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Dec 1, 1978

Freedom, Existentialism, and Innocent Victims

“Anderson argues that Sartrean ethics formulates a meaningful ethical position for those who proclaim the death of God and of all objective values.”

“Freedom as Supreme Value: The Ethics of Sartre and de Beauvoir.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 50 (1976): 60–71.

To speak of existentialist ethics as an ethics of freedom raises a number of difficulties. In fact, Sartre has not written the work on ethics which he promised at the end of Being and Nothingness. Further, some object to the very possibility of an existentialist ethics based on Sartre’s ontology. Sartre’s views of man and of the nature of value would seem to provide no foundation for the development of an ethics.

Anderson, however, argues that we can formulate the general structure of Sartre’s ethics. The Sartrean ontology can give rise to an ethical system if we borrow from Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Ethics of Ambiguity. De Beauvoir seeks to establish the value of freedom by invoking three of Sartre’s notions: (1) human interdependence, (2) equality, and (3) consistency. In Anderson’s analysis de Beauvoir develops these three notions as follows:

(1) Man is completely dependent on human freedom to attain justification or meaning for his existence.

(2) Man wants such justification and wants it especially to be freely given by men who are able truly to appreciate his life; he wants to be valued by his equals.

(3) Consistency demands, therefore, that men both value the freedom of others and strive to aid them in becoming his peers, so that their valuation of him will be both positive and fully meaningful to him.

Anderson argues that Sartrean ethics formulates a meaningful ethical position for those who proclaim the death of God and of all objective values. It seriously attempts to reply to Dostoevsky’s challenge “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” However, several problems still remain to be solved in this ethical view. In the existentialist ethics of Sartre and de Beauvoir: “any action designed to promote freedom and the advancement of others to equality with oneself is good, any action to restrict this is evil.” In practical terms the choice of freedom for all, however, “will often mean that the freedom of some must be restricted in order to promote the freedom of the greatest number.” In addition Anderson comments:

Sartre and de Beauvoir are willing at times to condone even the suppression of freedom of the innocent in order to enhance the freedom of the majority…. even actions they generally condemn are considered to be justified in particular circumstances if they lead to greater freedom for the greater number. In the final analysis their support of Marxism, and more recently of the Third World nations, is based upon their conviction that these are at present humanity’s best hope for achieving the general liberation of mankind, a liberation which they believe will ultimately come about only in a communistic classless society.