The Doctrine of Freedom and Responsibility in Jean Paul Sartre – The Fundamental Principles in an Authentic Existence
1.0 GENERAL INTRODUCTION
This thesis has to do with the problem of freedom in man’s realization of authentic existence in the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. Looking at this topic, certain basic questions readily come to mind. These may include: What is freedom? Is man actually free? What do we actually mean when we talk of freedom? This thesis is devoted to an attempt to answering these questions and a whole lot of others.
A thorough introspection into the being of man reflects the fact and role of freedom. In fact Sartre writes, ‘Man does not exist first in order to be free’. Subsequently; there is no difference between the being of man and his being free.” The essential consequence of our earlier remarks is that man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and himself as a way of being.
Considering the identity of the being of man and his freedom he said, “for lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it”. We flee this knowledge and responsibility by lying to ourselves.
However, the essence of a lie implies that the liar is actually in complete possession of the truth. In fact, the ideal liar must know the truth precisely in order to conceal it. Unfortunately, when we lie to ourselves we usually half-believe ourselves, falling victims to our own untruths. Thus, though we should know that we posses absolute freedom as well as absolute responsibility, we do not.
Though man has been viewed as sharing similar characteristics with other creatures, it is deducibly provable that apart from the distinctive property fundamental to man, he is equally endowed with the special quality of being free. His freedom follows from his intellect. Hence, Aquinas notes that; “The very fact that man is rational, necessitates his being characterized by free decision (Liberum arbitrium)”. No one can freely choose or even will an alternative, which one does not know. The will only pursues the object, which the intellect presents to it as good. Moreover, everyman desires to be totally free irrespective of all the constraints that surround him.
In his philosophy, Sartre advocates for freedom. He maintains absolute freedom for man. He says that man creates himself and that man is condemned to be free. He goes as far as what may be considered as complete atheism and amoralism, and as such says that there is no God. Everything is permissible.
This work is divided into four chapters. On the first chapter we shall deliberate on the general notion of freedom, we shall as well consider stating the problem and the scope of research; some philosopher’s notion on freedom, the problem of freedom, and the nature of human freewill. The views of some philosophers on the term freedom will consist in the ancient philosophers down to the contemporary ones.
Having dwelt so much on the views of the philosophers in their history, we shall then move over to chapter two, in which we shall consider freedom in its absolute nature, with special reference to Sartre, we shall as well consider its relation to authentic self-assertion and, this freedom and moral responsibility.
For Sartre, freedom and responsibility are the two attributes, which belong necessarily and absolutely to man. In fact, he made man synonymous with freedom and responsibility, and this became the necessary condition for existence. Authentic existence is presupposed by living in freedom and responsibility and thus; any attempt to dodge these qualities (freedom and responsibility) brings man inauthentic existence. It is this inauthentic existence that Sartre called bad faith.
In chapter three we shall consider a juxtaposition of freedom with determinism, consider human law and the practicability of Sartre’s absolute freedom, and the world of being and nothingness in relation to passion and freedom. Combating Sartre’s absolute freedom some schools of thought have undermined human capacity and projected the existence of a higher law, order, and have maintained that human actions are not freely chosen but are determined. And even through the influence of passion and beauty, human actions come by chance.
Following from all these, the final chapter shall tackle the absolute position of Sartre on freedom and, considering some limitations to human freedom, shall give a reasoned critique on the notion of absolute freedom and, finally take a position or stand on human freedom, which is the final conclusion.
1.1 THE STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
This is a work proposed at exposing and satisfying the project topic: The Doctrine of Absolute Freedom and Responsibility in Jean Paul Sartre as the fundamental principles in an authentic existence in all its ramifications.
The sense in the authenticity of being was summarized in the association of the terms: freedom, consciousness and nothingness. So, existence per se according to Sartre is realized in consciousness and freedom, and the absence of these is nothingness. Simply put, ‘you cannot not be free or else you are not’. Man can be something other than nothing by being limitlessly free in the choice of his actions. Thus, to be human is to be free. He carefully maintained that human freedom precedes the essence in man and makes it possible. He made freedom fundamental to every human action, which goes to define our essence. So, to be for human reality is to act. It is not to be and then to act, but to be means to act.
