MORALITY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION, #21–Camus and Affirmation.

By Robert Hanna

“The Human Condition,” by Thomas Whitaker


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

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

This installment contains section VII.3.

But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.


VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

According to Camus, human life is inherently absurd.[i]

We live in a world without God, hence without transcendent meanings or essences or purposes.

We experience absurdity as our aimlessness, alienation, blind habit, the sleep of our self-consciousness, and as meaningless matter and motion.

And this doesn’t affect only our experience of ourselves in the natural world: it also pervades our experience of ourselves in the social world.

Who hasn’t looked at people standing at bus-stops, or subway stops, or anywhere, on the way to work, or on the way to who-knows-where, carrying their brief cases, or wearing their back-packs, and thought, they’re all nothing but hunks of stone in humanoid shape — rock-heads — and me along with them!

Rock-heads in Reykjavik, Iceland (November 2019)

And who hasn’t looked at oneself in the mirror at 3am and wondered, is that mannequin really me?

Our experience of absurdity entails a generalized anguish or anxiety (Angst), which leads directly to the open question of suicide (the sickness unto death).

According to Camus, human revolt is the right response to our experience of the absurd, our anguish, and our anxiety.

This in turn entails an active, free rejection of suicide: that is, an affirmation of life as it actually is, no matter how awful the external circumstances, which in turn produces a radical injection of meaning into an otherwise meaningless and pointless world.

In order to elaborate this thought, Camus considers the Greek myth of Sisyphus: a man who has been condemned by the gods for some obscure crime, and punished by being compelled to push a giant boulder up a mountain over, and over, and over again — in fact endlessly, since every time he gets it to the top, it rolls back down again.

The Sisyphean life seems to be the worst of all possible lives; and yet, in this patently absurd natural and social world, aren’t we all Sisyphus?, aren’t we all rock-heads?

Nevertheless, Camus recommends that, in the face of the open question of suicide, in a radically free way, we choose to affirm the absurd, and that we undertake, in a radically free way, a complete appropriation of the actual world just as it is, with a full acceptance of personal responsibility for our individual and collective past, present, and future.

The essay ends with the truly amazing phrases:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.[i]

But how is this humanly possible?

How could anyone in Sisyphus’s condition be able to say sincerely, “all is well”?

How could anyone in Sisyphus’s condition be genuinely happy?

Someone once said to me, semi-jokingly: “I think I could bring myself to the point of enjoying watching the boulder roll down.”

But even as semi-serious, that only scratches the outermost surface of what Camus is saying.

What Camus is saying, is that Sisyphus not only could but should radically freely choose to make the life of endless rock-pushing his fundamental project.

This profound, life-changing thought, in turn, can become the foundation of an existential ethics, i.e., an existential moral theory: so let’s now turn to that.


[i] See A. Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” trans. J. O’Brien, in A. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1955), pp. 1–91.

[ii] Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” p. 91.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 2 July 2020

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.