Traditionally, philosophy aimed to define morality in relation to absolute higher powers. In ancient Greece, Socrates judged moral systems based on emotion as illusory, as they did not strive to attain the transcendental “form of good itself” (Plato, Republic, Book VI). From a Judeo-Christian perspective, morality is defined in relation to the teachings of God and whether or not you are allowed into heaven. Existentialism, on the other hand, denies the existence of such higher powers; it thus has to define morality through other means. This makes reaching judgements far more difficult, as there are no points of reference on which to judge someone. What are the moral implications of Existentialism? First, I will consider why the question of morality is still relevant to Existentialism. Then, I will argue that it implies a morality of actions. Lastly, I will explore the concept of moral and legal justice and how it should be treated from an Existentialist perspective.
Our first encounter with ethics happens in childhood, through our parents. This morality is one of submission: the child is forced to eradicate certain spontaneous behaviours in favour of what fits the social group. Our conception of morality is therefore rooted in that of our education; this forms what Freud calls the superego, the part of our psyche that encompasses the social norms and pressures we have internalised. As such, morality is originally defined in relation to higher powers. But unlike the aforementioned higher powers of traditional morality, these do not hold absolute value: our parents have themselves internalised much of their ethical code from their parents, and developed the rest from personal experience. Most people’s morality is thus heavily influenced by the biases of their culture.
Friedrich Nietzsche saw Christian morality, which he emphasised still exists in most “post-Christian” ideologies, as a great sign of spiritual illness. He criticised how it promotes such values as humility which, for him, encouraged self-loathing, weakness and a lack of creativity. By declaring “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” (1882: Section 125), Nietzsche was not simply saying that God does not exist, but rather that His teachings are perverse and obsolete. Instead, Nietzsche proposes the ideal of the Übermensch, whose values are creative and original and who stands apart form the herd. The herd most often refers to the crowd, but it can just as well be those who define their values in reactionary opposition to it, since such forms of morality are not creative either. The death of God does not therefore imply nihilist amorality, as it is not rooted in creativity. Indeed, what truth can a value hold if it has been taken for granted?
Furthermore, I would argue that in hiding behind pre-established morals, we deny our own humanity. In his lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre discusses how, because we are both mortal and self-determining, there is huge pressure on how we choose to live our lives (1946). Since I am not pre-destined, in acting a certain way I express my standard for how I think a life should be lived. In a way, this is in line with traditional morality, such as the religious golden rule (“do to others what you would have them do to you”, Matthew 7:12) or Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (1795: Section 1). However, Sartre’s justification is not that of God nor of a greater good, but rather an observation of the human condition. For him, mortality implies that we set the standard for how we should live, since we have chosen to live our finite life in such a way. As such, everything we do necessarily carries moral connotations (even if we are not aware of them) and can therefore be judged. Sartre would argue that to live your life according to pre-established maxims is to live in bad faith since, in doing so, you deny your own freedom.
Another aspect in which Sartre’s view differs from Kant’s is in the importance of our actions. Kantian morality saw the value of our actions as being defined by our intentions - in other words, whether they came from the “right place”. But, as we see in the following excerpt from his lecture, Sartre places far more emphasis on acts themselves.
“There is no such thing as a cowardly temperament. There are nervous temperaments; there is what is called impoverished blood, and there are also rich temperaments. [...] A coward is defined by the deed that he has done. What people feel obscurely, and with horror, is that the coward as we present him is guilty of being a coward. What people would prefer would be to be born either a coward or a hero.” (1946:38)
In this passage, Sartre presents the argument that we are responsible for how we are perceived since, while we may have certain predispositions of temperament, we ultimately hold the power to define ourselves through our actions. He acknowledges that the realisation of this freedom is most often accompanied by great Anguish, since we see the pressure it implies, but he argues that this feeling is important as it motivates us to devise our own moral code. However, as he points out, many continue to perceive this as a constraint rather than a source of liberation. Here, I will try to deconstruct the most common misconceptions about this aspect of Sartre’s view on being.
It can indeed be disturbing to think about how our actions are what define us rather than our thoughts, especially when it feels like our intentions are in the right place. This is not to say that we should completely reject the importance of intentions (one can, after all, do something positive entirely out of self interest). But intentions are only the first step towards action, they are not acts in themselves. Thus, taken alone, they have no bearing on the world outside us. I may feel bad for my friend as he goes through hardship, but if I do not reach out or try to help him, this feeling means nothing - certainly not to him. When dealing with chronic anxiety or “impoverished blood”, for example, to be defined by ones actions can be particularly disconcerting as these very actions appear beyond our control. This can add to the shame already felt, but is ultimately in vain: feeling bad about yourself will just lead to further inaction. And again, good intentions may not mean anything by themselves, but they nevertheless find meaning when channeled into action. As such, when overwhelmed, we have two possible responses: either we wallow in self pity, damning ourselves to a life of inactivity, or we take steps to act on it. For it is only our actions that can be judged.
