Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
Despite the great returns that existentialism provides, a huge disadvantage that lowers the theory ethically must be considered. Such a disadvantage may seem so immoral that a potentially great return of having existentialism at a state of having more than a satisfactory philosophical conclusion not just ethically, but, boding well with my argument that existentialism is weak metaphysically, ontologically too, are diminished. Sartre’s theory of “radical freedom” is based on the claim that humans are not pre-determined in any respect but rather are born into this world and are thus wholly responsible for their actions. However, what would this mean if this was actually the case in the real world? This extreme level of individualism, some could argue, is in fact greatly immoral. It implies a level of selfishness and egoism in our actions, and when the mass population is thought of here, this can seem quite immoral.
This eludes to one of the things that was written in Marx’s critique of capitalism. This in fact would go against the foundation of Utilitarianism also. If everyone had this feeling of “radical freedom”, this could mean that people, for the majority of the time if not all of the time, would think completely for themselves. One’s actions would not be determined morally by the standard of whether an action benefited not just themselves, but others too, but rather would be determined by personal gain, personal profit. Economically, this would be dreadful, politically, this would cause anarchy and socially, it wouldn’t even allow society to reflect on its actions. Thus, the immorality here is dangerous if the concept of radical freedom was adopted in the real world, used as a policy let’s say or was, even worse, ingrained into the human condition. Furthermore, the logic behind the idea of this extreme level of freedom could be attacked sharply.
Determinism could be a greater likelihood than this complete level of freedom. That we as humans are predetermined in some way or another. Not by a supernatural being (boding well with the extent that I agree with the notion that we are put in this world out of luck, put into this world as if shot from a cannon from our mothers’ uterus and not consciously determined by a supreme being) but rather our fundamental characteristics and psychology that make up the human condition are to an extent determined. For example, one of our distinctive characteristics is our faculty of reason. This allows us the capacity for imagination. This shows a level of predeterminism because one did not choose to have an imagination, one did not choose to have the capacity for creativity and so forth. Sigmund Freud’s work in psychology further states that (to a great extent going against the existentialist argument for consciousness) that the human mind receives thoughts uncontrollably. When I start writing in this essay about a purple lama, well, you start to think of such a lama. This thought of such a frivolously coloured lama was beyond you, you did not stop thinking about this lama, and even now, you are thinking about this purple lama.
Thus, one cannot suppress thoughts completely, it would be impossible, or at least, improbable to do so. Freud concluded his argument, that, to a great extent, one’s unconscious drives the majority of one’s actions. Thus, perhaps the claim “existence proceeds essence” could be dismantled. Therefore, it would seem that Sartre’s theory of radical freedom has been dissolved metaphysically, lowering the impact of the advantages that existentialism brings. One here can anticipate a reply that an existentialist would give. That of, what if this sense of radical freedom, assuming it did produce a level of selfishness and egotism, allowed for people to execute their freedom by wholly helping others when in need.
For example, you as an individual, in Sartre’s world, could exercise your complete freedom by helping a person in poverty. You could give this person money, food, basic necessities and so forth. However, you would obviously gain something from this act, wouldn’t you? What would you gain you will ask? Personal gratification. Maybe not at first, maybe you did such a kind act for the sake of doing it, for the sake of being a moral human being. However, if you did this all the time, eventually it would lead to some sort of personal emotional gain. If you were a person whose life goal was to help people less fortunate than yourself and you were in Sartre’s world and you exercised your complete freedom to help these less fortunate people, what would be the outcome? Your helping people constantly would become almost like a hobby, a sport, it would lose its meaning. It would lose, and importantly so in the context of existentialism: authenticity. And once your act of helping the less fortunate has lost its needed degree off authenticity, then for Sartre himself, you are committing bad faith. This is immoral, thus going against a potential reply. A further point, a fundamental flaw in regards to Sartre’s “authenticity” can be spotted.
A problem of authentic action is that ‘authenticity’ is acting according to one’s own values. However:1a) what determines such values?1b) If my values are to kill my fellow human beings and steal from my fellow human beings, can I kill and steal from my fellow human beings ethically and authentically? For most, this would be deemed as highly disgusting. This again concludes the point that this extreme freedom is not healthy morally and adds to the incoherency of existentialism. It can be concluded, based on the arguments, that existentialism, when looked at, must be looked at in a way where its ethics are suspect and not its metaphysical claims. I believe that existentialisms ethical aspect is twofold. On the one hand there is a fantastic (to a degree of course) emphasis on freedom, choice and individuality. A focus on the ability for one to create their own meaning and purpose in life without having to rely on norms, values, systems and ideologies. This is morally worthy. On the other hand, there is a level of extremity when it comes to freedom.
There does not seem to be a “golden mean”. As mentioned, in the real world, in a practical sense, this would be deemed by most to be immoral. Theoretically so also. Positively immoral. When faced with these two hands, one has to think about which one of these two hands is more attractive than the other. Does one benefit have such a degree of being advantaged, that it overcomes the barrier posed by the one that does not benefit? My take would be yes. With current world affairs, a level of freedom and individualism is needed. Further, to have one have the ability to create their own meaning and purpose in life, to have this ability in their hands without resorting to institutions and organisations to give it to you, I believe, in my submission, is wonderful. And finally, despite there being no golden mean of sorts, I believe that there is no need. We have the faculty of reason so the extremes proposed could possibly be avoided.
The majority of the population are not narcissists for example, for the most part, people are morally acceptable. Therefore, despite the notion of radical freedom, ethically, existentialism reaches a more than satisfactory philosophical position, despite its level of immorality. However, the same simply cannot be said about its metaphysical claims. Though its take on consciousness is intellectually interesting and allows for Sartre to link it to morality with its notion of bad faith and authenticity, purely its take on consciousness does not hold up logically. In regards to the forefront notion of “existence precedes essence”, though this theologically is not true, biologically it can be deemed a falsehood. As shown by the argument made in support of determinism. And once Sartre’s claim of “existence precedes essence” is demonstrably refuted, what is left for existentialism metaphysically as we know it today? Therefore, one can say that ethically existentialism gives one a more than satisfactory philosophical conclusion, but not metaphysically.