MORALITY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION, #19–Two Kinds of Existentialism.

By Robert Hanna


Table of Contents

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality


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VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism[i]

It begins with the idea that human life presents itself as inherently meaningless (aka, “the absurd”) and filled with natural and moral evil, which leads to a loss of faith in everything and everyone, including oneself, and thus to a generalized version of anxiety (aka, Angst), and to the question of whether or not to commit suicide (aka, “the sickness unto death”), and then ends with an affirmationist-and-optimistic answer to the meaning question, which says:

We’re radically free, so we must take radical responsibility not only for all our choices and actions but also for all the brute facts about our lives that we can’t change, strive to be authentic, establish solidarity (i.e., active empathy and a fellowship of suffering) with others, and thereby create meaning in our own and others’ lives!

So the basic concepts of existentialism are

(i) the absurd,

(ii) Angst,

(iii) the sickness unto death,

(iv) radical free will,

(v) radical responsibility for choices, acts, and brute facts,

(vi) authenticity,

(vii) solidarity, and

(vii) the individual and collective creation of meaning.

Narrowly historically speaking, existentialism is a philosophical movement of the first half of the 20th century, whose paradigmatic thinkers are Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.

Nevertheless, existentialism also has extremely important 19th century anticipations and influences in the works of Sören Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Franz Kafka, and also, pre-19th century, some equally extremely important anticipations and influences in the works of the ancient Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, the early Christian thinker Augustine, the 16th century novelist Miguel de Cervantes, Pascal in the 17th century, and Kant in the mid-to-late 18th century.

Indeed, we can think of these thinkers as the paradigmatic proto-existentialists.

Correspondingly, there are two basic forms of existentialism:

(i) theistic existentialism,

(ii) humanistic existentialism.

According to theistic existentialism, God exists and has created the world and us along with it, yet has also apparently infinitely withdrawn from His/Her/Their creation — so that we find ourselves bereft of divine guidance, lost in the arid deserts of the world, and radically questioning our faith.

Then, in the face of an apparently God-less, manifestly pointless, and thoroughly evil world (see, e.g., the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac), in which rational human animals in particular manifestly have no purpose and have entirely lost their way, then each individual and everyone together must create a meaningful life for themselves by fully exercising their capacities for caring and for radical freedom, thereby carrying out wholehearted choices and acts, by taking radical responsibility for those choices, and by establishing solidarity with others, thereby recovering that faith and belief-in God.

Such an activity is what Kierkegaard calls the leap of faith — closely related to what I’ve called Pascal’s optimism, the so-called “wager” — and a person who lives their life in this way is what Kierkegaard calls “the Knight of Faith.”

The philosophical and moral standpoint of the humanistic existentialist is essentially identical to that of the theistic existentialist, except for the burning issue of God.

So for the humanistic existentialist,

either (i) “God is dead and we have killed Him”(Nietzsche), because the very idea of God contains a fundamental incoherence that’s exposed by the Metaphysical Argument for Atheism from the Existence of Evil,

or (ii) given our finitude and our “human, all-too-human” limitations, we must remain radically agnostic about God’s existence or non-existence.

But otherwise, everything else is pretty much the same.

Another and much briefer characterization of humanistic existentialism is the one proposed by Sartre, which says that existence precedes essence.

Or, as Sartre elaborates that characterization in “Existentalism is a Humanism”:

If God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and this being is man, or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself…. Man is nothing but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism…. Thus, existentalism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make th full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.

If existence really does precede essence, there is no explaining things away by reference to a fixed and given human nature. In other words, there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. On the other hand, if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses.

There is no reality except in action…. Man is nothing else but his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.[ii]

Every such plan is also what Sartre calls a fundamental project.


[ii] See J.-P. Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” trans. B. Frechtman, in S. Cahn and P. Markie (eds.), Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues (3rd edn., Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 396–402, at pp. 397, 399, and 402.


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