In the meantime, we can continue to do the reflective work to make our action more meaningful and informed. Imagine, for example, someone who followed the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 but could not attend the protests due to the pandemic. They may feel like they cannot do much in the meantime and give up on the cause, when in fact they could be better informing themselves so as to make their activism far more charged once they are able to protest again. And, especially thanks to the Internet, there are still many ways for them to fight in the movement from home. As such, when judging someone’s actions we should of course take into account their specific situation and hope they adapt to said situation. Every case is necessarily unique and should be judged as such. But we cannot be judged on what goes on inside our heads.
This leads us to the question of justice. This is a term that is both used in moral and legal contexts. Morally, it means to be fair and reasonable; legally, it refers to the administration of the law in the name of such values. In this part, we will explore the instances in which legal justice should be exercised, from an Existentialist perspective.
For Sartre, an act is considered immoral if it goes against the freedom of others. We can refer to the most famous quote from his speech, “existence precedes essence” (1946:52): we exist first, then define who we are through our actions. As such, freedom is something we inherently value since it is something we all experience to some degree by our very nature. However, there are plenty of factors that limit our freedom. Some of these are part of the human condition (our mortality, the passage of time, our physical limitations...) but others are not. And when such restrictions are avoidable, then we can deem them immoral, since they go against our ability to self determine. If the aim of law is to apply justice, then this is what it should strive to maintain. There are of course plenty of other moral questions, but those pertain to people’s individual opinions and thus should be resolved through individual means (if the means themselves go significantly against someone’s freedom, however, then it is logical for the law to intervene). If the goal of legal justice is to increase freedom, then it should avoid impeding civilian freedom as much as possible - including for those who go against the law. From this perspective, the idea of punitive justice makes little sense.
This is where we need to make the distinction between moral responsibility and accountability. Someone may be held accountable for a felony - this could be monetarily, in paying their fair due to the victim, or psychologically, in encouraging the victim’s healing through dialogue. Their action cannot be undone of course, but in the name of justice they can be required to make up for it as much as they can. We would call this application of the law compensatory or restorative. The term responsibility, on the other hand, refers more to the perpetrator’s character (which, as we have discussed, cannot be judged in isolation from the actions one has done or is likely to do). From a legal perspective, character also needs to be considered as there is always the possibility of recidivism. Once again, this can be done through dialogue with the victim, for example, or encouraging the perpetrator’s personal growth. This form of justice is also restorative, since it regains the trust of the community at large. In cases where the perpetrator shows no signs of wanting to rejoin society safely, restorative justice still applies. Indeed, there is no use in further punishing them once they are locked up since it goes against our definition on justice. As such, removing their freedom of movement should be an end in itself, to protect the freedom of larger society, not a means to further abusing them. The ultimate goal should be to increase freedom for every party involved.
We must also address the socio-economic conditions that push many to commit felonies so as to avoid them happening again (and thus make the community feel more safe). As such, restorative justice goes hand in hand with social justice. As Angela Davis argues in Are Prisons Obsolete?:
“[Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism”.
Going beyond punitive justice necessarily implies addressing inequality and prejudice, since this allows more people to self actualise. This applies to the victims of racial, social and economic persecution, but it also makes us question society at large. In the wake the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi commander, Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” (1958:199). This refers to the everyday acts of evil which could lead to such atrocities as the Holocaust. For Arendt, this form of evil, which is epitomised by Eichmann, is not caused by evil intentions but rather by a lack of thinking. In no way, as we have previously seen, does this mean that Eichmann was not morally responsibility for his actions. But we must also acknowledge that society at large was responsible. As a solution, Arendt speaks of “spaces of appearance” in which dialogue and intellectual engagement happen within society at large. This space is not a part of government but rather a form of grassroots organising in which the public is directly engaged. For her, this is the base on which democracy and justice should be built.
To conclude, even though Existentialism does not have higher points of reference, its focus on existence nonetheless has moral implications. For one, our mortality means that we must choose the rules according to which we live our life. This means that our actions are of utmost importance, since they express how we think a life should be lived. Furthermore, since our life is not predestined, freedom is something we inherently value. As such, unnecessarily restraining ones freedom is considered universally immoral. It can therefore be dealt with legally, unlike other moral quarrels. But by the same principle, the law must itself avoid restraining people’s freedom as much as possible. As such, Existentialism encourages us to realise ourselves through creative morality, but it also pushes us to fight intellectual disengagement, prejudice and inequality, since they go against others’ right to realise themselves.
Plato, Emlyn-Jones, C. and Preddy, W., 2013. Republic.
Kant, I., 1785. Groundwork Of The Metaphysic Of Morals.
Nietzsche, F., 1882. The Gay Science.
Sartre, J., 1946. L'existentialisme est un humanisme.
Arendt, H., 1958. The Human Condition.
Arendt, H., 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem. The New Yorker.
Davis, A., 2011. Are Prisons Obsolete?.