we consider the elements involved in action: there must be, not only a change in the world (an intervention in Nature) but also consciousness of the world in the light of an end to be pursued. If this awareness of situation temporally precedes action, then so does one's ‘choice’ in the Sartrean sense, for awareness of one's situation involves or constitutes one's ‘choice’ (539–540:462). I do not see how it could be established that one's awareness of situation always temporally precedes one's action, but this may have been the thought expressed by Sartre in his paragraph on deliberation. For further discussion, see: Manser A., Sartre, 120, 122; and Olafson F., Principles and Persons (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), 163169 and 220n.

6 See Descartes, Meditations, I and III. It is ironic that Sartre quite ignores the kinds of hypothesis on which Cartesian doubt rests, preferring to see in it the paradigm act of free thought (Situations, I, 300301: Literary and Philosophical Essays (London: Hutchinson, 1955), 178179). I am thinking particularly here of Descartes' suggestions that a deceiving deity or an unknown faculty may cause my vision of reality to be distorted.

7 Introduction, III. Corresponding page-numbers in the Barnes translation vary, in the case of the Introduction, from one edition to another.

8 ‘La Transcendance de l'Égo’, Recherches Philosophiques, VI (19361937), 118. I suspect that Sartre feels that there is an unbridgeable gulf between any individual's ‘world’ and others' ‘worlds’ because there is no conceptualization of this ‘world’ at the level of the ‘lived’. See his remarks on the contrast between the self which is ‘le particulier universalisable’ and ‘le Moi singulier qui est sans commune mesure avec l'universel et le particulier, qui ne peut aucunement se fixer en concepts, mais seulement se risquer et se vivre’ (Saint Genet—Comédien et Martyr, 77). It is on the level of this ‘Moi singulier’, this ‘subjectivité impensable’, that Genet's fundamental project is to be found.

9 ‘Existentialism’, in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, ed. O'Connor D. J. (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), 528.

10 Paris: Nagel, 1946; hereafter referred to as EH.

11 EH, 79. Unlike some remarks in this work, this comment seems consistent with the doctrine of L'Etre et le Néant.

12 I do not claim that there is any satisfactory supra-cultural account of impartiality or disinterestedness in themselves, but only in relation to specific problems, situations and principles. See Aiken H. D., ‘The Concept of Moral Objectivity’, in Morality and the Language of Conduct, eds. Castañeda H.-N. and Nakhnikian G. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963).

13 EH, 8082.

14 T. C. Anderson (see note 3 above) has carefully expounded and criticized a version of this observation, as well as arguing against the view that Sartre's pessimism about human relationships and his ethical individualism make any ethical position impossible for him. This very full discussion does not bear directly on my own argument, but I think Anderson would say of it that I misunderstand Sartre in taking what he says about the attempts of a man in bad faith to live according to some moral code as a description of all moral action. Certainly, Sartre only criticizes ‘everyday morality’ (75–76:38) and ‘l'esprit de sérieux’ (77, 669, 721:39, 580, 626), differentiating such beliefs from ‘une morale de la délivrance et du salut’ achieved by a ‘radical conversion’ (484:412) based on ‘purifying reflection’ (670:581). He says, rather vaguely, that ‘la vraie morale’ lies beyond bourgeois morality (Saint Genet—Comédien et Martyr, 177). But I think that Sartre's footnotes and afterthoughts represent an optimism which he later quite rightly (i.e. consistently) discards (see note 18 below). He comes to see what was true all along: that his criticisms of bourgeois morality apply to all forms of the moral life. This is only to be expected, since the grounds for his scepticism are deeper-seated than Anderson allows: from the basic Sartrean accounts of attention, of other acts of consciousness, and of each individual's field of experience, flows his denial that deliberation is efficacious in changing the direction of a life.

15 Grene M., ‘Critical Notice: Sartre: a Philosophic Study by A. Manser’, Mind, 78 (1969), 152.

16 See Manser, Sartre, Ch X.

17 See note 16.

18 Simone de Beauvoir quotes from some ‘unpublished notes’ of Sartre's showing his coming to the view that ‘l'attitude morale apparaît quand les conditions techniques et sociales rendent impossibles les conduites positives. La morale, c'est un ensemble de trucs idéalistes pour vous aider à vivre ce que la pénurie des ressources et la carence des techniques vous impose’ (La Force des Choses (Gallimard, 1963), 218). It is the reference to ‘trucs idéalistes’ which is particularly interesting in view of his earlier description of deliberation as ‘truquée’, and which encourages one to think that Sartre's development (in the late 1940s apparently) was from partial to total moral scepticism and away from the ‘ideology’ of Existentialism.

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