Furthermore, taking cognizance of Sartre’s background which undoubtedly led to some of his shortcomings in a bid to portray his views, there will be a form of scholastic or reasoned reconciliation on the subject-matter by recognizing man’s natural affiliation to religion, which most at times leads man to recognizing a being beyond him, which he refers to as God.
Human laws as levelling principles seem to obstruct human infinite manifestation and assertion. It serves the need for protecting the weakest and so creates the sense of equality. This brings in the possibility of consideration and accommodation, and consequently sets in some limitations to human freedom. And so, it becomes inabsolute other than absolute.
1.2 THE SCOPE OF RESEARCH
This work will not go as far as presenting everything Sartre and other thinkers have said about freedom, but will be bent on exposing the doctrine of Sartre essential to achieving an authentic existence from the primary fact that man is free to decide for himself and assert himself, by standing to be responsible to whatever he has chosen to do. It will as well be geared towards attaining reconciliation between freedom and determinism and the limitations of human freedom in reference to natural and human positive laws. Thus, the invalidity or impossibility of absolute freedom as Sartre would conceive of it.
Just in a form of intellectual stimulation and response, Jean Jacques Rousseau would simply say in his treatise on social contract and determinism that, “man is born free, but everywhere in chain”. This is not unconnected with some events that would by punishment or correction limit man in is freedom. The fear of responsibility and the maturity expressed at responsibility make the authenticity of being inconclusive in its connection to freedom.
Remember, you have freedom now and the other person has privilege, and next time, he has freedom and you have privilege.
Human freedom should not interfere with others’ privilege otherwise it 1negates the being of the persons. It rather integrates the privilege of others into a union, and forms a universal mode of living acceptable to all.
1.3 NOTION OF FREEDOM
It was William James who in his treatise on the dilemma of determinism said that, “no subject is completely worn out in such a way that no new contributions could be added to it”. However, we must admit the fact that great efforts have been made by different philosophers and thinkers to solve the problem of freedom. Thus, before entering into the problem of freedom in man’s realization of authentic existence with reference to Jean Paul Sartre, let us have a look at some Philosophers’ conception or notion of freedom.
Freedom is the object of man’s yearning. Poets extol or acclaim it, Politicians promise or proclaim it, and some others have given their lives to win it for themselves or for others. Yet what is it?
The word freedom in the world of philosophers has many and different meanings and these give rise to many nuances. Freedom is the power rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, and so to perform deliberate actions in ones own responsibility.
Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness. It can refer to the absence of external social pressures and demands. It can simply mean the lack of physical restraints. It can signify that capacity by which individuals are able to form their own lives in a sense through their choice.
Etymologically, freedom comes from the Latin word “Immunitas a coercione” which means immuned from coercion, which could also mean the capacity to decide what to do. According to P. H. Partridge;
Freedom refers primarily to a condition characterized by the absence of coercion or constraints imposed by another person; a man is said to be free to the extent that he can choose his own goals or course of conduct; can choose between alternatives available to him, and is not compelled to act as he would not himself choose to act, or prevented from acting as he would otherwise choose to act, by the will of another man, of the state or of many other authority.
Man by nature is free some would say; the dictum “man is free” explains all about man and freedom. Historically, man’s existence is endowed with freedom. So freedom is as old as man himself. John Locke speaking on freedom says “men are naturally in a state of perfect freedom, to order their actions and dispose of their possessions as they think fit…”
Though the notion of freedom is as old as man, it started in time with the ancient Greek thinkers, but only on moral reflections. They did not delve directly into the problem of freedom because of three prominent reasons, which include:-
1. They believe that everything is subjected to fate and absolute will, superior to men as well as gods, which indirectly determine every action.
2. Men is part of nature, and thus, is subject to the general laws that govern everything including man himself, and as such cannot but obey such laws.
3. Man is also subject to the influence of history, which the Greek conceived as a cyclical movement in which everything repeats itself within a certain period of time. This is not unconnected to the fact that they were unable to understand human nature and the cosmos exactly.
