The Ethics of Freedom and Responsibility

For the French Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, there is no deeper or more towering truth than that of man’s freedom. Indeed, Sartre emphasized mankind’s ultimate and prevailing makeup as being free to such an extreme as to suggest that freedom was not to be seen as a mere facet or feature of humanity but, rather as being synonymous with humanity. Not to be confused as an inclination or a capacity, Sartre proposed a heightened understanding, man is freedom. It is then, this theme, above all others, that runs the very breadth of the Sartrean corpus, underpinning and informing nearly all assessments and assertions in their entirety. I believe that it is through his deep and abiding commitment to man as being unabashedly free that he may have been the most ethically orientated of the existentialists.
In Thomas Flynn’s book Existentialism: A Brief Insight , an introductory text to existentialist thought and thinkers, he underscores and outlines several themes of Existentialism, many, if not all, are directly linked and related to Sartre. The first is a line directly from Sartre himself, “Existence precedes essence.”1 Through this theme comes the understanding that ‘essence,’ the substance and characterization of who and what man is, arrives only after existence and does so only as a result of man’s cumulative choices.2
Flynn also suggests that Existentialism has Humanism as a major theme and orientation. As he states, and as Sartre would certainly agree, “Existentialism is a person-centered philosophy.”3 As the title of one of Sartre’s lasting works more than implies, for Sartre “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Hence, here freedom is an exercise distinctly focused upon man’s mission for meaning within a world found to be altogether meaningless and in this pursuit of authenticity man must passionately avoid conformity.
The word ‘existence’ comes from the Latin words ex , meaning ‘out’ or ‘exit,’ and sister , meaning ‘to stand.’ Thus, to exist literally means ‘to stand out.’ Like Nietzsche, admonishing man to free himself from the “herd” and like Heidegger who warned against the wiles of the “they,” Sartre calls for man to stand out from the crowd, from the everyday, and even from ourselves.4
This leads to the next theme Flynn mentions, “Freedom/responsibility

.”5 Here Flynn explains, “Existentialism is a philosophy of freedom. Its basis is the fact that we can stand back from our lives and reflect on what we have been doing. In this sense, we are always ‘more’ that ourselves. But, we are as responsible as we are free.”6 Flynn makes clear that man is free to make the choices that will determine his essence. Thus, as a consequence of this freedom of choice, what man is and what he becomes is ultimately his decisive responsibility alone. So it is that “When Sartre insists that one must ‘choose, that is invent’ he doesn’t mean simply ‘improvise.’ Rather, he is referring to the responsible decision to opt for or against freedom itself.”7
Flynn concludes his list of Existential themes with this assertion, “Ethical considerations are paramount.”8 It is true that for all the Existentialist thinkers and philosophers we have thus far examined, the ethical has been given much weight in the work of each. Ethics, morals, and values, their meaning, their place, their purpose and their basis, each philosopher has in their own way grappled with such concepts and their implications. I argue that it is through the ethical lens that we can more fully appreciate the premises set by Sartre. Though understated, here freedom, responsibility, and authenticity become the fullest expressions of ethicality.
Sartre, a devout atheist, seems to parallel and echo Nietzsche and his sentiments in much of his work. “Man’s situation, as Sartre sees it, is absurd and tragic.”9 Without the presence of the divine man is utterly alone in a universe devoid of all meaning, “man is condemned to be free.”10 The only guidance available to man is that of his own accord and as such whatever he becomes will be the outcome of his own choice. Yet, unlike Nietzsche, Sartre, without the existence of God, does not call for the abandonment of values. Quite the contrary, with no deity enthroned within the heavens, according to Sartre man bears even more the responsibility of living ethically. This is where Sartre is truly unique, as Walter Kaufmann states, “Secular existentialism is a tragic world view without, however, being pessimistic. Even in guilt and failure man can retain integrity and defy the world.”11 This is the deepest affirmation through the deepest negation, the absolute Yes emerging from the absolute No.
Sartre makes clear, “when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but he is responsible for all men.”12 Here he suggests that when making and enacting decisions one should ask, “What if everyone acted this way?” and “What would happen if everybody looked at things that way?”13 Thus, as I exercise my freedom through choice I must become cognizant of the fact that “I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man.”14 For Sartre, “no one could be free in a concrete sense unless everyone were free.”15
“[Sartre] insisted that each of us acknowledges what we are doing with our lives right now.” 16 Man’s freedom is infinitely abounding yet; responsibility pervades and inundates every aspect of this infinity. Though Sartre did not fulfill the promise he posed at the conclusion of Being and Nothingness to one day provide an existential work dedicated to the exploration of ethics, in many ways he already had.


1 Thomas Flynn, Existentialism: A Brief Insight (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2006), 11.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 139.
5 Ibid., 11.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., 60.
8 Ibid., 11.
9 Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Meridian, 1975), 47.
10 Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction, 2nd ed., ed. L. Nathan Oaklander (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1996), 313.
11 Kaufmann, Existentialism…, 47.
12 Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” 311.
13 Ibid., 312.
14 Ibid., 311.
15 Flynn, Existentialism… , 59.
16 Ibid., 77.


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