Existential Choice

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,[1] 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.

Sartre was trying to illustrate his thesis that one’s free choices, how one acts, are in effect choices about who one will be, since, for him, only the free actions of the individual count. There is no pre-existing essence or way we should be to which we must conform (‘existence before essence’).  One possible retort to this would be to point out that Sartre is telling us something we  know already: that any criterion of morality is liable to generate ‘ties’ or undecidable dilemmas – situations in which two or more possible options seem equally desirable, or undesirable.  But Sartre seems to be getting at something else here. His presentation of the young man’s dilemma is intended to go beyond the ‘normal’ dilemmas of morality.  It is not that, given a criterion for moral action (Kantian, Christian or Utilitarian, say), we can have a dilemma, so much is obvious, but that in the end all choices are radically underdetermined by the facts of the matter. So much so, in fact, that the choice one makes can only be a radically free choice. In other words, a choice of the kind the young man will make can neither be justified nor condemned by any criterion beyond that of the will of the chooser. ‘Justification’ is out of place here, if there is no criterion at all for a ‘right’ choice – only a radical one. For Sartre in 1947 the individual must grasp the fact of his or her ‘abandonment’ when situated as a ‘radical chooser’ [2] (in Charles Taylor’s phrase): for Sartre, the individual must choose, under conditions which radically underdetermine what kind of action would be right or fitting. Sartre’s young man chooses, and in choosing, chooses himself, creating a result that he cannot be fully clear about before he creates. So making a moral choice, as Sartre says in Existentialism and Humanism, is like being an artist.

What stands out here is Sartre’s voluntarism, for the choice seems to lie entirely in the will of the chooser – one chooses x as good, and x is good only insofar as one chooses it. But it is hard to see what this claim means. If x is only good because I will it, then this amounts to saying that x is not independently good at all. And this makes the choice arbitrary. It really would seem to be all the same whether he chooses to stay, go, join the Nazis or lie down in a darkened room. Yet it is clear that Sartre does think some choices are better than others. And this should not surprise us, as no one has ever faced serious choices devoid of any pre-existing commitments or ideas about what is independently good or right. In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre tries to persuade us that it is freedom itself that the chooser must respect in himself and others, which would rule out the ‘be a Nazi’ option. Yet this return to a kind of Categorical Imperative of pure freedom in Sartre is unconvincing: freedom itself is elevated as a core characteristic of the human condition that must be universally respected. Yet if I really am as radically free as Sartre claims there seems nothing to stop me from choosing to enslave others.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor makes the point that it makes no sense to think of all our evaluations as freely chosen. On his account we have two kinds of evaluations, which he calls weak and strong. A weak evaluation just involves us consulting our preferences – chips or potatoes with my lunch? Go north or south for my holidays? If we really don’t have a preference in these cases we might imagine making a radical choice.  But this doesn’t apply to our strong evaluations, such as: shall I be brave or run away? Be faithful or betray? Show compassion or be cruel? These latter appear as really contrasting alternatives, and they are connected to what kind of person I am, or would like to be. A weak evaluation doesn’t involve saying anything beyond ‘I want this’. Strong evaluations, though, imply a fuller account, one in which we can articulate what is important to us, of what is of more or less worth.

So is Sartre’s young man making a weak or a strong evaluation, when he chooses? If it is the weak variety, then he surely isn’t really in a moral dilemma at all. To be a moral dilemma in the first place there have to be pressing moral reasons that make a claim on the person who decides. But as we’ve seen, weak evaluations, don’t involve this. They really do occur without any ‘deeper’ considerations, like choosing chips over potatoes. Alternatively, if he is making a strong evaluation then his choice connects to other evaluations that are not chosen by him. Taylor makes the point that we can choose between alternatives in a moral dilemma, but not choose that it they be moral in the first place. Our freely chosen evaluations don’t go all the way down, as it were. Try to imagine someone with no values except the ones she has ‘freely chosen’. All her choices and values would in the end come down to arbitrary preferences without any justifications beyond her will (‘this x is good only because I say so’).   But important choices require reasons, and if we imagine her choosing them without reasons it is hard to imagine what that would be like.

Our strong evaluations are vital to our identity as, in Taylor’s phrase, we are ‘self interpreting animals’. We don’t just do things, but rather we make sense of what we do, give reasons etc, and try to understand our actions and decisions in the light of who we are or want to be, and we don’t just conjure these up on the spot. They are are bound up with our culture, history and psychology, the context in which we exist as subjects. If we really had no idea of what was important to us we would have some kind of identity crisis or breakdown. The real task is to be clear about what is important to us, what kind of person we want to be, and there is a kind of choice and responsibility in that – but not as Sartre imagines it in Existentialism and Humanism.

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre: Existentialism and Humanism, 1947, (English translation Methuen, new ed. 2007.) Available in a number of translations and formats, the title as also been translated as Existentialism is a Humanism.)

[2] Charles Taylor: ‘What is Human Agency?’ In Human Agency and Language, Cambridge University Press 1985.