The above reason led to asking such questions as; are we truly responsible for our actions? And how imputable are our deeds to ourselves? The issue of freedom went philosophical when Socrates took it up. He argued that “virtue is connected with knowledge, but vice is simply due to ignorance”. This stand rather than solving the issue of freedom exonerated man totally from any act of intransigence. Plato instead of repudiating the stand of Socrates broadened the scope. He argued that the “body is a kind of prison and the soul is entrenched in it, but could be liberated through the exercise of virtue and philosophical contemplation”9. The problem of freedom acquired new dimension and attracted a great interest in the medieval period. Fate never existed; rather God was seen as the loving father and a provider. History and nature were placed at the service of man instead of being above man. During this period, freedom moved to a question of relationship between man and God.
With regard to the above assertion, some questions arose as: Why has God created man free knowing that he would abuse the gift? Thomas Aquinas representing the medieval thinkers said that, though man is under the authority of God, he has the freedom to choose his own destiny by free act of the will. Thus, he writes;
The rational creature governs itself by its intellect and will, both of which are required to be governed and perfected by the divine intellect and will. Therefore, above the government whereby the rational creature governs itself as master of its own act, it requires to be governed by God.
In the modern period, freedom took another conception; The Theo-centric aspect was replaced with anthropocentricism; man became conscious of his autonomy and thus, the issue of freedom changed its dimension to human faculties, passion and man’s relationship with the society. Descartes the father of modern philosophy has this to say through the immanentic premise of his philosophy of the Cogito ergo sum: “Freedom is no longer perceived as a choice of good, but as a choice of pure and simple as the spontaneous self determination of the individual”. Leibniz says that the principle of reason causes everything. Hence, “every event must have a cause for its being”. Hegel, on his treatise on the mind and body relationship posited that all is absolute Spirit, and that an “authentic freedom is not merely individual choice but obedience to the objective reason”. Karl Marx substituted Hegel’s absolute Spirit with dialectical materialism, holding that the idea of individual choice is necessitated by social value. Kant in his view of ‘existential analytic’- a treatise on the justification of human existence in relation to freedom argued that, freedom is neither direct intuition nor logical demonstration, but a postulation that demands moral law. Thus, Kant defines freedom as “the property of the will to give to itself a law and to be subordinate to the law of necessity, as the phenomena are”.
In the contemporary period, the existentialists appeared on the stage. Freedom for them is not a property of the will but the very structure of the being of man.
Summarizing the general view of the contemporary philosophers, it can be said that freedom is something that is lived in any concrete existence. Above all, freedom for me is a human condition of action, which is devoid of any influence, which impedes human consciousness or motivates human decision.
1.4 THE PROBLEM OF FREEDOM
Though freedom is an integral part of man, it has constituted a great and intricate problem in practice and theory. It has often been debated if man is in fact free. This debate has become loud in the modern times, when the rights and freedom of people are infringed on, and when political and economic oppression held people in chain. Besides, it seemsthat the freedom of choice is completely absurd since it contradicts the laws of nature, which the theory of evolution tends to hold in a deterministic way. This is precisely why William James writes,
I know of no subject less worn out in which an inventive genius has a better chance of breaking new ground, of deepening our sense of what the issue between the two parties really are, of what the ideas of fate and freewill imply.
The above statement of James reveals the problem in reconciling freedom with the idea of fate. Man’s life indeed reveals some occasions when he is constrained to act in a particular way. For instance, a man in so far as he is alive is determined to breathe; he cannot freely choose not to breathe and still remain a living human being. One may ask if man is really free to act as he has been directed by the will; whether he should be responsible for his actions. The issue of freedom is truly controversial; this is why many thinkers have diverse views on it.
Historically, the Greek Philosophers did not give any satisfactory answer to the problem of freedom. “They regarded all things as subject to fate, an absolute will, superior to man and to gods which consciously or unconsciously determine an action.”
In Christianity, the problem of freedom was reversed to God, and God was emphasized rather than fate, natural law or history. As Augustine would say, “There is the God of scriptures to reveal to us that in man there is the free choice of the will”.
