The Moral Responsibility of Existential Freedom

Below you’ll find a short essay I wrote for an Ethics class I took earlier this year. The essay is a brief exploration and investigation into the moral framework of Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist ethics. Let me know what you think. Enjoy!


The key to understanding Sartre’s conception of ‘responsibility’ is to grasp his idea of freedom. Sartre adheres to a radical freedom, perhaps one could say the radicality of a metaphysical freedom. Here, Sartre emphasizes his notion that ‘existence precedes essence’, in other words, he stresses the fact that “man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards, defines himself” (320). Thus, Sartre explains that because of this radical existential ‘freedom’ “existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him” (320). For Sartre, because humanity arrives in an undefined purity of existence or Being it is the utter and absolute responsibility of each human individual to define their existence. As such, Sartre underscores the radicalized autonomy of the individual.

Similarly, de Beauvoir’s stance regarding ‘responsibility’ is also directly linked to her understanding of ‘freedom’. Here, she deviates slightly from Sartre in her description of what she calls ‘situated freedom’, that is, she recognizes that “our capacity for agency and meaning-making…is constrained, though never determined, by the conditions of our situation” (Bergoffen, sec. 2). This is not to say, however, that de Beauvoir denies Sartres claim to ‘radical’ freedom and responsibility, rather she extends them into the domain of the other, emphasizing a kind of autonomous interdependence. In other words, in her recognition of one’s full responsibility to their radically autonomous freedom she senses a deeper call and a deeper commitment, a calling committed to acknowledging one’s simultaneous responsibility to recognize the radical freedom of the other. Debra Bergoffen explains that “Though I can neither act for another nor directly influence their freedom, I must…accept responsibility for the fact that my actions produce the conditions within which the other acts” (sec. 4). In this regard, the ‘situation’ of our freedom/resonsibility is marked by the communal interconnectivity of individuals. De Beauvoir points out that “an individual is always situated within a community and as such, separate existents are necessarily bound to each other” (Mussett, sec. 2.b). Thus, de Beauvoir makes clear that our responsibility to express our individual freedom does not take place within a vacuum. “She argues,” instead, “that every enterprise is expressed in a world populated by and thus affecting other human beings” (Mussett, sec. 2.b). We are each other’s world. As such, for de Beauvoir, responsibility is hinged upon one’s ability “to treat the other…as a freedom so that his end may be freedom” (142). De Beauvoir writes, here, that “To will oneself free is also to will others free” (73). Thus, de Beauvoir concludes that “To will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision” (24).
Bergoffen, Debra. “Simone de Beauvoir.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Stanford University, 2010. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp, 2000. Print.
Mussett, Shannon. “Simone de Beauvoir.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. IEP, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. From Existentialism is a Humanism. In Ethics: Classical Texts in Feminist and Multicultural Perspectives. Ed. James P. Sterba. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 319-325. Print.

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