The opinions that presented God as determining man’s actions began to emerge in the patristic or medieval period. Hence; Aquinas asked, “how is it possible to assert that man is free while God is the principal and ultimate cause of everything?”
In the modern era, Philosophers like Spinoza, Hume and Descartes hold that “human passions and emotions are propellers of man’s action not free will.”
Then, in the contemporary era, the problem remains how man can be free in a society in which political systems, communication media, and technological advancement have become potent instruments of oppression.
In fact, the solution to the problem of freedom lies in the reconciliation of freedom with determinism.
1.5 NATURE OF HUMAN FREE WILL
The question of the freedom of the human free will has put up an exhibition worth recognition within the epochs of intellectual inquiries. The prominent question that occurs often is “is the human free will free? If it is, how free is the human free will? But following the scheme, the main concern here is the nature of this free will and its mode of operation.
The free will is sometimes called free choice or free decision. In Latin, it is termed “liberum arbitrium”. “Free will is an ability characterizing man in the voluntary activity of choosing or not choosing a particular good presented to him”. It is often defined as freedom possessed by a person to evaluate and to yield to or not to the attraction of an object. However, with regard to this definition, it is worthy of note that, the will is drawn towards “a good” in so far as it is actual and attractive. Thus, a differentiation between particular and universal goods must be made.
However, as Sartre would conceive of it, “I could not describe a freedom which is common to both the other and myself. I could not therefore contemplate an essence of freedom”. On the contrary, it is freedom, which is the foundation of all essences since man reveals intra-mundane essences by surpassing the world towards his own possibilities. “This in essence means that freedom has no particular essence and so, since the essence is beyond realization within a particular confine, it then means that it varies in selves”.
Thus, one is only sure of one’s particular freedom, because freedom exists in a particular experience. Yet it is a pure factual necessity appealing to human consciousness.
Taking from this, the will in the presence of particular goods, has some exercise of choice, but before a universal good, the will necessarily chooses it.
Hence, Aquinas affirms that the “freewill is determined with regard to the infinite or universal good”.
Descartes describes the nature of the freewill in the following words:
It is proper to the nature of the will to have a large aperture, and the sum perfection of man is of acting by way of will- that is, freely-and thus of being in some peculiar way the author of his action and of meriting praise for them.
The will is solely an independent reality, and so it is very closely linked with the intellect as well as other drives in man since it cannot act in the absence of the cognitive faculty. This is why Aquinas would say “the act as good is materially an act of will, but formally an act of reason because it is directed towards its end by reason.”
Still on this effort to finding meaning to free will and the method of performance, the proponents of free will distinguished acts of the free will from voluntary acts because “all acts of the free will are voluntary, but not all-voluntary acts are acts of the free will”
The human free will in its nature tries in a way to determine and properly separate conscious and unconscious acts in their fields of identification.
This is why Igwemma C., has carefully deduced that, “the issue of human free will also gives rise to the essential distinction in ethics between acts of man and human acts”. A human act is that which is resulted by the interaction of the human intellect and the free will. It is a voluntary and deliberate act, and consequently belongs to man.
In a way of summary, the will and the act define themselves separately, and one cannot and does not suffice for the other. For instance, I desire to ride a car, I cannot do so unless I have the capacity or ability to do so.
J. P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, (New York: Washington square press, Inc., 1966), p.1.
T. Aquinas, Summa Theologica (New York: Benziger Brother 1947) V.1a, Q 103, Art 51a83. 1c.
J. J Rousseau, Treatise on Social Contract in R. Hutchins, M. J. Alder (Eds), Great Books of the Western World, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1952), P. 387.
W. James, Cited in Lamont, C., Freedom of choice affirmed. (Baston. Beacon Press, 1969), p. 14.
W. James, Cited in Lamont, C., Freedom of choice affirmed. (Bas. Beacon Press, 1969), p. 14.
P. H. Partridge, Encyclopedia of Philosophy S. V. “Freedom”.
F. Thilly, A history of philosophy (Allahabad: India Central Book Depot, 1981), p. 848.
S. E. Stumpf, Philosophy: History and problem, (New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1984), p. 42.